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In my hall, there's one person who occasionally has frustrated outbursts. He'll suddenly swear and bang on his keyboard and desk for a few moments.

I talked to him once after asking him if things were okay, and it seems that he was frustrated by some blockages in a bad software build that were blocking his work.

Still, the outbursts are somewhat regular (3-4 times a week) and are inappropriate (our workplace is filled with pretty calm people).

I don't think that he'd be violent toward others, but it is disturbing and I do not know if anyone else has yet reported it. A few people I asked about it have said that it has become more frequent in the past two weeks. The swear phrases are almost identical to each other, almost like its clockwork. Someone else in the hall just "tunes" it out. I think most people would rather avoid the awkwardness.

I'm wondering how I can proceed without necessarily costing this person a job or adding to his frustrations. Our workplace is reasonably supportive of employees and I don't want to be harming this person in the short term either.

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closed as off-topic by Garrison Neely, ReallyTiredOfThisGame, David, Michael Grubey, user987654 Aug 28 at 18:11

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "Real questions have answers. Rather than explaining why your situation is terrible, or why your boss/coworker makes you unhappy, explain what you want to do to make it better. For more information, click here." – Garrison Neely, ReallyTiredOfThisGame, David, Michael Grubey, user987654
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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Are you sure it's disturbing others? I have an outburst here and there when I need something to work and it does not. I consider myself a calm person too, and work with other calm people and we have the same outbursts but we all kind of 'deal with it'/understand. See here –  Bmo Aug 20 at 14:34
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*comments removed* Remember what comments are for. For extended discussions, Get a Room (a chat room). –  enderland Aug 20 at 21:20
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What is it you want to accomplish? We can not tell you how to accomplish a goal unless you tell us what that goal is. You have said a couple of items that the goal is not but not what the goal is. Clarify that and your question should be fine. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Aug 21 at 14:12

10 Answers 10

up vote 18 down vote accepted

You should report this out of concern for the employee, the team who is having to listen to the outbursts, and the company (as productivity will eventually be affected if it is not already).

I would say something like, "I don't know if you are aware, but Bill is swearing loudly and banging on his keyboard in frustration several times a week. He did it this morning, and yesterday, and three times last week. It is becoming more frequent, and it is worrying/disturbing to me and others around him (if that is the case)." Then let it go. Do not expect the manager to tell you anything about how he or she intends to deal with the situation, as that is not your business. Expect that it may take a long time to resolve the situation. If the behavior repeats, you can mention it again, so that management knows the issue hasn't resolved.

So often people complain about coworkers and wonder why management isn't doing anything about the behaviors. Managers can't help if they don't know. And they may be doing something about it, and you just don't know it because PIPs and other remedial efforts are private. They can take a long time as different strategies may be tried to correct a given issue.

By reporting the behavior, you may be helping your coworker get the help he needs. The problems causing his frustration might get fixed, he might be operating on wrong assumptions of what's expected of him, the company might alter what is expected of him, he might get stress management training, he might benefit from a private workspace or a schedule with more breaks in it. If he ultimately loses his job, he may find a job that is a better fit and less stressful for him.

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I think this is suboptimal advice, as you don't know how disturbing it is to others. Just say it's disturbing to you. –  reinierpost Aug 21 at 8:47
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This kind of behavior does not bother me at all, and has been pretty common everywhere I've worked as a software developer. I don't understand how anyone could be so bothered by it. –  Kik Aug 21 at 14:40
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@MJ6: Never mind. I like your answer, but I think it ignores a fundamental consideration: when you have a problem with something someone does, take it up with them, rather than going behind their back, unless you have to. The word "backstabbing" exists for a reason. –  reinierpost Aug 23 at 22:57

The best way to solve the problem with this employee is to track down the person who keeps breaking the build.

Yes, the employee's response is troublesome and a detriment to your environment. But a broken build (or similar self-inflicted problem) is far more costly. It's not a minor distraction or slightly decreased morale for people within earshot - it's an entire development group doing nothing productive until it is fixed. If this is happening 3-4 times a week, it indicates that there is pervasive failure in the group.

Frankly, with that sort of dysfunction, a few f-bombs are the least of your worries. Fix the problem, not the symptom.

