From making snide remarks to dismissing ideas, patronising behaviour in the workplace can take a heavy toll on confidence, wellbeing and organisational culture. How should HR respond?
“I actually like that idea.”
“I’m sure you tried your best.”
“Thanks for your… contribution.”
If you’ve been on the receiving end of patronising behaviour at work, you’ll know just how damaging it can be, not only to your self-confidence but also to the cultural fabric of your organisation.
Patronising in the workplace is an underhanded form of bullying that can be poisonous to company culture. Obvious signs include sarcasm and belittling comments. It can also manifest subtly, such as microaggressions or jokes at colleagues’ expense.
“When individuals are consistently subjected to patronising behaviour, it can undermine their self-esteem and confidence. Feeling belittled or talked down to can make individuals doubt their abilities and contributions, leading to a decrease in motivation and job satisfaction,” says Jason Clark, Director and Co-Owner of Worklogic, a workplace conflict resolution company that specialises in misconduct and mediation.
“Patronising behaviour can also disproportionately affect individuals from marginalised groups, which reinforces power imbalances and perpetuates biases and stereotypes,” he says. “This can deter diverse talent from thriving in the workplace and hinder efforts to foster an inclusive and equitable environment.”
HRM spoke with a number of sources who have experienced real-world examples of these behaviours at work.
A Sydney-based entrepreneur in the plumbing industry recalled an experience where patronising behaviour actively impeded productivity.
“While working on a joint venture, a colleague constantly undermined me, disregarding my contributions and expertise,” he said.
“This individual would interrupt me, dismiss my ideas and belittle my achievements. This patronising behavior not only affected my confidence but also impeded the project’s progress and the overall dynamics of the team.”
“It’s frustrating when people try to talk over me because they think I cannot understand things properly, or that I am too stupid to know what is going on around me,” said another source.
“Sometimes this can make me angry and upset because it feels like they are trying to make themselves look good at my expense, which makes me feel small and unimportant.”
What can be construed as patronising?
Although it can be unintentional, patronising conduct is often a ‘power play’. Employees who engage in this behaviour often do so as a way to convey their superiority to their colleagues or make them doubt their own capabilities.
To effectively address cases like this, it’s important to understand the nature and intent of the employee’s behaviour.
According to Clark, some of the most common types of patronising behaviour include:
1. Condescension. This occurs when an employee or manager talks down to others, uses a demeaning tone or treats them as if they are less intelligent or capable. This behaviour can undermine confidence and create a negative work environment.
2. Microaggressions. These are subtle, often unintentional acts or comments that communicate derogatory or belittling messages.
3. Ignoring or dismissing ideas. If an employee presents an idea or suggestion that is then ignored, dismissed or attributed to someone else, it can be seen as patronising and contribute to a culture of exclusion.
4. Infantilisation, or treating adult employees as if they are children or incapable of making decisions. This may involve using a babyish tone of voice, overly simplistic instructions or unnecessary oversight.
5. Underestimating abilities. When someone’s skills, expertise or experience are underestimated based on factors like age, gender or background, it can be patronising and prevent individuals from reaching their full potential.
How should HR tackle patronising behaviour?
When responding to the forms of patronising behaviour listed above, there are a number of factors that HR departments should keep in mind.
“It’s important for HR to handle reports of patronising behaviour promptly, impartially and in line with company policies and legal requirements,” says Clark.
“Making it known that patronising behaviour will not be tolerated and imposing a responsibility for everyone to treat all employees with dignity and respect is a great place to start.”
“Patronising behaviour can disproportionately affect individuals from marginalised groups, which reinforces power imbalances.” – Jason Clark, Director and Co-Owner of Worklogic
One of the reasons it’s so important for HR to nip this behaviour in the bud is that employers now have a stronger obligation to manage employees’ psychosocial safety at work, thanks to a new Code of Practice introduced in April this year.
“Constant exposure to patronising behaviour can create a hostile work environment, leading to increased stress and anxiety among employees,” he says. “It can contribute to a sense of unease, hypervigilance and a lack of psychological safety. This is a risk to an employees’ mental health and overall wellbeing.”
If an employee comes forward with a report of patronising behaviour, Clark advises HR to provide a safe and confidential space to share their concerns. It’s crucial to let them know that their complaint has been heard and taken seriously, since it’s likely that the employee’s confidence and self-esteem have already been damaged by the negative behaviour.
Following this, he recommends a number of proactive steps HR can take, including:
• Considering the frequency, intent and potential consequences of the behaviour to determine the appropriate response. Such responses might include a workplace investigation, disciplinary action or some form of dispute resolution process such as mediation.
• Documenting the complaint in as much detail as possible, particularly if HR is considering initiating some form of workplace investigation.
• Making it clear that the organisation is committed to maintaining a respectful work environment.
• Making sure the victim of the behaviour is aware of the support services on offer, such as an EAP.
From a big-picture perspective, HR should also be looking at ways to champion a culture where patronising behaviour is less likely to occur in the first place. To achieve this, Clark stresses the importance of keeping a finger on the pulse of your workplace culture and employee sentiment through surveys, focus groups or other feedback mechanisms.
“Providing training and education regularly on topics such as respectful communication, diversity and inclusion and conflict resolution can also increase awareness, enhance interpersonal skills and promote a culture of respect and understanding,” he says.
If you suspect an employee has engaged in misconduct, what should you do next? AHRI’s short course, Investigating Workplace Misconduct, can provide some answers.