Rudeness in the workplace: an epidemic

Is insolence really more infectious than the common cold? One psychologist says it can spread around the office in no time – with devastating effects.

Rudeness in the workplace: an epidemic
When employees are sick, HR managers often encourage them to stay home and avoid spreading the illness to anyone else – but one workplace psychologist says the common cold isn’t the only infection posing a risk to productivity.

Dr. Jennifer Newman says that when workers are exposed to rude co-workers, they can very easily become a carrier themselves and go on to interact unpleasantly with others.

“The exposed worker becomes a carrier and takes it out on others not connected to the original interaction and so they will be rude to the next person they interact with,” Newman told CBC News.

An office epidemic

New research in the Journal of Applied Psychology indicates that rudeness in the workplace is not only widely spread – 98 per cent of employees report rudeness at work and 50 per cent said they experience it at least weekly – but it’s also highly contagious.

“Researchers refer to it as a low-intensity negative behaviour, or behaviours by co-workers, suppliers, customers or bosses that is impolite,” explains Newman. “This can take shape by someone being abrupt, lacking in eye contact, or insulting and not treating others with respect or dignity.”

Whether it’s a sarcastic comment, a demanding email, or a snappy response, uncivil behaviour can have a major impact on staff morale and overall productivity.

“It comes down to a reduction in creativity because when workers are less helpful, performances suffer,” says Newman. “There's also an increase in psychological distress, negative emotions, and there's more burnout and emotional exhaustion.”

Finding a cure

Like the common cold, researchers are yet to find a cure for discourtesy – but there are steps we can take to stop the spread.

“Even though we can catch rudeness automatically, it's our choice of how we interpret the event and whether to pass it along,” says Newman. “Lots of workers can catch themselves early and not be a carrier.”

“If you've been treated rudely, take some time before interacting with anyone else,” she suggests. “Maybe go to the bathroom and wash your hands or use a quick break to think things through.”

“If workers react rudely to the next unsuspecting person, it will spread,” she warns. “And when a worker is rude it creates a lasting negative impression. Colleagues will generalize from rude behaviour to all sorts of things. It can have serious repercussions on your career and how others see you, even if you weren't the initial carrier.”

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