Since When Did ‘Rude’ Become Acceptable in the Workplace?

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Whether your company consists of thousands of employees or a handful of team members, it’s important to foster a strong company culture where your people can produce great results.

Most owners and managers think that the way to boost company morale and build a strong culture is through fancy perks and team builders. But what they often overlook is the damage that is caused by small problems that over time eat away at a company’s culture, and ultimately its bottom line.

Rudeness in the workplace is becoming increasingly common, and it is taking a big toll on businesses large and small. Let’s look at what you need to know to rid your company of this pernicious monster.

Causes of Workplace Rudeness (Hint: It’s Not Just the Big Jerks)

A poll on workplace civility in 2016 found that in 62 percent of employees were treated rudely at work at least once a month. That’s up significantly from 49 percent in 1998 when the annual poll was first conducted.

While overt rudeness is obviously a problem, it’s often the more subtle forms of rudeness that go unchecked and wear on people over time.

Types of rudeness commonly seen in the workplace include:

  • Replying to comments, emails or texts in a condescending or hostile tone
  • Ignoring communications altogether
  • Interrupting the person who’s talking
  • Belittling a person’s ideas, skills or contributions
  • Hostility in response to reasonable, constructive feedback
  • Taking credit for someone’s work or ideas, or minimizing that person’s contributions
  • Checking phone or working on the computer while others are talking

Left unchecked, these small but grating offenses wear down employee morale and motivation, especially as this type of behavior becomes the norm within an organization.

Stress at work also plays a big role. Being the victim of rudeness can cause stress, and so can difficult work circumstances.

And let’s face it – some people seem to have just never learned how to behave in socially appropriate ways. As with a physical illness, these few socially underdeveloped individuals can quickly spread the rudeness plague far and wide within your organization.

The Consequences of Workplace Incivility

Workplace Poll Treated Rudely At Work 1998 To 2016 - Eminent SEOIncivility in the workplace affects employees in the following ways:

  • Decline in work performance
  • Choosing to spend less time at work
  • Reduced commitment to the organization
  • Taking frustrations out on customers, colleagues, vendors, etc.

Both the quality and quantity of an employee’s work can suffer either deliberately (as the employee’s revenge for being mistreated), subconsciously (due to low motivation), or due to loss of focus on work as the person spends time and effort trying to avoid or appease antagonizing colleagues.

This, in turn, leads to consequences for the organization, such as:

  • Increased employee turnover
  • Losing the best and brightest in the organization, who have many options and don’t have to put up with such nonsense
  • Greater occurrences of stress-related illness and sick leave
  • Damage to the company’s reputation and brand when rudeness is experienced by employees, vendors or customers

Workplace Aggravation Is Literally a Brain Drain

The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for concentration, self-control and decision-making: These are known as “executive functions.” Basically, it’s the CEO of the brain.

While extremely powerful, this part of the brain is a limited resource in the sense that it can only function at peak performance for a limited amount of time. This is why people can usually concentrate better at the beginning of the day, need rest and breaks to regain focus, and become more emotionally sensitive to antagonizing situations as the day wears on.

When people use up their executive-function brainpower in exercising the self-control needed to deal with rudeness, the amount of energy they have left to focus on doing their job well decreases.

And when that self-control dries up altogether, they lash out at whoever is in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is one way that the cycle of rudeness perpetuates itself.

30 Rock Rude Meme

7 Ways to Cultivate Civility in Your Workplace

Overall, there are two types of strategies for reducing rudeness in the workplace:

  1. Establish a culture of professionalism
  2. Reduce stress

Reducing stress allows people to focus on what’s important: doing their job well. Establishing a culture of professionalism means putting policies into practice that quickly correct unacceptable behavior, which in turn helps prevent it in the future.

Here are some specific steps you can take to establish a culture of professionalism and reduce stress in your workplace.

1. Call out unacceptable behavior – even the little stuff. Especially the little stuff.

Ironically, because people prefer to avoid conflict, they often don’t call out rudeness when it happens. And the few who do call out rudeness are often accused of being rude themselves and are likely to be targets for retaliation.

This has got to change. The only way to address inappropriate behavior is to recognize it – and for everyone to know that certain behaviors will get called out. This can’t just be a policy; it has to be put into practice and modeled at every level of the organization.

2. Model the kind of behavior you want in your workplace.

Owners and managers set the tone for everyone else. One rude or insensitive manager can damage an entire department.

A person’s direct supervisor has the most influence over their work satisfaction, both because of how they are treated and because of what kind of behavior the manager tolerates in his or her peers. Even within a great organization, a bad boss can ruin an employee’s experience of the company culture.

