Making a face behind a co-worker’s back may not be the most professional way to express annoyance, but it beats throwing a temper tantrum.
The modern workplace has left most of its gray suits in the closet and cheered the arrival of pets and the occasional basketball hoop. But that less formal atmosphere may have opened the door to other less welcome behavior in the office, as well.
A survey by Chicago employment services firm CareerBuilder earlier this year found 77 percent of employees have witnessed some form of childish behavior in the office. That ranged from playing pranks to refusing to share resources to forming a lunch crowd that only the cool kids can join.
Those surveyed offered specific examples of actions that the rest of the office recognized as immature, even if the perpetrators were oblivious. Like the company owner who threw tantrums, yelled and slammed doors. And the manager who gossiped about staff, then pretended to be their advocate.
Almost anyone who has ever held down a job would recognize the worker who hid to avoid doing work, although the one who blocked parking spaces to keep a colleague from getting a spot close to the door might be rarer.
The online study done for CareerBuilder by Harris Poll between late May and early June included a representative sample of more than 3,000 U.S. workers and 2,000 hiring and human resources managers.
This is the first time the company has done this particular study, but the findings seem to fit with other trends, said Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer of CareerBuilder.
“Other research we’ve done shows the workplace becoming more casual in many areas — such as dress code and their rigidity around schedules — which may be contributing to the prevalence of ‘childish’ behavior in the workplace,” she said.
It’s not always a bad thing to get a little goofy. “It can be a harmless way to let off steam and/or bond with co-workers,” Haefner said in an email.
But it can go too far. “If the behavior starts to get in the way of work or achieving big picture goals — or if it leaves others feeling excluded, offended or bullied in some way — that is crossing the line into potentially detrimental territory,” she said.
Plus it can be a bad career move, showing an employee as someone not quite ready for more responsibility.
A separate study in late February and early March found 62 percent of employers disinclined to promote staff with a negative or pessimistic attitude. CareerBuilder interpreted that as a synonym for whining or even pouting.
Haefner suggested asking the right questions in the job interview can help employers avoid hiring those who haven’t quite grown up yet. She said interviewers might want to ask for examples of how the applicant dealt with a difficult co-worker and listen closely to the answer.
Responding in the moment to inappropriate behavior is a different challenge.
Haefner suggested calmly breaking up disruptive activities and then talking later with the offender to learn more about what was going on. She said managers shouldn’t jump to conclusions that might put the worker on the defensive.
“Keep in mind,” she said, “it’s also possible these behaviors are as a result of some sort of dissatisfaction.” Maybe the matter can be resolved.
But managers should also signal that some things just aren’t acceptable, she said. “Let the employee know what disciplinary actions you will take if the behavior does not improve.”