Rudeness in the workplace has gained a great deal of attention in the last 10 years from both business leaders and academics.
Described as “low-intensity, deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm,” researchers have estimated that 98 percent of American workers have experienced rudeness at work, with 50 percent of workers experiencing rudeness at least weekly.
Given how unremarkable witnessing or being party to a single rude event among coworkers, customers, clients or political figures has become, is it even worthwhile to be concerned about the possible effects of rudeness in the workplace?
The short answer is yes.
Researchers have amassed a considerable body of work on the effects of rudeness in the workplace. What is most unique about this line of research is the consistency and uniformity with which these effects are found – in different countries, cultures, professions and age groups.
Researchers have demonstrated that it does not matter whether an individual was on the receiving end of a rude interaction or simply witnessed an interaction as a third party – the effects are virtually identical.
The experience of rudeness is associated with an assortment of significant and detrimental employee outcomes, such as heightened levels of stress, burnout, emotional exhaustion, absenteeism, turnover intentions, organizational exit and lower levels of organizational commitment, cognitive performance, goal progress, task performance and satisfaction with both supervisors and coworkers.
To make matters worse, researchers have demonstrated that rudeness can spread from person to person like the common cold and even be taken home from work where it has been shown to lead to lower levels of personal well-being, decreased marital satisfaction and greater work-family conflict.
Historically, the “low-intensity” nature of rudeness has allowed it to fly below most organizational radars. It is not the type of behavior so egregious as to be formally addressed by most policy manuals and employee handbooks. In choosing one’s battles, many managers might find that addressing an employee’s intermittent rudeness or an interaction that occurred over the weekend between an employee and a customer may not make the cut when determining that day’s priorities.
To make matters more difficult, the “ambiguous intent” aspect of rudeness means that an individual’s words or behavior can be interpreted in several different ways. In other words, whether something is actually “rude” is in the eye of the beholder – two people can walk away from the same conversation with very different impressions regarding the intent of what was said or done. Most managers might prefer not to involve themselves in an extended “he said—she said” conversation with two employees when the accused offender states, “I never intended it to be taken that way,” to no satisfaction of the accuser. Others have simply felt that a little rudeness in the workplace is no big deal.
So, what can be done?
The answer to this question is currently one of the most researched and least understood topics in rudeness research. Unfortunately, the options currently available to organizations are limited, in that only a few studies have provided any answers.
Among the findings are that businesses might do well to:
- limit employees’ exposure to rudeness in the morning, as it tends to “set the tone” for the day;
- place individuals with certain personalities who are naturally more resistant to the effects of rudeness in positions where a rude encounter is more likely to occur;
- or initiate certain workplace interventions, including establishing a workplace culture of deference and mutual respect designed to promote greater civility among employees.