We hear a lot about the problem of bullying in schools and the workplace, but not so much about rudeness, which can be a precursor to bullying. But recently, three psychologists at Lund University in Sweden surveyed 6,000 people on the social climate in the workplace, and discovered that “rudeness is a major reason for dissatisfaction at work and that unpleasant behavior spreads if nothing is done about it,” according to a report in the science publication Phys.org.
The study took a broad definition of rudeness, essentially including behaviors not covered by law or regulation: not inviting someone to a meeting; not sharing information with someone who needs it; taking credit for others’ work; not praising the people who work for you; spreading rumors; and similar behaviors.
In other words, what many know as fairly typical power plays in the workplace. And if nothing is done to stop it, it spreads.
The study didn’t specifically include the use of profanity, but I would. In the 40 years in was in an organizational work setting, the quality of informal workplace communication clearly declined. This likely was a reflection of the decline in society at large and the increased coarseness in speech. This was happening long before the advent of Twitter and Facebook, although social media have likely accelerated the decline.
A personal experience: I once was part of a team of about 20 people, and the leaders met weekly to coordinate and plan. One individual frequently peppered her speech with the “f-bomb;” it was an unusual meeting when she didn’t (as in, she was traveling and missed the meeting). Our boss did nothing. In fact, it wasn’t long before he starting dropping the f-bomb as much as she did. Then another member of the leadership team started it. And the leadership team became three people who dropped the f-bomb – usually to shut off conversation and debate – and three people who didn’t.
The purpose was to ensure that one’s view prevailed. Except it didn’t work out that way. The three of us who didn’t use profanity would leave the meeting and do what we had planned anyway. Out boss gained a reputation for allowing himself to be bullied and not doing anything to stop workplace misbehavior.
That’s called a dysfunctional work team.
What can you do if you face a situation like that?
First, try to talk with the person with the profane speech. Explain that it closes off conversation and ultimately works against the individual. Do this as positively and gently as possible; you’re going to embarrass the person no matter how you explain it. The goal is to make the point and not humiliate them.
Second, if that doesn’t work and the behavior continues, talk with your boss. Organizations are becoming more aware of how social behaviors affect work, and social behaviors go far beyond what might be defined as discrimination. The boss needs to understand that something needs to be said to the offending individual.
Third, there’s Human Resources. HR generally doesn’t like to deal with this kind of mess in a workplace, but they know better than most what it can lead to. If you go to HR, I suggest you tell your boss that’s what you’re doing – you want to keep your actions completely aboveboard.
A fourth option. At one meeting, when the profanity was getting out of hand, I interrupted the conversation with a comment. “Could we please hold off on the profanity during the discussion?” I said. “I find that it really distracts from the substance of what we’re trying to say.” There was a rather profound silence, and then the boss finally said, “Good point.” And we went on. Without the profanity.