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Backstabbing hits new low

Modern workplace rampant with nasty comments, e-mails

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Kurt Fetzer never ceases to be amazed at the mud that workers will sling in e-mails about their colleagues.

As a court reporter and president of Wilcox & Fetzer Ltd. in Wilmington, Del., Fetzer has seen some shocking e-mails in employment cases.

"People will just trash someone. They say things in e-mail they'd never say in person," Fetzer said. In a court case, subjects of the trash talk get to face their detractors in a public forum.

"You certainly see people getting uncomfortable when they're presented with their e-mails," he said.

But what about workers who find out a boss or co-worker has maligned them but will never get a chance to confront the backbiter in front of a judge or jury?

A worker could receive an unflattering e-mail accidentally sent to him. Or a co-worker could clue in an office friend about some backstabbing comment another worker made. Another employee could overhear a telephone call or bathroom conversation.

While backbiting has always existed in organizations, some believe it's more prevalent in today's competitive work environment, where work forces are trimmed to the bone and the demands on workers are greater.

"You can't walk into any workplace without finding an incident," said Dr. Janet E. Taylor, an adult psychiatrist and a clinical instructor of psychiatry at Columbia University-Harlem Hospital in New York. "I think in stressful work environments people start holding on tightly to their own instead of pulling together. We all bring all of ourselves to work, and sometimes it's your immature self."

What's more, technology — such as e-mail, cell phones and BlackBerrys — allows a conflict to quickly escalate. Reacting immediately and emotionally to a slur becomes that much easier.

"E-mail gives us an avenue to discharge feelings that might be better left unsaid," said Karissa Thacker, a management psychologist and president of Strategic Performance Solutions Inc. in Rehoboth Beach, Del.

Many people, particularly managers, don't have the skills to defuse workplace conflict, psychologists said. Conflict avoidance is one of the biggest problems among managers, said Douglas M. Soat, a business psychologist with Soat Consulting Psychology in Janesville, Wis.

Some managers delay raising concerns until a performance evaluation, Soat said. Others are so uncomfortable with confrontation they avoid it even then.

"Everybody wants to have success in their career," said Dennis M. Dennis, a corporate psychologist and principal in Dennis Associates in Redmond, Wash. "One of the most fundamental skills is to manage conflict."

Unfortunately, in many cases, the person being maligned reacts with destructive behaviors, business psychologists said.

"People tend to take care of themselves in one way or another," Dennis said.