The high cost of workplace rudeness

BE CIVIL, BOSS: A survey of financial services employees in Singapore found that job satisfaction and productivity suffered when supervisors sent demeaning e-mail messages or failed to reply to e-mail messages.


    Jun 17, 2014

    The high cost of workplace rudeness

    DO COLLEAGUES multitask on computers and smartphones while you're trying to have a serious conversation?

    Do people roll their eyes when you express an opinion in meetings?

    Have you ever been excluded from invitations to grab lunch with colleagues?

    If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you probably feel disrespected - but take comfort in knowing that you have plenty of company.

    "Incivility at work has become rampant," said Christine Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business in the United States.

    Half of the North American workers she surveyed in 2011 said they were treated rudely at least once a week, up from a quarter in 1998.

    Similarly, a study of British workers found that 40 per cent had experienced incivility or disrespect over a two-year period.

    Professors at the National University of Singapore surveyed local financial services employees and found that their job satisfaction and productivity suffered when their supervisors sent demeaning e-mail messages or failed to reply to e-mail messages.

    "This is a mainstream problem that happens in organisations that are generally well respected and think they're quite employee friendly," said Ralph Fevre, professor of social research at Cardiff University and co-author of the study.

    Incivility can be quite costly to employers in terms of reduced productivity and higher turnover rates. In her research, Prof Porath found that 80 per cent of victims of incivility lost work time worrying about the incidents, 78 per cent felt less committed to their employers, and nearly half decreased their work effort.

    "Studies also show that people even perform worse when they just witness incivility and aren't the target of it themselves," she said.

    The fast pace of work and life is partly to blame for the deterioration of good manners. Many overworked people express their frustration by treating others rudely - or simply don't take the time to be polite.

    In competitive workplaces, people may even believe that courteous acts make them look weak or obsequious.


    Lewena Bayer, who provides civility training to companies and individuals, and is based in Canada but has affiliates in other countries, finds that incivility takes different forms around the world.

    "There's less restraint in North America, with people saying inappropriate things," she said. In contrast, she believes the French engage in more non-verbal incivility. "In Paris," she said, "you might see people silently scoffing or deliberately walking out of their way to avoid someone."

    Technology and social media have also affected workplace etiquette. Many people think nothing of tweeting during a colleague's presentation or firing off a tart text message instead of a longer, more thoughtful message.

    Perceptions of incivility can vary, based on the circumstances. While people generally consider it rude to send e-mail messages or check text messages during a phone call or face-to-face meeting, they may not mind as much if the offender explains why he needs to multitask, apologises for it and makes some contribution to the conversation.

    They'll be much angrier, however, if they're on Skype and hear the other person stealthily pecking away on his keyboard and asking them to repeat their comments, said Ann-Frances Cameron, an associate professor in information technology at the HEC Montreal business school.

    "Employees especially don't like it when their bosses multi-communicate in front of them. They feel devalued," she said. "They may get the boss' attention only once or twice a week and want time to express their feelings."


    Despite the negative impact of incivility, few organisations are making a concerted effort to encourage courteous behaviour. The health-care business is among the most active because incivility can affect the quality of medical treatment and distress patients.

    For example, Ochsner Health System in Louisiana developed two policies in 2011 to make its hospitals more congenial. Employees were trained to follow the 10/5 Way - making eye contact when they come within 10 feet of another person and greeting the person and smiling when they're within 5 feet. The other policy - No Venting - requires them to discuss issues and concerns in a private "safe zone" away from patients.

    "These behavioural standards are part of employee evaluations, so everyone gets feedback on how they're upholding them," said Kara Greer, Ochsner's vice-president for talent management.

    The hope is that a calmer, friendlier staff will create a more healing environment for patients, she said.

    The Veterans Health Administration, a US government agency, was among the first in the world to develop a programme to make the workplace more amicable.

    It launched Civility, Respect and Engagement in the Workplace (Crew) in 2005 in response to employees' concerns about discourteous treatment.

    Since Crew began, the agency said it has found that greater civility leads to higher employee and patient satisfaction scores, lower turnover rates, fewer sick leave hours and a drop in discrimination complaints.

    The writer is a freelance writer and editor and the author of eight books, including his latest, The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How The Millennial Generation Is Shaking Up The Workplace.