The University Record, July 9, 2001

Rudeness at work shown to carry emotional and social costs

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Rudeness and bad manners have become alarmingly common in the American work place, according to a U-M researcher who found that 71 percent of workers surveyed have been insulted, demeaned, ignored or otherwise treated discourteously by their co-workers and superiors.

The study, conducted by psychologist Lilia M. Cortina, is one of the first to identify both the prevalence and the impact of work place incivility. It also analyzes the emotional and social costs of either speaking up or keeping silent about boorish, impolite behavior.

Employees who experience uncivil treatment report lower job satisfaction, the study shows. They are also more likely to withdraw from their jobs by being tardy repeatedly, taking unnecessary sick days or not working very hard.

“When employees speak up about rudeness from their superiors, they experience both social and professional retaliation,” says Cortina, who is affiliated with the Institute for Research on Women and Gender.

“When they are silent, they experience a higher level of psychological problems, including depression and anxiety. So there’s a real dilemma about how to respond,” Cortina adds.

For the study, Cortina and colleagues Vicki Magley of DePaul University, and Jill Williams and Regina Langhout of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign surveyed 1,100 employees of a large federal court system, which funded the study. Participants were mainly white females with at least some college and were employed in jobs ranging from mail clerks and secretaries to data analysts, attorneys and unit heads.

“This work place is representative of many U.S. organizations with similar gender ratios and power structures,” Cortina notes. “Women are in the numerical majority, while men dominate at the top of the structure.”

In an article published earlier this year in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Cortina and colleagues reported that 71 percent of employees had experienced work place incivility in the previous five years.

The researchers found that women were slightly more likely to be targets of incivility than were men, with sexually harassing comments often a part of the bad-mannered treatment women experienced. The researchers found that the more powerful people in the organization were responsible for a disproportionate number of the incidents.

Cortina and Magley also analyzed what happened to employees who either spoke up against rude treatment or chose to keep silent. Speaking out included confiding in colleagues and confronting the rude person. For a few employees, speaking out involved a complaint or grievance to the organization.

The impact of speaking out was strongly related to the social position of the target and the instigator, the researchers found. When lower-status employees voiced opposition to incivility by higher-status colleagues, both professional and social retaliation were likely.