If you’ve ever been the target of a boss’s demeaning tirade or a coworker’s offensive behavior, you know how lousy it feels. In a poll of 800 managers and employees in 17 industries, those who had been on the receiving end of workplace rudeness said it had serious consequences:
According to the researchers behind the poll—professors Christine Porath, PhD, of Georgetown University and Christine Pearson, PhD, of the Thunderbird School of Global Management—it’s a growing problem. In their research, half of workers now say they’re treated rudely at work at least once a week—double the number who said that back in 1998.
Lately, more researchers have been paying attention to the decline of civility at work. What they’ve found is a rude awakening for employees and the companies they work for.
Being the target of rudeness at work can stir up powerful emotions. Another study by Porath and Pearson found that, not surprisingly, anger was the most common emotional response. About half of employees said they felt sadness or fear as well.
Anger often led employees to retaliate aggressively; for example, with their own belittling comments or obscene finger salutes. If the rude person was higher up the corporate ladder, employees frequently took out their anger on someone else or the company itself. Sadness often led to absenteeism. Fear often led to indirect retaliation; for example, by spreading nasty rumors or withholding vital information. Employees who felt afraid were also the most likely to quit their jobs.
Being treated rudely or witnessing rudeness increases the risk of making a mistake at work. In certain situations—say, in an operating room—that’s something you especially want to avoid. Yet, in a survey of British surgical staff, more than half said they had borne the brunt of aggressive behavior by nurses or surgeons over the past six months.
In one study, simply working in a hospital where bullying occurred made nurses want to quit, even when someone else was the bully’s target. In another study, seeing a supposed bank manager publicly chastise an employee made people less likely to patronize the bank in the future.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to leave all that stress at the office. Baylor University professor Dawn Carlson, PhD, and her colleagues found that the spillover to home created tension in relationships there. For employees with abusive bosses, satisfaction with family life was diminished. For their partners, the family unit didn’t function as well. It grew harder for family members to come together to share feelings, make decisions, and confide in one another.
A supervisor’s rude comment at 10 a.m. may still be echoing through your head at 10 p.m. Maybe that’s why experiencing or witnessing bad behavior at work increases the chance of taking prescription sleeping pills, tranquilizers, and antidepressants.
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