Published on: February 12, 2021
7:30 a.m. Ding! The alarm goes off. Claire's stomach tightens, feeling like she's headed into the ring as she reaches for the phone. Yep, a notification from her boss.
"You better wear more makeup to the next Zoom meeting."
Now, that was a low blow. She'd been trying to keep her guard up. But now she's taking an emotional dive from that text message.
The insulting comment Claire's boss sent may seem outrageous, but it was an actual quote that came out of our study. That was just one of many harsh messages we collected.
We know that conflict, in general, affects many workers in the U.S., but what about conflict in the brave new world of remote work? The search for current stats on conflict for remote workers came up dry. That's why we wanted to find out more about this elusive topic before someone beat us to the punch.
We wanted to know:
- Who is experiencing conflict while working from home.
- Who workers are exchanging blows with.
- What the source of the conflict was.
- If there were punishments for those virtual spats.
- And if there were any severe consequences from it.
We decided to ask over 1000 U.S. workers about their remote work conflicts. We gathered thousands of data points and believe it is worth sharing to raise awareness about this all-too-common issue. Seems that Claire's in good company.
Ringside seats for our respondents' conflicts
Our study gave us ringside seats, and the truth is as ugly as a swollen-shut black eye: 80% of remote professionals have experienced workplace conflict. And many of them received text messages on a par with the trash talk you hear at actual boxing matches.
As previously mentioned, data on workplace conflict in the U.S. was scant, so it's difficult to say if remote workplace conflict is as common as in-office conflict. However, the CPP Global Human Capital Report, which is based on a study they commissioned in 2008 of 5,000 full-time employees in Europe and the Americas (including the U.S.), stated that "85% of employees at all levels experience conflict." Our statistic is slightly lower than theirs, which may mean that remote workplace is slightly less common.
But, due to CPP's findings being outdated and drawn from an international participant base, it wouldn't be prudent to make too many comparisons between it and our topical U.S.-based study. The only conclusion that can be drawn with confidence: work conflict is commonplace.
ROUND 1: Who are the heavyweights in remote work squabbles?
LLlleeet's get rrreaadyy to ruummbllllee!!
Although workplace conflicts are serious and troubling, that's just so darn fun to say.
We wanted to know who the "heavyweights" are in remote conflict.
Surprisingly, gender did not play much of a role in terms of remote work conflict engagement:
82% of males vs. 80% of females experienced remote work conflict.
If you're highly educated, you make smart decisions and know to use your "inside voice" when disagreeing, right? Not so much. Those who held degrees also held a large lead in remote disputes compared to those with lesser years of education under their belts. In fact, not to go all statistical lingo on you, but there was a positive correlation between education level and degree of remote conflict involvement.
Meaning, as the education level went up, so did the conflict quotient. Why is anybody's guess. Perhaps disagreements for the PhD folk were based on philosophical, existentialist concepts, such as whether or not Descartes' assertion, I think, therefore I am captures the meaning of life?
- Master's degree or doctorate: 87%
- Bachelor's degree: 83%
- Some college, no degree: 73%
- High school degree: 63%
We know that those in healthcare are under tremendous stress these days, so it comes as no surprise that the "do no harm" workers are at the top of the conflict chart in terms of industry. Those in healthcare were much more involved in disputes than those in education.
- Healthcare: 23%
- Business & Finance: 21%
- Manufacturing: 13%
- Software/IT: 12%
- Education: 9%
ROUND 2: Who do they contend with? What did they lock horns over?
Most workers (65%) experienced conflict with their coworkers specifically. But, 19% had virtually grappled with a head honcho. Whether or not those were just plain bad bosses remains to be seen. Disagreeing with your superior can be especially distressing. (We'll devote a round to this topic in a bit, so don't fret!) Some—11%–had their conflict with an external manager. And 5% with an employee working at another company.
What's causing all the fuss? The main sources of the conflict were almost evenly split three ways:
- Stress about work: 25%
- Lack of teamwork: 25%
- Rude behavior: 22%
Some were fraught by feelings that someone was being dishonest, with "lack of transparency/honesty about something important" as the cause 18% of the time. A "clash of values" came in at 9%, and a "false accusation" only accounted for 2% of the conflicts.
Are veteran, Gen-X employees just tired of playing nice with others? They had remote conflict issues because of lack of teamwork, much more than the Millennials with less work experience.
