Hostile communication is on the rise, watch out for it at your workplace

By Mike Cook
For The Bellingham Business Journal

You may have noticed that in recent years public discourse has become increasingly violent. I am not simply talking about the time frame since the 2016 elections. The tone of public discourse has taken a severe turn towards the violent ever since we weaponized and normalized the use of terms like “Liberal”, “Left Wing”, “Conservative” and “Right Wing” in our public exchanges.

Upon first glance it may appear that these terms are benign, but if you are honest you will admit that these are labels that dehumanize the labeled. That is their purpose. The normalization of these terms into everyday use has become a convention when used to justify the treatment of others, those so labeled, with less than the respect they would be due if we acknowledged the humanity of the other. No one ever uses these terms and then follows it up with something complimentary about the group so labeled.

Use the terms enough in the news media, television, Twitter-sphere, etc., and it is a short jump to the use of more blatant name calling that has become rampant at the national level since the 2016 elections.

But make no mistake, the bar was lowered well before 2016.

Our increased insensitivity to violent and disrespectful language has made its way into the workplace. Simple statements, like “You people in sales are all alike!”, can seem innocent enough until you realize that anytime a label is used, what follows is usually further language that is well outside what most of us would call civil.

Unfortunately, an amazing tool like email has become an enabler of violent types of communication and it is unlikely that you have not been on the receiving end of an “e missile.” The tool itself creates a distance that allows for conversations that, while emotional, would be difficult or even unacceptable if held in person.

(For straightforward and easy to understand tips on e mail communication I recommend Bob Whipple’s 12 Do’s and Don’ts of E-mail Communication.)

The nature of work today — leaner organizations, complex responsibilities and process replacing task — has made it ever more evident that dialogue grounded in mutual purpose, respect and understanding is the pathway to productivity. (For more on this read Crucial Conversations).

Of these three must-haves, it is mutual respect that makes challenging conversations sustainable. Anytime language that labels is used, e.g., “You people in Accounting!”, there is an instantaneous attack on respect for the labeled party.

Customer service representatives find themselves dealing with this type of language frequently when frustrated or disappointed customers cut loose during a phone call, or sometimes even in face to face engagements.

The intended effect is to punish in some way, again, as in., “I am disappointed as a customer and someone is going to pay for my disappointment.”

As a customer, you should know that this type of approach very likely reduces your chances of satisfaction, despite the momentary emotional release.

As an employer, you should train your service people to only absorb a limited amount of abusive language before terminating a call.

The insidious nature of the increasing amount of violent communication in our culture at large has flowed over into our places of work and has been the topic of many recent articles and public forums.

More recently there has been a movement against what has become labeled as “politically correct.” This is another violent way of labeling, and it has produced its own counter effect. As far as I am concerned, use of the term “politically correct” is simply another label that is used to label the labelers you don’t care for.

The use of violent communication and language has reached epidemic proportions in our places of work. That is what makes the recent memo from Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO, to his employees commenting on the firing of his chief communications executive for using a racial slur in working situations all the more encouraging. It is imperative that leaders, in business, religion and politics recognize the civic dilemma that has been created with our culture over the past many years.

I cannot pinpoint when it became acceptable to openly treat fellow employees as adversaries and objects of derision. But when a business leader like Reed Hastings steps up and takes action that so clearly says that some values are more important than profit, or winning or who is saved and who is not, it creates room for others with similar platforms to do the same.

There is a lot riding on turning us into the culture we have always said we aspire to be. Since our public/political forms are doing such a miserable job of leading the way in this regard, quite possibly it falls to our workplaces to set the example.

Mike Cook ‘s columns appear on every other Tuesday. He facilitates a CEO peer advisory group in the Whatcom/Skagit area. He can be reached at He recently published ‘Thriving in the Middle: Why Managers Need to Be Coaching Each Other

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