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Color of Money Live With Michelle Singletary
Christine Pearson
Management Professor, University of North Carolina

Tuesday, December 7, 1999 at 1 p.m.

Michelle Singletary
Michelle Singletary

It seems people nowdays donít realize there is a price tag attached to rudeness both for individuals and companies. While there is little research on the financial cost of discourtesy to individuals some researchers have begun to examined its impact on corporate coffers. A new study on workplace incivility pointed out that companies can be hit financially by disrespectful employees in the form of lost productivity. In the study researchers surveyed 775 workers and found a majority of them lost time at work because of rude, insensitivity or disrespectful actions of a co-worker.

Christine Pearson
Christine Pearson
Christine Pearson, one of the researchers on the study and a management professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hillís Kenan-Flagler Business School joins me to discuss this troubling trend. Professor Pearson is currently writing her fourth book, Rude Behavior: Downstream in a Hostile Workplace.






Michelle Singletary: Welcome again to a discussion about money. Today it's the cost of rudeness. And man oh man is this a hot topic if my e-mail is any indication. Who knew that so many people were dealing with rude relatives, friends and co-workers. Such behavior is costing us all. What do you think?


Arlington, VA: As a result of my boss's abuse, who seems to feel I am here to make him happy when that is impossible, I have lost all self-esteem for which I am also criticized and gained a lot of weight so that I think I will never escape from him. I'm desperate, how do I cope?

Signed, end of my rope

Christine Pearson: Hi "End of Rope" -

Sounds like you're in a tough spot. Wish I had a magic solution - - there are 3 alternatives:

1) keep smiling at the 'bear' and credit yourself for perseverance and rising above a jerk
2) find a powerful ally and have him/her lend legitimate organizational support
3) get out

If you go with #1, your self-esteem may continue to drop as your weight goes up. If you go with #2, be sure that the person you choose has the savvy to deal with a messy situation. #3 on the surface is the toughest but in the long haul may be the best.

Best of luck to you. You're certainly not alone!


Michelle Singletary: I've received a lot of comments about the price of rudeness, including those who wonder what's the big deal. They question whether it's a major deal if a co-worker or boss doesn't say "hello" or treat people with respect. Is it a big deal and why?

Christine Pearson: It's a real big deal. Costing orgs big $$$ and they don't even know it. Many people on the receiving end cut back their work effort and may leave the job permanently. All this without the org knowing why they're doing so.


Fairfax, VA: Normally I can get past the travails of workplace rudeness--I just keep smiling and tell myself that I only have to be with these people a few hours a day, while they have to live with their own selves forever. However, I recently requested a transfer out of a department in my company, largely because of the meanness and pettiness of a couple of my co-workers. They talk behind everyone's back, spread gossip, and badmouth anyone they don't like. To your face, they're your best friends. Surviving 7th grade was easier than coming to work everyday in that department. At least in 7th grade, you knew you were bound to grow up and move on. These 40-something co-workers had not done either. As a result of their behavior, morale in the group was poor and time was lost while the rest of us seethed and soothed each other. What does one do in a toxic environment like this?

Christine Pearson: Hi Tech Corridor-

I like your comparison to the 7th grade - - pretty accurate in many cases. In the situation you described, if you could find anyone at a higher level (HIGHEST level is actually best) who gives a darn, you might be "empowered" by getting them to set some expectations and elevate the standards around there. That road's a long one though, and for many the job market is too good for that kind of endurance. Your move sounds like a great response!


Bethesda, MD: Christine,
I am a manager at a restaurant. I have been dealing with two very rude employees for the last few months. Although they do their jobs fairly well, they constantly tease and harass me about my Rogaine, my tight jeans, and my sexuality. I am their boss but I don't know how to tell these employees to stop this madness without having them quit on me. I can't afford to be short on waiters in this busy time of year. What can I do?

Christine Pearson: Hi Bethesda: This is an interesting case because unlike many uncivil situations, you ARE the boss. Don't tolerate this - part of your responsibility as the boss is to set expectations for people's behavior - do that. If they quit, you may need to work a little harder to find a replacement, but it will be worth it in the long run.


Michelle Singletary: Why do you think it's so easy for workers and managers to dismiss the cost associated with incivility?

Christine Pearson: Hi Michelle -

In many cases, it's as simple as them not knowing about it. There's no question that many times incivility goes unreported. Even for people who find it distasteful enough to quit, they rarely report the incivility as the reason for their departure. In other case, workers and mgrs may dismiss the costs because they're afraid or ill-equipped to deal with "sticky problems".


Bethesda, MD: I'm composing a class where I'll teach adults ways to be better "internal customers" to each other. This is a real problem in the workplace but I didn't realize it actually cost a company! It sounds like your book will be very helpful. Where is your book sold?

Christine Pearson: Book's not out yet - I'm still writing it. Glad you're interested. I do have a summary of the latest research that I would be glad to email to you if you'd like - - you can send your request to me at chris_pearson@unc.edu.


