Rudeness at work – it’s catching

Jeff Salter

I was having a drink with a friend recently in a busy pub in London’s Docklands. The bar was full and I’d been waiting for about 10 minutes at the packed bar whilst the overworked staff were barely able to keep pace with the crowds streaming in from the nearby exhibition centre. My experience in these circumstances, especially in the UK, is that when the ‘who’s next’ call comes, civility generally breaks out. People abide by the ‘first come, first served’ underlying understanding behind pub life. So it’s my turn. The guy next to me (whose turn it plainly wasn’t) had pushed his way alongside me, and barked his order. Conjuring as much smiley-face as I could, I mentioned that I had arrived sometime before him; his response was ‘OK, if you want to be a prick about it’. I ignored him and got my drinks.

But for what might seem a minor incident, the impact was huge. My heart was hammering. My head was spinning:  I could have left my drinks and the change at the bar for all I knew. I told the story immediately to my friend. Trying to dismiss it, I couldn’t think about anything else. I felt angry. I wanted revenge. I imagined replaying the incident, knocking all the glasses across the bar, emerging victorious from a fist-fight, my masculinity and lack of prick-ness firmly re-established. If you know what I mean.

What?? The guy called me a name. I haven’t had a fight since 1971. What was going on?


The feelings and emotions stirred up responses that seemed alien to me.  It felt like the incivility I had suffered was catching. I wondered if my dis-ease could become a disease, infecting those I then come into contact with. It’s a short jump to consider how incivility might take hold at work.

Danny Wallace speaks of the toxic effect of rudeness in the workplace: ‘it can spread like wildfire around an office, leading to general hostility, poorer performance and worse coffee’. He’s not kidding. Increased hostility and conflict at work can impede us in even the simplest of tasks.  Not only does it impede us, there is evidence to suggest that incivility is partly learned behaviour. Porath and Erez suggest that managers who perceive unfair treatment from their manager ‘tend to replicate it, handing the very same treatment down to their employees in turn’. So rudeness is infectious and weakens us.

Rudeness on the rise

It also turns out that many of us are suffering a crisis of incivility at work. Fritz defines this ‘social undermining, interpersonal harassment, and bullying’ and she identifies several reasons for this including:

  • A climate of informality.
  • Technological advancement that removes face-to-face interaction.
  • Increased demands for productivity.
  • Increased stress and frayed tempers.
  • Ever-changing societal norms.

Despite the apparent freedom and flexibility it offers, the increasing blurring of personal and professional life (the coffee-shop entrepreneur, dress-down Friday etc) can disrupt long-held standards of what professional behaviour should look like. All of us will also be aware of the potential effects of de-personalisation at public events, in the rush-hour and online.

Porath and Pearson assert that ‘rudeness at work is rampant and it’s on the rise’. Remarkably, having researched how thousands of workers feel about how they have been treated on the job over 14 years, 98% have reported experiencing uncivil behaviour. Over that period, from 1998 to 2011, half reported that they had been treated rudely at least once a week. The effects of this are stark: retaliation, less creativity, decreased effort, lowered work quality, damaged customer/client relationships. So the bottom line is that the organisation suffers and it is not just major arguments and conflicts that produce this effect; it is everyday micro-transgressions that subliminally get translated into a sense of organisational culture and of the respect with which people are treated.

Consider your own workplace. Are people sending emails and messages during presentations? Is there a lot of on-the-boundary ‘teasing’ by line managers of their direct reports? Are there a ‘favoured few’ or ‘the outcasts’? Brené Brown speaks of common enemy intimacy – ‘is there anything better than plopping down next to someone and getting really gossipy and judgemental?’ The cumulative effect of these subtle markers of everyday work life can become ‘even more insidious than overt bullying because they are less obvious and easier to overlook – yet they add up, eroding engagement and morale’ (Porath and Pearson).

Civility – it’s catching

What are we to do? And if rudeness is catching, can civility be equally so? My experience is that showing up (on time), paying attention, turning off your phone in meetings, doing what you say you’ll do, apologising when you’ve messed up, being appreciative of others, sharing glory, owning failure and smiling are good places to start. I say this because the temptation is to do the opposite. And I have.

As leaders, we also might get a little more reflective.

Do we know what our employees think of our personal style? Dare we ask them?

What qualities do we most value in others when recruiting? Do we consider what the new recruit’s influence or behaviour will be on our organisation’s culture?

How do we demonstrate that civility matters? Do we switch off our phone in meetings, do we apologise for our mess?

‘Prickgate’ demonstrated to me the surprising power and infectious nature of micro-incivilities.  But we can choose to be civil in order to reduce the gaps that grow between people. Here is a story about the power of civility as told by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. It concerns a law professor at Yale, Stephen L Carter, who has written extensively on what it takes to make a civil society. He describes a moment that changed his life. As a young child aged 8, his black family moved to an all white neighbourhood in Washington DC as his father was a lawyer for the government. They were the first black family living in this all-white neighbourhood in ‘60’s America.

Where they had lived previously, they had been used to sitting on the steps of the house where everyone passed by and exchanged greetings. It was the social meeting place, but now he and his family sat on the steps of their house in this new area, and everyone passed by without giving them a look, without saying a word to them. He writes how he sat on the steps and cried, ‘we will never be accepted here, we should never have come here; and then a white woman walked by and she gave us all a big smile, and said welcome. And then she disappeared into her house and came out five minutes later, with a big tray of cakes and sandwiches; she came over to us, and gave them to us. This woman, who needn’t have done so, took the trouble to welcome a stranger and a black stranger at that, and that changed my life’.

The woman was an elderly Jewish writer, Sarah Kestenbaum, and the reason she did this was in accordance with the Jewish concept of ‘chesed’, the importance of civility, even when it can be disadvantageous and possibly dangerous to commit to it. One such act changed a young child’s life, setting him onto the path that would eventually lead to becoming a Yale law professor with a belief in the importance of civility.

What are we teaching those whose paths we cross at work?



Brown, B. (2017). Braving the Wilderness. London: Vermilion

Fritz, J. (2013). Professional Civility: Communicative Virtue at Work. New York: Peter Young Publishing

Porath, C., and Erez, A. (2009). Overlooked but not untouched: How rudeness reduces onlookers’ performance on routine and creative tasks. Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes: Volume 109, Issue 1, May 2009, Pages 29-4.

 Porath, C., and Pearson C. (2013). The Price of Incivility. Massachusetts: Harvard Business Review

Sacks, J. (2014). The Kindness of Strangers. Accessed 30/11/17 from

Wallace, D. (2017). I Can’t Believe You Just Said That! London: Ebury Press

Photo by CloudVisual on Unsplash