5 Ways to Reduce Rudeness in the Remote Workplace

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As organizations adopt virtual operations as a core way of conducting business in the long term, managers need to be conscious of the powerful effect of slights, snubs, and other rude behavior on employee and team functioning. For employees from marginalized groups, patterns of uncivil experiences may signal that they don’t belong in the organization or that their perspective is not welcome. Managers can create an antidote to incivility by providing opportunities for personal connections and accountability to shared norms of respect. The authors present five of their best pieces of advice for conducting virtual work that will cultivate positive relationships among your team.

While many companies are now returning to some amount of in-person work, many others will adopt virtual operations for some or all of their business. Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have already laid plans for a hybrid workforce, and in academia, we’re seeing the benefits of virtual meetings via increased attendance and ease of participation for remote employees. However, leaders will need to understand the social implications (both good and bad) of cyber work before adopting it long term.

Of particular concern is how diverse teams can come together, forge connections, and collaborate effectively in online environments. Our research on selective incivility — subtle slights, interruptions, and disregard experienced by women, members of racial minorities, and other marginalized employees — demonstrates that incivility is damaging to performance and deteriorates team functioning. Virtual spaces are uniquely susceptible to this form of insidious behavior, as online team meetings, chatrooms, and team management spaces provide ample opportunity for disrespect to thrive. Managers need to be keenly aware of how incivility manifests online in order to create spaces that include all voices and diverse contributions.

Incivility Is Amplified in Virtual Settings

Our research on workplace incivility shows that while most of us experience rudeness at some point, employees of color, LGBTQIA employees, and those with other marginalized identities experience it more often. Moreover, virtual incivility in particular is a cause for concern for employees of color in the U.S. Being interrupted, spoken over, glossed over, or receiving snide remarks are all examples of incivility. In an online environment, it’s even easier to act uncivilly: Physical distance makes us feel separated from one another, and there are few consequences for bad actors. Organizations often brush off these rude experiences as unimportant, or worse yet, consider it “just the ways things are done around here.” The crucial problem for a diverse workforce is that these trivialized experiences also translate into poor work and mental health outcomes for those at the receiving end. And when incivility becomes a daily hassle, marginalized members take that as a cue that they’re not respected or valued, and they may leave the organization all together.

Incivility is particularly damaging due to its ambiguous nature — that is, it’s often unclear whether the person slighting another intends harm. For example, we talked to a health systems employee who recounted an email detailing patient care that ended with, “Have you got it?” They read this as questioning their intelligence, while someone else might read it as a clarifying question. The ambiguous nature of incivility leaves room for interpretation. When the cause of the mistreatment is unclear, employees are more likely to make internal attributions (“Was it something I did?” “Do they think I’m not competent?”), leading to self-doubt, lowered self-esteem, and rumination. As a veiled form of bias, this process can be just as damaging — to the employee as well as the organization — as overt forms of discrimination, where attributions are more easily externalized (“He’s sexist” or “She’s racist”). Subtle forms of discrimination are also harder to identify and address using organizational policies, making them more likely to be a chronic stressor for marginalized employees.

The switch to virtual operations can amplify the concerns of employees who already felt excluded at work. Subtle interpersonal messaging during virtual meetings signals to some that their voices are valued and that they belong and to others that they may be best kept on mute. Casual encounters in the hallways, break rooms, and elevators are less frequent or nonexistent, so virtual meetings may be their only tangible connection to the organization. Targets of incivility are also less able to find social support to cope, making the experience more isolating.

Incivility Flies Under the Radar

Research shows that only 1 to 6% of employees report incivility to managers. To some extent, that makes sense. Formally reporting that someone cut you off in a meeting may seem like overreacting to a small mishap. However, instead of viewing these incivilities as isolated experiences, we should identify patterns of slights and indignities that can reveal the ways in which incivility eats away at the commitment, satisfaction, and performance of members from diverse backgrounds. For example, it isn’t just that John cut you off in a meeting yesterday — it’s that he did a similar thing in the last meeting, and before that, his boss left you off an important email. Recent studies have found that these hostile exchanges are unpleasant and irritating for employees, leaving them feeling devalued.

If employees don’t report incivility, how do they handle it? The most common response is to avoid the instigator. Research suggests that neither avoiding nor confronting the instigator reduces future incidents, leaving targets with few viable options. In the case of selective incivility, confronting instigators may also mean going against established power dynamics and accusing someone of biased treatment. Again, because of the subtle, ambiguous nature of incivility, targets are not likely to take on the risk and discomfort of confrontation when the instigator might accuse them of being oversensitive and a troublemaker.

What Managers Can Do

Organizations are increasingly sinking major financial investments into diversity trainings and implicit bias workshops. While these may be beneficial in educating employees about the fundamental facts of company policies, laws, and psychological processes, research suggests that they do little to create the type of inclusive environments necessary to have a healthy and productive diverse workforce. How connections are forged and maintained in a virtual environment will rely on some intentional efforts by managers.

Leaders can use microinterventions — everyday words and deeds that counteract, change, or stop subtle discrimination — to create contexts where selective incivility is less likely and that provide an avenue for apology and growth when infractions do occur. Incivility prevention and intervention is crucial in fostering the productive and inclusive teams that many organizations are striving for as they implement their remote or hybrid work plans. Here are our best pieces of advice for conducting virtual work that will cultivate positive relationships among your team.

