The Hidden Toll of Workplace Rudeness

Workplace incivility is on the rise.

The accumulation of actions that leave employees feeling disrespected, such as being undermined by colleagues or publicly belittled by an insensitive manager, can create long-lasting damage that should concern every leader.

In the book, The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It, authors Christine Pearson and Christine Porath present research about rude behavior increasing in the workplace. In 1998 nearly 50 percent of workers reported they were treated rudely at least once a month. This figure rose to 55 percent in 2011, and to 62 percent in 2016.

There is no single reason for this increasing trend, but some factors that may be contributing are relationships may be fraying because employees feel isolated in the workplace, and don't have a sense of belonging to a team with a shared purpose. 

There are increasing cultural and generational clashes that are bubbling beneath the surface. 

And in the digital age, messages delivered by email or social media are prone to misunderstanding—and rudeness and incivility are easier to send when not delivered face to face.

Cost of Incivility

Whatever the underlying causes, the costs of incivility to organizations are rising. Among the problem areas:

Workplace performance. Nearly everybody who experiences workplace incivility settles the score.

  • 78 percent said their commitment to the organization had declined.
  • 66 percent admitted their performance declined.
  • 47 percent of those treated poorly deliberately decreased the time they spent at work.
  • 38 percent said they decreased the quality of their work.

Part of the performance penalty is also related to how employees internalize stress levels.

  • 80 percent lost work time worrying about the incident.
  • 63 percent lost work time in their effort to avoid the offender. 

Unquestionably, the cost of incivility is high.

Employee turnover. Many losses go undetected when employees leave the organization.  Turnover costs add up quickly, and are estimated to be twice an employee’s annual salary in the case of high-level employees.

Customer experience. Incivility takes a toll on customer relationships. Consumers are less likely to buy anything from a company they perceive as uncivil, whether the rudeness is directed at them or other employees.

Collaboration. When people feel disrespected it eats away at their potential. Engagement, teamwork, knowledge sharing, innovation, and contributions wane. 

In short, incivility kills collaboration. When employees are exposed to rudeness, they are three times less likely to help others and their willingness to share drops by more than half.

Civility, on the other hand, enhances individual contributions and team performance by increasing the feeling of psychological safety and trust.

Practical Actions to Increase Civility

"Bosses" matter. They set the tone for their followers and organizations. Whether or not they know it, their followers monitor, magnify, and mimic their moves.

Behavior, such as interrupting and talking over others, being late to meetings, or undermining colleagues—the ripple effects of a boss’ style of behavior reverberates throughout the organization.

Being a boss often resembles the role of a high-status primate: your subordinates watch you constantly.

Anthropologists who study chimpanzees, gorillas, and baboons report that followers devote far more attention to their leader than she/he devotes to them. As Princeton University psychologist Susan Fiske observes, primates—including humans— “pay attention to those who control their outcomes.”

Bosses who fail to demonstrate desired civil behaviors or expressed organizational values will find their jobs impossible, and their work lives hell, because their uncivil behavior is mimicked throughout the organization, and boomerangs right back at them.

If there is incivility in the organization the first place to look is at individuals in leadership and management positions. These individuals set the tone of how relationship is to be conducted in the organization, and they must be models of desired behavior to create a psychologically healthy workplace.

What types of undesirable behaviors are being observed in the organization? Do any leaders or managers demonstrate these behaviors?  Also, define the core values of the organization, and civil behavior desired, with real examples of what this behavior looks like. If there is a gap between the desired behavior desired and what is being witnessed confront the issue.

De-energize negative relationships. These types of relationships have a 4-7 times stronger negative impact on performance than the positive effects of relationships.

Where possible, weed out toxic people before they join your organization. Interview for civility, using behavioral questions. Check references thoroughly, and heed your hunches. If you have toxic people already in your organization deal with the situations promptly, because they are a cancer within the organization.

Make it clear to employees that they need to hold their managers and colleagues accountable for living up to your desired norms of civility.

Offer teamwork, communication, interpersonal skills training. When employees were asked why there was incivility, 25 percent of those surveyed blamed their organization for not providing them with the basic skills they needed.

Whether this blame placed on organizations is fair, or not, it may be in everyone’s best interests to teach employees the communication and coping skills they lack. Offer training on:

  • vision and core values to define a shared purpose and build a values-based culture 
  • teamwork and collaboration
  • giving and receiving feedback (positive and corrective)
  • working across cultural and generational differences
  • dealing with difficult people
  • negotiation skills
  • stress management
  • conflict management, having difficult conversations
  • civility and lay out metrics to assure a healthy inner-life in the workplace

Leadership is Crucial

The number-one attribute that garnered civility from employees was being treated with respect by their leaders.

Those people getting respect from their leaders reported much higher levels of health and well-being; derived greater enjoyment, satisfaction, and meaning from their jobs; had better focus and a greater ability to prioritize.

In a period of continuous corporate change, injecting more civility can help companies navigate the uncertainty and volatility.

Employees who feel that they’re being treated respectfully are also much more motivated to embrace and drive change to improve business performance.