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Workplace Incivility: Why Your Company Isn't Fulfilling Its Potential

business.com editorial staff
business.com editorial staff

Uncivil behavior is a corporate virus that can damage morale and cripple productivity.

  • "Workplace incivility" is a term for the various macroaggressions and other behaviors that contribute to hostile and unpleasant work environments for certain people and groups in the workplace.
  • Over time, these behaviors can cause stress, miscommunication, employee burnout and a decrease in company morale.
  • Some causes of workplace incivility are stress, management changes and cultural differences.

Your HR department might be vigilant when it comes to overt demonstrations of hostile behavior in the workplace, such as harassment, threats and bullying. These instances tend to be noticeable and evident, so they are often addressed and resolved readily. However, an equally threatening form of hostility could be taking root and causing significant damage in your company. This form of hostility is known in HR and performance management circles as "workplace incivility."

In an HRZone article, psychology professor Mike Sliter defines workplace incivility as "a low-intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm the target, in violation of workplace norms for mutual respect and courtesy." This might come in the form of sarcasm, insults, condescending comments, inconsideration or rudeness. One thing to note about incivility is that it all too often goes unaddressed, due to its surreptitious or unclear nature.

The number of people experiencing workplace incivility has doubled over the past 20 years. According to one study, 96% of employees have experienced incivility at work, with 48% of them claiming to experience incivility at least once a week. To best understand the danger of this underhanded and ambiguous form of bullying, we should first examine what it is, the negative impacts it can have, and what we can do to resolve the problem. 

The problems inherent in an uncivil workplace

One study showed that when respondents were exposed to incivility, their performance was a remarkable 61% worse. The results of another study linked rudeness in the workplace to employees' unwillingness to share information and seek help.

Studies have also linked incivility to other negative workplace behaviors. Over time, it has been known to cause stress, difficulties in communication, employee burnout and decreased morale. Unsurprisingly, there is also a strong association between incivility and high employee turnover, which is notoriously costly to organizations worldwide. Estimates suggest that incivility costs companies $14,000 per employee annually in loss of production.

How incivility and rudeness can spread throughout a workplace

If you notice signs of incivility within your workforce, it is essential that you and your performance management team act quickly. A study conducted by Michigan State University and published in the Journal of Applied Psychology demonstrated that incivility can spread rapidly throughout a company. The study surveyed 70 employees who were given performance-based tasks and exposed to rude workplace behavior. The study found that incivility prompted mental fatigue, which resulted in a loss of self-control, so the participants were more likely to treat others in a similarly negative manner, resulting in what the study termed "incivility spirals."

Causes of incivility in the workplace

According to Open Sourced Workplace, these are some of the various causes of workplace incivility:

  • Cultural differences: If your team is not diverse enough, your workplace may be a breeding ground for incivility.
  • Changes of management: Another thing that can cause workplace incivility is the changing of managers. This is because every manager has their own unique management style, and it can be difficult for employees to get used to the style of a new manager.
  • Workplace stress: If your employees are especially stressed or overwhelmed, this can lead to workplace incivility.
  • Corporate environment: Your company's corporate environment and culture can play a major role in how employees relate to one another.

Examples of workplace incivility

  • Sending demeaning or inappropriate emails
  • Deliberately ignoring certain people during important meetings
  • Undermining someone's work performance

How to eliminate incivility in your business

You need to take certain measures to counter the effects of incivility in your workforce. One great place to start is to improve the quality and frequency of communication between employees. Large brands all over the world have made the switch to weekly feedback sessions, where performance and progress is discussed and reviewed. During these sessions, make it clear that the employee in question should feel free to bring up any workplace issues that might be causing them undue stress or impeding their performance.

Digital technology can also help solve the problem of incivility. Employees need to be able to bounce ideas off each other in an environment that is creative, positive and judgment-free. Employees need a mix of communication tools to express themselves. One such solution is software that facilitates communication, such as performance management software, which can be used to keep up to date with colleagues and elicit feedback from managers. It should be noted that with digital communication, should an employee have an interaction they perceive as uncivil or rude, they have a record that may prove necessary if the behavior continues. 

Change can be difficult, and overhauling your company culture can certainly prove to be a challenge. However, small changes make all the difference and can be introduced today. If change is to take hold within your organization, the HR department should be at the heart of these efforts. Your business needs to take a firm stand against inherent company incivility.

It might be easier to turn a blind eye to rudeness, or to instruct employees to be less sensitive when it comes to conflict, but the only way to stamp out this behavior is to be proactive and make changes to your company culture. Excuses such as "he might be abrasive, but he's a good worker, so we let it go" or "it's just the way she is" aren't justifiable stances. Employees' bad attitudes negatively impact those around them and need to be addressed if you are seriously looking to improve your overall office performance.

By keeping in mind the problems that arise from incivility and improving communication throughout your workforce, you will notice changes within your company that will help it grow and excel.

Image Credit: Prostock_Studio / Getty Images
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