by Shannon G. Taylor Donald H. Kluemper W. Matthew Bowler Jonathon R. B. Halbesleben
Bad behavior at work can have very real consequences. People who experience workplace rudeness, for example, report lower engagement, suffer more mental and physical health problems, and are more likely to burn out and quit their jobs. And nearly all of us are affected by rudeness and other types of workplace misbehavior, like interrupting and exclusion: Estimates suggest 98% of employees are on the receiving end over the course of a year.
Given bad behavior’s prevalence and impact, surely leaders take reports of it seriously, get the facts, and punish offenders, right? Some scholars have noted that, when information about misbehavior surfaces, savvy leaders know better than to blame the messenger. Unfortunately, our research paints a picture that is much bleaker.
We set out to investigate how people in positions of power view victims and perpetrators of workplace misbehavior. We first studied an organization that operates a chain of casual dining restaurants. We gave each employee a list of the names of every other employee who worked in their restaurant, and asked them to report who they were rude to and who was rude to them. We then asked managers to evaluate the behavior of each employee. Across the five restaurants we studied, 149 of the 169 employees (88%) and 13 of the 14 managers (93%) participated. Notably, those employees who reported being victims of rudeness were largely perceived by their managers as perpetrators of rude behavior. And the employees who were reported as being rude to others weren’t seen that way by their managers under two conditions: they had a tight relationship with the boss or were high performers.
To determine whether our findings applied outside of this organization, we enlisted the help of our undergraduate students. We asked them to recruit working adults from among their friends and family so that we could survey employees and managers from a wide variety of industries, organizations, and jobs. Employees reported in an online survey how frequently they experienced and engaged in rude behavior at work, and they provided the name and email address of their manager, who then rated the employee’s behavior in a separate online survey. We anonymized and tracked 372 leader-follower pairs from an assortment of professions, including office workers, mechanics, dental hygienists, plumbers, nurses, and many others. Sure enough, we found the same results. It seems leaders in all sorts of work settings fall prey to this bias when evaluating their employees’ behavior.
These two studies were telling, but they had an important limitation: Because employees who experience rudeness may also be rude themselves, as our earlier research has shown, bosses who blame victims might actually be evaluating these employees accurately. That is, these victims might also be perpetrators. If so, leaders’ evaluations might not be biased after all.
To rule out this possibility, we conducted two experiments to separate employees’ experiences of rudeness from their acts of rudeness. We recruited working professionals from our MBA courses and from online forums like LinkedIn. We instructed participants to imagine that they had been promoted into a management position and had been asked by their supervisor to assess their subordinates after observing them on the job over the past few weeks. We then presented participants with 10 fictitious employee profiles and asked them to conduct their assessments carefully. Some of the employees to be rated had experienced rudeness and had also behaved rudely. One such profile looked like this:
Chris has been with the organization almost 2 years and has a little more than 5 years of work experience. Chris appears to be a poor performer: sometimes late to work, doesn’t always work hard, not very knowledgeable on the job. Chris uses sarcasm that offends others, stares at others disapprovingly, and is cranky and short with coworkers. Coworkers sometimes avoid consulting with Chris when they would normally be expected to, make offensive jokes about Chris, and treat Chris as unimportant.
Other employees had been mistreated but had never mistreated others, like this one:
Alex has been with the company for about 2 years and has 6 years of work experience. Alex appears to be a very good performer at work: never tardy, puts forth a lot of effort, knowledgeable of core job tasks. You have not observed Alex making inappropriate comments toward coworkers, and Alex seems to be polite and courteous toward others when you’re around. However, coworkers sometimes intentionally “speak over” Alex, one was found reading Alex’s personal email, and others often roll their eyes at Alex.
We also included some profiles where the employee hadn’t been mistreated:
Taylor has 6 years of work experience and joined the company about 2 years ago. Taylor seems like an exceptional performer: arrives on schedule, works diligently, knowledgeable on the job. Taylor appears to address others in a professional manner at all times and does not give others hostile looks, stares, or sneers. Coworkers appear to be polite toward Taylor and treat Taylor with dignity and respect.
When we crunched the numbers, we found that participants perceived victims as having engaged in misbehavior. And by presenting participants with clear information that some employees did not behave rudely (like Alex), we were able to demonstrate that victims are blamed for their mistreatment even when they’ve done nothing wrong.
It gets worse: We also wanted to see if leaders’ bias toward victims extended to their assessments of the victims’ job performance, even when we provided concrete information about whether the employee was a high performer (like Alex) or a low performer (like Chris). It does: Victims of rudeness were perceived as performing considerably worse on the job than employees who hadn’t been mistreated, regardless of the employees’ actual performance. As performance ratings often have a substantial impact on compensation and promotion decisions, our results show that victims of workplace mistreatment can be adversely impacted in several other important ways, adding insult to injury.
So, how can leaders combat bias when evaluating employees? We recommend leaders receive training similar to that undergone by judges and arbitrators, who are taught to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information. Homing in on job-relevant behaviors, whether during interviews or performance appraisals, can effectively reduce subjectivity and enhance decision accuracy. But because unrelated contextual and personal factors can influence the outcome — even among highly skilled judicial decision makers — training should also increase leaders’ awareness of the forces that may be influencing their decisions. Organizations might take a page from the Federal Judicial Center, which runs a program — as part of what is affectionately referred to as “baby judge school” — that does just that: It trains new judicial appointees to become more aware of their biases and prevent those biases from affecting their decision making.
Given the central role leaders play as decision makers in the workplace, it’s critical that they assess employee behavior fairly and accurately. To our dismay, our study discovered a tendency on the part of managers to blame employees for the mistreatment they experience. For those leaders responsible for evaluating others at work, we hope our research reminds you to be more judicious.