RadioBDC Logo
Youth | Glass Animals Listen Live
< Back to front page Text size +

Incivility in the Workplace

Posted by Aaron Green  March 21, 2011 01:55 PM

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Are we becoming a nation of uncivil servants? The January shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords prompted numerous politicians and media to illustrate how uncivil and hot-headed our nation has become. There were subsequent calls for "civil discourse" and our government attempted to lead by example by pairing Republicans and Democrats as seat-mates for the President's State of the Union address. It's easy to see how our hurried, stressed and litigation-prone society can be less fun to be around and some have noticed that attitude carrying over to the workplace. Uncivil behavior in the workplace is unpleasant and costly, but can be prevented.

What is incivility in the workplace?
According to Wikipedia, workplace incivility has been defined as: "low-intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm the target... Uncivil behaviors are characteristically rude and discourteous, displaying a lack of regard for others."

Examples of uncivil behavior at work can range from:

  • losing one's temper or yelling at someone in public
  • rude or obnoxious behavior in the workplace
  • badgering or back-stabbing in the workplace
  • withholding important customer/client information
  • sabotaging a project or damaging someone's reputation

To more subtle acts, such as:

  • arriving late to a meeting
  • checking e-mail or texting during a meeting
  • not answering calls or responding to emails in a timely manner
  • ignoring or interrupting a colleague in the workplace
  • not saying "please" or "thank you" when customary

In the book The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It, authors Christine Pearson and Christine Porath interviewed workers at 800 employers, and found:

  • 96 percent have experienced incivility at work
  • 98 percent of employees claim they were treated uncivilly at work at least once a week
  • 10 percent said they witnessed incivility every day
  • 94 percent of workers who are treated uncivilly say they get even with their offenders

How did we get here?
It's not hard to find examples of stress and hardship that could make people less civil: the tough economy, less than ideal employment situations, even the effect technology has on speeding up our communications and decision making, and lengthening our work hours by increasing our accessibility.

Some workplace observers even blame the slip in civility on the shift toward casual dressing, which causes more casual behavior and communication, in turn lowering standards of behavior. While casual dressing may or may not be a cause for incivility, it's an example of the many workplace practices that have changed in our culture. When evaluating causes of incivility, employers should consider all the changes in their environments including the increased use of technology, teams that are more widely distributed geographically, and the increase in diverse workforces, to name just a few.

Workforce Management featured a January 2011 article, The Degeneration of Decorum, which reported that: "Incivility tends to rear its ugly head in organizations that have distinct pecking orders, where people are separated by rank...some experts say the worst fields for incivility are education and health care, where the abuse comes from the top and leads all the way down to the school playground or the operating room."

The cost of uncivil behavior in the workplace
An uncivil workplace is an undesirable place to work or do business with. Incivility has wide-reaching impact on efficiency, effectiveness and job satisfaction in the workplace. Where uncivil behavior is found, it's common to find poor communication and ineffective use of meetings, lower standards for customer service, decreased workplace productivity and lower rates for employee recruiting and retention.

As reported by Workforce Management: "In polling thousands of managers and employees about the effects of incivility, Pearson and Porath found that after being the victim of on-the-job rudeness and hostility, two-thirds of employees said their performance declined. Four out of five said they lost work time worrying about the unpleasant incident, while 63 percent wasted time avoiding the offender. More than three-quarters of respondents said that their commitment to their employer had waned, and 12 percent even quit because of bad treatment."

What should employers do?
Employers and organization leaders are responsible for creating a foundation or environment where employees can shine. Office culture is often set from above, meaning that the management team needs to lead by example. Increasing awareness around incivility and its impact is a good place to start and, if necessary, create workplace policies around civil behavior where standards for acceptable behavior are established (just as you might create a policy for the use of social media).

HR managers can ensure that civil language and practices are imbedded into every level of an organization, including job descriptions, hiring practices, training policy and the day-to-day code of conduct. For example, use the hiring processes you've got in place, such as personality tests and reference checks, to look for signs of incivility in a candidate or new hire.

Other tips for fostering civility:

  • Recognize and reward employees who model strong civil habits - or empower employees to recognize their peers
  • Provide training and coaching to help employees identify problems
  • Foster open communication practices such as forums for sharing ideas and input, safe environments for sharing concerns or reporting incidents, and explain the importance of good communication and its impact on organizational success

Reducing incivility not only makes your organization a more enjoyable place to work, but it also has a positive impact on the bottom line through improved employee retention and performance.

Aaron Green is founder and president of Boston-based Professional Staffing Group and PSG Global Solutions. He is also the vice chairman of the American Staffing Association. He can be reached at or (617) 250-1000.

  • E-mail
  • E-mail this article

    Invalid E-mail address
    Invalid E-mail address

    Sending your article

    Your article has been sent.

About HR Columns

Featuring human resources advice and columns from The Boston Globe's On Staffing and Hire Authority writers.