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petty coworker

Pettiness at Work: How to Recognize It, Stop It, and Improve Your Workplace

Posted February 27, 2020 By Pat Olsen

Admit it: When something has happened at work to annoy you, or when things haven’t gone your way, you’ve reacted badly — more than once. Take the person who never starts a fresh batch of coffee after finishing the last of the pot. Most days you mutter a few unkind words under your breath as you start a pot yourself. Or perhaps someone else got credit for a suggestion you made. Instead of standing up for yourself, you stewed — way too long.  

The Problem with Pettiness

We’ve all had moments we’re not proud of—because we’re human, says Alex Alonso, chief knowledge officer at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). He gives several examples from his own career in his book, “The Price of Pettiness: Bad Behavior in the Workplace and How to Stomp it Out,” and suggests in its pages that we learn to recognize pettiness, call it what it is (“showing an excessive concern with unimportant matters or minor details, especially in a narrow-minded way,” according to one dictionary definition), and cut it out. It’s counterproductive and erodes an organization’s culture.

If you’re dealing with a significant problem, of course take it to HR, Alonso says. They may speak to the offending employee or take further action. But many annoyances are best handled by employees themselves, he notes, and if you make a habit of grouching, you can do better—plain and simple. The book includes numerous entertaining stories of workplace incidents, from trivial to significant, that illustrate a range of bad behavior.

Alonso and his research team interviewed 15,000 business professionals for the book and found that 99% indicated they witnessed petty behavior at work. The interviewees also said that “no action was taken against the individual engaging in the behavior.” That’s not good.

“Everyone would benefit from less pettiness in themselves and others,” Alonso notes. Bad behavior not only can interfere with your job performance, it can impact the organization’s functioning. It can even impact a company’s finances, starting with loss of employee productivity. And when companies take no action in response to pettiness, employees eventually distrust their leaders.

A Tool for Eradicating Bad Behavior

As an industrial-organizational psychologist, or organizational behavioral scientist, Alonso approaches behavior in the workplace methodically. He includes a tool in the book—The Stomp Out Most Pettiness (STOMP) Checklist—that can help employees identify pettiness in themselves and others so they can eradicate it.

He suggests employees monitor their performance with the checklist, which allows them to gauge how often they engage in bad behavior at work and appraise its seriousness, as well as see compare their pettiness scores to others’. Employees choose a numerical value for how often they engage in a certain behavior (for example, “Criticized or ridiculed someone for being intelligent,” and “Undermined a boss or coworker to their peers”).

Each behavior has been assigned a weight from 1 to 4, according to how often it appears in the workplace, and each is inversely related to its severity. A negative total is better than a positive one.

Alonso theorizes that people don’t want to be petty at work, nor do they want others in their organization to be. Who wants to work with someone who’s constantly annoyed and annoying? He acknowledges that everyone has a certain level of self-awareness about their pettiness, but he wants to help readers think more about their behavior and its effect on themselves and others.

Try the checklist (shared courtesy of Alonso and SHRM). We’re all in this together. Our workplaces can only benefit from more compassion and decency.

How often do you engage in the following behaviors? WEIGHT Never (-5) Hardly (1) Monthly (5) Daily (10)
Act immaturely or childishly 3        
Act unprofessionally 2        
Complain about noise levels 1        
Complain about odors from food or other sources 2        
Criticize or ridicule someone for being intelligent 4        
Devote obsessive attention to inconsequential matters 3        
Do not stop infighting among team members/
within or between teams in other business units
Discount someone’s contributions because of a
personal bias or dislike
Exclude key stakeholders from meetings/
Generally contribute to or do nothing to address an
overall environment of pettiness
Instigate or encourage infighting among team members/within or between teams in other business units 4        
Ostracize someone who has new ideas 4        
Pick on someone who is unpopular 4        
Play practical jokes 3        
Push a personal agenda 2        
Refuse to acknowledge someone’s contributions 4        
Refuse to work with someone 3        
Suggest that someone lacks intelligence 1        
Throw a tantrum 4        
Take credit for someone’s work or the work of a team 4        
Torpedo, derail or cancel someone’s project because of personal bias or dislike 4        
Undermine a boss or coworker to their peers 3        
Undermine a boss or coworker to their superiors 3        
Withhold information from those who needed it to
perform their work


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