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Rude and Disrespectful Employees - 26 September 2016

Often a challenge of managing people stems not from the major things they do (or don’t do) but from their trivial everyday actions that, over time, build up to a pretty big deal. One such example is rudeness and disrespect. Usually it's a level of discourteousness that’s difficult to detect. But the more it happens, the more it becomes apparent that the disregard for others has a harmful effect even when it’s only subtle.

The academic term for it is workplace incivility. It includes behaviour such as sending nasty emails, spreading rumours, being untidy and taking credit for others’ work. Prior research has shown it’s increasing in prominence with most people admitting they’ve been either a perpetrator or a victim of it and, when it’s left unaddressed, it frequently leads to a climate of bullying, harassment, undermining, and even abuse.

And now a new study published in the esteemed Work & Stress journal has revealed, for the first time, the causes of this behaviour. The researchers surveyed more than 500 employees. They discovered five culprits.

Recent incivility: The number one greatest predictor of rudeness and disrespect is whether employees have recently been confronted by those same behaviours. It’s otherwise known as emotional contagion. How people think and feel in the workplace is infectious, which is why it’s important that you don’t turn a blind eye to inappropriate behaviour.

Organisational change: The next major instigator of incivility is change. Many employees are burnt out by it. It’s not unusual for them to retaliate by taking out their cynicism on their colleagues. It’s therefore a good idea to implement change in consideration of how your employees’ resistance can be overcome, as per this newsletter from last year.

Job insecurity: When employees feel their job isn’t safe, a similar reaction occurs. They become vulnerable. That vulnerability can lead them to impulsively act in a detrimental manner. It’s worthwhile, then, to become familiar with the ways in which you can mitigate some of these perceived threats of insecurity, as per this article from a few months ago.

Job demands: For some people, the existence of a demanding work environment is stimulating and motivating. For others, it’s too much to handle, thereby pushing them into acts of discourtesy and disregard. For those in your team who struggle with pressure, consider giving them coaching on time management and coping skills or perhaps reallocate some of their challenging work to others who’ll actually relish it.

Low social support: Social support reflects the extent to which employees feel they can rely on each other. When it’s low, incivility ensues. You can’t foster social support by playing juvenile team-building games. But you can nurture it by making it safe for people to ask for help, by creating forums at which employees can share challenges and successes, and by encouraging collaboration instead of competition as per these suggestions.

Here’s a final point worth heeding from the researchers: “The incivility process often starts from the top of the organisation when high-status employees enact uncivil behaviours towards lower status employees.” In other words, rude and disrespectful staff may indeed just be mirroring our own actions.


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