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Finally a commonsense answer. Of course it may not be politically correct --- but it is nice to see. –  dvdrtrgn Aug 20 at 15:38
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This. The build being broken almost every day is a serious problem on a software project. That's what needs to be fixed. –  Andrew Medico Aug 20 at 17:01
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if it wasn't a broken build, it would have been something else. he'll always find something new to yell about. –  smcg Aug 20 at 17:59
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@smcg - maybe, or maybe he's just pissed off that he can't do his job (and the company isn't doing anything to fix it). –  Telastyn Aug 20 at 18:04
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@smcg - he'll always find something new to yell about? You sound as though you've known this person for years. –  evenex_code Aug 21 at 2:52

Regular outbursts at work can be symptoms of much worse issues outside of work. Its never a good policy to directly confront this issue if you're not in a position of legitimate authority. Instead, complain to your boss and to HR.

From a personal perspective, I can count on one hand the number of times I have relieved someone from thier position (fired) and had them escorted out of the office (by security or police). Every instance was due to this kind of behavior.

This behavior should be taken very seriously and never tolerated. It is unprofessional, dangerous, and creates a very bad work environment for everyone involved.

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Going behind a person's back about a problem you have with them is rarely appreciated. It may be possible to ask the person directly: 'I notice you frequently have outbursts and frankly they are quite disturbing to me, partly because I worry for you. Is there anything you can do to limit the disturbance to me? Is there anything I can do? Are you discussing this with our boss?' By just asking, instead of announcing or threatening, you may avoid a confrontation. –  reinierpost Aug 21 at 8:55

1 - You could try the blanket observation that you mentioned - "Hey, I can hear from your outbursts that build blocks are getting more frequent - any thoughts on why, or how we could prevent them together? Seems like something that would be better fixed by a new checkin strategy than by swearing and pounding on the desk."

2 - Say "hey, you startle the life out of me when you start swearing and pounding. It disrupts my work, and I don't think it's unreasonable to ask you not to swear so much in the office. Can you find a new way to express your frustration".

If both fail, I think it's OK to talk to a manager. Swearing and punching things is pretty disruptive. Once and a while a scream of frustration is bound to happen, but it should not be a daily/weekly habit.

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"Swearing and punching things is pretty disruptive" - I occasionally wish I could fire anyone who does 3 "pretty disruptive" things a week. Since I can't, I scream and bang on my keyboard ;-) Seriously though, I don't think the problem here is that the behaviour is disruptive, it's that it's making people uncomfortable and afraid. If they were distracted from their work but merely found it annoying rather than scary, then this guy would be exactly the same as every other noise source. –  Steve Jessop Aug 20 at 22:42

This is me.

I'm a software developer, and most people who've ever used a computer will understand how frustrating computers can be. They're stubborn, inflexible things that refuse to work as expected, especially when deadlines are approaching. When I get frustrated, I get angry, and when I get angry, I yell and swear.

As far as I can see, the surprising thing isn't that software people have outbursts of madness, it's that so many manage to remain so calm.

Anyway, here's a couple of things people have asked me to do in the past, all of which have worked.

My preferred solution is simply that people ask me to do it more quietly. This isn't remotely rude, is very easy to do, and leaves me the pressure valve of quietly muttering threats under my breath when things get difficult. Everyone wins - so much so that this has become my default mode of operation.

At one previous workplace, it became a standing joke. Co-workers would tease me that I had "computer tourettes" and generally make fun when I got cross. I was cross with the computer, of course, not with them so this was an incredibly effective way of diffusing the situation. Plus it was mildly embarrassing so I tended to have less outbursts to save face.

The final, and least effective solution is to ask him to go do it somewhere else. Counting and walking are well-known methods that help people keep calm so combine them both. Ask him when he's angry to keep quiet, walk to the coffee room or out of the building, and work off steam there.

I hope this helps. And I hope for all your sakes' that I never end up in your office ;)

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I won't say it was the build that's at fault - the OP asked once and was told it was the build, not that it was the build every time. So unless it's clarified it was a continually bad build, it's going to be other problems.

It sounds to me that the colleague is extremely strung out and stressed and this is causing his reaction to any bad news to be excessive. I've been there, you come in tired and irritable in the morning, and you find your work is difficult because someone did something late the previous night, you get annoyed and express yourself badly. After a coffee and a sit down, you approach the problem with a sense of calm resignedness you use for all problems.

