BBC Capital

Generation Work

The high cost of workplace rudeness

About the author

Ronald 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. Previously, Ronald had a long career as an editor and columnist at the Wall Street Journal.

Tennis star John McEnroe struggles to remain polite on court (Getty Images)

Tennis star John McEnroe struggles to remain polite on court (Getty Images)

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 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 US. 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% had experienced incivility or disrespect over a two-year period, with such behaviour particularly common in the public sector. “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, Porath found that 80% of victims of incivility lost work time worrying about the incidents, 78% 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.

The millennial generation also has contributed to the loss of workplace decorum. These employees, born between 1980 and 2000, tend to be quite outspoken, whether in online exchanges or interpersonal interactions. They also are typically less concerned about workplace norms, such as punctuality and dress codes. Many grew up in households with few rules or restrictions on their behaviour, so it’s not surprising that they care less about etiquette than their elders.

“Young people have a different frame of reference” and don’t consider calling the chief executive officer by his first name disrespectful, said Lewena Bayer, who provides civility training to companies and individuals. “Older people, however, consider it rude to be so direct.”

International incivility

Bayer, who 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 nonverbal 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 also have 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. 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 emails or failed to reply to emails.

Perceptions of incivility can vary based on the circumstances. While people generally consider it rude to send emails 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’s attention only once or twice a week and want time to express their feelings.”

Making change

Despite the negative impact of incivility, few organisations are making a concerted effort to encourage courteous behaviour. The healthcare 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. The ongoing programme has reached more than 1,200 work groups, which participate in frank discussions about incivility and in exercises designed to help co-workers relate better to one another.

Since CREW began, the agency says 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.

CREW is a national programme, but it takes into account regional cultural differences and tailors training to individual hospitals. Doctors and nurses working in New York City may be very direct with one another, but in Des Moines, Iowa, they may want more social pleasantries. “We’ve been very careful to not have a rigid definition of civility,” said Maureen Cash, who oversees the CREW programme nationally. “Even within the same facility, different departments may not interact in the same way.”

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