How to Identify Mean-Spirited Behavior in the Workplace

Gossip is often more mean-spirited than idle.
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Keishla Villafane Rivera, former Miss Puerto Rico Petite, was stripped of her crown after she allegedly assaulted staff members and made death threats, NBC News reported in 2009. Mean-spirited behavior isn't always as obvious as this beauty queen's, however. Sometimes it takes the form of subtle snark or passive-aggression. Once you identify such behavior, you can take steps to protect yourself from its effects.

    Step 1

    Look at the behavior, not the results of the behavior. For example, if a colleague shows up late to a meeting, causing it to run overtime so she can be brought up-to-date on the latest policy, she is not necessarily being mean, even though her actions may seem inconsiderate. On the other hand, if she has a habit of being late and makes comments such as, "I really don't care if Don has to wait. I'm tired of his boring speeches," then she is being passive-aggressive.

    Step 2

    Know the signs of mean-spirited behavior. Such behavior can be subtle, such as procrastination, stubbornness, deliberate inefficiency and memory lapses, notes A passive-aggressive coworker might "forget" the presentation you planned to give together or put off giving you his research for your report until the deadline has almost passed.

    Step 3

    Keep your ears open. Rumors are another form of ugly behavior that often occur in a workplace. The originators of rumors can be difficult to identify, as sometimes the rumormonger uses a third party to spread the destructive gossip, notes Dr. Erika Holiday and Dr. Joan Rosenberg, authors of the book "Mean Girls, Meaner Women." You may not be able to identify the perpetrator, but should you hear a rumor about your non-existent affair with your supervisor, rest assured that a mean-spirited co-worker is behind the gossip.

    Step 4

    Watch out for signs of harassment, which is a mean-spirited behavior meant to intimidate the victim or serve the interests of the harasser. Harassment includes behaviors such as "offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs and offensive objects or pictures," according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. An ugly form of harassment would be a colleague making jokes about Asians in your presence when you are Asian. While you might be made to feel as though you should go along with the flow and "lighten up," this is mean-spirited behavior that shouldn't be tolerated.


    • Be aware that workplaces that are stressful, lack consequences for mean-spirited behavior, or focus on results to the exclusion of morale may be more prone to fostering an environment in which meanness flourishes.


    • If you identify harassment, know that the person responsible for this behavior is breaking federal law if she is basing her actions on your race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age or disability.

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