Incivility At Work

A lack of civility in the workplace may not necessarily prompt a call to lawyers.

Uncivil behaviour is different from the very serious issues of bullying or harassment.

Still, rude, discourteous boorish, disrespectful and sarcastic behaviour has broad implications for organizations.

And it’s difficult to handle because those on the receiving end aren’t always sure if they should take personally what could just amount to very bad manners.

And for that reason, it’s difficult to develop a response to uncivil comportment. Staff aren’t clear about what might be actually going on or when the next incident might occur. Glaring, ignoring or dismissing colleagues obviously isn’t as severe as yelling, grabbing, name calling or harassing workmates, but it can lead to escalating levels of violence if unchecked.

Incivility at work harms the organization and the individual because it leads to job dissatisfaction and, in extreme cases, the desire to quit. At the same time, employees being treated rudely are less committed to their job, unhappy and fearful about further negative interactions. Workplaces that tolerate incivility are stressful. While the events may not be not traumatic, they create emotional wear and tear that accumulates and attacks staff well-being, peace of mind and energy levels. People feel depressed, worried or anxious, helpless and futile. Physically, sufferers observe increased migraines, difficulty sleeping, heart disease, increases in heart rate and blood pressure.

Incivility can affect an entire work group. Some teams may be steeped in a rude, disrespectful culture, while others who observe incivility directed to team mates suffer because they feel a sense of injustice and fear. Much of the time the incivility is hard to pinpoint because it permeates the work group atmosphere, making team members feel vaguely uneasy a lot of the time.

In their study on workplace incivility, Sandy Lim at Singapore Management University, Lilia Cortina at the University of Michigan and Vicki Magley at the Univeristy of Connecticut, observed that job satisfaction fell when incivility was reported in the workplace. The researchers note that being subject to incivility at work has a negative impact on employee mental health and that staff are more likely to consider quitting when they are treated disrespectfully. Also, employees with mental-health problems are less likely to be in good physical health. Those treated rudely had an increased chance of becoming dissatisfied with their supervisors and colleagues than with their actual work tasks. And they were more likely to think about quitting when dissatisfied with their supervisors.

Organizations can intervene to prevent the damaging effects of subtle, pervasive rude behaviour among workers. Here are some techniques:

• Refuse to trivialize these pervasive behaviours. Be on the look-out for a lack of mutual respect at work, including: o Eye-rolling at meetings. o Loud sighing when someone is talking. o Interruptions, exclusions. o Glaring, staring, sarcasm. o Making people the brunt of jokes and showing little interest in another’s opinion.

• If you notice this behaviour in your organization or team, don’t discount it. It is easy to write off these events as unimportant because the behaviour can be subtle. It is confusing to know what to do when you are uncertain as to the motivation behind the behaviour. You might be tempted to justify the behaviour: Henry’s just a boor”, or “I should get a thicker skin, they’re just kidding. These are ways people may rationalize disrespectful behaviour, but it is still rude.

• The organization has the responsibility to deal with incivility in the workplace if it hopes to provide a safe environment where creativity can flourish and workers are retained. Ensuring that supervisors understand the problem of incivility so that they can stop the behaviour and redirect staff is important.

• Supervisors who engage in uncivil behaviour need to understand the damaging effects on the organization. It is easy for these kinds of bosses to fly below the radar when a company tacitly sanctions bad manners. Be on the look out for managers who have high turnover or who you see acting in unprofessional ways—there may be a problem of incivility in their department.

• When dealing directly with incivility do so assertively. State how you feel—“I feel disrespected when you roll your eyes at me” and what you need—“I need you to stop doing that when I’m talking, it’s rude”. You may get a defensive reaction which is a continuation of the uncivil behaviour (a lack of willingness to take responsibility for the rudeness). Continue to tell the person that you are upset and that the rude behaviour has to stop.

• Bringing the problem to a supervisor is also important. Teams can have conversations that generate a code of conduct, in which issues of incivility can be addressed.

Don’t give up. Try to make a difference by standing up for yourself. If being assertive, talking to superiors or human resources doesn’t work, polish up the resume and find another job. Just be sure that you interview the next company about how staff and supervisors are encouraged to treat each other and ask around. Workers who have been treated badly are often happy to tell their story.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality. They can be contacted at:

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