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What to do when co-workers are uncivil

October 9, 2013

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

By Cheryl Kuch  

Rudeness and incivility in the workplace are on the rise and may be costing employers greatly.   According to an ongoing Georgetown University study, 96% of workers say they have experienced uncivil behavior and 98% say they have witnessed it. This behavior can cause a decrease in morale among and other business issues. How can employers combat this epidemic?

Uncivil Behavior Defined

According to a Baylor University study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior  uncivil behavior and aggression or bullying are not the same. The main differentiating factor is intent. The intent of aggression or bullying  is to physically or psychologically harm someone.  Worker incivility, by contrast, is defined as “low-intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm the target, in violation of workplace norms for mutual respect.” Uncivil behaviors are characteristically rude and discourteous, displaying a lack of regard for others. They can take the form of condescension, demeaning or derogatory remarks, showing little interest in the other worker’s opinion, ignoring or excluding a coworker to texting in a meeting.

Research suggests this type of behavior is on the rise.  According to the Wall Street Journal, a study done in 1998 reported that 25% of workers claimed that they had been treated uncivilly at least once a week. In 2011 in a separate study, 50% of workers indicated they were treated uncivilly at least once a week.

Impact on the Business

This behavior can have significant impact on the business, and others, not just the one that the uncivil behavior has been direct toward.  Nearly everyone who experiences workplace incivility responds in a negative way including retaliating.   Job stress is estimated to cost U.S. corporations three hundred billion dollars a year, of which most can be attributed to workplace incivility. This is according to Christine Porath and Christine Pearson in their book The Cost of Bad Behavior, which cites other costs of workplace incivility as well: 

  • Decreased morale
  • Health and wellness issues
  • Lessened creativity from employees who feel disrespected
  • Increased turnover of employees who get fed up and leave
  • Employees deliberately reducing their effort or the quality of their work
  • Damaged customer relationships where customers perceive the company’s employees as rude

Preliminary research is just starting to examine the relationship between workplace incivility and the impact on the worker’s home life.  Bringing work stress home may create stress at home further impacting the worker at work. (Baylor)

What You Can do as an Employer

  • Set clear expectations for civil behavior (at all levels). Be sure star performers get the message, too. Do not excuse them.
  • Address issues with chronic offenders.  The more these behaviors go unaddressed the more likely the offenders are to consider the behavior acceptable and the more “normal” it may become. If the behavior is unacceptable, work with managers to address the issue.
  • Model civil behavior. What you do carries more weight than what you say.
  • Hold workers accountable for the Three R’s with what Professor Pier M. Forni, co-founder of the Civility Project, defines as the basics of civility:  Respect, Restraint and Responsibility.

Ms. Porath also encourages employers to help managers and coworkers be more civil by doing the following:

  • Address performance or other issues with others in a private setting
  • Never write or say anything you would not be proud to sign
  • Use the 10/5 rule when in the presence of coworkers.  When within 10 feet of a coworker acknowledge them, when within 5 feet say “hello.”

Equip Your Workers With Skills

Do your workers and managers know how to be civil or how to address a co-worker who is not civil?  Understanding and communicating with different people in the workplace can be difficult.   Consider sending supervisors or workers to one of over 80 instructor-led courses ASE offers.  SBAM members – call the ASE hotline for details!

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