PHILADELPHIA – If harsh words from your spouse or a near-miss with some expressway creep have you fuming when you walk into the office, there’s a good chance your bad mood will affect your work all day.

Conversely, if you walk in happy, odds are you’ll stay that way, even if customers are mean to you, and you’ll do better work.

A study of call-center employees found that the mood people were in when they came through the door was the most important determinant of their mood throughout that day, that mood affected performance, and that nice customers could make everybody feel better while mean ones only got to the inexperienced workers.

The as-yet-unpublished study was conducted by Nancy Rothbard, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and Steffanie Wilk, a former Wharton professor now at Ohio State University. It’s important, Rothbard said, because many researchers “make this default assumption that everything that affects people’s performance occurs within the workplace.”

Her team studied call-center workers because their behavior – every call, transfer and break – is minutely monitored.

They found that employees who were in a better-than-usual mood took less break time, felt more focused and were less likely to give up on a customer and transfer a call to a supervisor. Workers in a bad mood took fewer calls per hour and felt less engaged in their work.

Encounters with pleasant customers improved moods, but unhappy customers had less impact than Rothbard, who had listened in on some blistering calls, had anticipated. “I was surprised that the negative mood of customers did not seem to affect them much because some of these people are so nasty,” she said.

She guesses that that’s because employees are trained to deal with such verbal assaults and learn not to react.

“At least these workers are able to wall off some of the negative stuff that’s coming their way. “We’re not trained to wall off a lot of negative mood from things that are happening in our personal life,” she said.

The researchers did not look at the impact of boss or co-worker behavior, undoubtedly mood alterers for many of us. She argues that’s not as important for call-center employees because they spend 90 percent of their day on the phone with customers.

The take-home message, Rothbard said, is that some of what we bring from home – the good moods – is good for work. But companies should think about addressing bad feelings from the outside world that can spill over into our workday.

“We need to be aware that people are not automatons that just check their emotions at the door,” she said. “If somebody is looking rattled, as a supervisor maybe you just want to check with them and try to help them before they sit down at their desks.”

(c) 2006, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-07-28-06 1813EDT

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