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Disrespectful Employees? How to Fix a Toxic Workplace

Sean Peek
Sean Peek

Employees who are treated poorly by co-workers often start feeling entitled to treat others the same way. Here's how to stop it.

  • Disrespectful employees who undermine others in the workplace make those other employees more likely to model bad behavior.
  • There are some important steps you should take with a disrespectful employee, such as listening to them, giving them constructive feedback, and checking in on their co-workers.
  • You should keep thorough documentation of all incidents, because it’s not always easy to fire employees without proof of wrongdoing.
  • This article is for business owners or managers who are dealing with disrespectful employees or toxic work environments.

Employees who are disrespected by their co-workers feel more comfortable treating others the same way, which ends up creating a toxic workplace, research has found.

The problem stems from one employee undermining another, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. KiYoung Lee, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor in the University at Buffalo School of Management, said undermining is intentional behavior that hinders other employees from achieving workplace success or establishing and maintaining positive relationships at work. Examples include giving a co-worker the silent treatment, belittling a co-worker’s ideas in front of others, and purposely withholding information to delay a colleague’s progress.

“This kind of interpersonal aggression costs organizations about $6 billion each year in health problems, employee turnover and productivity loss,” said Lee in a statement.

As part of the study, researchers conducted two rounds of surveys of 182 employees at 25 branches of two Korean banks to see whether those who had been victims of undermining would later become perpetrators.

The first survey examined employees’ levels of undermining victimization, moral identity and interpersonal justice. The second survey, conducted one month later, measured employees’ levels of moral disengagement, resource depletion and engagement in social undermining.

The researchers found that when employees felt they’d been treated disrespectfully, they became more selfish because of the perception of unfairness. Lee said these workers felt as if they had suffered enough and that this entitled them to be selfish.

“When we become selfish, it is much easier to justify our own [undermining] toward others,” Lee said. “We use this to justify our actions, for instance, by calling undermining ‘part of the game.'”

The study was co-authored by Eugene Kim, an assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology; Devasheesh Bhave, an assistant professor at Singapore Management University; and Michelle Duffy, a professor at the University of Minnesota.

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 type of behavior tends to hurt others and cause stress among employees.

Disrespectful behavior can fall into several categories. Uncivil behavior shows total disregard for others. Verbal abuse is harsh and insulting language. Abrasive behavior causes enough emotional distress that it disrupts the effectiveness of the organization. Bullying behavior is repeated negative actions toward specific people that results in a toxic workplace environment and a shift in power.

These are some specific examples of disrespectful behavior in the workplace:

  • 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)

How to prevent disrespectful behavior in the workplace

The key to stopping the spread of poor behavior is to hire employees with high moral character, Lee said. “When employees have high moral identity, they are not susceptible to this process.”

Lee added that employers can limit undermining in the workplace by emphasizing moral values within the organization.

“They can provide more ethics training, or they can try to create an office environment where moral values are more salient,” he said. “Simply displaying posters and slogans with moral values will also be very helpful, because it activates more [moral] identity in employees’ minds.”

Keep in mind that good behavior starts with management. If any employee feels disrespected by a higher-up, they’re more likely to act inappropriately. As a manager, you need to demonstrate respect and patience with your workers, and they’ll be inclined to follow your model behavior.

This means taking deep breaths and cooling off before reacting to frustrating situations, supporting employees even on their bad days, and continuously evaluating your company culture to ensure it’s positive and productive.

How do you deal with disrespectful employees?

Here are some methods you can try if you have disrespectful employees in your workplace:

  1. Remain calm when facing disrespect. When someone is being disrespectful, it’s tempting to react with anger in the heat of the moment. However, remaining calm and respectful on your end will help you keep the interaction from escalating, allowing for a more productive discussion.
  2. Listen. Sometimes, it seems easier to ignore a person’s bad behavior than to interact with them. When you start listening to what that person is saying, however, you may find larger problems in the workplace that you should address.
  3. Provide clear feedback. Instead of complaining about disrespectful employees, give them feedback. Explain what the issues are and how they need to improve. Be clear about what needs to change and how they can make those changes.
  4. 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.
  5. Be consistent. The guidelines you set should be uniform 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 done, then your reaction must be the same every time. You cannot excuse it one week but get angry the next.
  6. Enforce rules. Establish what the consequences will be for disrespectful employees if they do not change their behavior. Set expectations for improvement, and outline what the disciplinary actions will be if those expectations are not met. If the employee continues to be disrespectful, make sure to follow through with those consequences.
  7. 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 type of disrespect. Make sure 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.
Key Takeaway

As an employer or manager, you have a responsibility to resolve the situation without escalating it, for the sake of your team and the broader company culture.

Can you fire an employee for being disrespectful?

The short answer is yes, you can fire an employee for disrespectful behavior. However, it is not always easy to do. You’ll have to use the human resources department of your business to help you terminate an employee. You will need to document everything the employee does wrong, as well as everything you have done to improve the behavior. [Get details on how to create a termination policy.]

An employee who is fired may decide to sue the company, which is why it’s important to document all incidents of bad behavior. Also, make sure you treat all of your employees the same way, or else the employee could make discrimination claims.

Creating a disciplinary action policy

A disciplinary action policy is a set of procedures for employers to take when a worker is being disrespectful or demonstrating behavior that goes against company policy. 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 on how to handle disrespectful employees without facing legal backlash. These are the main types of disciplinary action:

  • Progressive discipline: The traditional steps of this type of disciplinary action are 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 the employee to improve their behavior before termination. It includes check-ins, measurable goals, and a specific plan in case the worker does not meet said goals.
  • Reassignment or suspension: In more serious 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 an overview, a statement of at-will employment, the forms of discipline and steps that will be taken, an explanation of the disciplinary process and which infractions begin at which step, a statement of an employee’s right to appeal a decision, and other statements that offer your company legal protections.

Business News Daily editorial staff contributed to the writing and reporting in this article.

Image Credit: Ridofranz / Getty Images
Sean Peek
Sean Peek
Contributing Writer
Sean Peek has written more than 100 B2B-focused articles on various subjects including business technology, marketing and business finance. In addition to researching trends, reviewing products and writing articles that help small business owners, Sean runs a content marketing agency that creates high-quality editorial content for both B2B and B2C businesses.