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This Advice Will Actually Help You Handle an Employee Who’s Being Rude

Recently a client asked me for a few straightforward steps that could help get someone to stop being rude. Other employees at the company had been trying not to take the rudeness personally, but eventually it really started getting on people’s nerves and became a management problem. Initially, the idea that rudeness is only a small negative made it particularly difficult for people to face the situation, as if it were too minor to merit serious attention, but after a while, it became a very big deal.

Rudeness Is a Perception Issue

It’s challenging to deal with someone who behaves rudely. We don’t want to overreact — maybe they’re just having a bad day. On the other hand, rudeness can make people feel demeaned and self-conscious, as if something about who they are is the reason they’re drawing fire. Repeated rudeness can be especially damaging to someone who isn’t part of the workplace majority. So it’s best to address rudeness promptly rather than waiting till there’s a real pattern or habit of behavior established. At that point it becomes harder to change the rude individual’s behavior, and other people may start to take management’s lack of response as a signal that rude behavior is somehow okay. Here are four approaches that can help.

Don’t characterize them. If you call someone “rude” or tell them that they’re “being rude,” it can be extremely difficult for them to respond in any way other than defensively. They won’t necessarily know what behavior you’re asking them to change or how to change it. Whatever they did, it may have felt right to them in the moment for some reason, and the labeling means you’ve declared them as wrong and possibly hopeless, so why should they bother trying to do anything differently? 

Instead, play back the situation for them: “When you spoke to your colleague that way, your sarcastic comments and angry tone caused them to perceive that you were being rude to them. Was that your intent?”

Learn how the situation looks from their perspective. The potential differences in their intent may cause you to give feedback or intervene differently. Prompt them to share with you their view of the situation. You could say something like, “I noticed that you seemed impatient when that topic came up a second time in the meeting. Can you please tell me what was going on?” Maybe the person you’re perceiving as rude feels that they are merely responding in kind, that this is the way their colleague speaks to them, or maybe even that it’s all in fun. (If this is their response, it’s crucial to be very careful: “joking” is often a cloaked form of aggression or othering.) Maybe they were in a rush and just wanted to “cut through” what felt unnecessary to them. Or perhaps they’re so frustrated with a problem that they can’t fix themselves that they’re actually feeling embarrassed and guilty and their interactions are short and sharp as a way to protect themselves.

Look for any structural problems. Sometimes a person behaves rudely because the workplace’s existing processes or norms aren’t working for them, and they don’t know how to contain their exasperation. Thinking through the situation may help you discover structural improvements that eliminate the real source of the problem; then, it’ll be easier to give up the behavioral response. The sooner you can uncover the root of the behavior, the sooner you can help the individual give up negative responses that cause others to avoid or even them.

Clarify what is and isn’t okay. Explain that it’s never okay for any colleague to treat another with disrespect or disdain — not even if they feel it was deserved. For example, you could say, “Interrupting when you get tired of your colleagues isn’t likely to persuade them to see your point of view.” You can provide techniques for practicing patience, like breathwork. Or suggest that if there isn’t enough time to hear a colleague out fully, it would be better to reschedule and reconvene than to cut someone off. You can also offer to be helpful and intervene as a way of modeling more effective behavior: “If you’re having a hard time and can’t figure out how to deal with your colleague, invite me to the meeting and we can do some facilitated dialog.”

Onward and upward —


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