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Is It Possible to Get Angry at Work Without Looking Like an Unhinged Maniac?

And other questions we’re too nervous to ask our own HR

Most of us work more than we live, which is to say we spend considerably more time at the office and with our coworkers than we do with the human beings we actually want in our lives. It also means that the stressors and anxieties of work become a significant part of who we are — and can be a real drag even when we’re not at the office. We here at MEL, however, don’t want all that stress to get to you — or worse, kill you. That’s why we’ve enlisted Terry Petracca, the hippest HR expert we know, to help solve all of your work-related woes.

To kick off the column, Terry addressed concerns about peer pressure from a boss, French email laws and what to do when you hate your co-workers. This week we asked her how to navigate office rage, career switches and HR departments who only care about pleasing company executives.

Unlike my dad, I never lose my shit on the job. He used to rattle office walls with his screaming. I try to process everything rationally and calmly. I wonder, though, if that’s made me too passive, and if letting out some of my frustration and anger might be healthier than attempting to pretend I’m above it. How do you balance professionalism with actual, real-life emotions?
I’ve got news for you — people who regularly pound tables and scream at the top of their lungs don’t command respect in the workplace. Everyone sees them for the self-aggrandizing jerks that they are. But your decision to retreat into passivity is the wrong lesson to have learned from your dad. This behavior may be viewed by your colleagues as indifference and sends signals that maybe you’re not a team player who can be counted on in a crunch. In addition, you may be ignored by management and lose out on opportunities to show your smarts and leadership potential.

Have you ever been in a meeting where your quiet co-worker suddenly commands the attention of the room by raising his voice? Or she slams her hands against the table and shouts, “That’s it, you don’t know what you’re talking about!” Here’s the secret — the most impressive emotional outbursts at the office tend to be spontaneous, passionate and purposeful, not angry, wild or bombastic. That’s the balance you need to find. And don’t obsess over whether you’ve crossed the line: The verbal and nonverbal cues from your colleagues will let you know.

If you choose to do the opposite — sublimate your personality — you’re lying to yourself and to others. Don’t let your father’s tainted legacy of a bad temper hold you back from a successful future. Vent that righteous anger on shitty movies and overpriced restaurants instead.

A friend of mine is talking about switching careers. She makes it seem super-simple — reconfigure your resume a bit, make the right connections, start on Monday. But that seems ridiculous to me. In a world where nearly every job involves a specialized degree or training and years of ladder-climbing, is it really that easy to walk into a new career? And if not, how do you make yourself attractive to a completely different industry?
Your friend is not alone in her thinking. It’s estimated that the average person may hold 15 to 20 jobs in their lifetime, many before age 25. That said, you’ve correctly pointed out that true career changes are much more difficult in an era of specialization.

Whether you want to move from food service worker to social media, or teacher to realtor, there’s usually some type of knowledge you need to have before you can get your foot in the door. But that doesn’t mean you need to quit your job or incur crushing student debt to gain that knowledge. There are plenty of online programs, evening community college classes, college extension programs and volunteer opportunities that allow you to learn, develop and practice new skills. Expand your skill set for free or very low cost with MOOCs (massive open online courses), TED/TEDx talks or Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes (for the over-50 crowd). Think knowledge, not degree (certificate programs do have value, however). If you need to pay tuition, check out financial aid (e.g., Trade Adjustment Assistance, the Workforce Innovation & Opportunity Act, veteran’s benefits and your current employer’s tuition reimbursement) and always ask for discounts.

One of the most available and underutilized learning experiences is volunteering. Not only can you try your hand at new skills while you help worthwhile causes, but there are two other significant advantages: 1) you usually get to create your own hyper-inflated job title (director of social media, anyone?); and 2) you can make use of the board, donors and other volunteers to network.

The HR department at my company is in the bag for the executives — essentially in the business of covering for their myriad transgressions. (THERE ARE A LOT OF THEM.) None of us feel as though they ever have our best interests in mind, so we don’t really view them as a resource for anything other than the absolute basics. Is that how it is pretty much everywhere?
Uh, no, is the simple answer. HR departments hold a special position of trust that’s memorialized in policies and procedures that encourage or require employees to share confidences, concerns and alleged transgressions. You appear frustrated and disillusioned by inaction — or worse — so let me share some HR secrets with you.

Many times, the HR department takes action but no one knows. Several years ago, I was one of only four people in a major company who knew the board of directors had placed our COO on a performance plan with significant consequences to his role as heir apparent CEO. This was documented, communicated and monitored without employees or the general public being aware of it. (Nothing illegal or immoral prompted the action, just grave misgivings on the part of the board of directors.) In this case, HR did its job, but no one knew; such is the case many times when senior executives are involved. Stuff happens behind the scenes. In other cases, especially when it’s a situation of “he said/she said” complaints, HR actively investigates, makes determinations and takes actions, many of which will never be publicly disclosed to protect the parties involved.

What I’m saying is that it may not be fair to paint your entire HR department with such a broad brush. It’s probably worse for you and your teammates to bitch among yourselves, stew in your own juices and generally retrench within your organization.

If bad shit is happening and you really don’t believe there’s anyone trustworthy in HR, there are anonymous ways to voice concerns about alleged misdeeds. Does your company have a whistleblower hotline you can use? Would you be willing to put nasty stuff on Glassdoor? If the answer is yes and you’ve reached your boiling point, then go for it. Just be mindful of blowback if you’re the only one who has the insights that trigger the investigation. Unfortunately, that’s a very real possibility.

Don’t just complain to your coworkers about everyone else you work with — let Terry help. Email her all your office-related anxieties at Or, if total anonymity isn’t required, leave a question in the comments below.