Sarcasm, rude behavior can take toll on companies' bottom lines

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Seemingly innocent water cooler talk in the office could have a bigger impact on organizations than employees think, according to a recently published study.

Incivility in the workplace — including sarcasm, insults and other rude behaviors — may be “contagious” and impact the behavior of the employees it's directed at, said Chris Rosen, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Arkansas.

“Basically, incivility begets incivility," Rosen said in a news release. “And our findings verify that these contagion effects occur within very short, even daily, cycles.”

Rosen's research estimates that workplace incivility has doubled over the last 20 years, and on average costs organizations $14,000 per employee each year due to loss of work time and productivity. Employees at the receiving end of incivility were also found to have more mental fatigue, and a higher risk of lashing out themselves.

While these “incivility spirals” typically were observed in “political” workplaces — where employees put themselves ahead of the organization — Rosen and his team recommend that all managers give employees clear feedback on what kinds of behavior they desire in the work environment. That feedback can be delivered through day-to-day interactions or formal performance reviews, Rosen said.

Results of the study appear in the Journal of Applied Psychology.