Workplace Rudeness: The Hurt Grows

Studies show that rudeness among colleagues is reaching new heights—and causing far more harm than previously believed.

The coworker never responded to emails. He ignored colleagues’ comments on conference calls. When meeting invites were sent to him, he typically gave no response. For decades, managers would typically overlook these minor workplace slights, focusing their attention on more overt outbursts and discrimination.

Now, new research suggests that in the pandemic era, managers and their firms may need to address workplace rudeness head-on. Incivility has already doubled in the last two decades before COVID-19, and some call it endemic. Some 95% of workers say they consistently experience incivility at work, but only 9% report it to management, according to workplace research by management professors Christine Pearson and Christine Porath, authors of the aptly titled book, The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It.

Experts are alarmed because of rudeness’s impact: a new meta-analysis of 70 studies of 35,344 workers, led by organizational psychologist Larry Martinez at Portland State University, finds that workplace incivility ripples through teams and organizations and causes more damage than previously thought. This is particularly true among certain types of workers—those with less control over their jobs, young employees, and those exposed to frequent rudeness. Martinez says that hybrid work is likely increasing these behaviors because employees communicating via Slack or Zoom or text message are often unable to communicate good intentions, and because employees are out of practice at workplace social graces.

To be clear, we’re talking not about yelling and other inappropriate workplace behavior but about small snubs and rebuffs, which experts say are an enormous problem. “Rudeness is contagious. It’s like the flu,” says business psychologist James Bywater, a solution architect at Korn Ferry. “Everyone catches it, and there’s a lot of collateral damage.” He says that employee performance, learning, and interactions are all negatively impacted in observers, victims, and perpetrators.

The most pressing issue, Bywater explains, is how incivility distracts people’s attention so that their perspective narrows. “It makes people a lot less good at learning,” he says. It also impairs their decision-making, according to a fresh study in the Journal of Applied Psychology. After workers experience a mild brush-off or cold shoulder, they’re more likely to fixate on one piece of information and come to ensuing inaccurate conclusions rather than evaluating a scenario objectively. The study followed surgeons who then incorrectly diagnosed health ailments.

Experts say that avoiding these problems begins with the smart recruitment of managers and executives who are caring and empathetic. “Leaders set an example of how people should be,” says Karen Huang, director of search assessment for Korn Ferry. For example, a boss who answers emails in three words and walks out of rooms abruptly will breed a staff with the same behaviors. Huang advises clients that hiring for talents and abilities alone can backfire: “It’s risky for the whole tenor of the organization’s culture.”

Organizational psychologist Debra Hermann, an executive coach and territory advisory leader for Korn Ferry, says that one panacea may be training employees and managers to calm themselves, for the simple reason that relaxed, grounded workers are much less likely to be rude or offensive in the first place. “The coaching to get there often starts with just good breathing,” she says, adding that different techniques work for different employees. “It’s teaching people to get themselves to calm, especially when they feel themselves getting riled up.”