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Office “desk rage,” tagged as the latest incivility sweeping America, has labor and employment lawyers sounding more like family counselors and sociologists when speaking about the legal implications of a sorry sign of difficult times. Take, for example, attorneys Bruce R. Millman, Glenn G. Patton, Randi B. May and Larry Cary. • “We’re trying to teach [corporate] managers to manage the way psychologists try to teach parents to be good parents,” said Mr. Millman, a partner in the New York office of Littler Mendelson. • “People have negative feelings about where the country is headed, where they’re headed personally and how they’ll make ends meet,” said Mr. Patton, a partner in the Atlanta office of Alston & Bird. “We’re definitely seeing a noticeable rise in people lashing out at co-workers, including normally good, solid performers.” • “The psychosocial causes are probably due to incredibly long working hours, the stress of the economic situation and the insecurity that employees feel,” said Ms. May, a partner at Hoguet Newman Regal & Kenney. “It’s exacerbated by technology – laptops, BlackBerries and cell phones. Everybody’s reachable 24/7. There’s no such thing as leaving work anymore. People are just burned out, they’re on edge. We work too much and we’re not being compensated enough.” • “I started doing seminars 10 years ago when postal workers were getting shot up,” said Mr. Cary, a name partner of Cary Kane, which represents labor unions. “Postal workers are lovely people, by the way. Violence comes up occasionally, but I don’t see a great rise, at least for now. On the other hand, unions are very sensitive to issues of race and sex discrimination, much more so than 20 or 30 years ago.” A Troubling Pattern Only in the past few years have industry and academic researchers noticed that workplace anger seethes beyond the old precincts of race, gender and sexual preference to include absolutely everyone. At one end of the problem, there is disrespect, bullying, loud and intemperate language, intimidation and garden-variety rudeness. At the more troubling end is physical violence, including murder, that increasingly ensues. A survey of 1,305 workers commissioned in 2001 by New York-based Integra Realty Resources found that 42 percent of respondents reported hostile shouting and other verbal abuse in their offices, 23 percent said they had been driven to tears due to workplace stress and 10 percent witnessed colleagues resorting to physical violence. Abusive Conduct “Abusive conduct” is defined as behavior of an employer or employee in the workplace, with malice, that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests. . . . [A] trier of fact should weigh the severity, nature and frequency of the conduct. Abusive conduct may include, but is not limited to, repeated infliction of verbal abuse such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults and epithets; verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating or humiliating; or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance. A single act normally will not constitute abusive conduct, unless especially severe and egregious. – House Bill No. 1632 (pending), Missouri State Legislature. More recently, Paul Spector, a professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of South Florida, published a research paper this year in which 3 million U.S. workers – out of a national workforce of about 100 million – confessed to pushing, slapping or striking a colleague on the job. According to another study this year – published by the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina – half of 1,500 workers surveyed said they had lost production time on the job due to rude behavior directed toward them, with one-third admitting to “lowering their commitment” to work because of rudeness. The Kenan-Flagler study extrapolated an annual expense of as much as $36 billion to employers due to lost productivity and increased costs of insurance and security programs. And according to a study published in 2003 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, workplace violence was a leading cause of 5,915 fatalities on the job in 2002. Nearly one in five fatalities was the result of homicide. Litigation and Legislation Some lawyers say they are concerned with the human aspect of occupational abuse and violence – law offices are workplaces, too – and how it may lead to costly litigation over their clients’ corporate liability. There is also the matter of legislation that seeks mandated standards to foster safer offices as a response to desk rage, a term coined by the Reuters news service. For better or worse, Mr. Millman and other labor lawyers see courts and state legislatures taking action in the face of workplace statistics that codify increased occupational violence. In April, most notably, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld the concept of “workplace bullying” as a valid plaintiff claim against an employer. In Raess v. Doescher, 883 N.E.2d 709l, that state’s high court upheld a $325,000 trial court award to a hospital technician confronted by a surgeon supervisor who berated him with “clenched fists, piercing eyes, beet-red face [and] popping veins.” Further, according to court papers, the supervisor was a well-known “bully” and “workplace abuser.” “The court’s opinion may provide plaintiffs an additional opportunity to pursue claims beyond traditional harassment claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act,” according to an analysis of the case posted on the Web site of Jackson Lewis, the national workplace law firm. “As a result, employers should ensure that managers and supervisors receive appropriate training in proper supervisory techniques, as well as in avoiding claims of workplace harassment.” Along with company standards published in employee manuals, said Ms. May, periodic training has become “just as important as traditional training in sex harassment” now that the workplace is populated by “equal opportunity abusers.” From a business standpoint, Ms. May said, it creates good morale “because nobody wants to work for an abusive boss.” These days, she added, companies are vulnerable to “blogs created by employees that reveal their abusive supervisors.” Mr. Millman agreed. Littler Mendelson, he said, conducts an annual three-day seminar for clients, at which he tells the thousand or so corporate executives and in-house counsels who attend, “Abusive behavior breeds illegal behavior.” He further counsels, “A respect-based workplace is a harassment-free workplace. You avoid a lot of [abuse litigation] if you create an environment where people think before they say something. Think! Would you find your words embarrassing? Would you say this to your wife or husband? Would you want your children spoken to in that way? Would you like to see your words printed on the front page of the Times?” Although troubled by what he sees as a residual “culture of rage” in America, Mr. Millman said that “our standards of civility have actually improved” compared with the rather recent past of socially accepted racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia. “Maybe what we thought was a golden age in how we treated one another wasn’t so golden after all,” he said.

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