by Tammy Binford
Children are taught from the time they can speak to be nice: Say “please” and “thank you,” treat others with respect, empathize with others. But how much of that early training is evident in the workplace? There the ambitious and battle-scarred are likely to remember another lesson they’ve learned along the way: Nice guys finish last.
New research reported in the January-February issue of Harvard Business Review suggests that incivility at work is taking a high toll and is getting worse. Study authors Christine Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, and Christine Pearson, a professor at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona, write that rudeness in the workplace is “rampant, and it’s on the rise.”
Porath and Pearson explain that they’ve polled workers over the past 14 years, and a whopping 98 percent reported experiencing rudeness. “In 2011 half said they were treated rudely at least once a week – up from a quarter in 1998,” they write.
The researchers detail how rudeness can derail profits because employees don’t perform well when they feel disrespected and customers are turned off when they see rudeness. “Our research shows that people are less likely to buy from a company with an employee they perceive as rude, whether the rudeness is directed at them or at other employees,” Porath and Pearson write. “Witnessing just a single unpleasant interaction leads customers to generalize about other employees, the organization, and even the brand.”
Porath and Pearson write that they’ve interviewed more than 14,000 people including employees, managers, HR executives, presidents, and CEOs in the United States and Canada to learn about incivility at work, and they say, “We know two things for certain: Incivility is expensive, and few organizations recognize or take action to curtail it.”
Other researchers also have looked into the broad topic. Paul Harvey, associate professor of organizational behavior at the University of New Hampshire, has studied the effects of “vicarious abusive supervision,” defined as the observation or awareness of a supervisor abusing a coworker. Examples of such abuse include employees hearing rumors of abusive behavior or actually witnessing abuse.
“When vicarious abusive supervision is present, employees realize that the organization is allowing this negative treatment to exist, even if they are not experiencing it directly,” according to Harvey and his research colleagues. They presented their research in a recent Journal of Social Psychology.
The researchers found that both vicarious abuse and firsthand abuse have similar negative effects, including greater job frustration, a tendency to abuse coworkers, and a lack of perceived organizational support.
“Our research suggests that vicarious abusive supervision is as likely as abusive supervision to negatively affect desired outcomes, with the worst outcomes resulting when both vicarious abusive supervision and abusive supervision are present,” the researchers said. “Top management needs further education regarding the potential impacts of vicarious abuse supervision on employees to prevent and/or mitigate the effects of such abuse.”
The research is compelling that incivility is counterproductive, but that doesn’t give HR simple answers about what to do. Michael P. Maslanka, with Constangy, Brooks & Smith, LLP in Dallas, says employers aren’t powerless.
Employers wanting to force employees to get along face “an impossible goal,” Maslanka says, “but the goal is to stop incivility and rudeness because, if the employer does not, the conduct often morphs into an unlawful hostile environment,” Maslanka says. “To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, HR management, like art, must draw a line somewhere.”
Policies against harassment are important but don’t offer magic solutions. “Sure, have a policy against harassment, but do not just have the policy, explain why you have it,” Maslanka says, with language such as, “We prohibit harassment because it stops your colleagues from realizing their full potential. That’s not good for your coworker or the company. Remember, the better the company does, the better we all do.”
Suggestions for HR
Porath and Pearson point out in their Harvard Business Review article that strategies exist to combat the problem. Here are some of their suggestions:
- Managers should model good behavior. The researchers say that in one of their surveys, 25 percent of managers who admitted to rude behavior said they acted badly because their leaders were rude. “If employees see that those who have climbed the corporate ladder tolerate or embrace uncivil behavior, they’re likely to follow suit,” Porath and Pearson say. One way managers can foster respect in the workplace is by expressing appreciation. “Personal notes are particularly effective, especially if they emphasize being a role model, treating people well, and living the organization’s values,” they write.
- Look for civility when hiring. Porath and Pearson say it’s wise for employers to avoid bringing in rude people in the first place. “Only 11 percent of organizations report considering civility at all during the hiring process, and many of those investigate it in a cursory fashion,” they write. “But incivility usually leaves a trail of some sort, which can be uncovered if someone’s willing to look.”
- Teach civility. Porath and Pearson point out that many managers and employees don’t recognize their own uncivil behavior. They suggest role-playing and videoing interactions so that people can observe their expressions, posture, words, and tone of voice.
- Reward good behavior and penalize rudeness. Porath and Pearson write of online retailer Zappos, which started a recognition program to reward people caught “in the act of doing the right thing.” The researchers also urge identifying and correcting bad behavior, which often goes unreported because employees don’t believe anything will be done about
Tammy Binford writes and edits news alerts and newsletter articles on labor and employment law topics for BLR web and print publications. In addition, she writes for HR Hero Line and Diversity Insight, two of the ezines and blogs found on HRHero.com.