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Does crude behavior in the workplace hurt employers?

February 18, 2013

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

By Cheryl Kuch, Linda Yesh-McMaster

Has it become the norm, rather than the exception, to be uncivil to each other?  Has the frequency of colleagues making petty accusations, spreading rumors, communicating abrasively, backbiting, and ignoring basic rules of etiquette finally taken us over the top?

Recent research is suggesting that rudeness and incivility in the workplace is on the rise and it is having a significant impact on both employees and employers. And it is just as likely to be over the top in your organization as anywhere else. The question is whether or not you can do anything about it.

It could be that we have become an overall uncivil society.  According to a recent study, Civility in America:  A Nationwide Survey  by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate in partnership with KRC Research, about two thirds of Americans (65%) believe we have an overall civility problem now. And they expect it to get worse instead of better: 55% believe lack of civility will become the norm. Most Americans (86%) believe they have  been victims of incivility, and 59% report that they themselves have been uncivil.

But what about the workplace?  Professor Christine Porath at Georgetown University’ McDonough School of Business reports in a recent study that incivility is a problem in today’s workplace.  In the study, 96% of Americans report they have experienced workplace incivility and half of them say they are treated offensively at least once per week. What’s more, only 9% of them have reported the treatment to their Human Resource departments. Neither is uncivil behavior unique to certain types of organizations; Porath found it across all industries and in both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.

Civility matters. If left unaddressed, incivility can have a substantial impact on the workplace. First, for those on the receiving end of the incivility, it can greatly affect their work. Among the impacts identified in the poll of 800 managers and non-managers, the study found that for those who experienced incivility:  

  • 48% intentionally decreased their work effort.
  • 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work.
  • 80% lost work time worrying about the incident.
  • 78% said their commitment to the organization declined.

Porath also reports that 12% of employees have actually left a job because they had been treated uncivilly.

Incivility also impacts productivity, morale, absenteeism, performance, quality, and commitment.  The study suggests that rudeness has rolling ramifications of increased distrust in others, lost work time and poorer customer service.
And it isn’t just colleagues that can be impacted by uncivil behavior; so can customers. Incivility reflects poorly on the workplace and sends a message to customers about the company. Shandwick and Tate found that 69% of Americans have either stopped buying from a company or have re-evaluated their opinions because someone was uncivil in their interaction.

Further, incivility does not have to be directed at you to impact you. Customers who simply witness  employees being uncivil to each other have been turned off from completing their purchase.

As for employees, all these impacts decrease job satisfaction and quite likely feed the cycle of an increasing number of individuals looking for jobs and acting rudely.

Regardless of which comes first in the cycle—the job seeking or the rudeness—companies are losing money. Work time and productivity are impacted as individuals try to navigate around the acrimony and avoid it in the future.  Workers are less willing to go above and beyond the call of duty because they will receive little or no recognition for it. Sales and customer service are impacted as poor behaviors filter into the relationship. Management and Human Resources spend money and time trying to restore workplace harmony.

Other than sending everyone back to kindergarten, what can HR and other people leaders do to restore civility in the workplace?  They can do a lot. Unfortunately it is all very, very basic and while it will eventually work it will not work overnight:

  • Model good behavior—Turn off your phone during meetings; do what you say you are going to do; say please and thank you.
  • Ask for feedback—Ask employees what they like/don’t like about the organization’s culture.
  • Create company norms—Discuss and set expectations for behavior.
  • Acknowledge Behavior—Reward the good behavior and respond appropriately to bad behavior.

Doing nothing to address rude behavior will most likely result in employees become more accepting of poor behavior as the norm, and less engaged in their work.

Although we could find no study that correlates workplace incivility with workplace violence, common sense tells us that workplace violence is simply workplace incivility writ large. According to SHRM research, 27% of HR professionals reported that their current organization experienced an incident of workplace violence within the past five years; 15% indicated that incidents of violence had increased in frequency.

Patiently doing the basic hard work of building a civil workplace may not just create a more pleasant work environment over time; it may also head off the far worse outcome of workplace incivility: workplace violence.

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