Understanding and preventing incivility at work

Were you ever treated rudely by a cashier? Have store associates ever talked about you behind your back? If it’s ever happened to you, you know how much it stings the ol’ self-esteem. It’s not the end of the world to be treated rudely, but come on—we’re human beings. Unless we’re being rude ourselves, there’s no reason to make us feel bad about ourselves.

Incivility toward customers is taboo. People write reviews and make viral videos when they are mistreated by store associates. Stock prices tank when rude CEOs are caught mistreating service workers. Yet the same consequences don’t always happen for incivility in the workplace.

Far from taboo, poor treatment at work is commonplace. Just about everyone has a tale of a boss or coworker who made life miserable from day one, leaving teams to cope with daily stress levels far beyond normal. Workplace incivility has a cost—a high one where poor employee well-being and job satisfaction trickle down to the bottom line.

According to surveys conducted by Harvard Business Review’s Christine Porath and Christine Pearson, around half of all poorly treated workers suffer from:

  • Decreased work output

  • Decreased time spent at work

  • Decreased quality of work

  • Lost work time due to worry

  • Lost work time avoiding the offender

  • Decline in organizational commitment

  • Diverted frustration elsewhere in their lives

Employment is a two-way street: workers offer their time and labor in exchange for pay and a safe workplace. While there’s no OSHA for monitoring emotional grievances, there is a relationship between good employee treatment and high performance, and it’s something all businesses should know about.

What is workplace incivility?

In a nutshell, workplace incivility is defined as “low-intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm the target.”

Its hallmarks include:

  • Disregard for others

  • Discourteous behavior

  • Ostracism

  • Bullying

  • Abusive supervision

It can come from managers and executives as well as coworkers. At its mildest, incivility makes people feel like they don’t belong. At its worst, they suffer panic attacks in the parking lot.

Scales of magnitude

Uncivil organizational culture is so widespread that there’s an entire science devoted to understanding it. A 2001 workplace study by Cortina, Magley, Williams, and Langhout establishes some of the most prominent impacts workers feel when mistreated by their employers, with negative outcomes affecting everything from the quality of their work to their physical and mental health.

The researchers found that a majority of us have experienced incivility once or twice, with a full quarter seeing it on a more regular basis.

Incidents that respondents were asked about include:

  • Being put down or condescended to

  • Receiving little attention about statements or opinions

  • Hearing demeaning or derogatory remarks made about them

  • Being addressed in unprofessional terms, both publicly and privately

  • Being ignored or excluded from professional camaraderie

  • Having judgment doubted on a matter over which they had responsibility

  • Receiving unwanted attempts to draw them into a discussion of personal matters

It’s staggering how familiar these impacts feel. Rather than be treated as equals and peers, workers are relegated to desperation. Workplace incivility treats people as if they are distractions, rather than integral members of a team.

Another study by Martin and Hine lists traits of incivility such as:

  • Raising one’s voice while talking

  • Opening someone’s desk drawers without prior permission

  • Not consulting people they would normally be expected to

  • Talking about others behind your back

Poor communication is the backbone of mistreated workers. Managers who can’t bring up concerns as a regular part of business opt to yell at people or gossip behind their backs.

What an uncivil workplace looks like

Glengarry, Glen Ross and The Devil Wears Prada are great modern examples of the kind of drama that unhealthy workplaces enable. Cutthroat promotion practices, workplace bullying, and general rudeness are all par for the course when a company’s work-life balance skews heavily toward work.

Beyond negative emotions though, incivility can also take the form of workplace violence, with such behaviors as discrimination and sexual harassment. Women may be seen as less than equal to their male counterparts, receiving fewer job promotions while experiencing more unwanted sexual advances from leadership.

There is hardly any recourse for workplace incivility. Human resources departments consistently fail to take action against uncivil behavior, sometimes even punish whistleblowers instead.

The result is an atmosphere of defensiveness and caution, resulting in low retention, hostile communication, and overall low morale.

What causes workplace incivility?

How did we get here? Why do so many people experience a lack of dignity and respect? As it turns out, the answer is complicated.

Bad workplace treatment isn’t new. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was a landmark achievement in reporting the savagery of industry behemoths. Despite being written in 1904, anyone reading it today can sympathize with protagonist Jurgis Rudkus’ visions of employee abuse and disregard for workplace safety.

Like Sinclair’s Jungle, companies today can be short-sighted. Many will gladly turn a blind eye to their toxic workplaces if it keeps those shareholder gains flowing, even if it harms long-term business value.

Business itself occupies a different purpose than it did even 50 years ago. With nascent acquisitions gobbling up young companies faster and faster, many entrepreneurs see starting a business as a “get rich quick” scheme—the sooner your company is up and running, the faster you can sell it off to investors.

Employees are run into the ground only to be made redundant within a couple of years.

