Studies have shown that uncivil behaviour in organisations poses a serious threat to employee moraleand comes with tangible costs.

Rudeness at work is rampant, and it’s on the rise. Over the past 14 years, we’ve polled thousands of workers about how they’re treated on the job, and 98 per cent have reported experiencing uncivil behaviour. The costs chip away at the bottomline. Nearly everybody who experiences workplace incivility responds in a negative way, in some cases overtly retaliating. Employees are less creative when they feel disrespected, and many get fed up and leave.

We’ve collected data from more than 14,000 people throughout the United States and Canada to track the prevalence, types, causes, costs and cures of incivility at work. We know two things for certain: Incivility is expensive, and few organisations recognise or take action to curtail it.

Forms of incivility

We’ve all heard of or experienced the “boss from hell.” The stress of ongoing hostility from a manager takes a toll. There can be lots of attrition among low-level employees, and those who stay absorb the behaviours they’ve been subjected to and put newcomers through the same kind of abuse.

Incivility can take subtle forms, and it is often prompted by thoughtlessness rather than actual malice. Think of the manager who sends emails during a presentation or the team leader who takes credit for good news but points a finger at team members when something goes wrong. Such relatively minor acts can be even more insidious than overt bullying, because they are less obvious and easier to overlook — yet they add up, eroding engagement and morale.

The costs of incivility

Many managers would say that incivility is wrong, but not all recognise that it has tangible costs. Targets of incivility often punish their offenders and the organisation, although most hide or bury their feelings and don’t necessarily think of their actions as revenge.

Among workers who’ve been on the receiving end of incivility:

48 per cent intentionally decreased their work effort.

47 per cent intentionally decreased the time spent at work.

38 per cent intentionally decreased the quality of their work.

80 per cent lost work time worrying about the incident.

63 per cent lost work time avoiding the offender.

66 per cent said that their performance declined.

78 per cent said that their commitment to the organisation declined.

12 per cent said that they left their job because of the uncivil treatment.

25 per cent admitted to taking their frustration out on customers.

Experiments and other reports offer additional insights about the effects of incivility. Here are some examples of what can happen:

Creativity Suffers: In an experiment, participants who were treated rudely by other subjects were 30 per cent less creative than others in the study. They produced 25 per cent fewer ideas and the ones they did come up with were less original.

Performance and team spirit deteriorate: Survey results and interviews indicate that simply witnessing incivility has negative consequences. We also found that witnesses to incivility were less likely than others to help out, even when the person they’d be helping had no apparent connection to the uncivil person.

Customers turn away: Public rudeness among employees is common. Disrespectful behaviour makes people uncomfortable, and they’re quick to walk out without making a purchase.

Managing incidents is expensive: Human resources professionals say that just one incident can soak up weeks of attention and effort. According to a study conducted by Accountemps and reported in Fortune , managers and executives at Fortune 1,000 firms spend 13 per cent of their work time — the equivalent of seven weeks a year — mending employee relationships and otherwise dealing with the aftermath of incivility. And costs soar when consultants or attorneys must be brought in to help settle a situation.

What’s a leader to do?

Managers can use several strategies to keep their own behaviour in check and to foster civility among others.

Managing yourself: Leaders set the tone, so you need to be aware of your actions and of how you come across to others.

Model good behaviour: In one of our surveys, 25 per cent of managers who admitted to having behaved badly said they were uncivil because their leaders — their own role models — were rude. If employees see that those who have climbed the corporate ladder tolerate or embrace uncivil behaviour, they’re likely to follow suit.

One way to help create a culture of respect and bring out your employees’ best is to express your appreciation. Personal notes are particularly effective, especially if they emphasize being a role model, treating people well and living the organisation’s values.

Ask for feedback: You may need a reality check from the people who work for you.

Pay attention to your progress: As Josef, an IT professional, learned more about incivility, he became aware of his tendency to disparage a few nasty colleagues behind their backs. “I hadn’t thought about it much until I considered the negative role modelling I was doing,” he told us. “I criticised only people who were obnoxious to others and shared my criticisms only with people I trusted and in private, and somehow that made it seem OK. Then I started thinking about how I was just adding to the divide by spreading gossip and creating ‘sides.’ It was a real eye-opener, and I decided that I wanted to set a better example.”

Within a short time Josef noticed that he was logging fewer occasions when he gossiped negatively and that he felt better about himself and his workplace.

Managing the organisation

Monitoring and adjusting your own behaviour is important, but you need to take action across the company as well.

Hire for civility: Avoid bringing incivility into the workplace to begin with. Some companies put civility at the fore when they interview applicants. It’s useful to give your team members a say about their prospective colleagues; they may pick up on behaviour that would be suppressed in more-formal interviews.

Teach civility: People can learn civility on the job. Some organisations offer classes on managing the generation mix, in which they talk about differences in norms of civility and how to improve behaviour across generations.

Reward good behaviour: Collegiality should be a consideration in every performance review, but many companies think only about outcomes and tend to overlook damaging behaviours. What behaviour does your review system motivate? All too often we see organisations badly miss the mark. They want collaboration, but you’d never know it from their evaluation forms, which focus entirely on individual assessment, without a single measure of teamwork.

Penalise bad behaviour: Even the best companies occasionally make bad hires, and employees from an acquired firm may be accustomed to different norms. The trick is to identify and try to correct any troublesome behaviour. Companies often avoid taking action, though, and most incidents go unreported, partly because employees know nothing will come of a report. If you want to foster respect, take complaints seriously and follow up.

Conduct postdeparture interviews: Organisational memory fades quickly. It’s crucial, therefore, to gather information from and reflect on the experiences and reactions of employees who leave because of incivility. Exit interviews conducted six months or so later can yield a truer picture.

Talking with former employees after they’ve distanced themselves from the organisation and settled into their new work environments can give you insights about the violations of civility that prompted them to leave.

Christine Porath is an associate professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. Christine Pearson is a professor of global leadership at Thunderbird School of Global Management. 2013 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.

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