Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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Rudeness leads to unrest

Published 13 November 2012 10:17, Updated 11 June 2013 12:06

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Is the workplace getting ruder? Most people seem to think so but it ain’t necessarily so.

It may just be that we look at the past with misty-eyed fondness and forget that emotional intelligence was not something that people worried about in the go-get-em 1980s or in the internet-led transformations of the 1990s.

And it is not particularly a feature of Generation Y. Young people could always be a little rough around the edges.

A senior lecturer in organisational psychology at Macquarie University, Barbara Griffin, studies incivility and says she does not think rudeness in the office is generational. It might be tempting to think that young people don’t know how to stand aside from opening lift doors or know how to address their boss, but these skills have always had to be learned.

“When the general tone of the workplace is good, they are fine. When it is poor [bad behaviour] is quite catching”, she says.

So, people who are new to work will learn from the people around them. If they notice people opening doors for each other, they will learn to do it, too. If they see people walking away to take their mobile phone calls, they will see that as acceptable behaviour.

However, all of that doesn’t mean that rudeness in the workplace isn’t a problem. It is and it “pushes our buttons”.

One offence can escalate into a tit-for-tat war of attrition, making working life unbearable for everyone around them and damaging the objectives of the business.

Griffin says the level of incivility and its frequency will affect job satisfaction, engagement and people’s intentions to leave their jobs.

“Even if an individual isn’t personally being treated badly, in a team, when others are being treated badly, they also suffer,” she says.

However, deciding what is uncivil can be difficult. What is rude to one person may be perfectly acceptable for another.

“People have different norms of behaviour,” she says.

Griffin says women tend to take offence more than men and behaviour that is tolerated from a colleague would be unacceptable from a boss, she says. The best way to deal with the situation is to play it safe.

Corporations are so concerned about employee behaviour that they have employed Griffin’s co-researcher, Deanna Paulin, to advise them and to lead “interventions”.

Griffin advises leaders to start discussions about what behaviour is acceptable at work and outlines the top 10 work offences:

  1. Effing and blinding: Griffin says swearing is the most common complaint when it comes to perceptions of rudeness. “This comes up as one of the most uncivil things,” she says.
  2. Email: Messages that start without any salutation, just using the person’s name instead can often raise hackles. “David, I want you to ...” is not the way you would ask someone to do something face-to-face and, although electronic communication is different, it is more polite to at least say: “Hi David, can I ask you to....”
  3. Acknowledgement: Although you can’t be expected to greet someone every time you see them during the day, a “hello” the first time and a smile or nod after that would be fine. Pretending they don’t exist is not.
  4. Butting in: Interrupting when someone is on a phone call is a frequent complaint. Signal that you’d like their attention when they finish, or slip a note in front of them if you need their urgent attention.
  5. Informality: Emailling in SMS-style language is not acceptable, unless it is among friends. Emoticons are OK if it is with someone you have an informal relationship with. The level of formality you use should vary, depending on your relationship with the recipient. An overly formal communication with someone you know well could also offend.
  6. Ostracising: Leaving someone out of the social network is rude. This includes not inviting them when the group goes out together and also discussing social events when the ostracised person was not invited.
  7. Boorish: It seems incredible that some people didn’t learn to say “please” and “thank you” as children but some must have missed out on that basic building block of human interaction.
  8. Pig sty: Leaving a messy kitchen is rude. Why should others have to clean up the mess?
  9. Undermining: This is dirty corporate politics and includes not telling someone about work, so they look bad and not answering emails.
  10. Prying: Asking too many personal questions when the other person is clearly uncomfortable is poor behaviour.