Don’t Be Rude! How One Insult Can Erode Employee Engagement

It seems that insults, bullying, and name-calling are becoming commonplace in American life. Indeed, the annual “Civility in America” survey by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate found that about two-thirds of respondents believe the U.S. has a major civility problem. They report encountering incivility an average seven times a week, and 38% said they had experienced bad behavior at work.

While there may not be much we can do about incivility in other areas we should guard against those behaviors becoming more prevalent in business behavior. Research has shown that incivility can have a negative impact on employee engagement. And given all the benefits that businesses gain from having engaged employees, you don’t want to undermine that engagement with one or two miss-steps.

First, what level of incivility are we talking about? Clearly yelling and overt aggressive behavior is out of bounds. But even low-level and covert negative behavior can cause employee engagement to decline. Talking over another person, “forgetting” to invite them to a meeting, or even rude looks or ignoring another person can be just as harmful as more forceful behaviors.

Further, you don’t have to be the victim of incivility to be impacted. Both observed and experienced incivility can cause emotional upset, distrust, loss of productivity, and can even cause employees to leave the organization.

And, of course, if the rude or negative behavior is being exhibited by a manager or executive, the negative impact on employee engagement is multiplied, because employees don’t believe they can do anything about the situation. Powerless employees are disengaged employees. (For more about how passive leadership can exacerbate this type of incivility and the impact it has on the entire organization, read our blog: Passive Leadership Encourages Workplace Negativity.)

Finally, research has also shown that negative behavior breeds more negative behavior. Experiencing or observing rude and hurtful behavior in the workplace gives employees “psychological permission” to behave similarly. Apparently, in the case of this type of behavior, one bad apple really can spoil the whole barrel! As Amy Morin reported in Forbes, “Just one malicious employee among the ranks can wreak havoc on your company culture. Toxic employees have an unhealthy ripple effect that harms co-workers, managers and subordinates alike.”

Beyond impacting other employees, rude employees can turn off loyal customers and make them turn to your competitors. Science Daily reports, “Approximately one-third of consumers surveyed reported they’re treated rudely by an employee on an average of once a month and that these and other episodes of uncivil worker behavior make them less likely to patronize those businesses.” But it’s not just your employees treating customers rudely; a customer who witness employees treating each other rudely or managers treating each other rudely are also less likely to continue patronizing your business.

Clearly, focusing on employee engagement means proactively managing these examples of rude and negative behavior. Modeling positive and polite interactions, dealing with rude behavior quickly and directly, and having a proactive policy about rude and uncivil behavior can all contribute to creating a more positive workplace – and more engaged employees.

While America may be becoming ruder and less civil, we should not let that discourage us from addressing incivility problems in our own businesses and workplaces. Improved employee engagement drives benefits from increased revenue, and lower costs. Maybe we can’t solve all of society’s problems, but that should be motivation enough to encourage us to address those problems we can solve!

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