Is your workplace toxic? Now you can blame that one toxic colleague


After tracking a range of workplace interactions, researchers found that most are pleasant. But most workers also have a difficult coworker who ruins it.

We’ve all experienced a boss or coworker who is rude or abusive—yet such mistreatment is apparently not widespread.

Researchers tracked workplace behavior among U.S. restaurant chain employees, at a technology manufacturer in China, and throughout a range of office and industry jobs in the U.S. They found that although 70% of employees experienced “incivility” at work, only 16% of work relationships included mistreatments. In other words, the vast majority of workplace interactions are pleasant, but most workers have a difficult or abusive coworker.

“Most relationships are not characterized by rudeness,” says coauthor Shannon Taylor, an associate professor of management at the University of Central Florida, whose study was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

This was news. Workplace research has previously suggested that workplace abuse is an “epidemic,” but in practice, most rude interactions can be traced to a very small number of coworkers. Or one.

These toxic interactions can have rippling consequences. Another large-scale paper out this week in BMJ finds that “bullying in a work unit can not only negatively affect the victim, but also the perpetrator and team members who witness that behavior,” says coauthor Maureen Dollard, an Australian Research Council Laureate who tracked 3,921 employees over a year in Australia. “It is not uncommon for everyone in the same unit to experience burnout as a result.”

The upside of these findings is that abusive behavior is relatively easy to locate and root out, one employee at a time. The University of Central Florida researchers concluded that workplace cultures that encourage gratitude and appreciation are pivotal to reducing incivility, as employees’ perceptions about how colleagues should treat each other had a strong impact on behaviors.

“Employers should ensure there are strong norms for respect and civility in the workplace,” says coauthor Lauren Locklear, a doctoral student in management at the University of Central Florida. “Having a zero-tolerance policy for these rude behaviors is key to stopping mistreatment in its tracks.”

“Follow your dreams” may be unrealistic for most young people, according to a new study that you should not read if you are looking for inspiration.

The paper, called “Dream Jobs and Employment Realities,” finds that nearly half of teens aspire to artistic or investigative careers (think scientist, detective, researcher), but these jobs make up only 8% of the U.S. labor market. Just 2% of U.S. adults work in artistic fields. The findings indicate that young people are driven to create and explore, and opportunities to do so professionally are limited.

Researchers from the University of Houston and the University of Illinois gathered the career aspirations of 3,367 teens, ages 13 to 18, in 42 states. Not surprisingly, the teens gravitated toward the careers in their day-to-day lives: Girls aspired to be doctors, veterinarians, teachers, and nurses, in that order. Roughly one in eight girls ages 13 to 15 wanted to be a doctor. Approximately a quarter of 13-to-15-year-old boys wanted to be athletes, though half had lost interest in professional sports by ages 16 to 18. Job preferences became less gendered as teens aged.

Coauthor Kevin Hoff, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston, suggests that adults be forthright with older teens. “It’s good to encourage students to have prestigious careers, but as they get older, parents, teachers, or counselors should also be real with them and help them understand how many people actually work in their dream fields, and how likely it is they will get a job in that field,” he said in a statement.

The study was published this week in, fittingly, the Journal of Career Assessment.

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