Cultural and Bottom Line Impact of Rudeness in the Workplace Is Real—and on the Rise

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In her recent opinion piece in The New York Times, No Time to Be Nice at Work, Christine Porath asserted that, “how we treat one another at work matters. Insensitive interactions have a way of whittling away at people’s health, performance and souls.” I couldn’t agree more.

Like Ms. Porath, I’ve been an observer of the impact of these kinds of behaviors for over 20 years.  Her article reminded me of the significant impact a compliance department’s expectations and policies can have on workplace culture.

The Fallout of Letting a Culture of Rudeness Run Rampant: A Case Study

When I was the ethics officer of a major corporation in the 1990’s I began to wonder if I would forever be known as Ms. Manners. I spent countless hours coaching employees who had reached out to my office on how best to approach a co-worker or boss with their concern. Discussions often went something like, “I know you are frustrated or angry, but how effective do you think it will be to start the conversation with ‘listen you jerk-face?’”

Poor communication styles were further exacerbated when our new CEO (the first ever from outside the organization), frustrated that senior executives and managers seemed too passive or deferential, issued guidance that he wanted to see a “more confrontational management style.” He believed this shift in style would enable the team to grapple with a diversity of ideas and opinions before critical business decisions were made.


Related: Six Lessons on Building Corporate Culture From Warren Buffett’s Memo To Managers


However, rather than the hoped-for candid discussions around business strategies, the directive was interpreted as a license to be rude and demeaning. The increase in aggressive conversations resulted in a lot of screaming and yelling in meetings and behaviors that shut down communication rather than cultivating it. My helpline rang off the hook.

I sat down with the CEO to review the outcomes of his request. I had never seen him behave harshly with his team and he reacted as I expected he would—he was shocked and disappointed. He immediately spoke with his team and he recorded an introduction to our annual all-employee training explaining that what he was asking for was comprehensive discussion, not obnoxious and destructive behavior. Eventually, behaviors settled down but not without some cultural damage and loss of trust in leadership.

Most Common Symptoms of a Culture of Rudeness

Ms. Porath’s article focused on the impact of bad bosses on health, productivity, and job satisfaction—but this type of behavior from co-workers can have similar outcomes. She comments: “I’ve surveyed hundreds of people across organizations spanning more than 17 industries, and asked people why they behaved uncivilly. Over half of them claim it is because they are overloaded, and more than 40 percent say they have no time to be nice.”

No time to be nice! Her research has shown that these poor behaviors have increased over the last 20 years, citing the most frequent rude actions:

  • Interrupting
  • Being judgmental of those who are different
  • Paying little attention to or showing little interest in others’ opinions
  • Failing to pass along necessary information
  • Neglecting to say please or thank you
  • Talking down to people
  • Swearing
  • Putting others down

It isn’t rocket science to predict the impact of these behaviors on compliance. In fact, we hear about these issues regularly in the ethics and compliance focus groups we conduct for our clients. These behaviors foster a culture that doesn’t support raising issues—or having a robust discussion about the impact of decisions under consideration.

Further, the amount of feared or actual retaliation is likely to increase. No employee wants to be treated poorly, yet employees at all levels often do treat each other this way.

Seven Ways to Combat Incivility in the Workplace, and Get Your Culture Back On Track

So what should ethics and compliance officers do to help address this drain on our cultures and ethics and compliance efforts?

  1. Recognize that our roles are as much or more about culture and behaviors as they are about policies and procedures. A focus on strict compliance without considerable attention to the “people side” limits our ability to be effective.
  2. Partner with executives and human resources to be proactive about clearly defining expectations around civility in day-to-day operations. Back up the expectations with discipline for those who behave badly.
  3. Take care when labeling HR-related hotline cases as “low level” or “less important” than other compliance allegations. There is a reason why employees choose to report bad behaviors as ethics issues.
  4. Offer leadership training and include this topic. When we take our best engineers and sales members and make them managers, people management skills don’t always come along with the promotion. Use case studies in discussions to help these new leaders be successful.
  5. Recognize that relentless pressure to perform will bring out the worst in all of us and find ways to work with the board and executives to identify and manage unrealistic goals and objectives.
  6. Consider offering coaching for employees who want to “practice” a difficult conversation before they address a concern with another employee or manager.
  7. Call out bad behavior when you see it.

There is a financial argument to be made, too, if additional justification is needed. Ms. Porath highlights the financial costs to these behaviors, noting that employees who feel they are treated in a disrespectful manner are more likely to disengage, produce lower quality work and potentially leave the organization. Customer service may also suffer.

Ethics and Compliance Officers Can and Should Make a Significant Impact

Ethics and compliance officers can and should take a leadership role in ensuring our workplaces are conducive to healthy dialogue about business decisions, issues and concerns. From time to time you may need to include Ms. or Mr. Manners in your job description! The success of your compliance program could depend on it.


Chat with a solutions expert to learn how you can take your compliance program to the next level of maturity.


Real Guidance (Finally) On the Compliance Oversight Role of Boards

To help make these takeaways and the OIG guidance more practical for ethics and compliance officers and boards, we have developed a list of questions for each of the five key areas in the guidance. E&C; officers can provide this to their boards, and work with them as needed to answer these questions. We hope this worksheet will help board members of any organization reconsider their roles and responsibilities related to compliance programs—and help healthcare board members in particular ensure they are meeting OIG expectations.
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