Retail managers now have two compelling reasons to encourage employees to be polite in the workplace; polite to each other, that is. Sure, retailers know that rudeness to a customer means lost goodwill and lost sales, but new research reveals that rudeness shown by one employee towards another one is damaging too. Moreover, a different study shows that rudeness can interfere with efficient cognition. A University of Southern California team, led by professor Deborah MacInnis and assistant professor Christine Porath, found that customers who witness employees being rude to other employees tend to make negative generalizations regarding the store’s staff, the store in general, and future visits to the store. Even if the employee is not rude to the customer, just being rude to a fellow worker can make customers angry or upset.
The research results, published in the, “Journal of Consumer Research,” found that a store manager calling an employee, “an idiot,” inspired customers to jump to negative conclusions about the company. Even when the rudeness was in support of the customer, the effect was negative. In part of the research, a retail clerk gossiped on the phone for several minutes, ignoring the customer. When the clerk was reprimanded rudely by another employee in front of the customer, the customer was still turned off, even though the rude behavior was intended to help the customer.
Porath, the author of, The Cost of Bad Behavior, tells Cover Magazine that rudeness damages retailers. “When you just witness incivility as a customer, people get very angry and generalize quite negatively. People will not support businesses where this happens. It does hit the bottom line,” she says. Her research revealed that this negative response comes from basic human consideration. “Morally and ethically, we just don’t like to see people treated that way.” The negative consequences of rude words or behavior are not limited to turning off customers. Rudeness also decreases the ability to think creatively and solve problems. A study by psychologist, Amir Erez, at the University of Florida found that anyone witnessing rudeness not only had decreased success solving problems, but rudeness tends to set free their inner demons. Associate professor Erez gave subjects a few simple mental challenges: to unscramble several words and to think of new ways to use a brick. Some of the test subjects were first exposed to a study leader berating an underling by saying, “What are you, stupid? Get on with it!” And he said that the underling was unfit to hold a job in the, “real world.”
Study participants who witnessed the verbal abuse had less success doing the mental tasks. Even worse, they tended to unscramble “demure” as “murder,” and the uses they suggested for the brick included attacking people, killing people, and throwing it through a window. Overall they came up with fewer ideas for using the brick than did the control group. The results of this study were published in a journal, “Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.”
Erez went on to study rudeness in retail settings with Anat Rafaeli, a professor at the Technion in Israel, and Erez shared his unpublished results with Cover Magazine. “It was research about customers’ rudeness and how it influenced employees’ cognitive function,” says Erez. That included simple problems such as remembering customer requests, changing a phone number, and so on. “And what we found was that it was really bad for all of those,” he says. Erez noted that the negative effect was less pronounced for employees who were good at, “perspective taking,” that is, “a specific type of empathy that let’s you get into their head and feel what they’re thinking.”
According to Porath, there are concrete steps retail managers can take to decrease rudeness in the store. “These managers can set intolerance expectations,” she suggests, including, “the idea that this kind of thing isn’t going to fly; it’s not acceptable in the company.” She has concrete steps for managers, as she describes in her book. “Training in civility is actually quite helpful,” she says. “Building listening skills, conflict resolution, stress management, and anger management training is all worth the investment.”