The Price of Incivility

Rudeness at work is rampant, and it’s on the rise. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Christine Porath and Christine Pearson write, “Over the past 14 years we’ve polled thousands of workers about how they’re treated on the job, and 98% have reported experiencing uncivil behavior. In 2011 half said they were treated rudely at least once a week—up from a quarter in 1998.”

“The costs chip away at the bottom line. Nearly everybody who experiences workplace incivility responds in a negative way, in some cases overtly retaliating. Employees are less creative when they feel disrespected, and many get fed up and leave. About half deliberately decrease their effort or lower the quality of their work. And incivility damages customer relationships. Our research shows that people are less likely to buy from a company with an employee they perceive as rude, whether the rudeness is directed at them or at other employees. Witnessing just a single unpleasant interaction leads customers to generalize about other employees, the organization, and even the brand.”

The Costs of Incivility

Many managers would say that incivility is wrong, but not all recognize that it has tangible costs. Among workers who’ve been on the receiving end of incivility:

  • 48% intentionally decreased their work effort.

  • 47% intentionally decreased the time spent at work.

  • 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work.

  • 80% lost work time worrying about the incident.

  • 63% lost work time avoiding the offender.

  • 66% said that their performance declined.

  • 78% said that their commitment to the organization declined.

  • 12% said that they left their job because of the uncivil treatment.

  • 25% admitted to taking their frustration out on customers.

Here are some examples of what can happen in an incivil work environment.

Creativity suffers.

“In an experiment we conducted with Amir Erez, a professor of management at the University of Florida, participants who were treated rudely by other subjects were 30% less creative than others in the study. They produced 25% fewer ideas, and the ones they did come up with were less original.”

Performance and team spirit deteriorate.

“Survey results and interviews indicate that simply witnessing incivility has negative consequences. In one experiment we conducted, people who’d observed poor behavior performed 20% worse on word puzzles than other people did. We also found that witnesses to incivility were less likely than others to help out, even when the person they’d be helping had no apparent connection to the uncivil person: Only 25% of the subjects who’d witnessed incivility volunteered to help, whereas 51% of those who hadn’t witnessed it did.”

“People are less likely to buy from a company with an employee they perceive as rude, even if the rudeness isn’t directed at them.”

Managing incidents is expensive.

“HR professionals say that just one incident can soak up weeks of attention and effort. According to a study conducted by Accountemps and reported in Fortune, managers and executives at Fortune 1,000 firms spend 13% percent of their work time—the equivalent of seven weeks a year—mending employee relationships and otherwise dealing with the aftermath of incivility. And costs soar, of course, when consultants or attorneys must be brought in to help settle a situation.”

What’s a Leader to Do?

“It can take constant vigilance to keep the workplace civil; otherwise, rudeness tends to creep into everyday interactions. Managers can use several strategies to keep their own behavior in check and to foster civility among others.”

Managing yourself.

Leaders set the tone, so you need to be aware of your actions and of how you come across to others. Three ways to manage yourself include the following:

1. Model good behavior.

2. Ask for feedback.

3. Pay attention to your progress.

Managing the organization

Monitoring and adjusting your own behavior is an important piece of the puzzle, but you need to take action across the company as well.

1. Hire for civility.

“Avoid bringing incivility into the workplace to begin with. Some companies, including Southwest Airlines and Four Seasons, put civility at the fore when they interview applicants.”

“Only 11% of organizations report considering civility at all during the hiring process, and many of those investigate it in a cursory fashion. But incivility usually leaves a trail of some sort, which can be uncovered if someone’s willing to look.”

3. Teach civility.

“People can learn civility on the job. Role-playing is one technique. At one hospital in Los Angeles, temperamental doctors have to attend “charm school” to decrease their brashness (and reduce the potential for lawsuits). Some organizations offer classes on managing the generation mix, in which they talk about differences in norms of civility and how to improve behavior across generations. Video can be a good teaching tool, especially when paired with coaching.”

4. Create group norms.

“Start a dialogue with your team about expectations. An insurance executive told us that he’d talked with his team about what behaviors worked and what didn’t. By the end of the first meeting, the team had produced and taken ownership of concrete norms for civility, such as arriving on time and ignoring e-mail during meetings.”

5. Reward good behavior.

“Collegiality should be a consideration in every performance review, but many companies think only about outcomes and tend to overlook damaging behaviors. What behavior does your review system motivate? All too often we see organizations badly miss the mark. They want collaboration, but you’d never know it from their evaluation forms, which focus entirely on individual assessment, without a single measure of teamwork.”

“Zappos implemented a “Wow” recognition program designed to capture people in the act of doing the right thing. Any employee at any level who sees a colleague doing something special can award a “Wow,” which includes a cash bonus of up to $50. Recipients are automatically eligible for a “Hero” award. Heroes are chosen by top executives; they receive a covered parking spot for a month, a $150 Zappos gift card, and, with full symbolic flair, a hero’s cape. Even lighthearted awards like these can be powerful symbols of the importance of civility.”

6. Penalize bad behavior.

“Even the best companies occasionally make bad hires, and employees from an acquired firm may be accustomed to different norms. The trick is to identify and try to correct any troublesome behavior. Companies often avoid taking action, though, and most incidents go unreported, partly because employees know nothing will come of a report. If you want to foster respect, take complaints seriously and follow up.”

“Sometimes the best path is to let someone go. Danny Meyer, the owner of many successful restaurants in Manhattan, will fire talent for uncivil behavior. Gifted but rude chefs don’t last at his restaurants because they set off bad vibes. Meyer believes that customers can taste employee incivility, even when the behavior occurs in the kitchen.”

7. Conduct post-departure interviews.

“Organizational memory fades quickly. It’s crucial, therefore, to gather information from and reflect on the experiences and reactions of employees who leave because of incivility.”

“We close with a warning to those who think consistent civility is an extravagance: Just one habitually offensive employee critically positioned in your organization can cost you dearly in lost employees, lost customers, and lost productivity.”