Rudeness hits the bottom line


Can you put a cost on bad manners? Does politeness pay? According to a US business school professor, the answer is an emphatic "yes" – in fact the cost of bad behaviour can run into millions.

USC Marshall School of Business professor Christine Porath and co-author Christine Pearson, a professor of management at Thunderbird School of Global Management, discovered just how much bad manners can impact the bottom line while researching a new book, The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It, which was published in July 2009.

Texting in meetings, spreading rumours, taking credit for others' work, ignoring emails and not saying "please" and "thank you" are more than just annoyances. In fact Porath and Pearson claim that the stress this causes could cost to $300 billion in lost productivity as those affected let their performance slip, lose interest in going the extra mile or just look for jobs elsewhere.

Porath and Pearson's research suggests that eight out of 10 employees who are victims of insults or bullying in the workplace lost work time worrying about it while a similar proportion felt that their commitment declined as a result.

But the impact of rudeness, which they define as ranging from "taking credit to others' efforts" to throwing a temper tantrum, isn't just felt by those directly effected by it. Even those who witnesses such incidents are likely to be affected by them. Critically, if it is a customer who sees an instance of incivility among staff, there is a fifty percent chance that they will not patronise that business again.

The message that good manners in the workplace are more than just a nice-to-have isn't a new one. In 2007, Australian organisational psychologist Dr Barbara Griffin, from the University of Western Sydney, used survey data from 54,000 employees to calculate that one in five employees experience a significant incident of bad manners at work once a month, with a demonstrable negative impact on employee engagement and productivity.

What's more, bad manners could also damage your career. An overwhelming 95 percent of senior executives and managers surveyed by NFI research in 2007 said that good manners matter when it comes to advancing a person's career, with two thirds saying good manners were extremely important.

Porath & Pearson's list of shame. Are you guilt of any of these?

  • Taking credit for others' efforts
  • Passing blame for your own mistakes
  • Checking e-mail or texting during a meeting
  • Sending bad news through e-mail so you don't have to face the recipient
  • Talking down to others
  • Not listening
  • Spreading rumours
  • Setting others up for failure
  • Not saying "please" or "thank you"
  • Showing up late or leaving a meeting early with no explanation
  • Belittling others' efforts
  • Leaving snippy voice mail or e-mail messages
  • Forwarding others' e-mail to make them look bad
  • Making demeaning or derogatory remarks
  • Withholding information
  • Failing to return phone calls or respond to e-mail
  • Leaving a mess for others to clean up
  • Consistently grabbing easy tasks while leaving difficult ones for others
  • Shutting someone out of a network or team
  • Paying little attention or showing little interest in others' opinions

Of course, one problem with all this is that one person's rudeness is another's acceptable behaviour. For example, research out of the UK found that two thirds of office workers are regularly late for meetings and also think answering mobile phone calls during meetings or sending text messages while in conversation with someone else is perfectly reasonable. (Just try texting in a meeting with me and you'll soon see how acceptable I think that is. . . .)

What about swearing? It might offend many, but a study from New Zealand's Victoria University found that swearing can actually help boost team morale because it acts as an emotional release and establishes rapport with others.

But while that might be true in a New Zealand soap factory, it's unlikely to go down well in a high-tech operation like Cisco Systems, one of the companies cited by Porath and Pearson as actively cultivating civility.

After calculating that incivility was costing it about $8 million per year, Cisco put in place a global civility program based on Porath and Pearson's recommendations for creating a better workplace.

These include recognising the personal toll caused by being demeaned or disrespected and acknowledging, too, that it impacts workplace effectiveness. And critically it requires that all employees - including (and especially) managers and executives – adhere to the same norms of what is and isn't "acceptable" behaviour.

"It starts with the top," Porath insists. "There should be a thread of civility," she argues, through everything a company does.

And as she points out, when these threads break, many good employees will move on, much to the long-term detriment of the company.

Even with a U.S. unemployment standing at 9.5 percent, she says there's a "huge concern with Human Resource executives that there's a shortage of talent. Businesses are fighting for talent. If you're a good performer, you'll be in demand, Focus on your performance and put yourself out there. Don't just hunker down and take it. Think about other possibilities."

Older Comments

Please could somebody tell my boss this. He is without doubt the most ill-mannered individual I've ever had the misfortune to work with. And he doesn't care.


Respect is an issue that seems to be a critical factor in how we interact in society and in business. Recent discussions with a learned friend of mine suggests that there is not a lot of understanding about what is meant by respect. Despite Codes of Ethics or Codes of Conduct talking about respect for Government, laws, and people, there doesn't seem to a unilateral understanding about what is meant by respect. Perhaps this is one reason why bullying is a growth industry. There is no universially accepted definition of workplace bullying or respect, and whilst we continue to dance around redefining what is and what isn't, we are not going to go forward. People can have workplace conflict without it degenerating into the negative. If everyone has an understanding of how respect can be applied in practice, then some workplace bullying incidents may not occur. Unfortunately, organisations may have no systems or processes in place to capture the direct or indirect costs associated with 'bad manners'. The bottom line cost of incivility (in its many forms) should not be underestimated. In terms when the global economy is looking for ways to reduce costs and unnecessary costs, it might take some real leadership to bite the bullet and address the many forms of bad behaviour (irrespective of what is called). As some people close to me have said 'Tell the children to play nice in the sand pit'. This also applies in the workplace. Nothing can be gained by not treating others with respect and dignity.

Bernie Australia