Combatting incivility at work: Rude emails might be a place to start

The problem of incivility in the workplace isn't just about grand displays of disrespect, says an industrial psychologist.

Incivility can also be as simple as where you place exclamation marks in an email.

Psychologist Shelley Parker offers this example: "Should we discuss today's meeting?!?!"  

Parker, who works with companies on reducing workplace incivility, said carelessly worded emails and conversations can cause anxiety and hurt employees' mental health.

"The individual who is receiving the information either verbally or by email, basically they're left questioning, 'What did I just hear or what did I just read? Is that meant to be a slam at me, or am I just over-reading something?'

"So it's one of those insidious, little, subtle messages [that] kind of niggles away at you as you think about it, and it doesn't leave you with a good feeling."


Parker shared a couple of examples of bad workplace emails with Information Morning Fredericton.

In one exchange, someone asks for information on a topic, and the respondent then spends time crafting a detailed response only to receive this email in return: "Thanks. Never mind. I'll ask someone else."

Parker has also seen people sending emails that ask for something time-consuming close to quitting time.

Kerry Campbell/CBC

She cites an email received at 4 p.m.

"I need you to create a few charts before end of day today if you know how. Everyone else is already doing important work and I thought you could handle this. If you need further explanation you must see me A.S.A.P. because I have other important things I have to attend to."

Some write rude and disrespectful emails that target one individual but are sent to a group of people.

This can make people reluctant to talk to co-workers for fear they may be seen as incompetant.

Tips and tricks

Other than not acting like a jerk with your co-workers and employees, there are a few things Parker recommends to defuse incivility in the workplace.

Parker said that some emails are obviously written to be rude, but the rudeness that comes across in other emails may be harder to interpret.

"When you receive an email, for example, and you're questioning the tone, the intent, just simply send it back and question the sender," said Parker.

"Say 'What is it that you're meaning by this? What is your exact message?' And ask for clarification."

Misunderstandings can happen, and people can misinterpret an email's tone, but there are still bullies out there working.

Being behind a screen can embolden people to just be jerks, she said, which can lead to serious problems for their co-workers. 

Parker will be speaking Sept. 5 in Fredericton about tools for promoting respect in the workplace. The event at the Delta hotel is sponsored by the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre on Family Violence and is being held during what the provincial government has declared "Respectful Workplace Week" in New Brunswick.