The Cost of Rudeness and Incivility at Work - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #119

The Cost of Rudeness and Incivility at Work

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Rudeness at work is on the rise, according to the latest research from two academics who have studied the phenomenon of incivility in the workplace for many years. The consequence of such rudeness is not just an unpleasant environment for employees. As the research by Christine Pearson, professor of global leadership at Thunderbird School of Global Management and Christine Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, shows, there is a significant, tangible cost to the company resulting from this behaviour. 


"One-half of all employees reported being on the receiving end of rudeness at least once a week — compared to only one-quarter 1998."

Christine Pearson of Thunderbird and Christine Porath of Georgetown have been researching rudeness and incivility in the workplace for many years, and in 2009 published a book about their research called The Cost of Bad Behaviour. In more recent surveys, as well as through recent experiments conducted with other colleagues, Pearson and Porath demonstrate that incivility, which can range from bullying and verbal abuse to consistent lack of respect (a boss answering emails during staff meetings, for example) is only getting worse. For example, one-half of all employees surveyed by the authors in 2011 reported being on the receiving end of rudeness at least once a week — compared to only one-quarter of employees surveyed in 1998.

Employee morale is the first casualty of such rudeness, and the impact does not end with unhappy employees. As Pearson and Porath report in a January 2013 Harvard Business Review article, 48 percent of the 800 managers and employees they surveyed intentionally decreased their work effort in response to rudeness; 47 percent of them intentionally decreased the time that they spent at work; and 38 per cent intentionally decreased the quality of their work. Another startling figure resulting from the research: 25 per cent of the survey participants who endured rudeness said they take out their frustrations on customers.

48% – decreased work effort
47% – decreased time spent at work
38% – decreased quality of work
25% – took out frustrations on customers

Pearson and Porath conducted research that empirically supported and validated the results of their extensive surveys. In one experiment, conducted with University of Florida Hough Graduate School of Business professor Amir Erez, Pearson and Porath found that subjects treated rudely were 30 per cent less creative that those who had not been treated rudely. In another experiment, conducted with USC Marshall School of Business professors Debbie MacInnis and Valerie Folkes, 20 per cent of subjects who believed they had witnessed a bank representative berating another said they would use the bank’s services in the future — while 80 per cent who had not witnessed the confrontation were willing to consider using the bank’s services.

The research by Pearson and Porath is conclusive: From reduced employee productivity, engagement and creativity to unhappy and even lost customers to the expense of managing incidents in time and attention, the bottom line costs of rudeness in the workplace are real and significant.


Business leaders must be proactive in eliminating any sign of rudeness — manager to employee, employee to employee, or employee to customer — in their companies. Here are some of the steps to take as suggested by Pearson and Porath:

  • Model good behaviour. Employees often emulate the attitude and mindset of their superiors. If a leader berates a manager, chances are the manager will berate his or her employees. Rudeness begins at the top — and so does the elimination of rudeness.
  • Ask for feedback. Some managers may not realize that answering emails during staff meetings is rude and demeaning to their employees. Do not assume that you know when you are being rude.
  • Hire for civility. In addition to managing yourself, there are also steps you can take to manage the organization in a way that promotes civility. As often with organizational behavioural and cultural change, effective hiring plays a key role. It may be difficult to discern a potentially rude employee or manager in a job interview, of course, but not impossible: Pearson and Porath found that if employees are allowed to observe or participate in the interview process, they can often discern potential problems in a candidate that a manager might overlook.
  • Teach civility.  One-quarter of the offenders surveyed told Pearson and Porath that they did not realize their behaviour was uncivil. Companies cannot assume that their employees or managers understand what behaviour is acceptable.  Coaching, role-playing, and even filming various interactions in the workplace can guide your employees and managers on how to adjust their behaviour.
  • Reward good behaviour and penalize bad behaviour. Performance reviews are often focused exclusively — or almost exclusively — on quantitative results, and ignore issues of attitude or behaviour. Teamwork, for example, should be on the agenda of annual reviews. Companies must also take active steps to penalize bad behaviour; otherwise, the offenders will have no incentive to stop, and other employees will have no incentive to report them.



The Price of Incivility. Harvard Business Review. Porath, C. & Pearson, C. January-February 2013.

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Idea conceived

January 1, 2013

Idea posted

Apr 2013
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