Brief Exposure to Workplace Rudeness Can Hurt Job Performance

We all know that workplace rudeness can make the workplace unpleasant, but have you considered the effects on job performance? New research (Woolum, Foulk, Lanaj, & Erez, 2017) explores how even brief exposure to rudeness at the start of the day can hurt job performance throughout the entire day.

The researchers conducted an experimental study where some employees began the day with exposure to videos of rude workplace interactions while others were exposed to neutral situations. After watching the videos, the employees went about their regular workday in their distinct workplaces. Employees who saw the rude behavior were more likely to perceive further rude behavior throughout their workday. Once the rudeness was “activated” in their minds, they may have been more likely to interpret neutral behavior as being rude


According to core self-evaluations theory, people assess themselves and their capabilities on four different dimensions—neuroticism, self-esteem, locus of control, and

self-efficacy (i.e., belief in one’s own competence). Taken together, these dimensions form a trait that will influence how people respond to various threats or opportunities. In this study, the researchers found that when people were exposed to rude behavior before work, those with high core self-evaluations (high self-esteem, low neuroticism, etc.) seemed to be less influenced. For these self-confident people, further perceptions of rude behavior throughout the workday was not as likely. On the other hand, when people had low core self-evaluations (low self-esteem, high neuroticism, etc.), the exposure to rudeness seemed to have a stronger “spillover” influence. These people were more likely to perceive additional rude behavior as they went about their day.


What is so bad about exposure to rudeness or perceived rudeness?  According to psychological theory, people have a finite amount of personal resources. When something is taxing their resources, they have less remaining to apply somewhere else. Simply put, when confronted with rudeness, people may be too focused on the unpleasant person or uncomfortable situation to effectively focus on their work. Indeed, the study found that perception of rudeness was associated with decreased progress toward goals, lower task performance, psychological withdrawal, and avoidance of interpersonal interactions. Once again, these outcomes were less pronounced for employees with high self-evaluations, while more pronounced for employees with low self-evaluations. 


This study is important because it demonstrates the potential damage of rudeness in the workplace. Consider that the study participants did not even experience rudeness directed at them, but instead viewed a video of a rude interaction between actors. Interestingly, this was enough to affect the rest of their workday. It is clear that a rude interaction in the workplace affects more than just the recipient of the rudeness, but all witnesses to the interaction.

The study authors point out the importance of keeping rudeness out of the workplace, especially in the beginning of the day, when it can affect the entire rest of the day. They note that the end of each day appears to be a “reset button” for rudeness, and employees start with a clean slate each morning.

Further, the authors note that employee selection can benefit from seeking applicants with high core self-evaluations. These people seem to possess greater immunity to the emotional ups and downs of difficult interpersonal interactions. It is of course not possible to abolish all rudeness form the workplace. Nevertheless, we can aim to decrease rudeness, while staffing our organizations with employees who have the psychological robustness to deal with any rudeness that remains.