Incivility is on the Rise

by Diane Berenbaum

Incivility is on the Rise:  Four Steps to Stop it

There is a disturbing trend in Corporate America. Despite increased talk about improving corporate culture, there is a civility problem in the workplace. It is wreaking havoc on employee relationships, morale, as well as the bottom line. And few business leaders are doing anything to stop it. According to The Cost of Bad Behavior, by Christine Pearson and Christine Porath, it is far more widespread than people realize—and it has devastating effects.

Here are just a few of the statistics from their research study of 800 employers:

  • 96% have experienced incivility at work

  • 48% of employees claim they were treated uncivilly
    at work at least once a week

  • 10% said they witnessed civility every day

  • Percentage of workers treated uncivilly who get
    even with their offenders:  94%

What is Incivility?

Pearson and Porath define it as "the exchange of seemingly inconsequential inconsiderate words and deeds that violate conventional norms or workplace conduct." In essence, what is considered 'uncivil' is based on an individual's perceptions of actions or words. Sometimes it is blatant, like:

  • losing one's temper or yelling at someone in public

  • rude or obnoxious behavior

  • badgering or back-stabbing

  • withholding important information

  • sabotaging a project or damaging someone's reputation

And others times it may be a bit more subtle, like:

  • arriving late to a meeting

  • checking email or texting during a meeting

  • not answering calls or responding to emails in a timely manner

  • ignoring or interrupting someone

  • not saying "please" or "thank you"

Incivility does not just happen between coworkers. About a quarter of the customers they surveyed believe disrespectful behavior is more common today than it was five years ago.  Forty percent said they experience rudeness from service employees at least once a month! So much for all the talk and advertising about great service and a positive customer experience.

Why Does it Matter?

It can have a devastating impact on individuals as well as the organization as a whole. When incivility is prevalent in an organization, stress levels increase and performance suffers. 

Associates will become less engaged, which means they can also become de-motivated, apathetic and even angry. They put in less effort, produce lower quality and can even burn out. Perhaps you've seen these telltale signs. They lead to losses in productivity, efficiency and of course, profitability. According to Banishing Burnout by M.P.Leiter and C. Maslach, the annual cost of job stress alone due to incivility at U.S. corporations is $300 billion.

Why are People Uncivil?

Based on what I have observed and heard throughout my career, I believe it is primarily due to four reasons:

1. Lack of Trust

When people don't trust their associates, they can resort to some pretty harsh tactics to ensure they are "doing what they are supposed to do." One friend, who worked for a European company, told me that the president would call the office every day at 5 p.m. U.S. time; just to be sure everyone there was still working. That means it was 10:00 p.m. his time. Surely he had better things to do at that time of the night.

2. Lack of Self-Awareness

A VP at a former employer would often mock his subordinates, thinking it was funny, and that others found it funny too. We didn't. When I was suffering from a condition that made me itch, he would start scratching himself all over every time he saw me…even long after I was better. I got very tired of it and I lost respect for him. He had no idea that this behavior was inappropriate, especially for someone at his level.

3. Insecurity/Ego

Some associates get so focused on "looking good" or are so fearful of losing authority that they resort to uncivil behavior. I know of a young, very driven associate who was intensely interested in getting ahead, even at the expense of others. She would show off to senior managers and treat everyone else like dirt. When another associate was rewarded the prized project she wanted, she not only stopped talking to her, she made every attempt to sabotage her.

The insecure can also become rude and obnoxious, making unreasonable demands like "I want to be served NOW!" (With the implication being—they deserve it because they are better or more important than anyone else).

4. Stress

Chances are most of us are stressed these days, given the economic situation and uncertainties about the future. We're concerned about our jobs and our families; we're working longer and harder than ever and we're not sure when things will get better. And very often, stress can make us do or say things out of the ordinary. We might snap at a coworker, get impatient with an indecisive customer, bark directions, ignore requests or just neglect common courtesies.

What Can We Do About it?

1. Increase Awareness

The first step is to recognize that incivility is an issue that can debilitate an individual and an organization. Educate associates about the cost and impact of uncivil behavior. Most people don't even realize the trend; or know the cause of their malaise or frustration at work. Define what it is and what it looks like. And, share the research on the impact of continued incivility in a community to increase the sense of urgency to address it. (See The Cost of Bad Behavior for more statistics)

2. Create Standards and Value Civility

Agree to set a clear, written standard for behavior, noting what is acceptable and what is not.  Leadership needs to be not only involved in the process, but committed to modeling civility and reinforcing its importance. Communicate the standards with all associates so they understand how to consistently demonstrate respect and concern for others. Consider making civility one of your core values; a principle which guides the internal conduct at your organization.

Be sure to recognize and reward those who model it, so associates see that it is a serious commitment—a value of the organization, not just words on a wall or plaque. Equally important is addressing incidents and complaints, and taking corrective action so they see it is not condoned or tolerated.

3. Provide Training and Coaching

Some people may not even realize they exhibit uncivil behavior—they figure this is "not about me." Well, chances are they lack self-awareness (like some of the perpetrators) and/or have no idea how to change behavior that may be ingrained. Training associates in your new standard will help create an open, friendly and accepting environment.

Ideally, the training would be experiential and include realistic skill practices that are videotaped, so associates can see themselves and hear how they sound. This helps associates see the impact of their behaviors on others and allows them a chance to practice in a safe environment. When they experience progress in the training and receive developmental coaching to maintain the change, they are more likely to continue their newfound behaviors.

4. Encourage Open Communication and Feedback

To sustain the new culture, put systems in place that encourage open communication so that it becomes the norm. Leaders need to lead responsibly and create a safe environment so associates are not fearful when sharing concerns or reporting incidents.

Promote constructive and open feedback so associates learn how to demonstrate respect and common courtesy, really listen to each other and be more accepting of each others' ideas and opinions. Continue the dialogue and engage associates in the process by gathering their input and ideas. Share progress along the way so everyone can see the impact of their efforts and celebrate successes.

Why Bother?

It makes sense to cultivate a climate of civility and a culture of openness and inclusion. According to P.M. Forni, the co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project and author of Choosing Civility:

  • "Encouraging civility in the workplace is becoming one of the fundamental corporate goals in our diverse, hurried, stressed and litigation-prone society. A civil workplace is good for workers, since the workers' quality of life is improved in such an environment. But a civil workplace is also good for the customers, since the quality of service they receive from happier and more relaxed service providers is improved."

And, it is the right and most civil thing to do.

Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .
Before and After
Before and After
Just one "tragic" contact can influence your customers' perception of your company (and their buying decisions). Listen to the difference MAGIC® can make.