Make the expectation for respectful interactions explicit. Although leaders often feel as though addressing social norms is superfluous to productivity, we know that time spent ruminating, seeking support, or retaliating following rude interactions is time and money wasted for organizations. Furthermore, Dr. Lilia Cortina of the University of Michigan and her colleagues detail the human costs of incivility: physiological damage including impaired memory, increased cardiovascular activity, and disruption of insulin production. All of this adds up to more sick leave, increased mental health concerns, and negative spillover into family relationships.

One way to make the team’s expectations for respect explicit is to jointly create a team contract that includes respect as a core principle. Examples include, “We will not speak over one another in meetings,” or “Contributions will be recorded via the team chat to ensure all members get credit for their ideas.” Limiting the use of smartphones for multitasking and implementing more structured protocols for meetings with built-in opportunities to connect and collaborate may also be important principles to enhance respect in your workplace. By setting a clear standard of respect and norms around constructive dialogue and conflict, leaders and team members have a starting point when addressing patterns of low-level disrespect and disregard.

Make following up on interpersonal mishaps a norm. All too often, we hear from employees who are trying to make sense of a recent Zoom mishap. Did he mean to cut me off? Why do my contributions get swallowed up without people noticing? No one seems to even notice when I log on or off. In the virtual workplace, employees have less time to debrief or get social support from colleagues following ambiguous mishaps like these. By acknowledging the importance of small interpersonal gestures, teams can create a norm where members can follow up on things that they perceived as a slight.

Video meetings open the door for misinterpretation, as virtual interactions are less rich than in-person ones. For example, when brainstorming as a team recently, one of us became lost in thought and had a prolonged and awkward stare into the webcam. Face-to-face, it would have been easier to decipher this as contemplation, rather than distraction or boredom.

Make it less awkward to inquire about such “lost in translation” experiences to reduce ambiguity for others. One way to start this process is to be open about your own potential missteps. Follow up immediately by acknowledging that you sensed awkwardness or that you weren’t sure your message was conveyed appropriately. As a leader, you set the example for not rushing past these moments and pausing to ensure the message was correctly received.

Call people in. Calling people out alienates individuals and fosters a sense of fear and social derision that can permeate your organizational culture. Instead, if you’d like to correct a behavior that was perceived as rude, call people in to have a conversation with the goal of changed behavior. This is based on the work of Professor Loretta Ross, who advocates for addressing interpersonal missteps by opening the door to conversation, understanding, and learning. By addressing hurtful behavior through private, respectful conversation with the instigator, you leave the door open to collaboration. Calling instigators in should be paired with extending support to the person who was treated disrespectfully as a way of closing the loop and signaling that you noticed and addressed the incivility.

When having these conversations, avoid blame and snap judgements; instead, focus on the impact of the behavior and work together to find solutions. People often respond best to similarity and familiarity. By focusing on similarities and shared experiences, we can take steps to create connections and build trust. Finding these points of connection is especially important when working across differences — viewing coworkers as individual people with shared connections helps to erode implicit stereotypes that undergird subtle forms of disrespect. If you yourself are called in for rude behavior, listen with respect and apologize when necessary. As a leader, a public apology is a powerful way to influence the culture of your workplace.

Beware of bias. Even chronic instigators of incivility may be unaware of the impact of their behavior. Try to avoid thinking of these employees as “bad apples” but rather acknowledge that while most of us think of ourselves as upstanding moral citizens, we are all works in progress. This might help reduce their defensiveness, as the negative associations, stereotypes, and assumptions we hold about others, even implicitly, influence our behaviors and stem from long histories involving racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia. While most of us don’t endorse these systems of oppression, it’s very difficult to extricate ourselves from them completely, and all too often, our actions are informed by and reinforce them.

Allies or bystanders can also miss the mark for respectful behavior, even if they have positive intentions. We’re all on our own journeys to become “goodish people,” as Dr. Dolly Chugh puts it. By understanding the cultural, societal, and historical complexity around the marginalization of various groups, we can set ourselves on a learning orientation to correct our stumbles and mistakes. As leaders, we can set an example by correcting the subtle ways bias manifests online. For example, research finds that Black women’s contributions are not remembered as accurately as their peers and are often misattributed to others. Check that your online meetings allow for equal voices and that contributions are tracked.

Don’t skip the “niceties.” You know those pre-meeting updates on puppy training, new recipes, and family affairs? Don’t rush past them. Our research suggests that taking a personal interest in employees translates into feelings of thriving and empowerment. Instead of viewing this time as irrelevant to productivity, create space and time (even five minutes!) for people to share what’s going on in their lives. This could be a short activity where everyone contributes, such as sharing one good thing that happened to them that day. This will ensure quiet voices or new members feel welcome and provides an opportunity to foster personal connections.

As organizations adopt virtual operations as a core way of conducting business in the long term, managers need to be conscious of the powerful effect of slights, snubs, and other rude behavior on employee and team functioning. For employees from marginalized groups, patterns of uncivil experiences may signal that they don’t belong in the organization or that their perspective is not welcome. Managers can create an antidote to incivility by providing opportunities for personal connections and accountability to shared norms of respect.

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