College Park, MD: Could you explain exactly how big businesses lose money due to workplace incivility?

Christine Pearson: Sure - people who are targets tend to do any one or many of the following:
- put in less hours
- put in less effort
- lose work time worrying about their next encounter with the instigator
- quit.

Additionally, the negative impact spreads to those who witness or even hear about the incident.


Washington, DC: I am a middle-aged man who has seen lots of changes in the workplace over the years and who has taken my fair share of licks. Let me state that I believe sexual harassment, especially in its most explicit forms has no place in the workplace and should therefore never be tolerated. I have a real problem with trying to do something about rude and disrespectful behavior, however. The world is full of dolts and neanderthals and the sooner one learns to stand up to them and put them in their place immediately, when any transgression occurs, the better off we all will be. Why should we empower workplace nannies and touchy-feely monitors to ensure that everyone is nice to each other?

Christine Pearson: Start with the finding that the rudeness is cast downward - - the vast majority of the time it's coming from someone in a higher position in the organization. Standing up to that kind of "bully" is not a smart thing to do organizationally.


Washington, DC: At my organization, we are trying to write a code of employee civility. Does anyone have any input or examples of this?

Christine Pearson: In may cases, we have found that it can begin with an organizational statement as simple as "we expect our employees to treat one another with respect." I would urge you to create your own code of civility, much as an organization would create its own mission statement. Part of the ownership comes from going through the process. And, it will not be reinforced unless those at the top buy into it.


Michelle Singletary: For those who think that incivility doesn't have a cost, how can employees and managers begin to put hard numbers on this issue. For example, would it be useful to include in exit interviews or surveys a direct question about civility. By doing that can an employer then calculate the cost of replacing the worker who left because of the rude behavior of a co-worker or supervisor?

Christine Pearson: One suggestion is to collect this kind of data in post-exit interviews, rather than exit interviews.Targets of incivility tend to be at a lower level than instigators and for that reason alone are often concerned about revealing reality as they see it until they have left the org for some time.


Michelle Singletary: In an earlier answer one of your recommendations for someone facing incivility on the job is to get help from someone higher up? How does one even begin to get help when it can seem so petty to point out that a co-worker is gossipy about you or is being disrespectful. Should you document the behavior before trying to find an ally? And, is disrespect in the eye of the beholder or is it like pornography - we all know it when we see it?

Christine Pearson: I'd document and find a powerful ally simultaneously. One of the characteristics of instigators is that they tend to be cunning in how/where/when they are uncivil. The target knows it when he/she sees it, others may not be aware of the behavior.


Bethesda, MD: Christine:

I believe that rudeness to internal as well as external customers has its costs, but can you tell me rudeness as a cost to organizations has been measured?

Christine Pearson: No. In fact, I can tell you that rudeness as a cost to organizations has not been measured. We are "pioneers" as researchers on this issue. Our findings concern the individual costs - - which can be considered in accumulation in thinking about organizational costs. Nobody's got anything out there yet on organizational costs, as far as I know.


Washington, DC: Right now I'm working for an temp agency and am placed at a biotech company. The manager I'm working with is abrasive and blaming, towards me and permanent employees. How much of this should I take? I'll be here until I find a permanent job, maybe another 6 or 8 weeks.

Christine Pearson: How strong is your perseverance? How much does the job mean to you? Are there positive factors that outweigh this abrasiveness? How easily can you find another temp placement? Only you can answer these.


Valparaiso, IN: I'm currently a stay-at-home mom who left the work force voluntarily 4.5 years ago. I'm now needing to re-enter the world and I have to say that this part of working really intimidates me. I remember all too clearly the whole 7th grade mentality and I think it's easier to stay home with preschoolers than deal with that. I am very interested in the idea of consulting as a "civility facilitator." Any ideas on what type of schooling-research I may need to do to start this? I am starting a grassroots "respect" campaign and that may be my only qualification at this point. Any suggestions would be welcome.

Christine Pearson: Don't get the wrong impression: there are many great workplaces where this kind of behavior is not tolerated. A "civility facilitator" is an interesting concept - not sure exactly how you see this role, and that would probably help in defining the background that you would need. My best advice would be to test the market - - try to figure out how you want to address this, who your audience would be, how you would envision getting the job - - that might help you think through 'credentials'.


Michelle Singletary: Is there an effective way to complain about incivility without seeming like a whiner? In your study how did those who experienced incivility approach a high-level ally? In the workplace today it's so easy to be labeled a complainer so it becomes easier to just let disrespectful behavior continue without speaking up.

Christine Pearson: One way to grab people's attention in virtually any workplace is through the bottom line. Rather than focusing on personal costs, I'd appeal with the costs to the organization. I'd also give lots of thought to the person who I select as an ally - - if it's someone who tends to refer to personal problems as whining, rethink your candidate.


Washington, DC: Good afternoon, Ms. Pearson,

Did you encounter any instances in your study where the rudeness stemmed from an underlying pathological condition?

