Tackling a Growing Problem of Workplace Rudeness | EAPA-SA

Regardless of the nature of your work, you have probably encountered some form of rude behaviour at work at one time or another. You may have encountered a co-worker who never responds to your emails or who does not respond when a meeting invite is sent to them. You may have been routinely ignored or talked over by a colleague in a meeting or conference call. Traditionally, managers may have overlooked such rudeness, seeing it as a minor infringement and paid more attention to cases of overt discrimination or harassment. However, new research suggests that the instance in incivility has grown dramatically in the past two decades, and organisations and their managers may need to step up and alleviate workplace rudeness. 

“Regardless of the nature of your work, you have probably encountered some form of rude behaviour at work at one time or another.” 

The rise of rude behaviour in the workplace

According to a recent McKinsey report*, rudeness, or incivility, in the workplace has doubled over the two decades prior to COVID-19, and it continues to become more and more prevalent. A McKinsey article entitled The hidden toll of workplace incivility (McKinsey Quarterly, 2016), tells of the outcome of serial rudeness in the workplace as follows:

The accumulation of thoughtless actions that leave employees feeling disrespected—intentionally ignored, undermined by colleagues, or publicly belittled by an insensitive manager—can create lasting damage that should worry every organization…Workplace relationships may be fraying as fewer employees work in the office and feel more isolated and less respected. Some studies point to growing narcissism among younger workers. Globalization may be causing cultural clashes that bubble beneath the surface. And in the digital age, messages are prone to communication gaps and misunderstanding—and unfortunately putdowns are easier when not delivered face to face.”

* https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/five-fifty-rudeness-on-the-rise


What is rude behaviour?

Rudeness can take many forms. It is generally defined as: “a display of disrespect, a breaking of social norms or expectations, a breach of etiquette, or ignoring “accepted” behaviour”. It can also mean someone behaving inconsiderately, aggressively or in a deliberately offensive manner. If you are working in a country that is not your homeland or managing a culturally diverse team, it is important to be aware of particular behaviours that are seen as rude in that culture.  Applying the above definitions, behaviour at work can be defined as “bad” if it does any one or more of the following things:

  1. Has an unnecessary adverse impact on one or more individuals within the team.
  2. Damages the cohesion of a team.
  3. Harms the team’s ability to deliver to its client.

“How you treat your employees or subordinates can impact the way that they treat others.”

Strategies for weeding out rudeness in your workplace or team

  • Be a positive role model

How you treat your employees or subordinates can impact the way that they treat others. If they see you as their leader or manager getting away with rude behaviour, they may copy it. Set a good example by demonstrating empathy, integrity, professionalism and self-control.

  • Don’t ignore rude behaviour

If you ignore incivility you send out a signal that you condone it. If you witness it, or if it is brought to your attention, deal with it immediately. 

  • Deal directly with the culprit
    • Talk to the offender in a private setting. 
    • Stay calm and objective as you lay out the facts as you know them. 
    • Explain the negative impact of their behaviour and how it has made other people feel.
    • Make it clear how you want the offender to modify their behaviour.


If you ignore incivility you send out a signal that you condone it.

  • Listen to both sides of the story 

The offender may believe that they have good reason to be annoyed with a colleague and that their rudeness was reactive. If need be, once you understand both sides of the situation, you can work together with both parties to find a solution.

  • Follow up on every offender

While taking any provocation into account, you still have to make it clear that a repeat of rude behaviour is unacceptable. Set targets or standards of behaviour and follow up to ensure the offender achieves them. If the offensive behaviour continues, discuss the situation with your HR department, and consider issuing the offender with a formal warning.  


Is some rude behaviour really harassment? 

On 18 March 2022, the Department of Employment and Labour gazetted its code of good practice aimed at eliminating harassment at South African workplaces (Employment Equity Act, 1998 (Act 555 of 1998 as amended). In it they cited acts of covert or passive-aggressive actions as being harassment. 

The code of practice includes several specific examples of harassment that could potentially be flagged in South African workplaces. Some of these types of harassment are obvious – such as physical force, racist remarks or sexual advances – however, the code of practice also highlights a much wider range of indirect actions which can be seen as harassment. Some of the examples of passive aggressive harassment in the code could, erroneously, be seen as “just rude behaviour”: 

  • Negative gossip
  • Negative joking at someone’s expense
  • Sarcasm
  • Condescending eye contact
  • Facial expressions
  • Gestures
  • Mimicking to ridicule
  • Deliberately causing embarrassment or insecurity
  • Deliberately sabotaging someone’s career performance