98 percent of workers experience rudeness at work, but it’s no epidemic: ‘Less like flu, more like cholera’

ORLANDO, Fla. — Tensions can run high at any job, and there’s no rule saying you have to particularly like all of your co-workers. Consequently, rude moments and comments happen from time to time in business settings, but is rude behavior on the job truly an “epidemic” in America? Researchers in Florida say previous reports which claim rude behavior is running rampant through workplaces are looking at these incidents all wrong.

A number of research projects conducted over the past 20 years find roughly 98 percent of all employees experience rudeness while on-the job. Now, however, a new study by a team at the University of Central Florida reports those earlier findings are overstating the problem.

Researchers note the vast majority of workplace relationships are not rude ones. While isolated incidents of rudeness are relatively common, study authors conclude there is little to no evidence supporting the notion of widespread incivility among co-workers.

“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,” says study co-author Shannon Taylor, an associate professor of management, in a university release. “It is still harmful, but far less common, and outbreaks are often traced to a single source – much like a contaminated water pump.”

Researchers conducted their study prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, the research team is confident their findings are applicable to the world of remote work as well. After all, video chats provide no shortage of opportunities for miscommunication and misinterpretation.

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

A few bad apples don’t make an entire office toxic

More specifically, study authors focused on employees working in three fields: restaurant, manufacturing, and office workers. Their investigation found evidence suggesting most workers experience the occasional rude moment, but those incidents always originate from a small number of co-workers. While about 70 percent of these workers have experienced rudeness, the study characterizes only 16 percent of workplace relationships as rude or toxic. In other words, a few bad apples appear to be spreading enough rudeness for the entire office.

Of course, when it comes to the general atmosphere of any workplace or office, every single employee’s personality and demeanor plays a role. Researchers say they discovered across all employee groups that unique relationships between colleagues have just as much of an influence on rude behavior.

“Even if one employee is a jerk to everyone and their co-worker is the office punching bag, there is still something about their unique relationship that explains how well they get along together,” Prof. Taylor explains. “Most people do experience rude behavior, but most of their relationships are not characterized by rudeness.”

Workplace policies can help prevent rudeness

It’s important to note that both behavioral expectations set by management and overall office culture contribute mightily to employee interactions as well. Interestingly, though, study authors say that an employee’s perceptions and expectations regarding how their colleagues should treat one another have a bigger 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,” comments study co-author and UCF doctoral student Lauren Locklear. “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.”

“Our prior work shows gratitude and appreciation are important aspects to fostering positive employee relationships and decreasing negative workplace behavior,” she concludes. “Expressing these positive behaviors will be essential in determining how smoothly we return to in-person work environments.”

The study appears in the Journal of Applied Psychology.