3. Make civility in the workplace equally important to achieving results.

Yes, results are important, but the results come from people living daily in your company culture. If you culture starts to sour, so will your results. It’s important to reward processes and behaviors that will lead to the results you want.

If you have a merit-based pay or bonus structure, do results trump all other considerations?

If other factors aren’t taken into account, like civility, then there’s a good chance people will do whatever it takes to get the results, including:

  • Dismissing the ideas and contributions of others
  • Taking credit for others’ work
  • Publicly belittling others
  • Cheating or shortcutting important processes

4. Look for ways to reduce stress in your organization.

Company Workplace Incivility Consequences Infographic - Eminent SEOTreat habitual stress like public enemy No. 1 in your workplace. Sure, a certain amount of stress is inevitable in business and in life. Things happen.

But your team should only experience stress when the unexpected happens. If stress is a daily part of life, look for ways to eliminate stress and conflict.

If you know a certain situation is a constant source of anxiety for your people, then make it your mission to find a way to eliminate, or at least reduce, the stress that this circumstance causes.

Common causes of workplace stress – that managers have control over – include:

  • Unrealistically aggressive timelines
  • Workload or performance metrics that are too high
  • Internal competition for limited resources and manager approval
  • Long work hours (especially when combined with not taking adequate breaks and neglecting proper nutrition)

External factors, like the competitiveness of an industry or a demanding client, can also increase stress. While management has less control over these sources of stress, they can control policies on how they are handled internally, including:

  • Firing difficult-to-work-with clients
  • Standing up for employees to vendors and clients
  • Focus on personal-best performance rather than beating industry measures

5. Create systems that support your employees every single day.

Quarterly team builders are nice, but they won’t make up for the fact your people have to come into a toxic environment day after day. And if there’s bad blood between your employees, a team builder won’t make it go away. It will actually highlight the hypocrisy of such an exercise.

As an example, a friend of mine worked as a customer service rep at a company that had a billing policy that upset customers, so she had to deal with angry customers all day, while being expected to hit unrealistic call quotas. Meanwhile, her management thought they had a good culture because they had a game room in the employee lounge and other such perks. They talked about wanting to have a positive company culture, but their billing policies and performance metrics counteracted their supposedly good intentions.

Bottom line: If your employees are unhappy every day, then you don’t have a strong company culture, regardless of the “cool” benefits you provide.

6. Pay your people better.

This also falls into the reducing stress category. People come to work already unhappy when they feel they are working hard for not very much compensation. Or they may simply reduce how hard they are working to match their compensation.

Wages in the U.S. have not kept pace with inflation for many people, so stress from financial difficulties at home can bleed into the workplace.

Pay is also a sign of respect from employer to employee. Paying at or above market rate can go a long way to make people feel valued. As the saying goes: Put your money where your mouth is. You say you value your team members, but does their paycheck reflect that?

And if your company truly can’t afford to pay more at this time, then factors like the quality of the work environment are even more important to reducing employee turnover.

7. Encourage employees to take vacation and sick time.

People need time to recuperate physically, mentally and emotionally. You’ll be rewarded with more patient, focused, happy employees.

That’s assuming they actually use that time to relax. Some people might need help learning how to do that, since many people are so used to the constant stress of life that they don’t know how to break out of the cycle and really relax.

People often are afraid to ask to take time off. Making it a policy will make it easier for them, and it will force your company to figure out how to shift work around when people are out – which is bound to happen anyway due to unexpected circumstances.

Employee Rudeness Hurts Everyone: Make it Stop!

Workplace incivility can slowly eat away at your company culture, reputation and effectiveness. As a leader in your organization, it’s up to you to be an advocate for greater courtesy in the workplace. The rewards are worth it: a boost in employee morale, greater productivity and a more cooperative company culture.

Employees and Managers Could All Benefit from a Little More Mindfulness on the Job

See 10 Tips for Mindfulness at Work

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8 thoughts on “Since When Did ‘Rude’ Become Acceptable in the Workplace?

    1. Avatar for Team Eminent SEOZachary Ankeny

      Chris brings up a very good point. I don’t think there are many people that go through life TRYING to be rude. People have their differences, and those differences need to be worked out in a civil way.

  1. Avatar for Team Eminent SEONicola Yap

    Workplace pettiness can get really out of hand, especially when there’s some power tripping going on between higher and lower level employees. Some of my friends who work at the big retail giants back in San Francisco have shared tons of horror stories; for them, the work politics start from the top down, and it affects productivity in a major way. It all starts with badmouthing or talking behind someone’s back – hellooo we left middle school a LONG time ago!


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