Teamwork issues selected as the primary source of conflict:
- 20+ years of experience: 43%
- 11-20 years of experience: 30%
- 3-5 years of experience: 25%
- 6-10 years of experience: 22%
- 1-2 years of experience: 21%
- Gen-X: 33%
- Millennials: 28%
And, what do these remote workers do when they get upset by poor teamwork…or anything else? Well, they can't walk over to the other persons' workstation and ask "What gives?" They start tapping on their electronic devices. We wanted to know which platform was most often used during a conflict.
ROUND 3: App-gression. Which platforms are used for the virtual jabs, and who got into trouble for it?
We asked our participants which platform they were using during the conflict, and most–46%–were using a work messaging app, such as Slack, Google Hangouts, or Trello. Slack sounds chillax, but when your interactions devolve into insults peppered with curse words, it's not the least bit friendly. A video conference with a verbal interaction was the platform for 37%. A non-work messaging app was used to disagree for 11% of our participants. Only 6% used a video conferencing platform to exchange testy text messages.
We asked our respondents what the worst thing was that was said to them during their work-from-home conflict. The 1,376 sting-like-a-bee comments we read made us agitated! There were many blatantly offensive curses and insults reported by our workers in messages they'd received.
"You're an aggressive, uncooperative b*%$."
- Use of "the B-word" (10)
- Use of "the F-word" (15)
- Use of "Idiot" (11)
Quantitatively, these numbers–out of 1,376–are not a lot. But, qualitatively, the derogatory weight of these egregious messages is immeasurable. Many spoke of being humiliated in front of others. One said her boss "tortured" her for a "bad presentation" in front of her coworker.
Also, some comments were blatantly racist and sexist. Great fodder for a discrimination or harrassment suit. There were nearly 80,000 workplace discrimination charges in the US in 2018. That resulted in more than $50 million in damages for victims in federal court. The damages granted by state and district courts number in the hundreds of millions.
A few women reported being told they were "too fat." One said she was told that since she was a woman she "probably can't work the new technology properly." One African American disclosed: "They accused me of using my race (I'm Black) to 'get in good' with HR."
Sometimes, those words bite you in the backside. It seems many employees forget that not just the intended target can read what they wrote and sometimes get the boot for that.
Speaking of punitive measures, we also wanted to know who got into trouble for engaging in telecommuting tiffs. A whopping 62% of respondents receive repercussions from their managers.
If you work in a west-coast manufacturing company for between 6-10 years, watch out! You might be the most likely to get into trouble for conflict if we extrapolate our study's findings. Those government and not-for-profit workers seem to know how to keep things cool.
Those who got into trouble for remote workplace conflict by industry:
- Manufacturing: 46%
- Software/IT: 44%
- Business & Finance: 41%
- Education: 26%
- Healthcare: 19%
- Government/Non-profit: 15%
It wasn't the "OK Corral" for Westerners and those abiding in those Southwestern adobe abodes when it came to getting into trouble for workplace conflict. Were the Great Plains folk better at keeping their tiffs under wraps? Or are bosses there more inclined to "turn a blind eye?"
Place of residence played a role in who got into trouble for their virtual conflict:
- West: 41%
- Southwest: 41%
- Northeast: 27%
- Southeast: 25%
- Midwest: 23%
Years of experience was another factor.
Interestingly, although veterans were the ones who had the most conflict based on teamwork (43%), they were the least likely to get into trouble for workplace squabbles. A scant 13% of those with 20+ years only got into trouble for their remote workplace conflicts, whereas 53% of those with 6-10 years got some backlash. Just 23% of those with the least amount of experience (1-2 years) had repercussions.
I bet you're wondering what get into trouble constitutes, aren't you?
Of those who got into trouble, 53% were reprimanded or warned, and 33% were fired. Nothing much was the response–or lack thereof–for 14%
The number of people who were fired was greater than we anticipated. Supervisors reproaching employees engaging in workplace conflicts could be interpreted in a positive way, showing that they're trying to mitigate the issue. Stepping in can be better in these situations than a hands-off approach. Especially if workplace bullying seems to be part of the problem.
ROUND 4: Boss vs. Employee—How do these divisive managerial/subordinate conflicts play out?
The Big Cheese, Head Honcho, the High Muckamuck.
The one you don't mess with.
Until you find yourself having a text war with her/him.
Fighting with a boss can strike primal fear in an employee. This is a more powerful person, and it may feel like you're being preyed on. The power is in their hands. One false move and they may decide to deal a killing blow, and say those dreaded words: You're fired!
That's why it was of utmost importance to create a section to our survey devoted to this particularly sensitive and stress-inducing type of work discord.
A striking result was that 36% of the respondents (that's 488 people) felt that their bosses were too aggressive in their texts.
"My boss told me that I had a small penis."
