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Are burned-out Baby Boomers behind trend?

Rudeness on the rise in the workplace

As the century has wound down, rudeness in the workplace has increased.

A recent University of North Carolina study called “Workplace Incivility: The Target’s Eye View” surveyed 1,400 workers. About 78% said that workplace rudeness has gotten worse in the past 10 years.

The study indicated men instigate the rudeness 70% of the time, and that men and women are targeted for rudeness in about equal numbers. Rude people are three times more likely to be in higher positions than their targets.

Study co-author Christine Pearson said men are seven times more likely to be rude or insensitive to underlings than superiors while women are equally rude to superiors and subordinants.

Rudeness isn’t just a matter of hurt feelings, but has serious consequences. About 12% of people who are treated badly at work quit their jobs to avoid the perpetrator. Another 52% reported losing work time worrying, and 22% deliberately decreased their work effort.

Pearson speculated that several broad societal forces could be behind the increase in rudeness, including downsizing, the growing pressure to “do more with less” and technology that allows workers to “zap people anonymously.”

Dr. Billie M. Allen, professor of management at the University of Southern Mississippi College of Business Administration, agrees with the study authors that rudeness in the workplace is an increasing problem, and one that hurts the company’s bottom line.

“If you have intracompany conflict, the result will show with regard to the customer or client,” Allen said. “Rudeness on the job is getting worse, much worse, and much more serious than I’ve seen in the past.”

But Allen has a little different take on possible reasons for workplace rudeness. She said rudeness in the workplace isn’t the problem, but only a symptom of the problem. If a manager responds by simply punishing someone for being rude without seeking out the underlying reason for the rudeness, then the issue is unlikely to be resolved.

Allen doesn’t believe that downsizing and “doing more with less” are the culprits.

“I’ve been in this business for almost 25 years, and I’ve never seen anyone have as much as they need to get their job done,” Allen said. “Having to do more with less has always been with us. I think it is more personal conflicts that are at the root of the problem. As people age, their perspectives change. They aren’t as gung ho as they were. They might not be able to handle the pressures as well. People tend to become bored. They get burned out.

“At a certain middle age, life expectations have not been met. Workers feel stuck in a job they can’t afford to quit because of all of their obligations. But there is nowhere else to go, which is just the opposite of downsizing.”

Allen believes the problem will become even more acute in the next 10 years because of all the Baby Boomers who are burned out. “And that is a huge, huge part of the work population,” she said.

People’s personal lives also affect work. When people become unhappy with their lives, they tend to be unhappy at work, and take it out on the people who are closest to them at work. Conversely, people who are unhappy at work are likely to take that misery home with them, taking out their frustrations on family members.

Allen said most people have unrealistic expectations of career success. As the expectations and the reality of what is happening get farther and farther apart, the more unhappy someone becomes.

In order to resolve problems with workplace rudeness, a manager first needs to simply ask people why they are being rude.

“Find the underlying motivations for rudeness,” she said. “Be careful because if the organization structure is punitive, they won’t tell you what is wrong for fear of getting fire or demoted.

“Another red flag for me is that people act according to the organizational culture. Generally they don’t act out unless they see superiors doing it, or letting other people do it. People think that if the people at the very top are rude, that gives you permission to be rude. You see your boss chew someone out, and that is the way you handle things. So rudeness in the workplace is essentially a leadership issue.”

The most serious consequence of ignoring problems with workplace rudeness is going broke. Allen said it can happen because if workers are backbiting and being rude to each other, that is going to show to external customers in a number of ways.

Just firing a rude employee may not be the answer either, especially in today’s tight labor market. Instead, Allen recommends a system to reward good behavior. It is also important to train and socialize employees in the culture of the organization.

Dr. Dwight Frink, assistant professor of management, at the University of Mississippi School of Business, agrees that rudeness in the workplace is something that managers can address.

“The manager has a big role in establishing the environment in the work place,” Frink said. “Paradoxically, most managers don’t realize that. They don’t grasp the impact they have over subordinants. As individuals they might think they don’t influence someone’s attitude, but in fact they have a big impact. If you treat people politely, you can expect civility. And you can resist incivility.”

Frink said managers can take three different approaches.

1. Set a good example with a high standard for interpersonal behavior.

2. Have an expectation of politeness, and congratulate people for good behavior.

3. When confronting someone for rudeness, don’t condemn them but instead say, “We don’t support that kind of behavior.” Use a positive approach to get positive behavior.

Frink said that it is important to spend a good bit of time talking about ethics and the importance of interpersonal relationships that are key to personal success, and the success of the business.

Success in creating an atmosphere of civility in the workplace can help retain quality employees at a time when the tabor market is very tight.

“Managers in organizations are the ones who are very frustrated because their employees are finding other opportunities, and the managers are having a horrible time replacing them,” Frink said. “It behooves managers to put more effort into creating a civil and polite environment so they don’t have to face that tight labor market problem.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com.

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