If you find you're the victim of rudeness in the workplace, new research in the Journal of Applied Psychology indicates it may be because rudeness is a "negative behavioural contagion." 

It turns out the lack of civility, like the common cold, is easily caught and can be carried by just about anyone.

Jennifer Newman, a workplace psychologist in Vancouver, sat down to speak with the Early Edition's Rick Cluff about ways to handle rude behaviour on the job.

What is rudeness at work and how common is it?

Researchers refer to it as a low-intensity negative behaviour, or behaviours by co-workers, suppliers, customers or bosses that is impolite.

This can take shape by someone being abrupt, lacking in eye contact, or insulting and not treating others with respect or dignity.

In the workplace, it can manifest itself in writing emails that seem demanding, sarcastic or attack others personally, or could include interrupting, talking over them or being dismissive.

Ninety-eight per cent of workers report rudeness at work and 50 per cent experience it at least weekly.

What are the effects of all this uncivil behaviour?

It comes down to a reduction in creativity because when workers are less helpful, performances suffer.

There's also an increase in psychological distress, negative emotions, and there's more burnout and emotional exhaustion.

This occurs whether the worker has experienced rudeness or just witnessed it.

Jennifer Newman

The Early Edition's workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman say rudeness can take the form of 'low-intensity negative behaviour, or behaviours by co-workers, suppliers, customers or bosses that is impolite.' (Jennifer Newman )

You mentioned rudeness can spread like the common cold. How do you mean?

The exposed worker becomes a carrier and takes it out on others not connected to the original interaction, so they will be rude to the next person they interact with.

So even though we can catch rudeness automatically, it's our choice of how we interpret the event and whether to pass it along. Lots of workers can catch themselves early and not be a carrier.

How does rudeness end up taking hold of an organization-become an epidemic, if you will?

The effects of rudeness can last a week, or more from the first contact. This is especially true if there has been no intervening interaction that could be an antidote.

Also, the rudeness can be reactivated if it occurs again in a similar circumstance. So even if time has passed, and there's been a positive interaction with someone else, if a similar event occurs, it can reactivate the rudeness.

What can be done about it?

First, we all have to recognize it affects everyone — it's easily caught and easily passed from person to person.

Anyone can be a carrier, and workers tend to retaliate if they are infected and have chosen to pass it along.

If you've been treated rudely, take some time before interacting with anyone else — maybe go to the bathroom and wash your hands or use a quick break to think things through.

Recognize that now you've caught something and you have a choice to make: Do I hand it on to the next unsuspecting person that crosses my path, or do I decide not to do that?

And when a worker is rude, it creates a lasting negative impression. Colleagues will generalize from rude behaviour to all sorts of things. It can have serious repercussions on your career and how others see you, even if you weren't the initial carrier.



This interview was condensed and edited. To hear the full interview, click the audio labelled: Rudeness in the workplace comparable to catching the common cold: Jennifer Newman.