Taken individually these infractions seem minor: You forget to put your cellphone on vibrate, and suddenly "Disco Inferno" is blaring through the conference room. You order a pastrami sandwich for lunch, unaware that a cubicle wall away your co-workers are gagging from the smell. You let your eyes swerve to your computer screen while a junior associate tells you about her relationship problems.
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While these might seem like small slips, they can create deep resentments between co-workers. "It's like a marriage. It's the little things that get under your skin and mount up after awhile," says Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of EtiquetteExpert.com and author of Business Class.
Christine Pearson, professor of management at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz. and coauthor of The Cost of Bad Behavior, says 96% of Americans report experiencing rudeness at work, and 48% say they are treated uncivilly at least once a week.
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This kind of manners meltdown can have a direct affect on the bottom line. According to surveys conducted by Pearson and her colleagues, 48% of poorly treated employees have intentionally decreased their productivity and 12% say the boorish behavior compelled them to quit. Workplace rudeness costs employers an average of $50,000 per worker. "There are very high costs associated with even seemingly inconsequential inconsiderate words and actions," adds Pearson.
The good news, however, is that most of us don't intend to offend, says Peter Post, a director at the Emily Post Institute and author of The Etiquette Advantage in Business. "The vast majority of employees don't want to be rude to their co-workers. They want to be liked," says Post.
The problem, he says, comes when people fail to examine their behavior from other people's perspectives. The account executive who can easily tune out her co-workers' conversations might not realize that her own voice carries across three departments. Meanwhile, she's infuriated each time she goes into the kitchen and sees the IT director's dirty dishes--does he think she's his mother? He does not, says Post. "He's just thinking, 'I'll get to them in a little while, because that's how my brain works.' You have two competing ideas of what is proper behavior," says Post.
Overwhelmed and Under-Mannered
Misunderstandings like this are compounded by the fact that an increasing number of offices are set up with open floor plans or cubicles. "We're working in tighter spaces, hearing each other's conversations, smelling each other's lunch," says author Whitmore.
We're also more distracted than ever by technology. Sara, a public relations manager from Overland Park, Kan., describes her frustration with a co-worker who stays glued to his BlackBerry during team meetings. "The implication is that he is so important that staying in touch with the world is more important than our weekly team meeting and even our VP's time," she complains.
Of course the smartphone-addicted employee probably doesn't think he's being rude. On the contrary, he thinks he's doing a good job by responding to customer needs in real time. Beverly Langford, president of LMA Communication and author of The Etiquette Edge, says that the expectation that employees be immediately accessible 24/7--and the increasing number of ways in which they can be reached--has caused employees to feel more overwhelmed and less mindful of their P's and Q's.
"We are asked to do more with less," says Langford. "Technology, which was supposed to make our lives easier, has increased expectations on our productivity. Deadlines are shorter, and we are required to handle multiple situations and tasks."
The added pressure and information overload also make us increasingly irritated and snappy when, for example, a co-worker pops by to ask a quick question. "Each time there is an interruption, we have to start over again," Langford says.
A Return to Courtesy
When confronting a colleague about his or her annoying behavior, focus on solving the problem and maintaining the relationship rather than venting your anger or embarrassing the other person, advises Post. Speak to them in private and let them know that if the situation were reversed, you hope they'd approach you about it. Ask the perpetrator if she was aware of the effect her actions had on others--i.e., "Were you aware of how distracting it is to smell your anchovy pizza every day?"--and discuss possible solutions.
To ensure you also aren't unwittingly driving co-workers to distraction, start viewing your actions from the perspective of those around you. So instead of automatically writing the e-mail in text-speak because it's faster, ask yourself if this seems professional--or even intelligible--to the recipient. "Make the choice that builds the relationship, rather than just the one that is good for you," says Post.
However, even the most self-aware person can have blind spots, so Pearson suggests asking a trusted colleague if there are areas in which you can improve. If you're the boss, get feedback via anonymous surveys from your staff. You might also consider hiring a coach to shadow you.
And quit multitasking, says Pearson. Not only is it insulting to others, but it doesn't work--research has shown that multitasking reduces both your effectiveness and your efficiency.
Finally, make sure the words "please," "thank you" and "you're welcome" are a regular part of your vocabulary. "In many of the cases it requires only a minor change," says Pearson. "Just saying 'Thanks, great job' can make a world of difference."