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Rudeness at work is a big deal and should be on the HR agenda

hr agenda


Definitions of workplace bullying and harassment lack something that I hear about over and over again, as a mediator – which is plain rudeness.

Rudeness, lacking in civility, being boorish, is not usually bullying. And one problem with grievance and disciplinary policies is that they tend to invite someone to label behaviour as bullying or harassment: which escalates both their sense of victimhood, and the other person’s defensiveness.

I believe incivility should be on HR’s agenda, because, as psychologists Christine Porath andAmir Erez (whose reports I have looked at here) put it:

rudeness had a number of detrimental effects on targets, organisations, and even witnesses [with people] losing time and focus after encountering incivility, intentionally avoiding the perpetrator, spending less time on work and more time slacking off, and thinking about exiting the organisation.”

Rudeness matters

And it should matter particularly to HR in the NHS, where pressure – literally of the life-and-death type – means people are making decisions fast, and where status is overt and powerful.

Studies suggest disagreements and incivility among clinical staff are common. In “Disagreement and aggression in the operating theatre” (Advanced Nursing 2007), Coe and Gould surveyed almost 400 operating theatre staff on their experience of aggression and rudeness. Over half said they had been on the receiving end of aggression from nurses and from surgeons in the previous six months; and around two-thirds had seen disagreements between surgeons and theatre nurses or theatre nurses and ward nurses.

The impact of status

We’re each of us sensitive to our workplace status, and we feel attacks on our place in the pecking order very keenly.   But at work, the pecking order is constantly under attack as people engage in jockeying for power and prestige. There’s a lot of research that concludes that high-status people – such as surgeons and professors – are permitted a wide range of ‘appropriate’ behaviours up to and including rudeness which would not be ‘tolerated’ in lower status employees.

And rather than retaliate, lower status employees are expected to appear professional and pay deference to higher status employees, so they suck it up and don’t resist or complain.

Is this a question of respect at work, or does it have an impact on the bottom line?

Civility and respect at work are not just ‘nice to have’, because the lack of them in the workplace has a real and serious effect on people’s performance.

Someone speaking to us rudely triggers us into a state of ‘emotional arousal’ where our attention shifts from what we are thinking and doing, to our feelings; brains are wired to pay attention to feelings of threat or risk. And we don’t have to be on the receiving end of rudeness for this to have an effect, because just witnessing rudeness being dished out to other people has the same results. So in areas such as operatingtheatres, where people are in close proximity, just seeing people being rude to each other might well impair team members’ thinking skills – with potentially disastrous results.

What should you do?

  1. Make sure civility is there, clearly, in your values statement, and covered in your grievance policies.
  2. Don’t just cover off ‘behaviours to avoid’, make sure you include how to respond, and the support you will offer people in making an assertive response. Make your expected behaviours explicit and give examples of what these mean in practice for specific job roles.
  3. Train people to understand why they may be responding to rudeness the way they are – how status (including social status such as gender, ethnicity, attractiveness) all impact on how we respond when someone is rude to us. And give them to the skills to make different choices.
  4. Train high status employees to understand how their role and prestige can affect how they behave to others, and how others respond in turn. When I mediate between high and low status people, it’s often a shock to the high-status party to hear how their behaviour comes across and affects others. They may not be aware that how they treat others is having such a negative effect on their colleagues and how it reflects on them.
  5. Review how your organisation endorses people’s status, and make sure you aren’t giving permission to high status people to behave rudely.
  6. One NHS Trust has a monthly staff meeting where everyone – including the CEO – attends wearing tee-shirts; and where only staff (rather than management or consultants) can put things on the agenda. This kind of levelling off of status signals powerfully enables people to have conversations between equals, and supports lower status people in raising issues with higher status people, without fear of retribution.

Further reading – (and packed with real insights)

Porath C., Erez A



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