Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

Discourtesy And Contention At Work — Is It Possible To Make Things Better?

There is more to be said about this issue than could handled in a dozen articles. However, perhaps the sum of the parts we cover here can help us develop some plans of action for our own work groups.

Throughout this five part series I have emphasized that I believe the two words, discourtesy and contention, are more appropriate for most unpleasant behaviors at work, than more emotional terms such as bully or toxic.

Nevertheless, discourteous and contentious behavior is harmful to individuals, the team and the organization and should be stopped. It is important for us to remember this about discourtesy: It is habitual. If an employee is discourteous to you or to others when you are present, how can you trust that employee to be courteous to clients, customers and those in other parts of your organization, when you are not present?

Can we have consistent courtesy? That brings us to this article, which poses the question: Is it possible to have consistent courtesy at work? My answer is: Yes, with wiggle room. It is probably not possible to eliminate all behavior that results in bad feelings or frustration. It is likely not possible to prevent inadvertently frustrating or even hurtful situations. However, it is possible to make courtesy such a standard that discourtesy is rare and is never part of a pattern of conduct.

How To Ensure Courtesy and Stop Discourtesy

The following list mixes corrective and supportive responses–with an emphasis on correction. My experience has been that approaching a problem with a hammer is not always the best solution, but neither is gentle nudging when bad behavior is sticking out like a rusty nail! I have seen far too many supervisors and managers tip-toe around someone’s discourteous behavior, while the discourteous person was bludgeoning everyone else.

1. Make courteous actions a fundamental requirement for successful performance in your workplace. Courtesy between co-workers is not optional, it is required. The complete picture of good work includes effective behavior, no matter what the circumstances. An employee who is habitually and purposely discourteous, rude or snippy to others is not a “good” employee, no matter how effective he or she is at some other task.

Quick question: What would you do if an employee was late to work, late back from breaks and late returning from lunch, day after day after day?  Rude, hurtful or spiteful behavior does more long-term damage to the workplace than being late by a few minutes. One of the great injustices we commit at work is jumping quickly on any discrepancy related to administrative rules but repeatedly failing to correct behavior that is far more harmful.

Do not underestimate the negative affects of repeated discourtesies, and do not overestimate the good character of someone who is repeatedly discourteous. The moralist and essayist Jean de La Bruyere, said it very well: “Discourtesy does not spring merely from one bad quality, but from several–from foolish vanity, from ignorance of what is due to others,..from contempt of others, from jealousy.”

Whatever the cause, one person can poison a meeting, a project, an office or the entire organization. If they choose to be discourteous or contentious when they could be otherwise, they need to be stopped. If they do so from lack of ability or self-control, they need to be taught.

2. All employees should feel confident they can ask for assistance to help with conflict, contention or mistreatment. Employeees should not be required to confront the other person, although that is a skill that should be taught and supported when it is appropriate–as I will mention below. However, it is still a supervisory responsibility to intervene on behalf of those who need assistance.

My mistake as a supervisor and manager was to drag my feet about taking action if the other person would not first talk to the person involved. As I gained supervisory experience and maturity I realized how many people do not have the kind of confidence, skills or courage to do that. It was my responsibility not only theirs. If I felt the complaining employee was equally problematic–as I often did–I should have said so and taken action to bring about changes in the behavior of both people. However, I should have done something about the things I observed or heard about.

As part of our support for employees we should teach them how to effectively deal with behavior that bothers them:

*Talk directly to the person involved and ask what was behind the remark or action. 
*Hold up a hand like a stop sign and simply say, “Stop. I don’t like it when you treat me like that.” 
*Get subtle behavior out in the open. “Jill, I see you are rolling your eyes. If you don’t agree with me, say it rather than doing that.”
*Go to the supervisor with specific information rather than generalized complaints.
*Be aware of personal actions that might create situations where discourtesy is more likely.
*Be willing to to talk to the coworker with the supervisor present.

3. Develop and maintain a work environment where unacceptable behavior is unaccepted by everyone. For every person who is discourteous and every person who is being treated discourteously, there are usually a dozen people who hear it or see it and shake their heads, but do nothing about it except be grateful they were not the target.

Responses should be appropriate for the situation, but coworkers should respond to stop discourtesy. Sometimes a mere shake of the head will convey the message, or the employee can say something supportive of the person under attack. Other times the employee needs to tell a rude coworker to stop.

4. Commend employees who can disagree and still be agreeable. Commend those who are courteous all the time, especially when there could be a temptation to do otherwise. Thank those people and let them know they are appreciated. However, do not thank them for tolerating rude behavior by a coworker, and take that as a sign that you do not have to deal with it. No employee should have to turn the other cheek while nothing is done about the slapper!

When you are in a meeting that could be contentious but is not, commend everyone for their professional conduct. Let everyone know that part of good work is being able to disagree in a courteous way that encourages communication rather than shuts it down. .

5. Intervene about employees whose actions increase the chances he or she will become a target of contentious behavior. Sometimes the behavior or performance of an employee becomes so frustrating and irritating that coworkers supervise in their own way through not-so-subtle nastiness. We do not have to preach conformity, we only have to ensure that strange, weird, irritating or disruptive behavior is reduced as much as possible. It is your job to supervise, not the job of coworkers.

6. Take supervisory and managerial responsiblity for preventing and stopping discourtesy:

  • Make courtesy and civility part of your new-employee orientation and a regular part of training and reinforcement at staff meetings. Make it clear about what is not acceptable at work, then discuss what is expected instead.

