These days, incivility is spreading like an epidemic in the workplace. Research shows that during the past 18 years, tens of thousands of workers worldwide have reported being treated rudely at work at least once a month. And, the number of “victims” has been steadily increasing from 49% in 1998 to 55% in 2011 and to 62% in 2016 (Porath, 2016).
How about you? As a member of your organization, when was the last time you felt ignored? Unappreciated? Degraded? Or just embarrassed? What behavior have you witnessed or experienced in your workplace that you would consider disrespectful or inappropriate?
Through my decade-long research on incivility, I have learned four things about uncivil behavior:
- Uncivil behavior takes various forms. Examples of uncivil behavior include making demeaning comments, disrupting meetings, giving public reprimands, giving others the silent treatment, not giving others the credit that’s due, gossiping, harassing or bullying others, insulting and yelling at others. The list can go on and on.
- Uncivil behavior is rude and discourteous. Have you ever had colleagues take your food out of the refrigerator without telling you? How about people not returning your phone calls or talking behind your back? In essence, uncivil behavior demonstrates a lack of respect for others.
- Uncivil behavior is triggered by a number of causes. Here are two that stand out. One is an informal work environment. In recent years the climate in many organizations tends to be informal. This informality is evidenced by dress code, language choice and communication patterns. As the workplace becomes informal, the line between what is and is not appropriate, has become blurred. Some long-standing cues about respect and politeness have vanished. The second cause is power and social status. People with greater power have more opportunities to be uncivil and they often get away with it. The less powerful employees tend to be targets or victims. Just think about the power gradient between supervisors and subordinates.
- Uncivil behavior can be very costly. Whether unintentional or deliberate, insensitive words and actions can create a lasting impact. For individuals, uncivil words and deeds can negatively affect their physical and psychological well-being, and reduce their creativity, motivation, focus, commitment and job satisfaction. For organizations, incivility can lead to undesirable outcomes, such as decreased productivity and increased turnover. Simply put, an organization’s bottom line is negatively impacted by unhappy and unproductive employees.
So, what can organizations do about incivility in the workplace? Here are five actions leaders and HR can take to reduce or eliminate workplace incivility.
- Develop authentic leadership. Leaders shape the culture of an organization and set examples of what is or is not acceptable. To create a respectful workplace, leaders not only need to model respect for their employees, but they also need to develop behavior statements that define what is acceptable at personal and organizational levels.
- Engage with employees. It is important for leadership to take a look at their own actions and determine whether they are being civil to their employees. A leadership team has to be willing to engage the less powerful members within the company in authentic, and often, difficult conversations about their experiences at work. Unfortunately, many CEOs and executives are not willing to discuss uncivil behavior because it is considered trivial or “touchy-feely,” and can cause discomfort and lead to confrontation.
- Cultivate a civil culture. Incivility is a culture, and cultural change does not happen overnight. But, you can educate people so they are more aware of their organization’s climate and help build a zero-tolerance culture. For example, start a monthly meeting by identifying bad behavior that you want to stop and good behavior that deserves recognition.
- Hold everyone accountable. HR can take the lead in establishing a mechanism to prevent and address uncivil work behaviors. For example, consider formulating organization-wide policies, outlining clear boundaries to guide and measure the conduct of all employees. When uncivil incidents occur, handle them in a timely fashion and hold the instigators responsible for the consequences.
- Reinforce corporate values. Setting clear behavioral expectations is not enough to stem the occurrence of uncivil behavior when they are only posted in hallways or on bulletin boards. Continually reviewing and talking about an organization’s behavior statements shows employees that the leadership team isn’t just “putting a check mark in a box,” but that they really care about creating a healthy work climate for employees. In addition to conducting exit interviews with departing employees, interview those who have chosen to stay so you can determine what you are doing right to promote retention.
Workplace incivility is an epidemic that will continue until “justice” is restored, forgiveness is asked or given, or one of the parties is removed. So break the silence before it causes irreversible damage to your organization and to your most invaluable asset — your employees.
Porath, K. (2016, December). The hidden toll of workplace incivility. McKinsey Quarterly. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/the-hidden-toll-of-workplace-incivility
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