Organizational commitment to employees

Recently, this culture took the form of a layoff victim who videotaped her termination. Management said she was being let go for poor performance, but when she contested their claims with evidence that showed otherwise, they refused to produce receipts.

I’m hard-pressed to imagine a better example of workplace incivility than terminating someone’s employment while rebuffing their pleas for an explanation. Many companies expect employees to show up and consistently perform while offering no loyalty in return.

Layoffs are on the rise, as are strikes. Remote workplaces that lauded the productivity of their offsite teams are now calling people back into the office, despite the high employee costs incurred by commuting and working away from home.

Toxic cultural standards of performance

Americans love to win. The term “disruption” is used by almost every Silicon Valley darling as a willingness to muscle one’s way into victory. Hustle culture dismisses sleep as a luxury. Side gigs, drop shipping, you name it—America obsesses over individual achievement.

This emphasis on individual achievement can get in the way of teamwork. For example, toxic workplaces encourage workers to stay late by coloring any interest in a work-life balance as a lack of commitment.

The result? A workforce that prioritizes work over everything else, leading to burnout, job dissatisfaction, and employee turnover.

Some toxic traits that seem uniquely American include:

  • Unhealthy competition among coworkers

  • Lack of recognition and appreciation

  • Poor communication and a lack of transparency

  • Fear-based management

  • Resistance to change and innovation

  • Unfair or inconsistent evaluation processes

  • Limited opportunities for professional growth and development

It’s tempting to let employees work themselves into the ground while neglecting their well-being, but it’s a losing strategy in the long run.

Competitive job market

Automation has always been a catch-22. On the one hand, it cuts costs of production. On the other, it makes jobs redundant.

Truck driving, for example, is on the chopping block as self-driving vehicles emerge onto the scene. Current truck drivers are being advised to “re-tool” their skill set (find a new line of work, in other words), while young people are less likely to get into trucking altogether.

Where will all these workers go? To jobs that are still available, of course, creating a job market that favors employers. Why give a raise when someone who’s more desperate will do the same job for less pay?

When paired with a strained economy and growing population, there’s lots of opportunity for companies to put employee treatment on the back burner and reap profits while the getting’s good.

Just plain ignorance

Mistreating employees can also be a cultural issue. Some managers and executives just don’t see that they’re doing anything wrong. Thankfully, social media has given workers a stronger voice in the debate over outdated business attitudes.

Hustle culture and “back in my day” discourse don’t hold the same sway they did a decade ago. Young workers value relaxation and time to enjoy their lives.

The truth is that retirement as we know it may not even be realistic anymore, yet older managers still uphold company loyalty as a viable long-term plan. These attitudes are aging out, but until they do, worker well-being is still sometimes ignored in favor of potential job growth.

How to foster a civil workplace

Calling work teams “family” has become a cliché many, many times over, but it’s for a reason: Treating people with respect takes a bit of personal empathy—the same kind of empathy you give to loved ones, like family.

This isn’t a call to plaster “family” all over future job descriptions, but it’s worth considering how to give workers the same respect as those you care about.

Create open communication

Talk to each other. Make conversations inclusive. Build relationships. Ostracism is a key facet of incivility because it alienates people from their coworkers. The opposite behavior, then, is to make sure everyone’s voice is truly heard.

Managers—even executives—should make efforts to clue everyone in on what’s going on throughout the company. Make monthly all-hands meetings and one-on-ones a regular part of business. Employees should have chances to submit feedback anonymously, and managers should ask for feedback often.

Ditch gossip

Talking about others behind their backs doesn’t always seem harmful, but it leads to fragmented teams and hurt feelings. Gossip is unprofessional. If someone is struggling at work, managers can’t give in to the temptation of whispering about those struggles with the whole team.

It’s not a crime to discuss personal matters with work friends, but don’t let those conversations turn into frenzies that bleed into the rest of the workday. Keep criticism between yourself and the other person involved.

Find opportunities for recognition

In a turbulent job market, few can be sure of their long-term job outlook. The good news is that the resulting insecurity can be aided by positive feedback and recognition.

Shoutouts are always a good idea. If your company has some leftover swag from the last expo, hand it out like candy when someone does a job well. Let people know the company is pleased with their work and that they should feel good about their work.

Half days, extra vacation time, cash bonuses, and even food trucks are all easy ways to foster a caring workplace culture.

Promotions are also important. People who take on more responsibility need to be paid more. Otherwise, it’s just doing more for less, at which point people may start looking elsewhere for employers who reward their hard work.

Inclusivity is the answer

Workplace incivility thrives on atomizing and isolating people from each other. By contrast, work environments that bring people together and celebrate the different skills, attitudes, and personalities of their workers trend toward higher job satisfaction and lower turnover.

Coach and train obstinate personalities on how to be more civil. Penalize behavior that ostracizes others, and take steps to root out any notion that alienating people is ever okay.

It’s a competitive world out there. The only way to get ahead is to work together. Your workplace should be a place to do that.