How to Handle Aggressive People in the Workplace

If there is one guarantee in the workplace, it would be the fact that one has to deal with different types of individuals at work. Seasoned workers would often advise fresh job seekers to anticipate the diverse personalities one can meet in any organization.

One of the most challenging situations an employee can find themselves in is encountering aggressive behavior from colleagues. It gets even worse when signs of aggression from a workmate are too subtle for management to notice right off the bat. Failing to detect these dangerous behaviors, companies can expect good employees to quit when they’re unable to tolerate such a hostile working environment. This can be even more difficult to detect in the remote workplace setup. 

It’s important to deal with aggression early on to prevent workplace violence from occurring within the company. HR practitioners and global mobility professionals should make it a point to observe any behavior indicative of aggression. It wouldn’t hurt to do background checks on applicants or regular feedback from working peers to understand individuals better.

However, there will always be chances where job applicants with aggressive tendencies enter the organization. So what people organizers can do is identify tell-tale signs of these tendencies to avoid aggressive behaviors escalating to workplace violence. The Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety suggests taking notes on changes in behavioral patterns and the frequency and degree of disruptive behaviors in the workplace. 

The government agency further enumerates warning signs to look out for:

  • Crying, sulking, or temper tantrums
  • Excessive absenteeism or lateness
  • Pushing the limits of acceptable conduct or disregarding the health and safety of others
  • Disrespect for authority
  • Increased mistakes or errors, or unsatisfactory work quality
  • Refusal to acknowledge job performance problems
  • Faulty decision making
  • Testing the limits to see what they can get away with
  • Swearing or emotional language
  • Handles criticism poorly
  • Making inappropriate statements
  • Forgetfulness, confusion, or distraction
  • Inability to focus
  • Blaming others for mistakes
  • Complaints of unfair personal treatment
  • Talking about the same problems repeatedly without resolving them
  • Insistence that they are always right
  • Misinterpretation of communications from supervisors or co-workers
  • Social isolation
  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Sudden and/or unpredictable change in energy level
  • Complaints of unusual and/or non-specific illnesses
  • Holds grudges, especially against his or her supervisor. Verbalizes hope that something negative will happen to the person against whom they have the grudge

There are tons of resources online that claim to aid people in responding to colleagues who exhibit signs of aggression in the workplace, but it’s easier said than done. Some people find themselves struggling more in handling aggressive individuals and often let things slide, and this causes high levels of stress for the victim. 

Heidi Kurter, the owner of a Workplace Culture Consulting agency at Heidi Lynne Consulting, discusses simple but effective methods in handling aggressive workmates with grace and power. 

Respond to aggression with assertiveness

Perhaps there are certain characteristics similar between these two concepts that confuse people with their definitions. To make things clearer, employees can refer to BetterUp’s definition of assertiveness – the ability to stand up for what you believe while maintaining a calm and positive state. Additionally, Kurter highlights that key differences between the two are the tone of voice, the choice of words, and the body language used.

The consultant enumerates some firm statements employees can use when they encounter inappropriate behavior at work:

  • “I’d like to finish.”
  • “What was your intention in saying the things you said?”
  • “I don’t appreciate the tone you’re using.”
  • “I refuse to talk to you when you’re being rude and disrespectful.”

Kurter recommends not to fall to the temptation of using aggressive behavior against aggression. Employees would benefit greatly if they choose not to become reactive in situations where they’re provoked to defend themselves. Keeping oneself composed and direct will place employees in a better position than the aggressor. 

Another tactic employees can use is by fostering allyships with teammates who will support them in case they encounter aggression from a workmate. People shouldn’t underestimate the power of workplace alliances. They can make or break job retention. 

Lastly, it’s essential to document any inappropriate behavior coming from workmates. Keeping clear and substantial evidence can help victims of workplace violence from suffering silently in the event that management or HR are skeptical of any complaint of aggression from a colleague.