Hostile work environments are a real problem in tech and can be a significant driver of IT job stress. This is particularly true for IT helpdesk and support roles. Helpdesk agents often complain of burnout and frustration related to how end-users treat them.

Hostile workplaces are not usually borne of malice, but rather the end result of a process where bad behavior goes unchecked, and not everyone feels they have a voice. That’s why it’s important to talk about it. Let’s look at some of the common causes of hostile IT work environments and what teams and individuals can do to help address them.

“The closer to end-users you are, the more your life sucks.”

Hostile IT work environments are more common than you might think (and that’s not OK)

If you’re fortunate enough to work in a healthy IT environment, you might wonder how serious of a problem this is. Unfortunately, both the stats and the anecdotal evidence suggest hostile work environments are typical.

A RAND survey found that almost 20% of workers face a “hostile or threatening social environment at work”. A 2021 Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) study (PDF) indicates that 49% of Americans were affected by workplace bullying, and 66% were aware of it.

A quick scan of tech forums for IT professionals also yields the same kinds of feedback: how end users treat them is impacting their work and causing stress. Here are a few quotes from around the web:

  • “The closer to end-users you are, the more your life sucks.” Reddit user reds-3.
  • “I love the IT aspect, but it’s the end-users driving me insane…” From a thread title on r/ITCareerQuestions
  • “…a user I have that lashes out against IT anytime an issue comes up–whatever it is.” From a Spiceworks thread titled Users Lashing Out At IT.

Rundown: Why IT work environments get hostile

Technology is critical to getting work done, but it’s also a black box for many users. They expect it to work and they expect IT to be the people to make it work. From there, the “blame the network” trope can quickly devolve into “blame the IT helpdesk”. When people get confused, they get angry. Angry people usually need some way to vent those negative emotions. And that’s usually the first point of contact in a service call.

It’s definitely a stress multiplier: it’s not possible for an individual help desk member to actually be an “expert” on all aspects of tech a modern user depends on. In fact, many problems initially pointed at a helpdesk team member are entirely out of ITs hands—due to vendor issues, resource constraints, or simply incorrect expectations. Communication breakdowns occur, frustrations boil over, and things get ugly.

That’s just one of the typical paths down the road to a hostile IT environment. Understanding the “whys” is important because like with technical troubleshooting, understanding the root cause will help you find the right solution faster. There’s no one-size-fits-all reason or solution, but there are some common underlying causes you can start with.

Unclear or unfair expectations

For individual end-users, IT issues need to be resolved to do their work. From their perspective, an issue blocking them is “critical” and should be resolved ASAP. But, from IT’s perspective, the user’s issue is just one of many. It may not even be a real problem (see PEBKAC and Layer 8 problems).

If there’s no clearly defined set of expectations for triaging issues, these mismatched expectations can lead to users feeling like IT is ignoring them, and IT feeling like the user is being unreasonable. In turn, this can lead to communication devolving into combative or insulting behavior.

Us vs. them mindset

In many anecdotal cases, IT isn’t viewed as delivering real value to the business, but rather as a cost-center that only gets attention when something goes wrong. The teams carrying out core business functions do the “real work”. Similarly, IT might view end users as a nuisance. This decoupling of IT from the “core business” can create an “us vs. them” environment. In an “us vs. them” environment, it’s much harder to foster collaboration and healthy communication.

Lack of processes

Source: Elsa Tonkinwise/Unsplash
Source: Elsa Tonkinwise/Unsplash

There are all sorts of ways a user could complain about an issue: Phone calls, walking up to the service desk, creating a ticket, emailing someone, or having an informal chat in the hallway are all possibilities. But when those complaints are not properly tracked, triaged, or updated, expectations and processes begin to drift further apart and it can be hard to decipher what went wrong when an incident blows up.

Overburdened support desks

If a support desk gets more tickets than they can resolve in a reasonable (or SLA-defined) amount of time, there’s a broader problem related to staffing, technology, or expectations. But at the individual level, users aren’t really aware or worried about that. They’re worried about seeing their issue resolved. And since the service or support desk is the face of IT, they get the brunt of a user’s frustration. This can lead to frustration and negative feedback loops.

Focusing on people instead of problems

If conversations around IT problems are focused on who is at fault instead of what the business problem is, it can make people feel attacked, get defensive, and lead to hostility.

How to defuse hostile IT and helpdesk work environments

Just as there’s no single cause for hostile work environments, there’s no silver bullet to address them. Sometimes, it’s a systemic issue that teams can address with tools and processes. Other times, there’s a deeper issue involving individuals.

In the sections below, we’ll review some steps organizations and teams can take to help defuse hostile IT work environments and explore some tips you can implement on an individual level.

