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Tense workplaces breeding aggression

If that performance evaluation you had recently left you angry enough to call your boss an unkind name or two behind his back, you're not alone.

Workplace aggression against supervisors is on the rise, said Deanna Geddes, an assistant professor of human resource administration at Temple University. Often, the spark is a poor performance appraisal, said Geddes, who completed a study on the matter.

Actual headline-grabbing violence, such as a workplace shooting, is rare. Employees are more likely to resort to indirect, but still harmful, ways of retaliation, such as spreading rumors about their supervisors or glaring at them, she said.

Ironically, human resource managers say evaluations should serve as a way to pinpoint areas for improvement. Instead, a climate of downsizing and cutbacks has prompted many companies to rely more heavily on appraisals as a way to trim payrolls of poor performers, Geddes said.

"People are being held to higher standards than ever before," she said. That means more negative evaluations.

"Managers are having to tell it like it is. They don't have the luxury of letting marginals slide by."

In other words, she said, "Today, people are more likely to be appraised _ and eliminated."

That harsh reality has triggeredangry reactions from employees hot under the collar and desperate to hang on to their jobs, Geddes said.

Out of 151 Philadelphia-area managers surveyed, 98 percent reported some type of aggression in response to negative feedback, she found in a study co-authored with Robert A. Baron, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

The behavior ranged from the silent treatment toward the boss to absenteeism or stalking. More than two-thirds of the aggressive behavior involved verbal responses (yelling, rumormongering) rather than physical ones (pushing, refusing to perform assignments).

To be fair, managers themselves often stoke bad feelings by the way they deliver bad news.

"Performance appraisals should be part of everyday life at a company," said Barry Lawrence, spokesman for the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va. "If you're doing performance appraisals all the time . . . it shouldn't come as a shock when you say, "Your performance is poor.' You should be giving this feedback all along."

Most companies' appraisal systems are "in serious need of dusting off and revamping," Lawrence said.

All of which leads to frustrated employees, especially when 70 percent consider themselves above-average performers.

"Most people are working so hard these days _ they've never worked harder _ and then to get in any way a negative appraisal seems so unjust," Geddes said.

The employee's response becomes fraught with emotion _ and aggression, she said.

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