Workplace Rudeness: Put a Cork in It!

Updated July 17, 2015

By Kathy Gurchiek Jul 15, 2015
Rudeness and incivility in the workplace are like secondhand smoke, permeating the atmosphere and causing damage to others beyond the immediate target, says Christine Porath, who for nearly 20 years has studied the behavior and consulted and collaborated with organizations around the world to learn more about its costs.

It’s a subject that has garnered a lot of attention in recent years, some of it generated by Porath, who wrote about it in June 2015 for The New York Times and in the January/February 2013 issue of Harvard Business Review (HBR) and spoke about it during the HR People & Strategy (HRPS) conference in April 2015.

Interrupting others, making derogatory comments, belittling behavior, swearing and being judgmental of people who are different are among the examples of rude workplace behavior she found in a survey she conducted with 605 workers across 17 industries.

“Incivility is almost like trapping people inside a fog,” said the associate professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., during the HRPS conference in Coral Gables, Fla. “[It affects] anyone who works around it,” including work teams and customers.

A University of Florida (UF) study, published June 29 in the Journal of Applied Psychology, provides the first evidence that everyday impoliteness spreads in the workplace. Encountering rude behavior at work makes people more likely to perceive rudeness in later interactions, the study shows. That perception makes them more likely to be impolite in return, spreading rudeness like a virus.

"Rudeness has an incredibily powerful negative effect on the workplace," said lead author Trevor Foulk in a news statement. He is a doctoral student in management at UF's Warrington College of Business Administration.

A 2013 survey of 1,053 Americans by the Emily Post Institute found that 31 percent lost work time worrying about rude treatment and 27 percent decreased their work effort.

It affects retention. A July 2014 survey of 1,000 Americans by Weber Shandwick and KRC Research found that more than one-fourth (27 percent) of 295 Millennials polled have quit a job because of incivility. The Emily Post survey found that 26 percent of 1,000 Americans have left a job because of rudeness at work.

It also can hurt a company’s brand.

“Since reputation is a company’s most competitive asset, workplace incivility cannot be taken for granted. Incivility can negatively impact retention and recruitment, not to mention customer service,” said Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist at Weber Shandwick, in the 2013 survey report. The 2013 survey found that 61 percent of Americans opted not to buy from a company, or advised others not to do so, because they had been treated rudely by the company.

Technology has received some of the blame for the rise in incivility, as have generational differences.

Tony Ventrice, director of game systems design for California-based technology company Badgeville, thinks the perception of rudeness is “more of a generational issue."

“I don’t think you’re seeing any more malice or rudeness but a change in what the rules of politeness are,” he said. “[Millennials’] more informal way [of working] is going to come across as rude to someone who’s more used to the old way of doing things.”

He thinks what some deem rude behavior is instead a growing informality in the workplace.

“There’s definitely this shift of formality in what people expect out of the [work] relationshipand what it means to be a manager,” he told SHRM Online. However, “I think it’s a valid [point] that management may see it as [being] uncivil, which is just as important,” he added.

The 2014 Weber Shandwick/KRC Research, though, found that Millennials are more likely than others to stand up to uncivil behavior, such as coming to the defense of a victim of rudeness. Additionally, all four generations agreed that incivility in the U.S. is a major problem—63 percent of both Millennials and Generation X and 68 percent of Baby Boomers and Traditionalists said it’s a “major problem.” They all also think it will worsen in coming years.

‘No Crying in Baseball’

In the movie “A League of Their Own,” Tom Hanks’ character, baseball manager Jimmy Dugan, rips into one of his female players for executing a bad play that cost the team a two-run lead. After sarcastically asking her which team she played for, he screams at and belittles her in front of everyone. She starts to cry.

“Are you crying?” he yells at her. “There’s no crying in baseball!”

His message: Toughen up.

It’s a message Porath has heard CEOs voice about employees, but she noted that not everyone is emotionally “wired” the same way.

“People are very sensitive to slights ... more than we might expect,” she said. “Incivility has a way of holding people down or minimizing their contributions. It limits their best selves from emerging. It can be quite debilitating.”

In the movie, after the same player repeats the costly error, Hanks’ character tries a different management approach, giving feedback in a more civil manner—something employees can be coached to do.

Other steps organizations can take to end rude behavior and establish an atmosphere of respect and consideration for colleagues, according to Porath and other experts:

  • Determine what the organization is aiming for and why, talk with employees about what those norms should be and empower employees to help establish the agreed-upon norms.
  • Have leaders model good behavior.
  • Make expectations about civility clear, beginning with recruiting and onboarding. 
  • Teach civility. This can include role-playing and workshops.
  • Issue a fun workplace challenge, such as not interrupting anyone for a week.
  • Measure, score and reward civility.
  • Penalize bad behavior right away, even if that means terminating the employee. Don’t wait for the performance review to talk with an employee about rude behavior.

Foulk hopes the UF study will encourage employers to take incivility more seriously.

“You might go your whole career and not experience abuse or aggression in the workplace, but rudeness also has a negative effect on performance,” he said. “It isn’t something you can just turn your back on. It matters.”

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News. Follow her @KathyGurchiek.

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