Really? Was that necessary? That jab was below the belt.
Fighting with your boss can be extremely upsetting and make you hate your job.
Those living in the western portion of the U.S. were most likely to have remote work conflicts with their bosses. Geographical location was not much of a significant determining factor in this regard:
- West: 47%
- Southeast: 39%
- Southwest: 36%
- Midwest: 32%
The Punisher: We wanted to know who the bosses took action against the most.
Based on the results, bosses punished men more than women for these clashes. 59% of males had repercussions from their bosses vs. 48% of women.
The outcomes from employer-employee conflicts were varied.
- We talked about it and tried to resolve it. (49%)
- We never tried to resolve it. (21%)
- I left the company due to this conflict. (20%)
- A third-party mediated this conflict. (8%)
- I hate my boss and can't talk to him or her. (1%)
Although the fact that nearly half of those who had a conflict with their bosses had the opportunity to discuss the issue directly with their managers is a positive sign, the 20% who called it quits is a sobering reality.
Remember the term positive correlation? Well, there was a negative correlation between those with the most experience and the amount of retribution from bosses they conflicted with. Those with 20+ years under their belts received the least amount of retaliation.
- 6-10 years of experience: 79%
- 3-5 years: 65%
- 11-20 years: 37%
- 20+ years: 28%
Annnnd nnnowww….what you've all been waiting for! The final round!
ROUND 5: Can Conflict be K.O.'d?
Remote workplace conflict is as common as the sunrise.
And employees are throwing in the towel because of it.
After enduring rounds of virtual conflict with a coworker or a boss, 39% said that they wanted to leave or actually left their jobs due to the problem.
Can it be circumvented or diminished?
Working remotely can be challenging, especially when you are at odds with someone at work. We can't address issues face-to-face, which may mean the anger gets buried and texts get misinterpreted. We can't see their expressions, and it's hard to gauge what someone means sometimes. A coworker, or boss, may seem too curt when they're just busy. A coworker may be making a sarcastic joke and thought you'd laugh, but it's taken the wrong way. Or that coworker may be a bully.
Some of our respondents may be dealing with pandemic-related anxiety as well.
Those taking our survey were presented with the following statement and asked if they agreed or disagreed.
I believe that the conflict (or conflicts) I had during remote work with a coworker could have been avoided if my supervisor had been more proactive in scheduling more virtual communication opportunities in a friendly way.
- Agree: 37%
- Neutral: 26%
- Strongly agree: 14%
- Disagree: 13%
- Strongly disagree: 11%
Most felt that their bosses could have taken steps that could have helped them to avoid the fighting. Workplace conflicts sometimes go "next level," and turn into a legal battle. Lawsuits need to be filed, and countless hours of productive time is lost to dealing with it. Most employment matters don't become a legal battle. But if they do, it can be costly. On average, a judgment is $200,000, give or take. (Not including the cost of defense.) Approximately 25% of cases result in a judgment of $500,000 or more.
Supervisors and HR can be the champions of ironing out issues before employees start taking the gloves off. And perhaps some employees should roll with the punches a bit at first. If it's unclear whether a message was meant as "put up your dukes," better to directly ask what was meant, rather than assuming it was aggressive and come out swinging.
Investing in workplace conflict management and communication training could be a vital way to circumvent a friendly sparring exercise from becoming a full-blown Mayweather vs. McGregor fight of the century.
We surveyed 1,001 respondents online via a bespoke polling tool on their experiences with workplace conflict. All respondents included in the study passed an attention-check question. The study was created through several steps of research, crowdsourcing, and surveying.
The data we are presenting relies on self-reports from respondents. Each person who took our survey read and responded to each question without any research administration or interference. There are many potential issues with self-reported data like selective memory, telescoping, attribution, or exaggeration.
Some questions and responses have been rephrased or condensed for clarity and ease of understanding for readers. In some cases, the percentages presented may not add up to 100 percent; depending on the case, this can be due to rounding, or due to being part of a larger statistic, or due to responses of "neither/uncertain/unknown" not being presented.
Fair Use Statement
Don't miss the chance to share these findings—–you might regret it! If you think your audience will be interested in this information, you can share it for noncommercial reuse. All we ask in return is that you link back to this page so that your readers can view the full study.
- Why We Fight at Work (hbr.org)
- The Cost of Conflict in the Workplace, Robyn Short
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- When Two of Your Coworkers Are Fighting (hbr.org)
- How Common is Workplace Conflict? | Pollack Peacebuilding Systems
- Common Workplace Conflicts Explained: Reasons, Types and Signs, Elorus Blog