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Rudeness: How Workplace Incivility Spirals Out of Control

Without a zero-tolerance policy, rude behavior often becomes normalized.

Key points

  • Two decades of research into workplace dynamics suggests that 98% of employees have experienced rude behavior at work.
  • Workplace incivility is like a contagion. If one employee’s rude behavior is tolerated and allowed to fester, it can infect the whole group.
  • New research suggests that a zero-tolerance policy against workplace incivility nips it in the bud and prevents "normalized" rudeness.
Source: ivector/Shutterstock

"In everything, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Treat others with the warmth and kindness you would like them to show toward you. Do not do to others what you would not want done to you." —The Golden Rule, universal ethical precept

When incivility becomes the cultural norm in a workplace environment, a new study suggests that it can spread like wildfire. On the flip side, if managers make it crystal clear to team members that there's zero tolerance for rudeness, workplace incivility doesn't become normalized and is less likely to proliferate. These findings (Taylor et al., 2021) were published on June 10 in The Journal of Applied Psychology.

"Tit for Tat" Rudeness Has a Spiraling Effect

Over two decades ago, Lynne Andersson and Christine Pearson introduced the concept of workplace incivility (Anderrson & Pearson, 1999). This duo investigated "how incivility can potentially spiral into increasingly intense aggressive behaviors." In their seminal paper, "Tit for Tat? The Spiraling Effect of Incivility in the Workplace," the authors offer the following definition of workplace incivility:

"Workplace incivility is low-intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm the target, in violation of workplace norms for mutual respect. Uncivil behaviors are characteristically rude and discourteous, displaying a lack of regard for others."

In their paper, Andersson and Pearson recommend that if an organization wishes to curtail workplace incivility, those in leadership positions "must address acts of interpersonal rudeness swiftly and justly. To do otherwise corrodes expectations and norms for the organization at large."

They also sound an egalitarian warning bell: "Those who instigate uncivil behavior must be held accountable, regardless of their hierarchical prestige or special talents."

One Bad Apple Spoils the Bunch: Workplace Incivility Is Like a Contaminated Water Pump

The latest (2021) study by Shannon Taylor, along with colleagues at the University of Central Florida and the University of Illinois at Chicago's Department of Managerial Studies, expands on research into "tit for tat" reciprocity. They focused on how workplace incivility differs between individual employees in dyadic relationships across a broad range of industries, organizations, and job sectors in the U.S. and China.

"Because prior research suggests workplace mistreatment is harmful and widespread, it is often called an epidemic, but our findings show that rude behavior is less like the flu and more like cholera. It is still harmful, but far less common, and outbreaks are often traced to a single source—much like a contaminated water pump," lead author Taylor, associate professor of management at UCF, said in a June 24 news release.

Taylor et al. found that behavioral expectations and a workplace's cultural norms play a vital role in influencing how employees treat one another. In the press release, they explain that "an employee's perceptions about how their colleagues should treat each other have a stronger impact on rude behavior than an employee's perceptions about how their colleagues actually treat each other."

"Employees' beliefs about what is 'right and wrong' at work have a big impact on what happens on the job," co-author Lauren Locklear added. "Employers should ensure there are strong norms for respect and civility in the workplace. Having a zero-tolerance policy for these rude behaviors is key to stopping mistreatment in its tracks."

A Post-COVID Remedy for Workplace Incivility: Prohibit Rude Behavior, Cultivate Gratitude, and Live by the Golden Rule

Accumulating evidence suggests that managers can foster more respectful behaviors and mitigate workplace incivility and on-the-job mistreatment by encouraging employees to cultivate gratitude, which can start simply by having co-workers say "thanks" to one another and "doing unto others as you would have them do unto you."

"As employees return to work on-site, our study suggests developing and maintaining good relationships with co-workers is important now more than ever," Taylor notes.

"Our prior work (Locklear, Taylor, & Ambrose, 2020) shows gratitude and appreciation are important aspects to fostering positive employee relationships and decreasing negative workplace behavior," Locklear concludes. "Expressing these positive behaviors will be essential in determining how smoothly we return to in-person work environments."

LinkedIn image: stockfour/Shutterstock


Shannon G. Taylor, Lauren R. Locklear, Donald H. Kluemper, Xinxin Lu. "Beyond Targets and Instigators: Examining Workplace Incivility in Dyads and the Moderating Role of Perceived Incivility Norms." Journal of Applied Psychology (First published: June 10, 2021) DOI: 10.1037/apl0000910

Lauren R. Locklear, Shannon G. Taylor, Maureen L. Ambrose. "How a Gratitude Intervention Influences Workplace Mistreatment: A Multiple Mediation Model." Journal of Applied Psychology (First published online: September 17, 2020) DOI: 10.1037/apl0000825

Lynne M. Andersson and Christine M. Pearson. "Tit for Tat? The Spiraling Effect of Incivility in the Workplace." The Academy of Management Review (First published: July 1999) DOI: 10.2307/259136

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