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.

MORE: The CEO guide to business travel: Rules of the road

"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." More

Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by VIP.