Is Workplace Rudeness a Kamikaze Tactic?

Rude employees, like killer bees, are an unpleasant fact of life—a mysterious fact, too, given that being uncivil to clients, customers or especially to your boss can get you fired if you are caught and not in possession of a prescription for very weird, but necessary meds.

Yet it’s a risk that all too many employees will run, even though it’s a safe bet that the frequency of organizational and corporate rudeness doesn’t even come close to matching how often incivility is displayed on city sidewalks, express lanes, online rant-blogs and on some talk radio.

The question is why would any employee use rudeness as a work tool on a job (s)he wants to keep?

Calculated Spontaneity as a Tool

I say “tool” because seemingly spontaneous emotional rude outbursts are, in general, as calculated as the precisely calibrated cool narrow-minded incivility of the uppity sneering at “those people”. Rudeness that is not the result of meds- or mood-induced temporary insanity is like a hammer: a tool (repeatedly) used to further one’s ends without injuring oneself in the process, unlike the stinger of the kamikaze honeybee.

Yet, like the behavior of the attacking honeybee, workplace rudeness, in many instances, indeed seems occupationally suicidal.

What employee would, on or off the job, dare be rude to a pack of beefy, helmeted Hells Angels bikers, either in retaliation for some perceived transgression, or more stupidly, with no justification whatsoever? No, even the emotionally overcome and fed-up know which fights to pick by being rude and when not to—unless they have completely lost touch with physical reality, including the physical damage biker brass knuckles can inflict.

Bottom line: Despite appearances, much “impulsive” rudeness is a crafted and staged performance. Granted this perspective, what kinds of calculations enter into the decision to go ahead and be uncivil and outright rude, instead of neither risking it nor seeing any benefit whatsoever in being rude?

The Missing “RAA” Buffer

Start with why most employees will not be rude: In my analysis of the phenomenon of “testosterogues”, I argued that the mix of “responsibility, authority and accountability” (“RAA”) does much to inhibit workplace aggressive incivility.  Given that authority can satisfy ego and id needs, while being responsible and accountable can keep them in check, blatant rudeness will have no place in many jobs featuring RAA.

But it seems RAA is not always sufficient or present, since everybody has stories about rude rogue employees treating others in uncivil, impolite, discourteous or worse ways. To make the analysis that is to follow concrete, let me cite and dissect my recent encounter with what seems to have been a rude rogue employee: a bus driver.

Bus My Chops

I got on a bus a couple of weeks ago, without exact change. When I indicated to the driver that I hoped to make change among the passengers, something that her regional headquarters supervisor subsequently reassured me was a perfectly normal thing to do, she bellowed at me, “This is absolutely unacceptable! Move to the back of the bus!” Thinking it was some playful prank, I replied, “You’re kidding. Right?” She roared a second time, same words, prefaced with “No. I’m not joking!”

Not wanting hostile charity foisted on me, I tried to get change for my $5 bill (eventually, from a very sympathetic couple also aghast at the driver’s behavior and who, besides change, offered their contact information as witnesses).  But, worse happened before that.

Mostly a bicyclist, I’m somewhat unfamiliar with the bus systems back in the city I’ve left, but which I will, as I did on that day, visit on occasion. When I questioningly looked at the driver, bill in hand hovering over what I took to be the cash slot, I said, “I’ll absorb the loss on this” and inched the cash toward the cash box. Overpayment means free money for the bus company, right? And I cease to be free-loading free rider. Right?

Wrong. The driver went apoplectic: gratuitously assuming I wasn’t from out-of-town or unfamiliar with the bus system, she bellowed, “You should KNOW better!! If you do that, you’ll jam my machine!!! And I will CALL SECURITY!!!”. Yep, have me surrounded by black-uniformed, probably taser-armed security, maybe detained…who knows, tasered? For what? Offering to overpay for my ride and for being unfamiliar with the latest coin-only technology on her bus?

I guess my flagging her down with my bike in hand just before she left the stop really ticked her off, since it forced her to wait for another traffic-light change to let aboard a number of others who were also dashing for the bus. After all, making money for the company can be an annoyance if it forces you sit and squirm through another red light or dings your schedule.

(The aforementioned company supervisor was both apologetic and puzzled—by how such routine events could elicit her reactions. He assured me that the driver would be participating in a review of what happened and requested the sympathetic couple’s contact information. In a recent follow-up conversation, he informed me that the driver offered an apology.)

Rude-Employee (Mis)Calculations

Using this incident as a case study, what could possibly motivate the kind of employee rudeness that not only shocked the older couple, but that also made other heads turn, eyes roll, jaws drop and expressions of surprise to be voiced?

As explanations, consider the following possibilities as alternatives to or enabling factors in what otherwise would be described as a mysterious and bizarre employee “meltdown” and “a bad day”.

Note how seemingly rational “calculated risk-taking” and assumed immunity to repercussions, rather than purely “spontaneous” kamikaze insanity, explain the rudeness:

The  employee RAA (Responsibility/Authority/Accountability) links were (imagined to be) broken or non-existent: One possibility is that even without assuming that approved bellowing at passengers is part of the bus-driver training,  somehow she imagined she was, despite being responsible, not also accountable for her rudeness. (Being responsible means having specified duties; being accountable means, among other things, having to explain or justify why you didn’t fulfill them when you fail to—and having to pay the price.)

