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Updated Nov 20, 2023

Disrespectful Employees? How to Fix a Toxic Workplace

Change your company culture by correctly dealing with disruptive team members.

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Max Freedman, Business Operations Insider and Senior Analyst
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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Employee behavior plays a significant role in shaping company culture. When employees are considerate and respectful toward co-workers, it fosters a positive work environment. On the flip side, disrespectful employees can poison a healthy workplace culture. 

Looking down on colleagues and undermining their efforts destroys trust. When employees can’t depend on each other, they become guarded, making team collaboration challenging. Even worse, employees on the receiving end of disrespectful behavior are more likely to experience lower job satisfaction and engagement. They may even seek out new employment. 

We’ll explore disrespectful behavior in the workplace and share ways to deal with – and prevent – the behaviors that can fuel a toxic workplace. 

Did You Know?Did you know
According to the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of employees who left their positions cited disrespect at work as the primary reason for quitting their jobs.

What is disrespectful behavior in the workplace?

Disrespectful behavior in the workplace is any behavior that is unprofessional, inappropriate, rude, unpleasant, disturbing or offensive. This behavior often hurts others and causes stress among team members and management.

Disrespectful behavior can fall into several categories:

  • Uncivil behavior: Uncivil behavior shows total disregard for others.
  • Verbal abuse: Verbal abuse is harsh and insulting language.
  • Abrasive behavior: Abrasive behavior causes emotional distress that disrupts the organization’s effectiveness.
  • Bullying behavior: Bullying behavior is repeated negative actions toward specific people that result in a toxic workplace environment and a shift in power.

Some specific examples of disrespectful behavior in the workplace include the following:

  • Gossiping or lying
  • Shouting or speaking in a hostile tone
  • Saying inappropriate words or statements
  • Demeaning someone
  • Displaying biased attitudes or beliefs
  • Being physically disruptive (e.g., throwing items when angry)

Disrespectful behavior is prevalent – and damaging.

While many people may shrug off disrespectful workplace behavior as a situational anomaly, it happens more than it should.

APA’s Work in America Survey revealed that 95 percent of workers said being respected at work was very or somewhat important to them. But disrespectful experiences are far from uncommon: 24 percent reported that someone within or outside their organization had yelled at or verbally abused them, and 19 percent said they’ve experienced workplace bullying. Physical violence is the most alarming type of workplace disrespect; approximately 12 percent of manual laborers and one in 20 office workers have been victims of physical violence. 

Unsurprisingly, disrespectful employees create an untenable, toxic company culture. An MIT Sloan Management analysis of Glassdoor reviews revealed that feeling disrespected at work significantly impacts an employee’s overall workplace culture ratings. Respect toward employees is at the top of the list of crucial cultural elements – and disrespect is one of the top factors that poison corporate culture. 

Be on the lookout for signs your employees hate their jobs so you can get to the root of the problem before it snowballs. Monitor turnover rates, employees who miss meetings, and team members who request transfers.

How do you deal with disrespectful employees?

If you’ve identified disrespectful employees in your workplace, consider the following best practices for effectively handling the situation: 

  • Remain calm when facing disrespect. When someone is disrespectful, it’s tempting to react with anger in the heat of the moment. However, remaining calm and respectful on your end will help keep the interaction from escalating, allowing for a more productive discussion.
  • Listen. Sometimes, ignoring a person’s bad behavior seems easier than interacting with them. However, when you encourage employee feedback and genuinely listen to what they say, you may find more significant problems in the workplace you should address.
  • Provide clear feedback. Instead of complaining about disrespectful employees, offer them professional feedback. Explain the issues their behavior is causing and clarify how they must improve.
  • Document incidents. Keep clear records of the employee’s disrespectful behavior. You may need the documentation later, especially if the employee takes legal action, such as filing a wrongful termination lawsuit.
  • Be consistent. Set uniform behavior guidelines for all employees. For example, establish an expectation that a task be done on a specific day of each week. If the task is not accomplished, your reaction must always be the same. You cannot excuse it one week but get angry the next.
  • Enforce rules. Establish consequences for disrespectful employees if they don’t change their behavior. Set expectations for improvement and outline disciplinary actions if expectations are not met. If the employee continues to be disrespectful, follow through with those consequences.
  • Check-in on other employees. Disrespectful behavior, even from just one employee, can create a toxic work culture. As a manager, you might not be the only one facing this disrespect. Ensure your employees aren’t being bullied, ridiculed or treated poorly by anyone in the workplace. If they are, listen to their concerns and take the appropriate action to ensure they feel supported and safe.
Managers must ensure they model respectful behavior in the workplace. For example, to lead with respect, bosses should never say anything about confidential information or communicate with disrespectful language.

