Donald Trump’s abrasive style isn’t just making it hard to run the White House — it’s handicapping corporate America, as well.
HR and leadership experts say a “Trump effect” has made a new norm of bad behavior, from dropping f-bombs to fudging details on resumes to spreading false rumors about co-workers, all of which stifles teamwork, dampens morale, and hurts productivity.
“It violates all the norms and the niceties of how one should behave,” said Gary Namie, director and co-founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute. “What it’s exposing is the very, very dark side of our society.”
Career coaches report an increased willingness to engage in unethical behavior, like lying about past experience or performance in a job interview, or making a promise with no intention of keeping it.
“It’s allowing individuals who may be on the fence when it comes to a moral compass to engage in bad behavior. It allows them to justify that behavior, it gives them an excuse,” said Roy Cohen, a career counselor and executive coach. “We expect people to take the high ground… that’s where the reversal seems to be happening. Bad behavior is almost a badge of honor,” he said.
“Trump is serving as a negative kind of role model. People see his behavior, they see that it worked."
The acrimony is fracturing workplace cohesion. According to an April survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 46 percent of workers said their relationships with colleagues have deteriorated since the election last November.
“Within my circle of clients there have been some behavioral changes on the part of employees. It has become more challenging for HR people to deal with some of the interpersonal behaviors that have come out,” said Mike Letizia, president of Letizia HR Solutions, Inc.
“We’ve had to do a lot more… talking to employees about the fact that the U.S. government and current administration in Washington, D.C., does not set the standard for professional behavior in the workplace,” he said.
This is an outgrowth of, but distinctly different from, the partisan rancor that simmered just below the surface and divided once-amicable offices along party lines during the run-up to the presidential election last year. While that split remains as strong as ever — roughly half of respondents in a February survey conducted by BetterWorks said they’d seen a political discussion escalate to an argument at work — today many say an overarching layer of boorish, bullying and borderline abusive behavior is becoming more accepted in professional situations.
“There’s a bigger picture here that’s affected Democrats and Republicans,” said Todd Dewett, a career and leadership coach and consultant. “There’s a cultural shift… There’s been a willingness to be negative and critical of others,” he said. “I think that has absolutely seeped into work life.”
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Social cognitive theory could be the mechanism driving this dynamic, according to Seth Spain, an assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resources at the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University.
“Trump is serving as a negative kind of role model. They see his behavior, they see that it worked, it was effective, and use that as a model,” he said. This mirroring might not even be conscious, he added.
“People might have been more self-controlled before because of social norms, [but] the demonstration of breaking those norms and not suffering obvious consequences for it may empower people to act worse than they otherwise would,” Spain said.
Sam Horn, author of Take the Bully by the Horns, a book on workplace bullying, pointed out that flouting the norms of decorum is nothing new for Donald Trump: In a 1989 interview with Larry King, he bluntly told the CNN host that his breath was bad, then admitted that throwing people off-guard was a tactic he used to shift the dynamic of power.
This is classic bullying behavior, Horn said. “They will do or say anything in order to knock the person off balance in order to get control,” she said.
A person going on the offensive solely to protect their ego is exhibiting a hallmark of narcissistic behavior, Spain said. “Narcissism is largely about dominance. It’s about making yourself feel big and important by making other people feel small and unimportant.” In other words, a colleague’s feelings or reputation aren’t collateral damage — they were the target in the first place.
The example Trump sets is particularly likely to embolden bad bosses, according to Spain. “Because narcissism is largely about dominance, its worst features are shown in hierarchical relationships,” he said.
While this is bad news for the people stuck working under egomaniacs, these bosses also reinforce the nice-guys-finish-last ethos embraced by Trump in their own workplaces.
“When we see behaviors in our leaders, it’s permissive,” said career coach Brenda Abdilla, who said she has more clients today trying to cope with hostility or belittlement, particularly from bosses. “It can encourage more bad behavior over time,” she said.
A backlash against “political correctness” — a favorite target of Trump’s, both before and after the election — also is shaping this dynamic. When the Workplace Bullying Institute surveyed employees on the prevalence of bullying at their jobs, it found that nearly one in 10 believe that other people’s perception of what constitutes bullying behavior is overblown — a figure more than double what it was just three years ago.
Namie said this willingness to label others as overly sensitive accelerates a normalization of abusive behavior in the workplace. “That’s the attack on civil behavior by calling it political correctness,” he said.
“It’s setting a precedent where it becomes impossible to discipline people for standards of behavior,” Horn warned. “Companies and leaders aren’t holding bullies accountable.”
But while a mere plea for civility in the office might fall on deaf ears, an appeal to the bottom line is another story. Experts say the best argument for not tolerating tantrums, tirades and takedowns is the negative effect they can have on a company’s performance. While companies might tacitly condone boorish or inappropriate behavior in workers who possess key skills or bring in significant revenue, they won’t be able to overlook collateral damage these employees inflict on the business.
“The time it takes to address those situations takes away from other work to move strategic initiatives forward,” said Robert Farmer, a human resources professional and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s special expertise panel. “From there, it’s going to start to impact productivity and performance,” he said.
"Businesses don’t thrive if everyone is held under the thumb of a bully.”
Obnoxious behavior has a ripple effect, Horn said. “We think it’s only the person involved who’s being hurt, but everyone witnessing it is also being affected by this behavior,” she said. “In families, sometimes there’s a problem child and the problem child is often the one who gets all the attention [and] the good kids get ignored.”
When good workers become disengaged or leave the company, dealing with the inevitable fallout wastes resources. “With more turnover, the cost to train people multiplies,” Cohen said. “You have to pay a lot more to recruit and train people so they can be productive employees.”
Companies need people to work together and share ideas, but employees won’t do so if they face things like profanity and personal attacks. “It shuts down communication so they’re no longer a team,” Abdilla said.
“That’s kind of scary, especially in an environment where you’re trying to build collaboration,” Letizia said. “We need fresh innovation in American business. Businesses don’t thrive if everyone is held under the thumb of a bully.”
Martha C. White
Martha C. White is an NBC News contributor who writes about business, finance, and the economy.