Big mistake. As the supervisor, himself formerly a driver, told me, drivers “never know who they are dealing with. That person could be very powerful and important.” —said without any apparent intent to diminish the importance of each and every passenger. This is especially true in an age in which casual dress is the West Coast norm for everyone from Spielberg (who loves to film stories of injustice) to the unemployed, unknown student film-maker (who might become a Spielberg with a story like this one).

(Note to bus driver: Think of passengers’ casual dress as camouflage, not as a bulls-eye.)

As a minimum, it is also safe to assume that every passenger knows how—as I do and did—to file a formal complaint. Every driver should know that much about everyone (s)he deals with.

The employee perceives customers, clients, etc., as a “soft-target” out-group: This is simple Sociology 101. With the exception of institutionalized and approved “in-group” teasing and mock insults, genuine rudeness is reserved for out-groups, even though, on the hopeful face of it, it is not clear why out-groups should be targets, outlets, temptations or opportunities for rudeness just because they are outside the in-group. But, once perceived as such, they are far more likely to be targeted.

This employee (mis)perception can be addressed by management reframing or reaffirming of the relationship between the company’s employees and their clientele, to make the perception more inclusive—without requiring anyone’s being on the receiving end of a wartime blitzkrieg to promote a sense of solidarity, or at least the rudiments of civility.

The employee believes the cultural-social matrix will allow, ignore or even encourage rudeness: While on a different trip, in a quaint tourist town in Eastern Europe, I approached an adult salesperson in a mall pet shop whom I politely asked, “Excuse me, is there a washroom nearby?” What was her response to me, obviously a tourist and maybe some pet-owner’s friend? She looked at me with utter disgust and shooed me away. That was “hot” rudeness, like the bus driver’s. Elsewhere in the same, otherwise lovely town, there were pockets of “cold” rudeness, e.g., unsmiling, inattentive staff, whose behavior was, however, amply offset by some nice politeness in other shops and sites and by the dismay of my local host.

My take on this, which I explained to my host, was that the store staffer’s response was a calculated response. Unlike the attack of a kamikaze honeybee, the rudeness was thought to be unlikely to be self-damaging in any way, because, despite being the exception, rather than the rule, it was behavior that the local town or mall culture obviously, in her perception of it, did not rule out.

(Afterwards, it was suggested to me that she probably was the manager-owner, which would, in that case, make her behavior more closely resemble that of the self-destructive attacking kamikaze honey bee.)

As a contrast, think of how utterly impossible it would be for an employee to imagine that wearing combat fatigues into a board meeting and blowing a whistle in the ear of a bank CEO would be OK, even once, if not twice (if you even got through the door the first time).

Absolutely not allowed, ignored, permitted or encouraged in that corporate culture. In every (sub)culture there are things that simply will never happen, because the cultural matrix will not allow, tolerate, ignore or encourage them.

(Indeed, cultures can usefully be understood and classified in terms of what they allow, forbid, encourage, tolerate or ignore.)

Now, compare the bus driver with the pet shop staffer: Both behaved in  ways that suggest some entrenched belief and calculation that their behavior would not set off cultural, organizational, social or business community alarms (at least in virtue of being very bad for tourism). In the case of the bus driver, her urban cultural milieu is steeped in incivility, however offset by the many kind and courteous others.

These days, there is rudeness that is not only cold, but also considered cool in many subcultures, e.g., in most pop-culture depictions and perceptions of tough-guy “testosterogues”. In the real world, there are the likes of the temporarily glorified and very uncivil Vancouver hockey rioters, who had their fifteen minutes of flame.

Even though a driver may estimate that the broader “culture” will let the rudeness pass, that calculation will fail to factor in the whistle-blower bus passenger (like me) who can tap into company channels and policies that trump broader cultural laxity and weirdness.

The employee believes in rough “ear-for-an-eye” justice: Whether stressed out by the job or not, an employee may be inclined to interpret some job events or conditions as “injustices” and, accordingly, feel justified in retaliating in (un)kind(ness)—verbally, as well as through glances and gestures. This can then manifest itself in the ways that the pursuit of vengeance always does: 1. Target the real culprit; 2. Target anyone associated with the real culprit; 3. Target anyone who represents a “soft target”, even a random anyone.

The psychology here is typical of anyone seeking “revenge”. Toss a little or a lot of stress into the mix, e.g., pressure to keep to a tight bus schedule, having to wait through another signal light change or impossible mortgage payments, and the “ear-for-an-eye” response (e.g., the fearful earful I got from the driver, for what the latter saw as “bad behavior”) will seem more natural and just.

When this kind of demand for justice motivates rudeness, that behavior can be seen as being more like the result of close judicial deliberation than as an unreasonable spontaneous kamikaze bee attack.

What will raise the risk of rude employee vengeful behavior is his or her perception that there is no form of immediate redress possible, other than rudeness. Hence (mis)perceptions of injustice can be compounded by demands for immediate gratification of the desire to address it.

To reduce the risk of employee rudeness, eliminate the (mis)perception of injustice or the demand for immediate justice.

In situations in which the employee believes there can be neither immediate nor later redress, very little emotional wiggle room remains before (s)he is likely to wig out.

In such cases, the best advice to give an employee (or even oneself) is that when forced to deal with a truly rude or disrespectful passenger, client or customer, imagine you are a mirror.

…a mirror that, in reasonably and politely reacting, reflects who and what the passenger should be, not what, for the moment, (s)he is.

in Business Communication]
Michael Moffa
Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers,The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).