Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Costs of Workplace Incivility

Workplace disharmony has been documented by recent research to be a substantial economic cost for American business that is largely preventable but rarely addressed. Managers and executives looking to streamline business processes routinely miss the underappreciated expense of inappropriate behavior. This substantial cost is unknown to many, and is rarely included as a topic for meetings or in the books as accounting tallies. Studies show that very few people report uncivil treatment to Human Relations (HR) or Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), despite the fact that they may be highly affected by it.

An accepted definition of workplace incivility is “the exchange of inconsiderate words and deeds that violate conventional norms of workplace conduct” (Anderson and Pearson, 1999). Often inconsiderate actions seem inconsequential at the time, but they are known to frequently have lasting effects. It is important to remember that incivility is not an objective phenomenon and that it is subject to the target’s subjective interpretation.

Everyone loses when it comes to bad behavior in the workplace: the targets, the offenders and the firm. It is extremely important to a business for workers to give each other feedback, criticism, advice and support.  However, they should not be done in ways that are insensitive, politically incorrect, or that impact a target’s self-worth. Targets of bad behavior lose work time worrying about the incident with the offender, and about their future interactions. This worrying has been documented to lead to avoidance behavior, reduced commitment to the organization, lower effort at work and less time spent at work (Pearson and Porath, 2009).

Relevant Statistics

          Job stress has been estimated to cost U.S. corporations $300 billion annually (Cascio and Boudreau, 2008).

          One in five people claim to be the targets of workplace abuse at least once a week.

          Ten percent said they witness workplace abuse every day.

          Strong relationships have been found between having an inconsiderate or incommunicative boss and certain medical illnesses including anxiety, depression and cardiac conditions (Smith, 2008).

          80 percent of respondents to one poll claimed that they “get no respect at work.”

          A recent Gallup poll revealed that 73 percent of workers “don’t feel good” and a large number of these individuals actively disengage from work; 14 % admitted to “undermining the goals of the company” as a result.

          About 60% of the time, the offender has a higher job status than the target (Pearson and Porath, 2009).

          Men are nearly twice as likely to be offenders, but women’s offenses are often just as serious.

          Most offenders are older than their targets, and targets are often not new hires.

          Research from eight thousand business units from thirty-six companies found that groups with positive attitudes were 50% more likely to establish above-average customer loyalty, and 44% were more likely to establish above average profitability (Harter et al., 2002).

Incivility Detracts from Performance

If there are no organizational repercussions for negative behaviors, and the behaviors are seen as necessary or inconsequential, they can quickly become a part of the business culture. This can easily lead to similar treatment of strategic partners outside of the business and to customers. Often assistants to a boss or manager become “kiss-ups” who welcome abuse from the boss.  Yet they in turn act unfairly, on behalf of the boss, toward lower-status employees; this is often referred to as “kiss up, kick down”. Upwardly aimed incivility is usually covert and is insidious because it often involves sabotage and is damaging to the business infrastructure. Incivility rarely works upward, often travels laterally, but usually flows downward. Downward cycles of negativity inevitably cascade toward the frontline workers, and there has a tendency to be transferred to customers, clients and patrons.

Studies have found that targets of incivility reduce their performance to punish the organization. When job satisfaction wanes, disgruntled workers intentionally cut back effort, quality and time. Often uncivil environments naturally distract employees and lead them to ruminate about their condition and discuss it compulsively with friends, family members and coworkers, all on the company’s time. Many people will take vengeful action when they feel they have been a target of abuse. Most targets will attempt to damage the offender’s reputation by telling a neutral party. People spend time reassuring themselves of their superior moral standing, and they often spend time mulling over how they expect to respond to the next act of incivility mounted against them. It is clear to see how bad acts lead targets to thinking obsessively about how to mount their own negative, vengeful responses. These negative thoughts recur frequently, and each time cause the worker to lose task focus.

Even more troublesome is the fact that targets often hide their resentment and true feelings from higher-ups, concealing the problem from the people that could make a difference. Moreover, there are many anecdotal and documented cases where hourly workers hear second-hand about incivility focused on one of their own and retaliate against the company by reducing work intensity (Bennis & Biederman, 1997). Managers and executives at Fortune 1000 firms spend as much as 13 percent of their total work time mending employee relationships and replacing employees that left (Connelly, 1994). Incivility detracts from teams, even teams of two people, because the offender and target cannot work together as smoothly anymore. Biological Behavior Assessments LLC will actually calculate an estimate for you as to how much money you lose on a yearly basis to incivility in the workplace. Our calculations are based on accepted research, industry standards and detailed information from your accounting and HR departments.