How do you prevent disrespectful behavior in the workplace?

Preventing disrespectful behavior is less taxing than trying to cure it. Here are some ways organizations can nip disrespectful behavior in the bud: 

  1. Hire people with high moral character. It’s crucial to hire employees for a cultural fit to avoid potential problems. Ensure everyone you hire has demonstrably high morals and fits your values. Employers can limit undermining in the workplace by emphasizing moral values within the organization, providing workplace ethics training, and creating an office environment where moral values are more salient.
  2. Clarify expectations during onboarding. Set clear expectations for employee behavior from day one. Include a code of conduct in your employee handbook that explains behavior expectations, including professionalism, respect and communication. For example, emphasize the importance of inclusive communication when interacting with co-workers, customers and vendors.
  3. Create a safe space. Host team-building efforts like office lunches or in-office networking events that help employees bond. These sessions help promote a safe environment that allows open and honest discussion of important issues. You can also conduct employee surveys and regular one-on-one check-ins to gather feedback on current work practices.
  4. Create an inclusive workplace. To create a culture of inclusion, implement HR initiatives that recognize and respect differences in backgrounds, perspectives and experiences. For instance, you can offer floating holidays in your employee benefits package so employees can celebrate meaningful religious or cultural holidays.
  5. Raise awareness. Perform company-wide training on diversity and inclusion, conflict resolution and communication to educate employees on the importance of respecting colleagues.
  6. Monitor and adjust accordingly. Evaluate and change your policies and practices to address evolving challenges and continuously promote a respectful workplace.

Can you fire an employee for being disrespectful?

The short answer is yes, you can fire an employee for disrespectful behavior. However, terminating an employee can be challenging. You must consult your HR department or outsourced HR provider for guidance on proper termination protocol. You must document the employee’s unacceptable behaviors and actions and note everything you’ve done to improve the situation. It’s best to develop a termination policy ahead of time that lays out the grounds and process for firing employees. 

A fired employee may decide to sue the company for wrongful termination, so it’s essential to document all incidents of bad behavior. Also, treat your employees the same way, or else the employee could make discrimination claims.

Did You Know?Did you know
Businesses can't fire an employee who threatens a lawsuit alleging discrimination, workplace safety violations or other reasons.

How do you create a disciplinary action policy? 

A disciplinary action policy is a set of procedures employers should take when a worker is disrespectful or demonstrates behavior that goes against company policies. When creating your disciplinary action policy, you must clearly outline your company’s rules and the consequences for breaking them.

With a disciplinary action policy in place, you’ll have more insight into handling disrespectful employees without facing legal backlash. Typical types of corrective action include the following:

  • Progressive discipline: Progressive discipline usually includes a verbal warning, a written warning, a final warning, suspension or probation and, finally, termination. Of course, your approach to this process might differ depending on the severity of the offense.
  • Training and performance improvement plans: This type of disciplinary action offers a last chance for employees to improve their behavior before termination. It includes check-ins, measurable goals, and a specific plan if the worker fails to meet said goals.
  • Reassignment or suspension: In severe cases that require immediate action but not termination, an employee might be reassigned or suspended from their role for a set period.

Your policy should include the following: 

  • An overview of the company’s behavior standards
  • A statement of at-will employment
  • Disciplinary measures and steps 
  • An explanation of the disciplinary process that outlines which infractions incur which consequences
  • A statement of an employee’s right to appeal a decision
  • Other statements that offer your company legal protections

Respectful employee behavior is essential to fixing a toxic workplace

Building a workplace culture that values respect and professionalism is critical for maintaining a positive work atmosphere and contributing to the organization’s success. Disrespectful employee behavior has far-reaching adverse consequences like distrust, lower productivity and decreased profitability. When dealing with rude staff, it’s vital to use multiple strategies, from hiring and training to enforcing disciplinary actions, and evaluate these strategies to measure their effectiveness. 

Sean Peek contributed to this article. 

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Max Freedman, Business Operations Insider and Senior Analyst
Max Freedman has spent nearly a decade providing entrepreneurs and business operators with actionable advice they can use to launch and grow their businesses. Max has direct experience helping run a small business, performs hands-on reviews and has real-world experience with the categories he covers, such as accounting software and digital payroll solutions, as well as leading small business lenders and employee retirement providers. Max has written hundreds of articles for Business News Daily on a range of valuable topics, including small business funding, time and attendance, marketing and human resources.
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