Why are people so rude over work-email? And what can we do about it?

By Emma Russell

In today’s work environment, work-email is the most commonly used work communication tool and the most-preferred way of communicating for managers and professionals (Radicati Group, 2018). In 2021, around 320 billion email are being sent and received on a daily basis (Statista, 2021). There are clear reasons why people like using email so much. At work, email is used to arrange meetings and calendars, manage and track projects, and engage in quick and convenient communication. Yet, it still has the capacity to cause problems, with potentially the most insidious of these being email incivility. 

Uncivil email activity involves problematic communication behaviours such as excessively slow responding, lack of clarity, brisk or sarcastic comments, and inappropriate cc-ing to escalate issues (Francis et al., 2015; Lim & Teo, 2009). Research has shown that being on the receiving end of someone’s uncivil work-email message can result in strain, lower work performance, greater intentions to quit, and a lack of work engagement (Giumetti et al., 2013; Lim & Teo, 2009; McCarthy et al., 2020; Park & Huan, 2018; Park et al., 2015), with negative repercussions lasting into the next week, and also affecting one’s colleagues and romantic partners (Francis et al., 2015; Park & Huan, 2018; Park et al., 2015).  

But, whilst research has explained and investigated the blight of uncivil work-email on others, there is very little research available to explain why workers engage in uncivil email behaviours in the first place. Yet, it is only by understanding this that we can begin to address it, and hopefully find ways of stemming work-email incivility at its source. In the current era of constant connectivity (exacerbated by the pandemic and increases in remote work) and a huge proliferation of digital activity, this is more important now, than ever before.

To that end, I have recently completed a research project with a large UK employer, examining why people engage in work email incivility. Across three research stages, using surveys (Stages 1 and 2; N=61) and interviews (stage 3; N=15), we found clear reasons why people engage in work-email incivility across two broad themes. Essentially, people are more likely to be uncivil in their use of work email if they:

  • Lack personal resources in relation to: 
    • Personality — those who lack organisational and social skills are statistically more likely to be uncivil.
    • Being under pressure — tight deadlines, overloaded with work or email volumes.
    • Being fatigued.
    • Lack of judgement — unable to ascertain the appropriate tone or response for the email.
  • Have a tendency towards ‘egoism’*:
    • Frustration that others aren’t meeting their standards.
    • Confidence in their own autonomy and managerial support to respond how they see fit (a sense of being untouchable).
    • Protecting the importance of the issue under discussion.
    • Prioritising their own needs over others’.

*a belief that one’s own welfare and needs should be prioritised over others’.

When people are lacking resources, or have characteristics of egoism, they are more likely to perpetrate work-email incivility by:

  • Using uncivil wording in their email (unpleasant, inappropriate, curt, abrupt, lacks niceties)
  • Using unclear/inaccessible wording (ambiguous, vague, lengthy or over-explained)
  • Overstepping boundaries (emailing out-of-hours, forwarding or cc-ing exchanges to management to escalate issues)
  • Being inattentive to colleagues’ needs and priorities (ignoring email or not responding adequately, chasing people for replies after short time lapse, misuse of group-wide emailing).

So, what can be done about this?

We approached this research agenda from a standpoint of support and sensitivity. We are all susceptible to engaging in uncivil work-email behaviours; acknowledging this and recognising when such behaviours could be triggered is an essential step for helping to reduce and potentially eliminate it. In my latest paper, colleagues and I present a Work-habits Intervention Model (WhIM), which we tested in a 12-month intervention project, designed to improve people’s work-email behaviours. We found two key factors could be particularly helpful for encouraging people to break bad email habits:

  • Have a plan, with a stated aim, and state your intention to execute the plan. So, in relation to email incivility, workers can make a plan to switch off their email when they are feeling tired or drained. Or perhaps they can decide to always wait at least an hour before responding to an email that upsets or angers them. Perhaps workers can make plans to always check their email before they hit send, or make a commitment to keep their work email polite and concise.
  • Believe that you can make changes. Workers who had higher levels of self-efficacy were much more effective at making sustainable changes to their work-email habits. Self-efficacy is a belief that can be ‘trained’, so organisations would be encouraged to train their staff not only in effective and respectful work-email behaviours, but also in email self-efficacy.

By understanding (a) when we are more likely to be susceptible to perpetrating work-email incivility, (b) what kinds of exchanges are problematic, and (c) having a plan — and a belief in the plan — to change behaviours, perhaps we can start to create email cultures that demonstrate more care, consideration and clarity, when communicating with others.

Dr Emma Russell is a Senior Lecturer and Chartered Occupational Psychologist at the University of Sussex Business School, UK. Her research focuses on how people deal with their work-email, and how this impacts (and is impacted by) their well-being, personality and goal-achievement. Emma is co-Investigator at the ESRC-funded Digital Futures at Work Research Centre (aka Digit), and the Director of agiLab — a University of Sussex and NHS collaboration into research and best practice in agile working. She has recently published a co-edited book on agile working with Springer/Palgrave Macmillan. Emma is Associate Editor for the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology and on the editorial review board for Journal of Organizational Behavior. She publishes her work in books, high-impact journals, conference proceedings, practitioner reports and the popular press.

The blogpost has drawn from research that was presented in the following publications:

Francis, L., Holmvall, C. M. and O’Brien, L. E. (2015). The influence of workload and civility of treatment on the perpetration of email incivility. Computers in Human Behavior, 46, pp. 191–201.

Giumetti, G. W., Hatfield, A. L., Scisco, J. L., Schroeder, A. N., Muth, E. R. and Kowalski, R. M. (2013). What a rude E-mail! examining the differential effects of incivility versus support on mood, energy, engagement, and performance in an online context. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 18(3), pp. 297–309. 

Lim, V. K. G. and Teo, T. S. H. (2009). Mind your E-manners: Impact of cyber incivility on employees’ work attitude and behavior. Information and Management, 46(8), pp. 419–425. 

Lim, V. K. G., Teo, T. S. H. and Nishant, R. (2017). Cyber Incivility at the Workplace. ICIS 2017: Transforming Society with Digital Innovation, 0–10.

McCarthy, K., Pearce, J. L., Morton, J., Irvine, C. and Lyon, S. (2020). Do you pass it on? An examination of the consequences of perceived cyber incivility. Organization Management Journal, 17(1), pp. 43-58.

Park, Y. A., Fritz, C. and Jex, S. M. (2018). Daily cyber incivility and distress: The moderating roles of resources at work and home. Journal of Management, 44(7), pp. 2535–2557. 

Park, Y. A. and Haun, V. C. (2018). The long arm of email incivility: Transmitted stress to the partner and partner work withdrawal. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 39(10), pp. 1268–1282. 

The Radicati Group (2018). “Email Statistics Report, 2018-2022 – Executive Summary”. Available at: <https://www.radicati.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Email-Statistics-Report-2014-2018-Executive-Summary.pdf>   

Russell, E., Daniels, K.A., Jackson, T. & Fullman, M. (2021, in press). The work-habits intervention model: a 12-month study to change work-email habits. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.

Statista (2021). “Number of sent and received emails per day worldwide 2017-2025”: Available at: <https://www.statista.com/statistics/456500/daily-number-of-e-mailsworldwide/>