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Low-level rudeness in the workplace a precursor of bullying

Incivility and low-level rudeness in the workplace can be precursors of bullying, research has found.

Minor but persistent negative behaviour, such as rudeness, disrespect and lack of consideration for others can contribute to the creation of a workplace culture that tacitly accepts bullying.

This is according to research quoted in the Acas policy discussion paper pdf icon Seeking better solutions: tackling bullying and ill-treatment in Britain's workplaces [429kb].

Such behaviours on their own may not be considered 'extreme' enough to constitute bullying, but they often overlap with bullying or create an atmosphere in which bullying can thrive.

Normalising bad behaviour

Some organisations, it said, can normalise ill-treatment and bullying behaviours, permitting them implicitly 'as the way things are done'.

In some cases, organisations may even indirectly reward negative behaviours, which are then learned and reproduced by new recruits through socialisation.

In this way, employees who may have found such behaviour questionable in their old work environments can come to see their colleagues' bad behaviour as acceptable or even the 'right' approach.

Managers trapped in poor systems

Certain leadership styles are often found in organisations with cultures of ill-treatment, the report said.

These could include autocratic management which uses force or pressure to achieve targets; passive leaders who shy away from conflict; or those who apply rules unpredictably or inconsistently.

Strong associations have also been found, it said, between performance management 'crossing over into bullying' and poor absence management, which sometimes feed into each other as a 'vicious circle'.

In some workplaces, the view is that bullying is encouraged as a 'rational strategy' to deliver outcomes.

Middle managers can therefore become trapped between negative systems and stressed employees, or are forced both to receive and adopt a bullying approach, it said.

Individual response to uncivil culture

The workplace context is critical, the report said, to how individual characteristics develop and are allowed to manifest themselves.

'Traits associated with bullying may not be displayed unless brought to life in environments in which the behaviour is ignored, tacitly encouraged, or seen as positive,' it said.

Organisational climate

It also pointed to other organisational issues that can be conducive to bullying, such as:

  • poor job design
  • work intensification
  • job stress
  • workplace conflict
  • job insecurity
  • cultures of self-interest
  • power imbalances
  • restructuring driven by cost considerations.

It concluded that organisational-level factors are therefore central to identifying causes and developing suitable solutions to bullying and ill-treatment in the workplace.

More details on best practice for successful management of bullying and unwanted behaviours can be found in the Acas policy discussion paper pdf icon Seeking better solutions: tackling bullying and ill-treatment in Britain's workplaces [429kb].

Acas publications and services

Acas has detailed information for employers and employees on Bullying and harassment, including the pdf icon Advice leaflet - Bullying and harassment at work: a guide for managers and employers [173kb].

Acas experts can visit your workplace and work with you to develop a robust bullying and harassment policy and help you deal with related issues more effectively. See Equality and diversity: how Acas can help for more details.

Practical training is also available on Bullying and harassmentDiscipline and grievance, improving Skills for supervisors, managing Absence, Handling difficult conversations, and Stress in the workplace.

For free, impartial advice and guidance visit Acas Helpline Online.

Visit the Acas Training Courses, Workshops and Projects area for more information.


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