How to Deal with Rude Coworkers

Have you ever worked with someone who is consistently rude, passive-aggressive, offensive, or malicious? Incivility at work is increasingly common and on the rise. Rude coworkers, along with bullies and abusive employees, contribute to a toxic work environment.

Image by Androfal from Pixabay

What does workplace rudeness look like? According to Wikipedia, rudeness is “a display of disrespect by not complying with the social norms or etiquette of a group or culture.”

Examples of Rude Behavior at Work

  • Insulting or using derogatory language
  • Taking credit for someone else’s work
  • Asking inappropriate questions
  • Being consistently late and/or not calling to notify coworkers when running late
  • Leaving work early on a regular basis
  • Microwaving food with a strong or unpleasant odor
  • Interrupting or speaking over someone
  • Texting during a meeting or taking/making personal calls in a shared space
  • Sending passive-aggressive emails
  • Playing music or being noisy in a shared space
  • Eating a coworker’s food (or using the last of something and not replacing it)
  • Leaving messes
  • Borrowing something and not returning it
  • Wearing strong (or excessive) perfume/cologne

The consequences of workplace rudeness are widespread, including decreased motivation and productivity, increased distress, and demoralization. One study found that rudeness from a colleague can have a negative impact on stress levels and outside relationships (long after the workday ends). Another study found that victims of workplace incivility can become mentally fatigued; in turn, they are more likely to be rude to their coworkers, spreading the incivility. Additionally, we are more prone to make mistakes when subjected to rudeness.

In 2018, researchers identified four types of employees who are responsible for a toxic work environmentomitters, slippers, retaliators, and serial transgressors. They are counterproductive to a healthy workplace.

  • Omitters: These individuals lack the capacity to effectively self-regulate their actions. They unintentionally breach rules and policies.
  • Slippers: These are employees who occasionally engage in single acts of counterproductive work behavior, such as rudeness, eating someone else’s lunch, etc.
  • Retaliators: These are individuals who deliberately act in ways that are harmful to the organization (i.e., bullying, stealing office supplies).
  • Serial Transgressors: These employees engage in a wide array of counterproductive behaviors, such as undermining a manager’s authority or not following safety protocols.

All four of the above identified types can be rude, offensive, and/or malicious at work. Ideally, a manager reduces counterproductive behaviors (or removes the offender), but that doesn’t always happen, especially if the manager is ineffective (or is themselves the offender).

The following are tips for dealing with rude coworkers.

10 Strategies for Dealing with Rude Coworkers

1. Practice daily self-care. When running on empty, your ability to exercise self-control is diminished.

2. If possible, don’t engage with rude coworkers when you’re in a mentally bad space. Wait until you’re in a better mood; this increases the likelihood of having a productive conversation. If the conversation can’t wait, ask a trusted colleague to be present to provide support.

3. If the rudeness takes place in the form of interrupting or speaking over you, politely point it out as it is happening. Ask your coworker not to do it, and explain how the behavior impacts you. (Your request carries more weight with the added explanation.) For example, say “I lose my train of thought when you interrupt” or “I feel disrespected when you speak over me.” Speak up every time the behavior happens. (If you set a boundary, and then don’t adhere to it, it becomes worthless.)

4. Meditate. Meditation promotes mental health, reduces stress levels, generates kindness, and enhances self-awareness.

5. Don’t gossip about rude colleagues. This only contributes to a toxic climate. Instead of focusing on a solution, you’re adding to the problem.

6. When dealing with rude emails, either outright or passive (i.e., not answering a question, ignoring a request, using boldface or all caps, etc.), API! Assume Positive Intent. An email’s tone is easily misinterpreted. Also, before sending your reply, have a trusted colleague proofread the email. (And only reply if necessary; if you don’t need to respond, don’t!) If possible, delete the original offensive email from your inbox to avoid rereading it and experiencing the anger or hurt all over again; find a way to detach. Lastly, forward outright rude or offensive emails to your supervisor. Share your interpretation and ask for suggestions. To avoid sending a potentially rude email, provide a disclaimer, such as “I wrote this at 5 AM!” or use emojis and punctuation to convey emotion. (Sometimes, a smiley face makes all the difference.)

7. Seek training on dealing with difficult people and/or reach out to your EAP (employee assistance program) for resources.

8. Keep a gratitude journal. One study found that practicing gratitude at work increased employee attitudes and wellbeing. Employees reported engaging in fewer rude, gossiping, and ostracizing behaviors.

9. Report the rude coworker to your manager or supervisor. If you don’t feel comfortable with this (or if your supervisor is the offender), speak to your manager’s manager. If concerned it will be perceived as tattling, say that it’s something you would want to know if you were in their position. Explain that you thought it over carefully, and concluded it was important enough to bring to them. (You’ll be viewed as someone who wants to help, not someone who is tattling on a coworker for selfish motives.) Also, be sure to provide specific examples of the offensive behavior and how it affected you. Don’t complain; be as objective as possible. Finally, ask for their advice; this demonstrates that not only are you humble, you’re solution-focused.

10. Request to meet with the offender (in private), and openly share how their behavior impacts you. Use “I” statements, avoid accusing, and don’t assume malicious intent. Also, approach the conversation with lowered expectations; you can’t know how your coworker will react. They may become angry, indignant, anxious, resentful, or withdrawn. They might shout, belittle you, minimize, or deny any offense. They may refuse to talk, and walk away. Alternately, you might be pleasantly surprised at how the conversation unfolds. You may learn that your peer is going through a tough divorce or was recently diagnosed with cancer. (There could be a reason behind their “bad” behavior; hurt people hurt people.) They could even be unaware of their offensiveness. (For example, someone might not realize their tone is condescending.) At the end of the day, while the outcome may not be the one you hoped for, you at least did your part.

“Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.”

Eric Hoffer

In sum, the harmful effects of workplace rudeness are far-reaching. Incivility at work can negatively impact productivity, motivation, emotional health, and relationships. Rude behavior is also contagious; to avoid spreading incivility, practice regular self-care, including gratitude and meditation, and maintain self-awareness.