Workplace Incivility on the Rise: Four Ways to Stop It

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There is a disturbing trend in Corporate America. Despite increased talk about improving corporate culture, there is a civility problem in the workplace. It is wreaking havoc on employee relationships and workplace morale, as well as the bottom line. And few leaders are doing anything to stop it. According to The Cost of Bad Behavior by Christine Pearson and Christine Porath, it is far more widespread than people realize—and incivility in the workplace has devastating effects. Here are just a few of the statistics from their research study of 800 employers:

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

What is Incivility in the Workplace?

Pearson and Porath define incivility as "the exchange of seemingly inconsequential inconsiderate words and deeds that violate conventional norms or workplace conduct." In essence, what is considered "uncivil" is based on an individual’s perceptions of actions or words. Sometimes it is blatant, like:

  • 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

And others times it may be a bit more subtle, like:

  • 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"

Incivility does not just happen between coworkers. About a quarter of the customers/clients they surveyed believe disrespectful behavior is more common today than it was five years ago, and 40 percent said they experience rudeness from employees at least once a month! So much for all the talk and advertising about great service and a positive customer experience.

Why Does it Matter?

It can have a devastating impact on your employees, as well as the organization as a whole. When incivility is prevalent in the workplace, stress levels increase and performance suffers.

Employees will become less engaged, which means they can also become de-motivated, apathetic and even angry. They put in less effort, produce lower quality and can even burn out. Perhaps you’ve seen these telltale signs. They lead to losses in productivity, efficiency and of course, profitability. According to Banishing Burnout by M.P.Leiter and C. Maslach, the annual cost of job stress alone due to incivility at U.S. corporations is $300 billion.

What Can We Do About it?

1. Increase Awareness

The first step is to recognize that incivility is an issue that can debilitate an individual and an organization. Educate employees about the cost and impact of uncivil behavior. Most people don’t even realize the trend or know the cause of their malaise or frustration in the workplace. Define what it is and what it looks like. And, share the research on the impact of continued incivility in a community to increase the sense of urgency to address it.

2. Create Workplace Standards and Value Civility

Agree to set a clear, written standard for behavior, noting what is acceptable and what is not. Leadership needs to be not only involved in the process, but committed to modeling civility and reinforcing its importance. Communicate the standards with all associates so they understand how to consistently demonstrate respect and concern for others. Consider making civility one of your core values, a principle that guides the internal conduct at your organization.

Be sure to recognize and reward employees who model it, so all employees see it’s a serious commitment—a value of the business, not just words on a wall or plaque. Equally important is addressing incidents and complaints, and taking corrective action so your employees see it is not condoned or tolerated.

3. Provide Internal Training and Coaching

Some people in the workplace may not even realize they exhibit uncivil behavior—the employees figure this is "not about me." Well, chances are they lack self-awareness (like some of the perpetrators) and/or have no idea how to change behavior that may be ingrained. Training employees on your new standard will help create an open, friendly and accepting environment.

Ideally, the internal training would be experiential and include realistic skill practices that are videotaped, so employees can see themselves and hear how they sound. This helps associates see the impact of their behaviors on others and allows them a chance to practice in a safe environment. When the employees experience progress in the training and receive developmental coaching to maintain the change, the employees are more likely to continue their newfound behaviors.

4. Encourage Open Communication and Feedback

To sustain the new culture, put systems in place that encourage open communication so that it becomes the norm. Organizational leaders need to lead responsibly and create a safe environment so employees are not fearful when sharing concerns or reporting incidents.

Promote constructive and open feedback so employees learn how to demonstrate respect and common courtesy, really listen to each other and be more accepting of each others’ ideas and opinions. Continue the dialogue and engage employees in the process by gathering their input and ideas. Share progress along the way so all employees can see the impact of their efforts and celebrate successes.

Why Bother?

It makes sense to cultivate a climate of civility and a culture of openness and inclusion. According to P.M. Forni, the co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project and author of Choosing Civility:

"Encouraging civility in the workplace is becoming one of the fundamental corporate goals in our diverse, hurried, stressed and litigation-prone society. A civil workplace is good for workers, since the workers’ quality of life is improved in such an environment. But a civil workplace is also good for the customers, since the quality of service they receive from happier and more relaxed service providers is improved."

And, it is the right and most civil thing to do.