Rude Co-Workers Are Not Only Annoying, They Can Hurt Your Job

rude colleague on phone

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An inability to say “please” or “thank you.” Having loud and disruptive conversations. Interrupting people. Being consistently late to meetings.

Chances are, you’ve come across a few rude co-workers in your career who were guilty of one (or all) of the above sins. Everyone agrees that people with bad manners are a major irritant in the office, but it turns out that rude co-workers can actually affect your ability to do your job.

Researchers at the University of Florida found that people who experienced rude behavior at work were more likely to detect rudeness in other office interactions. That, in turn, made them more likely to behave rudely themselves. Rudeness is contagious, according to the authors of the study that appeared in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

“When you experience rudeness, it makes rudeness more noticeable. You’ll see more rudeness even if it’s not there,” said lead author Trevor Foulk.

“[W]e are generally tolerant of these behaviors, but they’re actually really harmful,” Foulk added. “Rudeness has an incredibly powerful negative effect on the workplace.”

Foulk and his colleagues reached their conclusions after studying the behavior of 90 graduate students who were practicing negotiation skills. Students who said that their initial negotiation partner was rude were more likely to be described as rude themselves by a second negotiation partner, even if the second negotiation happened a week after the first.

Even witnessing a rude interaction affected the behavior of study participants. People who watched a video of a rude interaction between co-workers were then asked to reply to a fake email from a customer. The email had a neutral tone, but people who had seen the video of a rude interaction were more likely to respond in a hostile way than those who had been shown a video of a polite interaction.

rude businessman

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The results of the study appear to confirm what many people have long suspected: One or two nasty co-workers can quickly poison an office environment. The effects of that bad behavior are far more serious than the minor annoyance that comes when you discover someone hasn’t brewed a fresh pot of coffee.

When researchers at Georgetown University and the Thunderbird School of Global Management surveyed thousands of people about how they were treated at work, 98% said they’d experienced rudeness, and 50% said that they were treated badly at least once a week. The constant barrage of bad behavior had a significant effect on employee performance. Nearly half of people who said they’d been treated rudely intentionally lowered the effort they put in at work as a result and roughly the same number said they deliberately spent less time on the job. Seventy-eight percent of people said they were less committed to the organization they worked for as a result of uncivil behavior and 80% said they lost work time because they were worrying about the rude incident.

Overall, rudeness impedes creativity and erodes team spirit, said the researchers in an article published in the Harvard Business Review. Customers and clients who pick up on the bad attitude are also likely to avoid doing business with a company.

“Incivility is expensive, and few organizations recognize or take action to curtail it,” wrote Christine Porath and Christine Pearson, the article’s authors.

In some cases, rude behavior can cross the line into workplace bullying. Twenty-eight percent of people surveyed by CareerBuilder said they’d been bullied at work. Bullies often accused people of mistakes they didn’t make, made belittling remarks, yelled at people, or excluded them from projects or meetings. Of those who were bulled, 19% eventually left their job as a result.

sad man and gossiping coworkers

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Given the high cost of workplace rudeness, why does bad behavior persist? One reason may be that people simply don’t realize their behavior is impolite, especially if no one calls them out on it. Plus, as the University of Florida study suggests, rudeness may become normal in an organization, so that people act badly because everyone else does. Finally, some may see rudeness as a way to convey their authority over others and get ahead, especially when bad behavior is rewarded with promotions and more responsibility.

“[I]t’s all the things we rate negatively … that are the best predictors of higher salaries or getting chosen for a leadership position,” Jeffrey Pfeffer, a business professor at Stanford, told the Atlantic. Being too nice, Pferrer said, can actually have a negative effect on your career and earnings.

People generally thought their co-workers got less polite the further they advanced in their career, a survey by Accountemps found. But for most, having good manners paid off. Eighty-five percent of people surveyed said that being courteous to co-workers would help someone move up the ladder more quickly at work.

Being unpleasant might help a select few reach the top (though it could also be that these people succeed in spite of, not because of, their rudeness). For many employees and businesses, however, bad behavior has a steep cost in terms of poor on-the-job performance, increased stress, negative customer perception, and high turnover.

Follow Megan on Twitter @MeganE_CS

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