New research shows that workplace rudeness is ‘contagious’

June 20, 2024 - Megan Borders

Ryan JacobsonHave you dealt with any of these behaviors at work? A supervisor ignores your opinions, talks down to you, or belittles your efforts. A coworker takes credit for your work, withholds information, or spreads rumors about you. These are examples of workplace incivility: rude or disrespectful behavior on the job.

Research shows that workplace incivility is common, increasing and costly for businesses. Just witnessing it can reduce work output and cause employees to consider quitting. It is even worse for those who are directly targeted.

Understanding why workplace incivility occurs is the first step to reducing it. This notion inspired years of research by Ryan Jacobson, an associate professor and behavioral scientist at UNM’s Anderson School of Management. He has studied how workplace norms impact rudeness and other abuse like bullying and harassment.

His article “The effects of descriptive and injunctive social norms on workplace incivility,” published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in January 2024, reports that employees are more likely to behave rudely when they think it is accepted by their colleagues. Jacobson believes workplace incivility can be ‘contagious’ by spreading through social influence over time.

"One of the reasons I’m excited to share these findings is because we may be able to undermine incivility by discouraging the sense that it is common and accepted. In essence, these findings can be used to encourage contagious civility,” he said.

The studies

Jacobson conducted four studies to understand how incivility affects workplace behavior with employees in various industries in the United States and the United Kingdom.

In the first two studies participants imagined being publicly insulted by a colleague and described their response. As predicted, they intended to behave more rudely when the company culture was described as rude.

In the final two studies participants rated how often their colleagues behave rudely and how much they accept rude behavior. They also reported their own incivility over the past year and their intentions to behave rudely in the future. Jacobson found that when people think rudeness is normal at work, they are likely to act the same way.

He notes these findings may be surprising, in that people may assume that only “bad people” treat others poorly. However, the research showed that even good people are less polite when the workplace culture is infused with rudeness.

What this research means for society and organizations

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spends a combined 15 years in the workforce: more than leisure, household activities, childcare, socializing, and eating and drinking.

Given the time devoted to work, a likely effect of an uncivil workplace is harm to physical and mental health and quality of life. This research suggests that incivility can be reduced by changing workplace social norms, holding promise for improving work cultures and employee outcomes.

"A common research finding is that people overestimate how much others approve of negative social behaviors and how frequently they engage in them,” said Jacobson. "People see these bad behaviors as more normal than they really are. Correcting these misperceptions can be an ethical way to nudge people toward more civil behavior."

Recommendations for applying lessons

Jacobson has a few suggestions on how employers can improve workplace behavior:

Clearly define uncivil behavior and set expectations for proper workplace conduct. This improves understanding and helps managers identify and respond to displays of bad behavior.

Use surveys and focus groups to assess employee perceptions of rudeness. This helps identify problems and measure cultural change.

Set civility as a norm among business leaders who serve as role models.

Highlight acts of civility in company communications to showcase these behaviors as normal.

Use training to define uncivil behavior and clarify acceptable behavior.

Ryan Jacobson is an associate professor of management at The University of New Mexico Anderson School of Management. His research focuses on topics such as organizational social influence dynamics, workplace mistreatment, ethical behavior and biculturalism.

Anderson offers more than a dozen concentrations at the bachelor’s and master’s levels and is accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business in the top 20% of business schools in the nation.