The flip side of the “jobless recovery” is increased stress for those who still have jobs. Workers are being asked to do more with fewer resources than ever before. There is a disconnect between what employees need and what employers think they need. Incivility is epidemic.
Workplace incivility aggravates every other workplace problem. It is defined as “low intensity behaviors that violate respectful workplace norms” where the intent to harm may be unclear. That means acting in a way that disregards the rights and feelings of others. Or, just plain being rude.
Problem behaviors range from impoliteness to bullying; from not returning emails or phone calls to fist pounding, phone slamming and public criticism or put-downs. Incivility includes undermining others’ work and failing to acknowledge their contributions. It encompasses nonverbal behavior as well as language, jokes, slurs and gossip. And it is making our communities and workplaces toxic.
The Cost of Incivility
Researchers Christine Porath and Christine Pearson spent 14 years asking more than 14,000 workers how they are treated. An unbelievable 98% of respondents said they experienced behavior that crossed the bounds. “In 2011 half [of workers] said they were treated rudely at least once a week—up from a quarter in 1998,” these researchers say.
In one study across 17 industries, Porath and Pearson found that, of those who experienced workplace incivility,
- 48% intentionally decreased their work effort,
- 47% intentionally decreased the time they spent at work,
- 63% lost time avoiding the offender,
- 80% lost time worrying about it,
- 66% said their performance declined and
- 87% said their commitment to the company declined.
Like other victims of abuse, those who experience incivility may adopt the behaviors they’ve experienced. Some in the study who had been treated badly took their frustration out on customers. Others left their jobs.
Porath and Pearson found additional costs in lost creativity, poor team performance and lost customer loyalty, even if customers only witness rude behavior. They say, “Incivility is expensive and few organizations recognize or take action to curtail it.” The individual companies that do talk of incivility’s costs price it in millions of dollars annually.
These findings align with the research on failures of workplace inclusion.
What You Can Do About It
Fortunately, there are things you can do to create positive cultural change. Here are some steps you can take.
- Pay attention. It can be tempting to avoid conflict, to make excuses or to focus on other things. Do not ignore what’s going on: see it, name it and deal with it. Passive leadership increases both the incidence and the perception of incivility.
- Examine your own behavior. Take stock of what you do and how others see you. Even simple changes, like saying “good morning” or “thank you,” can make a difference. It is important to model the behavior you want to see, because we humans consciously and unconsciously “tune” our behavior to match that of those who are important to us, like bosses and colleagues.
- Set some ground rules. Engage your team in a conversation about how you want to work together. Agree on clear and specific expectations for civil behavior. Communicate these expectations frequently. One of my favorite ground rules is “presume good will.” This creates the tone for asking questions, rather than making accusations, when challenges occur.
- Provide opportunities to learn. Education and training on civility will increase the new behaviors you want to encourage. People are under increased stress for so many reasons. By offering learning opportunities and feedback, you give them alternatives to manage their stress, try new things and improve their performance.
- Give it teeth. Include a section on “civility” in company policy manuals, and make it part of performance reviews. Frame interview questions with “civility” answers in mind for new hires and include it in new employee orientations. Make the consequences of incivility clear from the start.
- Follow through. Catch people in the act of being civil, and compliment them. Use rewards and recognition programs to encourage the best behavior. When a problem occurs, provide swift feedback and appropriate consequences—up to and including letting an offender go. Incivility spreads quickly. Your consistent commitment will ensure your success in maintaining a positive, productive work environment.
Jody Alyn is an organizational consultant and inclusion strategist.
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