Demeaning Employees Derails Productivity

August 13, 2009 ( - A recent study suggests that rudeness in the workplace not only affects the victims, but can lower the productivity of those who witness it.

The study, published in the May edition of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes , by Amir Erez, a professor of management at the University of Florida, and Christine Porath, a management professor at the University of Southern California finds that observing rude behavior can erode the ability of fellow employees to think creatively, solve problems, and act as team players.

An abstract of the study says the researchers conducted two experiments where rudeness was enacted by an authority figure and one where it was enacted by a peer, and all three indicated that witnessing the discourteous behavior reduced observers’ performance on routine tasks as well as creative tasks.

“We were very, very surprised [by these results],” Erez told Human Resource Executive Online. “Basically, rudeness had the same effect on secondhand targets that it had on [primary] targets. It affected them in the same way.”

Erez explained to Human Resource Executive Online that he and Porath first examined the effects of rude behavior in 2007, finding that victims of rudeness were negatively affected by the behavior. “Those targets had severe effects on creativity and the ability to solve problems,” Erez said. “Even if they just imagined [rude behavior], the results were the same and affected their memory. Basically, it had devastating effects on the targets.”

The researchers then decided to explore the effects of “secondhand rudeness.” According to the news report, in the most recent experiments, 222 students from both universities were involved in a series of brainstorming activities, including solving anagrams and finding creative uses for a brick.

One set of participants observed a fellow student arrive a few minutes late to the experiment, apologize and explain that a previous class ran late. In response, the group leader vocalized a barrage of criticism about the late student being irresponsible and unfit to hold a job in the real world. A control group only saw a student get dismissed for showing up late.

Compared to the control group, the group exposed to the rude behavior solved fewer anagrams, recalled less information, and found fewer creative uses for a brick, Human Resource Executive Online reports.

To combat the negative effect on productivity, Erez says, HR leaders “need to change the atmosphere in the organization, and create the climate that this behavior is just not acceptable.”