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BusinessColumnistsJamie Herzlich

Workplace rudeness can be bad for business

A mood meter outside associate attorney Diana Choy-Shan's

A mood meter outside associate attorney Diana Choy-Shan's door at the Melville office of Genser Dubow Genser & Cona lets those seeking time with her know what kind of reception they'll get. It's a creative way of keeping office interaction civil. (March 6, 2013) Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert

A whopping 98 percent of Americans say they have experienced incivility in the workplace, according to researchers. Perhaps, even you.

Incivility can take many shapes and forms at work, but if unchecked it can lead to profit losses, bad morale and poor productivity.

"Incivility can spread like a virus," says Christine Pearson, co-author of a recent article in the Harvard Business Review on the price of incivility.

Rudeness is on the rise and many companies do little to curb it, says Pearson, a professor at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz., who also co-wrote "The Cost of Bad Behavior" (Portfolio; $25.95).

But its effects are hard to ignore. Pearson and co-researcher Christine Porath polled 800 managers and employees in 17 industries over the past decade. Among workers who said they were on the receiving end of incivility, they found:

-- 48 percent intentionally decreased their work effort;

-- 38 percent intentionally decreased the quality of their work;

-- 78 percent said their commitment to the organization declined; and

-- 25 percent admitted to taking their frustrations out on customers.

Recognizing the problem is part of the solution, although incivility can be difficult to detect.

"It's low-intensity rude behavior in the workplace," says Pearson.

Not as obvious as bullying, it can be unclear whether people intend to be uncivil at work, notes Merideth Ferguson, assistant professor at Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University, who has studied workplace incivility.

"It's not people going out of their way to be ugly at work," she says. "It's lack of regard and respect."

That includes talking down to others, not listening, belittling others' efforts and making demeaning or derogatory remarks, Pearson says.


One of the best ways to eliminate such behavior is to stop hiring people prone to engage in it.

There are certain personality traits tied to rude people, including neuroticism, says Ferguson, adding that some of those traits can be detected in a personality assessment.

One screening technique is to talk to different people a job candidate has had contact with during the interview process, such as a parking attendant and receptionist. Uncivil people often pick on those they perceive having less power than them, says Pearson.

The bottom line, according to Pearson: The organization must take a zero-tolerance policy for uncivil behavior.


"There has to be a baseline for civil behavior," says Marc Miller, president of Marc Miller Coaching and Consulting, an executive coach and business consultant in Plainview. "People have to be aware it's important to say 'please' and 'thank you.' "

Managers need to also be aware of their own behavior, he says. They need to be sensitive to the differences among their employees and approach them in somewhat different ways, recognizing that some might be extroverts and some might be introverts, he notes.

Organizations should try curbing incivility before it begins, experts agree. Genser Dubow Genser & Cona, a Melville-based elder law firm, found a creative way to do that while boosting productivity.

At the end of last year, after it was brought to managing partner Jennifer Cona's attention by associate attorney Diana Choy-Shan that there was some trepidation and concerns before walking into a supervisor or partner's office, Cona introduced a "mood meter."

It looks similar to a traffic light and is displayed outside an attorney's office with a magnet next to either red ("It better be good .?.?. Enter at your own risk"), yellow ("Busy, but .?.?. ") or green ("Come on in! Happy to see you!").

Cona says the meter, which mirrors a similar project at her children's school, takes the guesswork out of what kind of reception visitors will get.

"It definitely lightens the mood," says Choy-Shan, who uses it on her own door.

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