The behavior making work even more stressful

Feel as if you’ve been snubbed or dissed by a boss or co-worker lately? It’s probably not your imagination.

Workplace rudeness is rampant -- and on the rise, according to Christine Porath, an associate professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

Over the past 18 years, Porath has polled tens of thousands of workers around the globe about how they’re treated at work. Nearly half of those she surveyed in 1998 reported that they were treated rudely at least once a month. In 2011, more than half (55 percent) fell into that camp. In 2016, some 62 percent said they had been treated rudely at least monthly (chart below).

Why has boorish behavior on the job become an epidemic? Rising employee stress levels is one factor. Workers with frayed nerves, said Porath, are not only more likely to treat others badly (consciously or unconsciously), but they also tend to be more sensitive to perceived slights.

“The number one reason people admit to being uncivil is because they’re stressed out or overloaded. They feel they don’t have time to be nice,” explained Porath, who developed an online self-assessment tool for anyone interested in finding out how they measure up in terms of workplace civility.

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McKinsey & Co.

Technology is also contributing to rise in rudeness. Email, for instance, is a great tool when it comes to efficiency, but using it to communicate about important issues can backfire. It’s often better to pick up the phone or meet in person (or via video call) to hash out potentially sensitive matters, noted Porath.

“In an email, you don’t get the tone and nonverbal signals. If you’re stressed out, you may overact to an email or misread intentions,” said Porath, author of the newly released book “Mastering Civility.”

Staying glued to your phone during a meeting (even if you happen to be using it to brush up on workplace civility by reading this story) can also be perceived by co-workers as rude, she added.

“One common complaint,” she said, “is that someone isn’t listening or paying attention. They’re on their smartphone during a meeting. There’s no bad intention there. The person is just trying to do two things at once.”

Cultural and generational differences may also be fueling the reported surge in incivility. For example, emails devoid of pleasantries -- such as the proverbial “got it” or “done” -- may be seen as efficient in some circles, and uncouth in others, explained Porath.

When asking for something from a boss or colleagues, your tone can also make a big difference in how you’re perceived by those on the receiving end of your request, she added. “You can be very direct, and often that can be taken as abrupt or bossy. The way you ask for something can be seen as rude,” she said.

While many companies are eager to attract and retain young workers, some may be paying a price in terms of workplace civility. A longitudinal study by Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, found that young adults are more self-centered than previous generations -- perhaps because many were lavished with parental praise as children. The study reported that the average college student in 2006 was 30 percent more narcissistic than the average student in 1982.

On a positive note, Porath said companies can take practical steps to combat the rise in rudeness. They can try to screen out “toxic people” -- such as insensitive managers prone to publicly belittling their subordinates -- by asking certain behavioral questions of job candidates and checking references thoroughly.

“People tend to kiss up and kick down,” which is why it’s important to ask job candidates what their former subordinates would say about them (positive and negative), said Porath.

Employers can also provide workers with training on proper techniques for giving and receiving feedback, working across cultural differences and dealing with “difficult people,” she said. Coaching on negotiation, stress management and “crucial conversations” may also go a long way toward improving on-the-job civility, she said.

Small measures can make a big difference too, noted Porath, recalling one hospital that implemented an effective and seemingly simple “10-5 rule.” Under the guideline, an employee who came within 10 feet of a co-worker had to acknowledge the other person -- with a smile, for instance. Those who came within five feet had to say “hello.”

“People are sensitive to not being acknowledged,” she said. “If a boss walks by, how hard is it for them to smile or say ‘hello?’”

If all of this sounds a tad exhausting, consider that some very real costs are associated with tolerating rudeness -- or worse, dishing it out -- on the job. 

Workplace incivility, said Porath, can lead to lower levels of employee productivity, high rates of turnover, lost business opportunities or even bad outcomes for patients in a health care setting. For instance, a health care worker who’s upset by a perceived slight by a co-worker or manager may overlook critical information on a patient’s chart, noted Porath.

“There is a tremendous cost to organizations when people don’t feel valued or respected,” she said, adding that incivility tends to be most severe in settings that have large status differences between workers or constituents, such as in hospitals or medical schools. 

“The number one thing people want from their bosses is respect,” she said. “That’s even more important to employees than learning and development opportunities, useful feedback or having an inspiring vision.”