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Workplace rudeness is on the rise; just deal with it

At the online Web site of Tell-Em-Off, employees can e-mail their bosses or fellow workers insulting cards that scorn their incompetence, ignorance, excessive demands, personal hygiene or back-stabbing habits.

None of the eight workplace cards can be reprinted in this newspaper. But Tell-Em-Off is obviously tapping a deepening vein: workplace rudeness.

Take last month's example of a Tampa city employee who was fired after swearing at an area resident in an e-mail. Tracy Davis was dismissed after exchanging several e-mails with Clearwater businessman Allen Miller. Davis' last electronic response: "Go to hell, because you have a very nasty attitude."

Or consider Susanna Seaman, a five-year employee at Verizon Communications who was fired this spring from her job as a customer service representative in Sarasota. The reason? Uttering a profanity to her boss. Her plight was detailed this month in a New York Times story.

Workplace rudeness, also hyped as "desk rage" to complement the popular "road rage" of drivers and newer "air rage" of plane passengers, is not new. But it's growing. The latest research from the University of Michigan says so.

It's gotten so bad that Chicago employment attorney Jeff London conducts civility seminars for businesses _ when he is not defending management in rude behavior litigation.

"I do think things are getting worse," London said Friday. "Over the last year, there is a greater intensity of rudeness in the workplace."

So why the burst of rudeness at work?

Get outta my face and I'll tell you.

Just kidding. You know the story. Society's going to hell _ excuse me _ in a handbasket. Music lyrics, more explicit movies, talk radio, the aftereffects of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, the rise of cable TV _ witness the glorification of HBO's graphic series, The Sopranos _ and even the increasingly unfettered language of prime time network TV and access to the Internet all contribute to weakening historic standards of conduct.

Add to that the three big trends in the workplace:

1. Greater intermingling of employees' business and social lives. Businesses operate with less hierarchy, greater emphasis on teams and casual dress that help blur rules and encourage more opportunities for one worker to be offended by the behavior of another.

2. The technology boom makes it easier to be rude from afar. E-mail, as the Tampa employee demonstrated above, allows workers to become detached from their colleagues and clients _ and freer to blast them. Voice mail also makes it much easier for callers to rant and say things they probably would not volunteer in a live phone conversation.

(I can attest to this personally, almost every day.)

3. The downturn in the economy in the past year makes the workplace more stressful. Less job security and greater work demands are pushing workers to do their jobs more quickly and efficiently _ often at the cost of basic courtesy.

Just ask Dr. Lilia M. Cortina of the psychology department at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Her research team concluded a new study of 1,200 workers and found that almost three-quarters of Americans appear to have been the butt of uncivil verbal slights at the office at least once in recent years.

The team asked employees about their personal experiences of mistreatment, including incivility and sexual harassment but excluding physical aggression. They defined incivility as incidents of rudeness, insensitivity, disrespect and condescension involving both superiors and co-workers.

The survey highlights:

n More than 70 percent of the workers experienced some sort of workplace incivility in the prior five years. Almost 40 percent encountered such a situation once or twice, while 25 percent said it happened "sometimes" and 6 percent said it happened frequently.

n Women experienced workplace incivility more often than men.

n The greater the incivility, the more workers were dissatisfied with their jobs. And the more likely workers thought about leaving their positions.

Cortina says she was surprised at the extent of bad workplace behavior. But she was disturbed at how much impact it had on employees.

"It can wear people down," she says.

None of that is good for business. Rudeness hurts commitment, productivity, morale and the bottom line.

The Michigan survey mirrors a 1999 analysis of rising workplace misbehavior by the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler School of Business. Although men and women were targets of disrespect and rudeness in equal numbers, the UNC survey found, researchers said men instigated the incidents 70 percent of the time.

Bad manners at work have inspired a flurry of books, including Anger and Conflict in the Work Place, Managing Workplace Negativity and Violence at Work: How to Safeguard Your Firm, that try to suggest ways to restore more civilized employees. University of Florida law professor Robert C.L. Moffat recently wrote Civility and its Discontents that reminds us of a Catch-22: Stress may breed incivility, but incivility also deepens stress.

My personal favorite revives some of the 1922 etiquette rules of Emily Post. The expert's great-grandchildren, Peggy Post and Peter Post, authored The Etiquette Advantage in Business, which includes survival tips in a workplace far ruder than Emily could have imagined.

Will more and more workplace rudeness eventually drive us all to litigation and the courts?

Don't count on it. There are some odd signs the U.S. legal system isn't interested in getting in the middle of civility differences.

Last month, a federal judge rejected claims by Gabrielle Breda that she was subjected to a sexually hostile work environment that forced her to resign her job at a Wolf Camera store in Georgia.

In an unusual twist, Judge B. Avant Edenfield of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia dismissed Breda's case. His argument: "The modern notion of acceptable behavior" has become corroded by lewd music, videos and computer games, "perversity-programming" broadcast standards and other degrading factors.

As a result, Edenfield said, "victims" like Breda may have to accept a certain amount of boorish behavior or workplace vulgarity as normal.

Where's Emily Post when we need her?

_ Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigauxsptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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