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Is your workplace toxic? Now you can blame that one toxic colleague

Fast Company logo Fast Company 6/25/2021 Arianne Cohen

We’ve all experienced a boss or coworker who is rude or abusive—yet such mistreatment is apparently not widespread.

Researchers tracked workplace behavior among U.S. restaurant chain employees, at a technology manufacturer in China, and throughout a range of office and industry jobs in the U.S. They found that although 70% of employees experienced “incivility” at work, only 16% of work relationships included mistreatments. In other words, the vast majority of workplace interactions are pleasant, but most workers have a difficult or abusive coworker.

“Most relationships are not characterized by rudeness,” says coauthor Shannon Taylor, an associate professor of management at the University of Central Florida, whose study was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

This was news. Workplace research has previously suggested that workplace abuse is an “epidemic,” but in practice, most rude interactions can be traced to a very small number of coworkers. Or one.

These toxic interactions can have rippling consequences. Another large-scale paper out this week in BMJ finds that “bullying in a work unit can not only negatively affect the victim, but also the perpetrator and team members who witness that behavior,” says coauthor Maureen Dollard, an Australian Research Council Laureate who tracked 3,921 employees over a year in Australia. “It is not uncommon for everyone in the same unit to experience burnout as a result.”

The upside of these findings is that abusive behavior is relatively easy to locate and root out, one employee at a time. The University of Central Florida researchers concluded that workplace cultures that encourage gratitude and appreciation are pivotal to reducing incivility, as employees’ perceptions about how colleagues should treat each other had a strong impact on behaviors.

“Employers should ensure there are strong norms for respect and civility in the workplace,” says coauthor Lauren Locklear, a doctoral student in management at the University of Central Florida. “Having a zero-tolerance policy for these rude behaviors is key to stopping mistreatment in its tracks.”


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