How does employee rudeness affect the workplace?

Organisational resources and a more nuanced understanding of individuals' backgrounds are needed to mitigate the adverse effects of rudeness in the workplace

Have you ever had a run-in with a rude colleague? You've probably felt the sting of workplace incivility at one point or another, and if so, then you're not alone. In the world of work, encounters with rude behaviour like sarcastic comments or being intentionally ignored by someone go against workplace norms. They can also create an uncomfortable atmosphere, harming employee health and wellbeing. While workplace incivility is viewed as less severe than harassment, repeated incivility can hurt employee wellbeing and job satisfaction, emphasising the need to address and prevent it for a healthy and inclusive work environment.

A new paper co-authored by UNSW Business School’s Professor Karin Sanders, Frances Jorgensen, Professor at the Royal Roads University, Adelle Bish, Associate Professor of Management (HRM), North Carolina A&T State University, and Phong Nguyen, Lecturer at RMIT University Vietnam. Their paper, Kick me while I’m down: Modeling employee differences of the impact of workplace incivility on employees' health and wellbeing, explores how workplace incivility can significantly harm employees and why the impact varies widely.

Read more: How to make better decisions with evidence-based management

Measuring the impact of workplace incivility

In their paper, the authors address the impact of workplace incivility on 'equity-deserving employees' – these are employees who identify as different from 'mainstream' employees in terms of, for instance, their gender, race, immigration status, sexual orientation, disabilities, and/or religious or cultural observances. To do this, they developed a conceptual model highlighting the influence of employees' backgrounds and past experiences on how they interpret and respond to workplace incivility.

According to the authors, traditional HR models often assume employees are essentially the same – but according to this research, they are not. Prior research shows there can be many negative effects of workplace incivility, including reduced job satisfaction, engagement and commitment, stress-related illnesses, and psychological issues. But, according to Professor Sanders and co-authors, the significance of this new model is that it reveals why some employees suffer more negative and enduring consequences of workplace incivility than others. It explains that some people are more susceptible to rudeness, and a lot of it concerns cultural differences.

“In the model, we propose that the cultural collectivism of the country in which an employee is raised will influence their attributions of the experienced workplace incivility,” said Professor Sanders. 

UNSW Business School's Karin Sanders-min.jpg
UNSW Business School's Professor Karin Sanders says workplace incivility, or rudeness, can hurt employee well-being and job satisfaction. Photo: supplied

Professor Jorgensen also explained: “More specifically, drawing on attribution theory, we propose that the impact of experienced workplace incivility is influenced by how employees make attributions about or try to understand why they were the target of the uncivil event."

For instance, Dr Nguyen said some people may make internal attributions and blame themselves for the workplace incivility while others make external attributions and blame the instigator of the incivility. "We suggest that people who make internal attributions suffer more negative and enduring consequences of workplace incivility than others,” he said.

Associate Professor Bish also noted that if their coping mechanisms have been strained as a result of dealing with abuse, trauma, and/or discrimination during their lifetime, or repeated incivility at work, then they would be more likely to experience stronger and more enduring negative consequences of incivility (even though it is, by definition, not a severe form of workplace mistreatment).

Read more: Where organisations go wrong in managing psychosocial hazards

Cultural collectivism and addressing incivility

According to the authors, cultural collectivism – a mindset prioritising group goals, shared values, and interdependence over individual interests within a community or society – also influences the prevalence of workplace incivility.

“Employees from a country with individualist cultural values are more likely to blame themselves instead of the instigator of the workplace incivility, as is shown in previous research. Self-blaming may intensify the negative consequences of experienced workplace incivility,” explained Professor Jorgensen.

So how can organisational resources mitigate the negative effects of workplace incivility? “Organisations should seek to increase employees’ capacity to cope with experienced workplace incivility through, for instance, stress management and resilience initiatives and to help employees establish stronger social networks. Further, efforts (coaching) can help employees place blame where it is deserved – on the perpetrator,” she said.

Associate Professor Bish also emphasised that it is important to pay attention to organisational culture and set clear expectations about respect and civility in the workplace. "Employees should be aware of these expectations and how to raise concerns about any form of mistreatment in the workplace,” she said.

Professor Frances Jorgensen, Royal Roads University.jpg
Professor Frances Jorgensen, Royal Roads University, says cultural values can explain why some employees experience a more severe impact of workplace incivility than others. Photo: Supplied

Practical implications and future research

Importantly, the findings of the paper caution against generalisations and stress the prevalence of negative past experiences among equity-deserving employees. The paper calls for HR scholars and practitioners to recognise these differences, suggesting that existing HRM frameworks may only suffice for greater employee well-being with special consideration for these individuals.

“Our research challenges the assumption inherent to prevailing HRM models that employees are essentially alike in how they will respond to workplace events, such as incivility, and emphasises that an employee’s prior experiences will influence the impact of workplace incivility on their health and wellbeing,” said Professor Jorgensen.

Subscribe to BusinessThink for the latest research, analysis and insights from UNSW Business School

The authors also recommended employers should be aware that employees' past experiences may influence how they respond to workplace incivility and that initiatives should be designed to strengthen those employees’ individual resources.

According to Professor Sanders, the next step of the research is to conduct empirical studies to test the propositions we present in this paper. “As we highlighted in our paper, a large cross-cultural study would be necessary to test our propositions about the linkage between workplace incivility and employees’ health and wellbeing,” she said.

Karin Sanders is Senior Deputy Dean (Research & Enterprise) and Professor in the School of Management and Governance at UNSW Business School. For more information please contact Professor Sanders directly.


You are free to republish this article both online and in print. We ask that you follow some simple guidelines.

Please do not edit the piece, ensure that you attribute the author, their institute, and mention that the article was originally published on Business Think.

By copying the HTML below, you will be adhering to all our guidelines.

Press Ctrl-C to copy