“I love the IT aspect, but it’s the end-users driving me insane…”

Organization-wide steps for defusing hostile work environments

Organizations should make it easy for IT teams and end-users to have a healthy and collaborative relationship. Setting up the right systems and expectations goes a long way. Here are some of the steps organizations can take at an org or team level to reduce hostility.

  • Use a ticketing system. Don’t just have a ticketing system. Be disciplined about using it. It’s fine to take walk-ups, but make sure to log work and updates in a ticketing system. Not only does this help track productivity and status, but it also provides an audit trail in the event an issue blows up.
  • Get buy-in from the top. Upper management has to lead by example when it comes to the treatment of IT. That means supporting initiatives like defining processes and standards, adequately staffing the helpdesk, and accepting business outcomes based on organizational decisions instead of blaming IT. It also means it has to be applied to everyone— that it’s possible to flag C-suite behavior as potentially hostile.
  • Define what is and is not acceptable. There’s no gray area between stress caused by the realities of break-fix style work, and bullying and abuse. Organizations should clearly define the type of behavior that is and is not acceptable, and provide a path to address unacceptable behavior. Similarly, define expectations for ticket response times and IT responsibilities, so everyone understands what to expect from IT (including IT themselves).
  • Have escalation processes in place. Ensure that employees have a well-defined and safe escalation path if they feel an issue gets out of hand. There’s a point where HR should be involved, and employee handbooks or internal processes should make that unambiguously clear.
  • Identify the root cause of hostility. However you get there, understanding the root cause of workplace hostility is a must for resolving it. Addressing the surface-level symptoms isn’t enough. Larger organizations will likely have resources available to help resolve conflicts.
  • Focus on problems, not people. Placing blame breeds defensiveness—which breeds hostility. Don’t focus on individual blame. Instead, focus on business problems and how processes can (or should) address them.
  • Show appreciation in both directions. The helpdesk can feel thankless. No one calls IT just to say “hey, the network is working great today, thanks!” Recognize when IT does something well, and highlight good work across teams. Similarly, give users feedback on making IT’s life easier by creating a good ticket or cutting IT some slack if they fall behind. A culture of appreciation can go a long way in defusing hostility.
  • Staff helpdesks adequately. If IT can’t keep up with its ticket inflows, users will get frustrated. This is a business problem that needs to be addressed. Either invest in more staff or process, technology, and expectation improvements to make sure IT can reasonably address their workload.

Individual steps for defusing hostile work environments

Workplace hostility often boils down to personal interactions. While you can’t solve organizational problems on your own, there are steps you can take as an individual to reduce hostility, and it impacts you personally.

Here are some tips I recommend:

Source: Callum Skelton/Unsplash
Source: Callum Skelton/Unsplash
  1. Avoid “us vs. them” thinking. Users are NOT the enemy. They’re colleagues (or in the case of an MSP, partners), and it is your responsibility to help them be productive. Ultimately, you’re all on the same team. A good rule of thumb: treat your users like you wish your vendor’s helpdesk treated you!
  2. Understand the difference between stress and hostility. IT jobs can be high-stress. Just because a user’s report stresses you doesn’t mean they’re being hostile. Consider their perspective and your response to it. If you’re stressed because of the job instead of a user, take a step back and try to decompress. Many of our stress management tips for IT business owners also extend to individual contributors and can help you avoid burnout.
  3. Consider personalities and tact filters. Working in an IT support or service role, you’ll come across all sorts of personalities. Different people have different tact filters, and it can be very easy to misinterpret something or have your message misinterpreted. Once that happens, it can be easy to fall into a downward spiral.
  4. Err on the side of communication and transparency. People don’t like feeling ignored. In general, err on the side of communicating things and keeping users up-to-date, even if it reflects poorly on IT. Admitting fault or simply explaining the facts can often help people relate to you and sympathize.
  5. Know when to escalate. No one should have to tolerate workplace bullying or abuse, and it’s not your responsibility to solve it. If someone becomes unreasonable in how they treat you, escalate the issue using the proper channels (usually HR or management).

“…a user I have that lashes out against IT anytime an issue comes up–whatever it is.”

Final thoughts: give people a mulligan

You can’t control everything in IT, but you can control how you respond. One of my favorite lessons from the world of game theory is the power of a “tit-for-tat with forgiveness” strategy. While human nature would have us get people back every time they wrong us, research on the Prisoner’s Dilemma shows us that not only is forgiveness “nice”, but it’s also an effective strategy for producing good outcomes.

Helen Joyce’s article Mathematical Mysteries: Survival of the Nicest? provides a good summary of the topic, but in short: forgiving people every now and then can lead to better outcomes for everyone involved.

What’s this have to do with IT? Next time an end-user is rude or short with you, give them a mulligan and be nice instead of retaliating or stressing out about it. That might be just what is needed to break the cycle of hostility.

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