• The social graces of smiling and returning smiles, saying courtesy words and offering to help others is an expected part of professional communications. 

• Verbal communications should reflect a tone of respect, not angry outbursts, sarcasm, verbal jabs, or contempt.

• It is not acceptable to to forward, copy and blind-copy e-mail as a way to make others look bad or to continue an argument “in public.” E-mail and phone messages should reflect courtesy and cooperation.

• Gossip and speculation aimed at undermining the reputation or influence of others, or to create contention, is wrong.

• If a formerly manageable conflict has become a full-time contentious situation, one or both employees should seek assistance to deal with it.

  • Intervene the moment you hear or see discourteous behavior, unless there is a strong reason to not do so.

You can make eye contact and shake your head slightly, or you can say something as simple as, “Hey, be nice.” “No, no, we don’t do that here.” “Uh uh!” “That’s not the way we talk to each other.” You may talk to the employee in private later, but you must stop the behavior right then. If a supervisor or manager observes rude behavior but does not indicate displeasure at the time, what message is sent?

  • Never shrug off rude, discourteous or contentious behavior as just the way someone is or as an inevitable part of work.

I wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard a supervisor excuse outrageous behavior by saying, “That’s just the way he is.” But, why should that be so? Why should all the nice people in your office have to learn to adjust to one or two rude people who are not required to practice restraint and courtesy?

  • Do not put the blame on both people if only one is creating the problem, but do not put the blame on one person if both people are responsible equally. Investigate, but do not assume the conflict or discourtesy is two-sided or one-sided.
  • Be direct and appropriately corrective, to ensure that an employee who has been discourteous knows the behavior cannot happen again. Do not accept, “I’ll try” as an answer.
  • The minute you sense someone is becoming a target for teasing, tormenting or harassing behavior, put a stop to it. Even if the employee reacts as though it is funny, do not let it continue.
  • Look out for those who look up to you and depend upon you to protect them. If you see an employee being treated in a contemptuous or rude way by a coworker, by those in other departments or even by your own manager, you will lose respect from everyone if you do not take action about it.

No special situation is required to have conflict, contention or discourtesy–all it takes is a group of humans. However, some employees feel a stronger sense of responsibility for courtesy and cooperation than others do. We cannot assume everyone will be courteous and we should not tolerate discourtesy by one or more employees as mere personal foibles. Discourtesy can rapidly develop into the behavior described by some as bullying–and whether or not we agree with the term, it is a nasty situation for a workplace.

Having a work environment that is marked by courtesy and civility, in spite of personality and style differences is not always easy to achieve, but it can be done. Your role as a supervisor or manager is a key one for leading employees toward being decent, courteous, civil and cooperative. Hold the line on this one–it  is important!

April 18th, 2008 Posted by | Life and Work, Personal and Professional Development, Supervision and Management | 5 comments


  1. Tina, this is excellent! I wish this could be read and studied by every supervisor and manager!

    Comment by lmv | April 23, 2008

  2. I’m sending this to my Division Chief and hope to heck he takes it to heart! His attitude is that people who are rude are really just unhappy, so we should work harder to get along with them. As a result we have two women in our office who pretend to not hear us when we ask them a question, mimic the rest of us when we talk, and never smile or respond to anything except with stares and a few snippy words. To our boss they are sweetness and light and at lunch they laugh and talk together, but to the rest of us they are mean all the time.

    I asked one of them why she was making fun of me and she started this long thing of “Making fun? I don’t know what you’re talking about. Karen, do you know what she’s talking about? I sure don’t know. I really don’t. I can’t even imagine. Describe making fun. Draw me a picture of making fun, etc. etc. ”

    The Division Chief heard her doing that and started laughing and told me that would teach me not to ask.

    What do you do when your boss is so clueless?

    Comment by SandyRKO | April 24, 2008

  3. What I always like about your approach is that you don’t give people very much wiggle room for their rude behavior! We had an employee who fit all the descriptions you mentioned in Part Two but my manager had me “working with her” for over a year before he finally would approve disciplinary action. The minute we did that she quit.

    In all of my working with her, sending her to classes, getting her EAP help and talking to other employees she said were the causes of her problems, she never would accept that she was unpleasant. To her, it was all justifiable business behavior. My boss kept telling me to work with her more because our goal is to help people succeed not lead them to failure. I was so frustrated and wished you were here!

    Things are much better now, I’m happy to say and our new manager is a much stronger person while still being pleasant.

    Comment by P.A.H. | April 24, 2008

  4. In our office we have special events that help bring employees together. I also try to assign work to different groups as a way to get them working together and communicating. When employees are busy but not loaded down, they seem to do better than when they are not very busy or completely loaded down with work. I have a list of things that I delegate or assign, for when I see people having minor squabbles! They even know I do that and they accept it as how we keep things polite.

    Also, when I hear a rude remark or see something rude being done I walk over and ask if they’re OK. That usually sends the message that I noticed and it sounded bad. It also gives me a chance to talk to them about it if they have some grievance, which they usually do. I end up by telling them that I hope things go better but it will only get worse if we start being rude to each other.

    I think you would like how our office feels and acts. But, it has taken my manager and I and a few of the better employees two years to get it this way.

    This was a good article and I went back and read the other two which were good also. I think these would be good for training.

    Comment by Zelda | April 24, 2008

  5. I was going to comment that it sounds to me like it’s offices with women that have the most problems, but since I don’t work in an office and am always dealing with quarreling between the guys I work with I guess I can’t do that. Besides which you’d come up here and kick my shins.

    Comment by Wiseacre | April 24, 2008

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