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

By Stuart Hearn, writer
Jan 12, 2017
> Human Resources

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

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 evident and noticeable, and so are addressed and resolved readily. However, an equally threatening form of hostility is likely taking root and causing significant damage to your company. This form of hostility is becoming known in HR and performance management circles as “workplace incivility.”

The number of people experiencing workplace incivility has doubled over the past twenty years. According to one study, 96 percent of employees have experienced incivility at work, with 48 percent 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 cause, and what we can do to resolve the problem. 

In an article on HR Zone, 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 problems inherent in an uncivil workplace

The results of one study demonstrated that when people are exposed to incivility, performance was a remarkable 61 percent worse. Another study showed rudeness was linked to an 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 turnover rates, which is notoriously costly to organizations worldwide. It has been estimated incivility costs companies $14,000 per employee annually, due to a loss of production.

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 recent study conducted by Michigan State University and published in the Journal of Applied Psychology has demonstrated 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 incivility prompted mental fatigue, which in turn resulted in a loss of self-control, so the participants were more likely to treat others in a similar, negative manner, resulting in what the study termed “incivility spirals.”

How to eliminate incivility

There are a number of measures that need to be put in place to counter the effects of incivility in a workplace. 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 office-related 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 judgement-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 an 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. Making 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. Their attitudes are negatively impacting those around them and need to be addressed if you are seriously looking to improve overall office performance.

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

Photo credit: s-ts/Shutterstock

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Stuart Hearn
Stuart Hearn
See Stuart Hearn's Profile
Stuart Hearn has twenty years of experience in the HR sector. He co-founded plusHR, a leading UK HR consultancy, and previously worked as International HR Director for Sony Music Publishing. Stuart is currently CEO of Clear Review, an innovative performance management software system.
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