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A kinder, gentler workplace starts with you

By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2002

If we dare to believe the growing volume of evidence, the American workplace is little more than a daily minefield of rudeness.

If we dare to believe the growing volume of evidence, the American workplace is little more than a daily minefield of rudeness.

Maybe, one survey after another hints, consumer expectations are just too high. Maybe American workers are somehow turning traditional good business practices on their head, giving their bosses, their co-workers, and especially the people they serve a new business slogan for the new millennium: "The customer is always wrong -- and so are the rest of you yahoos."

It's not that bad out there. Not yet. But we're heading that way. Fast.

As reported last week on our front page, a New York nonprofit research group called Public Agenda released the results of a survey of 2,013 people across the nation, including Florida, about rudeness in America.

The short take? It's an insulting jungle out there. With a few exceptions, the survey concludes we're all rude and getting more so. Specifically in the business world, Americans surveyed say their treatment by customer service employees is frequently "exasperating" and sometimes even "insulting."

The survey, called "Aggravating Circumstances -- A Status Report on Rudeness in America," says American workers are all too often . . . slackers. Too careless, apathetic and unhelpful. Almost half of those surveyed say they have stalked out of some business because of bad service. The richer the customers, the more likely they are to walk out.

For a U.S. economy that's had such a great financial ride this past decade, the notion that underlying rudeness runs rampant in American businesses is distressing.

Not that we don't have plenty of selfish behavior in our nation's latest corporate role models: Enron executives. They really knew where the buck stops. In their own wallets.

The Public Agenda study echoes other recent surveys that found the same taint about customer service (it still stinks at many stores and businesses) and workers (rude is too often their middle name).

The University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index showed earlier this year that consumers remain pretty dissatisfied with many American businesses. That dovetails with last year's study by the University of Michigan that found almost three-quarters of Americans have encountered rudeness in the workplace. And that survey mirrors a 1999 analysis of rising workplace misbehavior by the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler School of Business.

If you agree with all these studies, Americans are rapidly forgetting a few key phrases of our language. Thank you. You're welcome. Excuse me. I apologize. Sorry. You first. How can I help?

Maybe, Public Agenda president Deborah Wadsworth suggests, Americans are just too busy to remember to be polite because they are overloaded at home and at work.

The survey found plenty of other concerns devoted to workplace and business rudeness:

More than 90 percent say management should be notified about rude employees and suggest financial rewards be given to those who were helpful.

A common complaint was that salespeople act as if the customer does not exist. Eight out of 10 respondents say store owners are to blame for cutting back on hiring and making customers wait for service.

Customers are no angels of courtesy, either. In the survey, 74 percent say they often see customers being rude or disrespectful to salespeople or to people in customer service.

Nearly everyone, 94 percent, says it's "very frustrating to call a company and get a recording instead of a human being who can answer my question."

Some people in the survey faulted overcrowding in malls and stadiums for more boorish behavior. A Florida customer service representative cited in the survey agrees her co-workers may not seem to care, but they also are under pressure to handle 500 phone calls a day.

She states: "Customer service people are told: "You need to have so many calls in a day, or you're not doing your job, and you must be lollygagging.' "

Is it possible better training could help employees feel more confident, become more helpful to customers and -- just maybe -- appear less rude in the process?

Is it possible better pay might help workers try a little harder to be courteous?

Is it possible that, if top executives and managers display and emphasize the value of manners and respect to their co-workers and customers, some of that might rub off on others?

Is corporate America even listening? I know what many businesses would argue:

Good help is hard to find. Schools graduate too many young adults with no clue how to be polite. Most customers want the cheapest prices available, so how can businesses pay workers more money and stay competitive?

Finally, American businesses will point out: What do you think helped drive the U.S. economy so much in the past decade? Gains in worker productivity, as in squeezing more output out of each employee.

Maybe all that higher productivity makes it tougher to take the time to be nicer to one another. Maybe rising rudeness is an unintended consequence of our big push for efficiency and profit.

This much I know. More than one-third of people in the Public Agenda survey (37 percent) say they are so sick of rudeness they've thought about moving to some kinder, gentler place.

Somebody call me if they find such a destination. I'm not sure you can get there from here. Not yet.

Until then, try to be nicer at work. And thank you for reading.

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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