In a psychology laboratory, student volunteers experimentally exposed to social mistreatment show decreased ability to perform simple tasks, distracted attention, impaired working memory, diminished creativity and reduced helping behaviors (Porath and Erez, 2007).  According to a poll taken by Pearson and Porath (2009) of mistreated managers and employees in a large diverse national sample:

          Forty-eight percent intentionally decreased work effort.

          Forty-seven percent intentionally decreased time at work.

          Thirty-eight percent intentionally decreased work quality.

          Eighty percent lost work time worrying about the incident.

          Sixty-three percent lost time avoiding the offender.

          Sixty-six percent said their performances declined.

          Seventy-eight percent said their commitment to the organization declined.


When treated uncivilly, targets will be less likely to seek feedback on their decisions and less likely to inform each other about actual or potential problems. On the other hand, historically remarkable teams usually grant their members freedom to do their best and use their creative energy without fear. All team members need leadership and guidance but they need respectful, guidance that they do not feel afraid of.

What can be done about this? Contact us at BBA. Biological Behavior Assessments LLC provides employment assessments that are effective in identifying and mediating inappropriate workplace behaviors. Our innovative system offers a straightforward testing program, administered online, that provides essential perspective on workplace functioning. We prepare customized reports that provide personal development suggestions for the test takers. These detailed reports are easy to understand and interpret, and offer guidance based on established neuroscience and leading clinical methods.

Solutions For Dealing with Incivility

Below are a number of excellent solutions for dealing with mistreatment in the workplace. The first group focuses on how to best respond to incivility in coworkers and the second group focuses on how to curtail uncivil tendencies that you may have.

Solutions for Dealing with Uncivil Coworkers:

          Feel comfortable apologizing and offering clarification on your own behaviors.

          Resist the emotional urge to take offense, to become defensive and to get revenge.

          Recognize that there is extensive power in maintaining your composure.

          Cultivate self-awareness for your tendency to take out frustrations and transfer blame.

          Meet in communal groups outside of the workplace.

          Avoid implicitly condoning acts of improper treatment that you witness.

          Lower your constant guard against perceived diminishment and loss of ego.

          Reframe the faults of others as mistakes in priorities, judgment, social maturity and word choice.

          Demonstrate more interest in finding a solution than in defending a position.

          Retain your peace regardless of the other person’s disposition; this is the only way to “win.”

          Realize our brain’s circuits are overloaded with work concerns, so we must consistently remind ourselves to be nice.

          Recognize in advance when two people’s dissenting opinions might clash.

          Do not let your first emotional judgment of another’s work cloud other redeeming aspects of it.

          Instead of contradicting the contribution of another, think about how you can build on top of it.

          Listen to and understand others’ perspectives without interrupting

          Assume the best or neutral motives in others.

          Maintain an objective stance when conflict arises.

          Ask friends, family members or even colleagues for their interpretations of a confrontation. They are sure to give you recommendations and support that could lift your spirit and reduce your stress.

          Reframe the poor treatment as an opportunity for personal growth.  Consciously deciding to under-react to negativity is regarded by many to be the most powerful way to achieve spiritual growth.

          Approach the person offending you and schedule a meeting if you have to. Don’t treat it like a confrontation, but instead treat it like a follow up. Do not expect to win and do not provoke.


Solutions for Dealing with Your Own Uncivil Tendencies

          Remember that many hostilities stem simply from incompatible personalities. When this happens it is neither (or both) person’s fault.

          Make a note of your behaviors that seem to shut other people down, and that lead them to make a face or turn away. These are the ones you need to attend to.

          When you mistreat others, it costs your firm but it also costs you friends, good treatment, smooth interactions and even promotions and job perks.

          People stop listening to you and you lose leverage and authority when you undermine your own credibility by being rude.

          The office place is not the military.  You are not responsible for treating new hires the way you were unfairly treated as a “newbie”.

          Enlist a trusted friend to give you feedback about your social habits.

          Listen more carefully. People are easily offended when they can tell by your response that you were not listening to what they were saying.

          Remember that being considerate may not pay off in the short term, but it nearly always does in the long term.

          Refrain from one-upmanship, sarcasm and wisecracks. People almost always take them more seriously than you intended.
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