“I Can’t Come to Work Today, I’ve got a Case of the Rudeness”


Rudeness – experiencing or even witnessing it – in the workplace can trigger a part of the brain that can make you rude, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. The findings provide evidence that everyday impoliteness spreads throughout the workplace.

Lead author Trevor Foulk, and his team from the University of Florida, performed three studies looking at how people react to rude behavior. Foulk believes the study shows that, not only will people be more hostile if a person is rude to them, but they are more likely to be rude if they just witness the behavior.

Foulk said, “This shows that rudeness spreads like a virus.” Further adding, “When you experience rudeness, when your brain processes a rude encounter, it sort of wakes up the rude part of the brain.”

The Cost of Rudeness

The cost of rudeness manifests itself in many ways – in unhappy employees, terrible work cultures, and if you have public facing employees, it drives away customers. In an article for the Harvard Business Review called The Price of Incivility, authors Christine Porath and Christine Pearson collected data from over 14,000 people at all levels in organizations throughout North America. Porath and Pearson found the incidence of incivility at work is disturbingly high and that it’s on the rise.

They believe that it’s becoming so widespread that we may have gotten somewhat accustomed to it. In one poll of 800 workers, they found that among workers who’ve been on the receiving end of incivility:

  • Four in five lost work time worrying about the incident, or were less committed to the organization.
  • Two thirds said they lost work time avoiding the offender, or that their performance declined.
  • Almost half intentionally decreased their work efforts or the time they spent at work.
  • Over a third intentionally decreased the quality of their work.
  • A quarter admitted to taking their frustration out on customers.
  • More than one in ten said that they left their job because of the uncivil treatment.  

What’s a Leader to Do?


In many ways, the new study on rudeness is not surprising. Life is like an echo and what you send out, you get back – often multiplied. If you’re in a store and the clerk is indifferent to you, it changes your attitude. Or, if you speak with your receptionist and she / he is snarky with you, how do you think you’ll respond? Probably with the same demeanor.

But, what is even more sobering is the assertion from Porath and Pearson that we simply expect it. If you come to “expect” rudeness in the workplace, it’s time for leaders to step in and stop it.

Leaders set the standard and the tone in the organization. Treat people the way you want to be treated. That’s one key to kindness that we learn in pre-school. It takes constant attentiveness to keep the workplace courteous. Otherwise, you risk rudeness sneaking into everyday exchanges.

Frankly, it’s not that hard. It’s really quite simple. The term ‘no-brainer’ comes to mind because it’s as simple as 1, 2, and 3. 

Model Behavior You Want to See in Others –Be aware of your actions and how you come across to others. If you are unsure of this, ask for feedback. How do people perceive you? When you walk the halls, do you make an effort to say hello to the people you pass or do you ignore them? When you are in meetings, are you engaged or glancing at your phone? Do you often bark orders instead of having conversations? Hold yourself accountable for your actions and interactions. It starts at the top. When you’ve agreed to wear the title of Leader, you are also agreeing to a higher level of behaviors.

Create a Culture of Respect – In the study from Porath and  Pearson,  they cited the example of Doug Conant, a former CEO of Campbell Soup.  During his tenure as president and CEO, he sent more than 30,000 handwritten notes thanking employees for their hard work.  He felt that something as simple as thank you notes created a culture of appreciation and respect. What can you do in your organization?  

Everyone Should Know Expected Behaviors – The principles of civility should be universally adapted within your organization. Be mindful and deliberate about these expectations.  Building a culture of respect begins when you teach it, adapt it, and model it. Lift up the positives of respect, honor, civility, and diversity. These are the strengths of your company and the virtues that make it great.

But… While behavior changes may start at the top, it doesn’t stop there. We all have personal responsibility and accountability. We decide what attitude and behavior we have and carry with us throughout the day.  You alone can impact your corporate culture by your attitude. Choose a good one.

How can you make a difference this week at work?

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