Ask Annie

When your office is like a reality TV show

June 7, 2012: 12:12 PM ET

Rudeness, trash talk, and general incivility are on the rise in workplaces, and that's bad for business. But can you do anything about it?

Do you really want to work in an office with this lady?

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: A friend of mine sent me your column about toning down political arguments at work, but my problem is a little different. The people I work with don't fight about politics (I wish they would -- at least it might be a substantive discussion.), but they are just rude and obnoxious to each other all the time, often in the guise of "humor." Some days I feel like a contestant on a reality TV show where whoever makes the most outrageous comment wins.

I came here from a company where the culture was totally different -- amazingly, people there went out of their way to be nice -- so this is a shock. The worst part is, I think it's rubbing off on me, since my wife tells me I am nastier than I was before I started working here. I've tried talking to my boss about it but she says I am "oversensitive." Do you and your readers have any suggestions on how to deal with this? — Survivor

Dear Survivor: Cold comfort though it may be, you are not the only one wondering. A raft of recent research suggests that rudeness is on the rise. About 40% of employed Americans report that incivility has pervaded their workplaces in the past few years, says one study by communications firms Powell Tate and Weber Shandwick, and 67% think that formal training in common courtesy might help.

Moreover, your boss should think twice about pooh-poohing your concern. The Harvard Business Review published research a few months ago suggesting that endemic meanness damages productivity: Half of the employees studied who experienced nastiness at work intentionally cut down on the amount of effort they put into their jobs, and over a third admitted that the quality of their work took a nosedive.

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"Rudeness and disrespect undermine teams and organizations over time," notes Jeff Cohen, a longtime human resources consultant based in New York who has coached irascible executives and dysfunctional teams at General Electric (GE), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), J.P. Morgan Chase (JPM), and many other big companies. "Constantly dealing with negativity and conflict is an extraordinarily stressful situation. It becomes toxic, and it can lead to more absenteeism, higher turnover, less productivity, even outright sabotage."

Why is rudeness so much more prevalent than it used to be? Cohen believes that your comparison of your office to a reality show is not far off the mark. "A lot of the decline in civility in the culture as a whole has to do with who our role models are, particularly who gets the most media attention," he observes. "The Kardashians, Charlie Sheen, the people on hit shows like 'Dance Moms' and 'Bridezilla' -- the more mean-spirited they are, the more attention they get. So being mean has become much more socially acceptable. Kindness and courtesy are no longer the expected norm."

How this plays out in a business environment, Cohen says, is that "there are no adverse consequences for being nasty. If your boss is rude, or tolerates rudeness from others, you will feel it is the way to get ahead. And everyone will just keep it up until someone takes a stand and says, 'Hey, this is just not acceptable.'"

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Launching a one-man crusade against incivility may seem quixotic, but Cohen suggests these three tactics:

1. Be direct (and polite). Hard as it may be to fathom, "many people are truly not aware that they are being rude, or that their rudeness makes you uncomfortable," Cohen says. So consider taking the worst offenders aside, one by one, and "in a non-accusing, non-confrontational way, just tell them that, when they speak to you or to each other in a rude, hostile way, it makes it harder for you to get your work done." You may have to have this conversation more than once, but eventually it might sink in.

2. Befriend the most belligerent. It may help to find out more about the people whose rudeness grates on you the most, Cohen says: "Discover their positive side, maybe over lunch or coffee. Understand if something is bothering them, maybe trouble at home." Being nice, like being nasty, is often contagious. It's easier to be rude to someone you don't know very well, he adds, so turning obnoxious coworkers into buddies may help civilize the atmosphere. It's worth a try.

3. Find out if formal training or coaching is available. In many large companies, so-called team-building training is often a euphemism for coaching in common courtesy, Cohen notes. "It's called collaboration training. Very early in the process, everyone gets a chance to speak up about what is getting in the way of the team's performance" -- including pervasive disrespect and meanness. "The group then draws up a list of ground rules in writing, not dictated by management or HR, which everyone agrees to," he says. "It becomes self-monitoring."

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If you're going to approach human resources (and of course your boss) to propose this, Cohen adds, "frame it as, 'I think we could perform a lot better as a team if we had some collaboration training.' You'll get a much warmer reception than if you spell out that you're hoping to make your colleagues less nasty."

If all else fails, you have two choices: Learn to ignore the crass culture there, and make a conscious effort not to let it drag you down; or else find some way to get out, either by moving somewhere else in the company or finding a job elsewhere (which may be easier than you think, and well worth the effort). Good luck.

Talkback: Has rudeness and disrespect increased where you work? If so, how do you respond to it? Leave a comment below.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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