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Rudeness At Work: Contagious, Dangerous, Potentially Damaging, Study Says

First Posted: Dec 04, 2015 12:11 PM EST

Rudeness in the workplace is an ongoing issue. Thousands of people experience being treated poorly at work, and incivility can run rampant if not taken care of. In fact, researchers have found that rudeness in the workplace can be called contagious.

A team of three psychologists from Lund University in Sweden have found that rudeness and incivility at work needs to be taken care of seriously and quickly, or it will spread. The team surveyed 6,000 people in the workplace about their social climate, which revealed that those who are subjected to rudeness as more likely to be displeased with their workplace and display unpleasant behavior.

"Rudeness," a rather well-known negative behavior that is seldom sought to be corrected in social settings, was defined by the team as "something that goes under the radar for what is prohibited and that in some way violates the norm for mutual respect." The team included behavior that went as far as not including a person from cooperation and information, "forgetting" to invite someone to an event, and/or taking credit for someone else's work.

They also considered spreading rumors, malicious or ill-mannered emails, and lack of praise given to subordinates for good work in the context for rudeness, according to a news release.

"It's really about behavior that is not covered by legislation, but which can have considerable consequences and develop into outright bullying if it is allowed to continue," Eva Torkelson, the project lead, said. Torkelson stated that while bullying in the workplace is incredibly well-documented, rudeness is not, despite its risks of turning into bullying.

The study showed that the most common cause of rude behavior in the workplace is the imitation of coworkers' behaviors. Seventy-five percent of the participants said that they were subjected to rudeness at least once or twice in the past year.

"An important finding from our studies is that those who behave rudely in the workplace experience stronger social support, which probably makes them less afraid of negative reactions to their behavior from managers and colleagues," Martin Bäckström, a professor of psychology, said.

People are often found to imitate others - in fact, imitation is how we learn, especially as infants - which increases the risk of spreading rude behavior throughout a workplace, with potentially considerable consequences that can extend beyond the workplace. Some of the consequences include mental illness, reduced job satisfaction, less efficient work, and additional conflict. These consquences can spread and cause issues at home, and with family and friends, damaging relationships.

And this has been confirmed by more than one study. The Harvard Business Review polled thousands of workers over the course of a decade, with its results showing that 98 percent of workers had experienced rudeness toward them, and an overwhelming 50 percent said they were treated rudely at least once per week.

Harvard's survey, done by Christine Porath and Christine Pearson, found that 48 percent of workers intentionally decreased their work effort because of rudeness and incivility. Forty-seven percent decreased their time spent at work, 78 percent said their commitment to work and their workplace declined, and 25 percent said that they took out frustration caused by coworker rudeness on a customer.

The consequences do not stop there. Not only does incivility lead to bullying, but it has some of the same psychological effects. More than half, 63 percent, of Harvard-polled workers said they lost work time due to attempts to avoid rude coworkers, while a staggering 80 percent said that they lost work time worrying about how they were treated. Twelve percent went so far as to leave their jobs because of mistreatment.

The Lund University team believes that the only way to change the way things are going is to adequately train managers and staff on the dangers of rudeness. Its risk to become bullying is far too high to be ignored.

"When people become aware of the actual consequences of rudeness, it is often an eye-opener," Torkelson said. "And, of course, most people do not want to be involved in making the workplace worse."

The study was financed by FORTE, the Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare.

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