When Workplace Rudeness Becomes Bullying and How to Stop It

Company culture often develops organically through its foundational mission and continues to evolve through the cumulative traits of the employees it hires. Business owners look to hire people that are not just qualified to do the job, but whose personalities align with company-wide values and goals. So what do you do when the person you hire starts to exhibit rude behavior? It could be something as seemingly trivial as excluding another employee from a lunch trip, or sarcastic comments targeted regularly at an individual. These quirks may seem innocuous at the start but the distress experienced by the targeted employee can have catastrophic effects on your company culture, and in turn, the success of your business.

Rudeness in the workplace can seem like a small or trivial issue but studies1 have shown that this low-intensity behavior can be contagious and spread through your company like the flu. When people experience rudeness, it stays with them and they tend to start behaving rudely themselves. Experiencing rudeness at work has been associated with decreased performance, decreased creativity, and an increased desire to look for other opportunites2. Soon you have a domino effect of negative behavior that, if unchecked, cannot only affect your business’s bottom line but can escalate into bullying and harassment.

So where do we draw the line between rudeness and bullying? The key is recognizing that there is a difference between an employee who lacks tact and one who goes out of their way to purposefully target an individual with the intent to undermine their work performance. Keeping this in mind, how do you regulate rudeness, something that can be subjective, before it escalates into bullying?

It all starts at the top. California recently instituted a law that mandates covered employers add anti-bullying training into their current sexual harassment training curriculum for all supervisory employees. The state equates anti-bullying with the prevention of abusive conduct, which is defined as:

“…conduct of an employer or employee in the workplace, with malice, that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive, and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests. It may include repeated infliction of verbal abuse, such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults and epithets, verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating, or humiliating or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance.”3

The reason that supervisory employees are mandated to receive this training is that you are in the position to prohibit, prevent and correct this behavior before it creates divisiveness and decreased performance amongst your employees. Your Human Resources department plays a critical role in managing this process. Part of the California law requires that trainers or educators with knowledge and expertise in the prevention of harassment, discrimination and retaliation must present this sexual harassment and anti-bullying training. Do you have an HR department or an HR employee that’s sufficiently qualified to oversee this training? If the answer is no, then we’re here for you. We specialize in navigating these management challenges that result in improved employee morale, reduced turnover and increased performance. Contact us for a free consultation to learn how we can work together to create a professional and effective harassment-training program to help your employees work better together.