Is Your Colleague Being Rude?

A Korn Ferry survey finds six in ten professionals say coworkers are ruder than before. But in the hybrid-worker era, rudeness is not always easy to define. 

Employees had huge burdens placed upon them during the pandemic, including having to put up with rude customers. Over the past three years, we’ve all seen the videos of fast-food customers swearing at cashiers and passengers berating flight attendants.

The pandemic of rudeness, however, might have been more widespread than we thought. In a new Korn Ferry survey, 60% of professionals say that their coworkers are ruder now than they were before the pandemic. This is having an impact on performance, too. Eighty-one percent of respondents say they find it difficult to focus after a coworker says or does something rude, and 81% said that workplace rudeness has at least some impact on company performance. “We forgot how to act civilized,” says Tamara Rodman, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Culture, Change and Communications practice.

Korn Ferry surveyed some 600 professionals across industries throughout April. They paint a picture of a hybrid-work era in which it’s become easier for people to interrupt calls, not return emails, or generally not respect their colleagues’ time or work. A little more than half, 54%, of professionals said they would let a rude person upset them.

Employees say their bosses are willing to put up with the office troll, at least to some degree, if that troll produces. When asked what the company would do to a star performer who is rude, 57% of professionals said, “Nothing—they get results.” Another 35% said the rude employee would get a reprimand, while 8% said that employee would be fired.

But these stats, experts say, could indicate a larger issue. It’s not that that we’ve all turned into professional boors; it’s that in the hybrid era, many organizations haven’t clarified what, exactly, is rude. Companies have, however, legally defined other kinds of bad office behavior, including harassment, violence, and discrimination.

There’s a massive gray area that organizations might want to start filling in, experts say. One workplace’s blunt exchange of ideas between coworkers could look like an inappropriate, expletive-laden tirade at another. What constitutes rude varies by industry, geography, and even age. When nearly everyone was in the workplace, communicating and enforcing an organization’s behavioral folkways was relatively easy.

The absence of professional standards creates a particularly acute problem for recent hires, experts say. The onus has often been on new employees to find out whether such behaviors as interrupting colleagues is frowned upon or encouraged. The issue now is that there are a lot more employees. Over the last two years, the Great Resignation and hot job market brought in many more new recruits. Today, HR executives across companies regularly field calls from employees complaining a coworker has treated them rudely—only for the HR leader to tell the angry employee that what they thought was rude actually is not, says Dennis Deans, Korn Ferry’s vice president of human resources. “You can’t discount how people feel. It’s hard to define how someone is meant to feel,” he says.

For more information, learn about Korn Ferry’s Human Resources capabilities.