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31 March 2023

The rise of nastiness in the workplace

Colleagues belittling their workmates, customers abusing the people serving them, nastiness in the workplace appears to be on the rise in Australia and globally.

“I have seen a jump in uncivil and rude workplace behaviour or just plain old nastiness in the last 12 to 18 months,” said Bartier Perry Workplace & Culture partner James Mattson.

“From a legal perspective nastiness can be hard to define because it often sits below outright harassment or physical aggression, but it has a real impact on people.

It may be a disgruntled employee “going nuclear” upset by a business decision or making snide remarks to discredit their colleague.

It can also be the patient verbally abusing a nurse, the parent firing off angry emails to a teacher or the customer belittling a retail worker for not having an item in stock,” he said.

Research by Christine Portah, a professor of management at Georgetown University, has highlighted the number of workers globally who said they were treated rudely at least once a month rose from 55% in 2005 to 76% in 2022.

Professor Portah’s survey of 2000 people across 25 industries also highlighted 78% of respondents believe that bad behaviour from customers to employees was more common than five years ago.*

Mr Mattson, who is one of the editors of Social Media & the Law, said a Covid-driven lack of physical connection to a workplace or colleagues may be behind the rise of rudeness.

“A bit like social media, we’ve noted a lot of the workplace nastiness is directed upwards, at managers, bosses or people making decisions.

Perhaps people have other employment options and are not afraid to speak their mind, unrestrained by workplace etiquette. Or perhaps as a result of working from home, people are increasingly disconnected from their communities and the moderating influence on behaviour workplaces have through their culture and office guidelines".

Mr Mattson said with flexible workplaces here to stay, employers needed to take strong steps to clamp down on incivility and nastiness.

“Out of sight should not mean you can ignore common courtesy to your workmates and employers should make it clear what behaviours are expected wherever you are working from. In one sense, it’s also encouraging to see a national liquor retailer and other stores putting signs up saying they have zero tolerance for abuse of their staff. The old saying of the customer is always right doesn’t cover ranting at a retail assistant for not having your favourite chardonnay in stock.”

Mr Mattson said end of year events, parties or employee updates were a good time for bosses to thank people but also reiterate the behaviours that were expected in the workplace.

Professor Portah’s research showed just 4% of people were rude because they saw it was fun and they could get away with it. However once rudeness started it was; “contagious, it spreads quickly, anyone can be a carrier — at work, at home, online, or in our communities - and getting infected doesn’t take much.”


* Harvard Business Review November 9th 2022 - Frontline Work When Everyone Is Angry