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The Costs of Workplace Rudeness

Uncivil behavior at work takes a real toll on employees, research finds.

By

Jennifer Breheny Wallace

When we’re pressed at work, it’s tempting to let manners slip. Whether it’s ignoring a colleague’s email request, snapping at someone in a meeting or interrupting a conversation to respond to a text message, modern workplace rudeness is varied and rampant.

Because rudeness—offensive words or deeds that go against social norms—can be more subtle and benign than harassment or bullying, targets may assume that it’s just a routine, if unpleasant, part of the workday. But a growing body of research suggests that rudeness can harm an employee’s well-being and job performance.

When rudeness feels like a threat, it occupies cognitive resources and focuses our attention on processing the unpleasant interaction, says Amir Erez, a management professor at the University of Florida. Dr. Erez’s research on the work environment at hospitals found that such cognitive drain could lead to “potentially devastating outcomes” for patients.

In a 2015 study published in the journal Pediatrics, 24 teams of doctors and nurses specializing in neonatal intensive care at four hospitals in Israel participated in a simulation that involved a preterm infant (a mannequin) suffering from a medical complication. The teams were randomly assigned to receive rude treatment—an “expert” from the U.S. made disparaging remarks, suggesting that they “wouldn’t last a week” in his department—or neutral treatment.

Performance in the simulation was scored by judges unaware of these conditions. “The results were scary,” says Dr. Erez. “The teams exposed to rudeness gave the wrong diagnosis, didn’t resuscitate or ventilate appropriately, didn’t communicate well, gave the wrong medications and made other serious mistakes.”

‘Rudeness can even be contagious.’

Mistreatment in other workplaces may not lead to such critical failures, but persistent low levels of rudeness—such as being ignored or put down, particularly by someone in a position of power—can threaten an employee’s sense of belonging, according to research published this year in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. This isolation, in turn, can bring on stomach problems, sleeplessness and headaches.

Rudeness can even be contagious. In a study published last year in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers sent three emails a day to 70 employees over two weeks. Subjects were asked questions about both their colleagues’ and their own recent behavior, such as if they or a colleague had been condescending. They also completed performance tasks that measured self-control. The more rudeness employees endured during the day, the less self-control they showed and the more likely they were to act rudely to others. Lead researcher Christopher Rosen of the University of Arkansas says, “Experiencing incivility wears people down, affects cognition and depletes the resources they have for controlling their own behavior.”

In a world that feels increasingly uncivil, companies have an opportunity to create a space where everyone is treated with respect, says Daniel Buccino, director of the Johns Hopkins Civility Initiative. Some organizations, like the cloud hosting provider Connectria, have gone so far as to institute companywide “no jerk” policies that won’t tolerate big egos, office politics or talking down to people. Collegiality is among the top things Connectria screens for in the recruiting process, and employee compliance is the first item on annual reviews.

There are many ways to promote kinder company cultures. Diana Damron, a Montana-based team-building consultant, suggests that if someone treats you rudely at work, find an opportunity to model better behavior. Try to catch them doing something that you appreciate and tell them about it, she says. Kindness can be contagious, too.

In addition to behaving with civility yourself, it’s important to encourage the civility of others. If a colleague offers to get you a cup of coffee or to help you carry extra bags out to your car, accept their goodwill, even if you may not need it.

Also, hear people out, particularly if they have a view that’s different from your own. “Many of us are quick to interrupt, but most people don’t really require much time to be able to feel heard,” says Mr. Buccino. “Civility is a choice we make,” he adds. “We stay civil not because others always are, but because we are.”

—Ms. Wallace is a freelance writer in New York.

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