The outbursts are a symptom of an underlying problem with the colleague;s mental state, not with some bad build (after all, we all know that sh*t happens, and happens often). If the rest of the team is quietly chilled, then this reaction to work is not because of the work - all the team would be affected by the same problems, and they don't react the same way.

What to do about it - this is a managerial/HR problem. Employee welfare is their responsibility, and though you can take steps to talk to the guy and bring him into your group to let some of your own chilled attitude rub off (which will work quite effectively), its not something you can 'fix'.

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I think that the advice below to complain to management and/or HR is a bad idea. You should, at least, communicate with the person in question.

Indicate your concern in a polite way and perhaps even try to understand what the outbursts are all about. Sometimes people act that way because they feel they have no other outlet.

Putting this in the hands of HR/management paints the messenger in a bad light and might do harm to the offender. And who is to say that HR/management can even resolve the problem or handle it in an appropriate way? Moreover, the intervention of "authority" could make the problem worse-- these outburst sound like they are started by frustration and lack of control, putting even more control in the hands of others makes the problem worse.

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I want to point out that the outbursts have gotten more frequent, so it seems like something new is affecting your coworker.

Also, and this is important, you are not the manager. You may take some steps you deem fit to find a solution or mitigate the effects, and you may need to get a manager involved, but it is not your job to solve the problem yourself.

That being said,

Everyone has bad days, even bad weeks. You have no idea what is going on in the person's life outside of work, he may be undergoing a traumatic event.

Now, when you asked he mentioned that the build was being broken 3-4 times a week. This is an enormous problem, and as a developer it really does make me want to swear. I don't know if it is a new person who has not yet learned the ropes, or someone who should know better checking in bad code. Either way that is something that requires immediate attention from a decision maker.

If you feel comfortable doing so you may want to consider talking to your coworker again and suggesting some ways to remain calm (I listen to music at work, it helps a lot when the build breaks), maybe you can ask if anything is bothering him and tell him you are available to talk to. I don't know if that is the right approach to take on him, or if you honestly want to try, but those are some ideas. Personally I avoid saying "you are bothering everyone so shape up or I'll get your supervisor", mainly because I don't think it works often and just gives him a face to blame if you or someone else do have to go to the manager.

Above all else, do what you need to so that you feel safe. There is a wide gap between occasional verbal outbursts and physical violence but that does not mean that he can be intimidating to any of his coworkers. If you or someone else is obviously feeling threatened then do whatever you need to within the law (and to a lesser extent company policy) to remove that danger.

I'd say 9 times in 10 it is just someone who is in a stressful job having a stressful time at home and needs a friendly gesture.

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These outbursts are damaging the work environment and may emotionally affect the other employees. The work productivity is most probably affected, and as HR, it is your job to take action to keep your employees at their best possible shape to work productively for the company.

You said you talked with him and I think that's great, but if it's still continuing, you have to devise other methods.

Maybe he needs a short break from work to calm himself, or some other thing you can think of to improve his situation.

But I believe action must be done, and it must be done fast.

P.S. Take my advice with a grain of salt as I am no expert in these types of things. :)

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I'm not sure that the person asking is in HR. I think that is just the tag they chose but not sure! –  Fiona Taylor Gorringe Aug 20 at 14:10

Bad software, failed builds, work blocked by the tools used in the environment - this is a standard nowadays, especially in Java world. On some platforms like SAP it's even worse (from what I've heard). The Windows is becoming more and more frustrating with every version.

Those are the things an adult must live with, and not behave like a baby. The outburst may happen to everyone, but the more people are in nearby, the more the adult should control themselves. The workplace is the worst place to have such outbursts, it's highly unprofessional, unappriopriate, and by many people in could be even felt as a harrassment (especially if it's a big guy, and his coworkers are tiny).

When such outbreaks are often, it may be a result that someone was never forced to learn self-control, but it could be the symptoms of depression, burnout or other psychical problems. You can try to talk with that person and suggest consulting a specialist, but people in such condition rarely are willing to admit something may be wrong with them (and realise it only when it's really wrong). If that doesn't help, you should contact the management. You have written they are very supportive, so they should handle that case gently. Maybe it would be enough to send that workers to 2 or 3 weeks vacation to calm down and relax, maybe he should go on a sick leave for a few weeks or months... But if nothing will be done, the situation will probably worsen and could lead to even ureparable health damage.

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