Preventing ‘cubicle rage’: 6 ways to calm angry employees

HR professionals and managers are at the front lines when dealing with angry employees. You typically have to deal with their raw rage.

So, how can you handle angry employees’ complaints without adding more stress to your day or opening the organization to legal liability?
Use the following “Six A’s” to deflect employee anger:

1. Abstain from interrupting.
Let the other person have his or her say. Eventually, the employee has to take a breath, which helps you move to the second step.

2. Agree to the extent that you can.
You don’t have to agree on who’s right and who’s wrong, but you can agree that a problem exists or at least that the person is upset. Examples: “I can see that you’re upset,” “You sound angry about what’s happened.”

3. Acknowledge the problem.
Even if you think the person is overreacting, it’s important to validate his or her perception of the situation. Show your empathy and concern by saying “I can understand why you’re upset.”

4. Apologize to the extent that you can. Know the difference between accepting responsibility and offering a sincere but blame-free apology. For example, it’s not your fault that the company’s health insurer denied the employee’s claim, but you can still express your regret. Example: “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

5. Act within your authority.
 If you can solve the problem, promise that you will … and follow through. In other situations, you may not have the power to change anything. But you can offer your understanding and forward the complaint (or direct the employee) to the appropriate person in the organization.

Tough Talks D

6. Assess the outcome.
 Take time later to reflect on the confrontation. Was the person calmer when you finished, or more upset? What did you say or do that helped the situation or made matters worse? Reflecting on your words, actions and outcomes will help you be more effective next time.

What ways have you found successful to calm an angry employee?

Posted by Editorial at 5/31/2011 5:02 PM

The most important thing to remember is to stay calm and to remember that the anger is not personal. Usually, the employee is upset about a situation or a perceived wrong. If you remain calm, ask open-ended questions and show accurate empathy, employees will calm down and allow you to problem-solve with them.
Posted by: Peggy at 6/2/2011 1:21 PM

Sometimes, it might be appropriate to suspend the employee for the remainder of the day. This should be used on a case-by-case basis. It allows time for everyone to cool down and think more clearly.
Posted by: C.R. at 6/2/2011 1:22 PM

Sometimes letting a person vent is best, if it’s possible. I work in a two person office, and my partner sometimes needs to take out his anger on something …. breaking keyboards is his favorite for computer problems. He knows he will have to buy a new keyboard, but when it’s over, it’s over. Then we get on with fixing whatever the problem was.

He knows he’s not going to get fired, and I know he’s not going to hurt anything besides the keyboard and that it will be over in a matter of minutes. I know this is a unique situation, but food for thought – if you can give the person space to let it out, (going outside, a private conference room,) that will be the best way to handle it for ~some~ people.

Anyway, good article.
Posted by: RU at 6/2/2011 2:11 PM

I’ve worked literally decades in the benefits area of HR and I’ve heard from many upset employees. One of the best ways I’ve found to lower the volume and the start the employee talking in a less emotional manner may surprise you: ask them for their SS# so you can verify or”pull up” their information. In my experience, most employees takes it as a sign you are at least interested. Just that tiny question often stops the rant and lets you get on with the business of seeing what you can do to help.
Posted by: Kate at 6/2/2011 3:06 PM

Very interesting topic! Feedback based on previous comments:

@RU – Your coworker BREAKS equipment every time he needs to “vent”? That is unacceptable, the first, second, and every time. I can’t imagine having to work next to him; I guess your company is lucky there’s no one else in the office but the two of you.

@Kate – What a great tip! I do that *all* the time, and you’re right: it works wonders. Things suddenly become obviously task-oriented, calm, and while you’re “looking up” the ee’s info, both of you have a chance to take a deep breath and move forward. Works great if you are in HR, but for line managers, they usually don’t have any such viable excuse to ask for the ee’s SSN. Any ideas on comparable diffusion techniques?
Posted by: HR Gorilla at 6/2/2011 3:42 PM

I have been a benefits manager for quite a while. I have always and will continue to never treat anyone in a manner in which I would not want to be treated. Take time with employees, employees are our clients when you are in HR.
Posted by: Karen at 6/2/2011 4:33 PM

Wow! Your coworker that breaks equipment tovent needs anger management classes. Makes you wonder about his home life. Pretty scarry stuff there.

We would never tolerate that kind of “venting”!
Posted by: lorraine maternowski at 6/3/2011 11:27 AM