Christine Pearson: Good afternoon, Washington -

We have certainly encountered many targets who attribute their instigators' behavior to underlying pathological conditions. We, however, have not studied that.


Washington, DC: I regret having lost my temper with a co-worker several weeks ago. Is it worthwhile to bring it up again to apologize?

Christine Pearson: You bet.


Nashville, TN: What is the best advice to combatting discourtesy: turning the other cheek or confronting the rude person? What is 'safe' confrontation in this day and age? When should a supervisor get involved?

Christine Pearson: I would urge you to go cautious about confronting the rude person. If he/she is in a higher position than you, be doubly cautious - he/she has position power on his/her side. If things start to hit the fan, he/she will have more access to more resources than you will. Also, the instigator is often a cunning individual who knows how to use power - - for example, we found that many targets see the instigator as someone particularly good at "kissing up": he/she knows how to present a different 'face' to superiors than he/she bothers to present to peers or subordinates


Rockville, MD: With the increasing diversity of the workplace, it seems that many companies have done very little to incorporate other cultures to their environment. Many ethnic group members have seen little progress in having their cultures recognized, nor have companies' structure changed to have higher minority representation within senior management ranks. Could you please comment? Thanks.

Christine Pearson: Fundamentally, how I treat you and how you treat me has nothing to do with what color our skins are what churches we go to, or what sexes we are. Ethnic representation is, of course, another issue.


Washington, DC: One cost to organizations is in the form of defending law suits, one act of discrimination that may have been explained in a civil work environment may prove unjustifiable in an incivil, thus perhaps hostile work environment.

This is very true in DC with the city's expansive "Human Rights Act"; the first warning a DC organization may receive about a problem might arrive with a summons from DC Superior Court.

Christine Pearson: You are absolutely right. This is a high-visibility cost that may also negatively impact the organization far beyond bottom-line $$ settlements.


Alexandria, VA: Fed up with co workers constantly bringing their personal problems to the office and stressing everyone out. Even if the person with the problem isn't speaking directly to you, you hear what they are saying and hear others talking about it. How can this be handled? The problem person is the Director.
Ready to Quit I'm so stressed........

Christine Pearson: "Ready to Quit" - - I'd urge you first to think about whether anyone in the organization at a level higher than Director would care? If not, think about the pros and cons of the job situation - - what's keeping you there? what would it cost you to leave? Be as concrete in your answers as possible. If the cons outweigh the pros, remember that life's too short to continue to be miserable.


Michelle Singletary: You mentioned that the incidents of rudeness are more often from the top down. What did you find in your study to back this up? And, was it more often from male supervisors or was the incidents of disrespect an equal opportunist?

Christine Pearson: It's equal opportunity for men and women - - we had an even proportion of men/women targets, 50/50. But the instigator is most often male, and even more often someone of higher level in the org - the 'alpha dog'. Whether male or female, the instigator is slightly more likely to choose someone of the same sex. If the instigator's a male, he's seven times as likely to look for a target of lower status than his own. When the instigator is a female, she's least likely to go after someone at her own level, and more likely to go after someone of lower status OR higher status.


Michelle Singletary: Are there instances when it is safe to approach an instigator about their behavior? Does every rude act have to go through a supervisor or higher-level official. Seems to me, as adults, some of this can be handled with a little "chat." Of course the last time I did that it caused even more gossip in the office. I had planned to take a co-worker to lunch to discuss our little disrespecting problem (she was bothering me) and to my surprise (she told everyone about the lunch date) it was being billed as the equivalent of a "Tyson vs. Holyfield" bout. I ended up walking out of the lunch. Guest I should have told my mommie or the boss, right?

Christine Pearson: The boss would have been a good option, if the interaction was a meaningful one to you. Other option, get as far from this person as possible - - walk out sooner.


Washington, DC: Good afternoon ladies:

My supervisor is "special" -not in a good way-. When I voiced my opinion on a work related topic, she wrote me up and put that my communication style is inappropriate in the "communications" section of my performance appraisal.

Why should I be penalized for telling the truth and why aren't managers held accountable for their actions as well. Why it always the employee who is "at fault" when some managers need to be disciplined as well? Thank you

Christine Pearson: This is a great example of what I meant earlier regarding how the power differential can play against you. She's the boss, right? In that status, she's got the power. It's not a question of right or wrong, it's what is. To have this person held accountable, you need to appeal to a higher source - - also, 360 degree feedback can be enormously helpful if the organization/leaders take them seriously. They put people on alert about having to be accountable to all others with whom they work.


Michelle Singletary: Gosh, it's over. What a bummer. Such great questions and concerns. I hope this has helped. I know I've learned a lot thanks to Christine Pearson. Mostly, I'm going to try to be a better worker - don't want the Post spending any more money on my account. Don't forget I'll be back in two weeks to talk money again.


© 1999 The Washington Post Company




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