If you’ve ever had an abusive boss or an obnoxious co-worker, you will be fascinated by Christine Porath’s research into workplace behavior. For the last 20 years Porath, an associate professor in the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, has studied the impact of workplace incivility on both employees and organizations.

In No time to be nice at work published this spring in the New York Times, Porath (left) says her life’s work has been driven by the image of her strong, athletic father in hospital lying with electrodes strapped to his chest. “I believe it was work-related stress that put him there,” she wrote. “For years he endured two uncivil bosses.”

EBN talked to Porath recently about what constitutes workplace civility, why it matters and what employers can do to foster it.

What are some examples of workplace incivility that affect organizational and individual performance?

Well, workplace incivility can occur between employers/managers and employees or between co-workers. The top rude behaviors by bosses most often cited in a recent survey include:

  • Interrupts people.
  • Is judgmental of those who are different.
  • Pays little attention to or shows little interest in others’ opinions.
  • Takes the best and leaves the worst tasks for others.
  • Fails to pass along necessary information.
  • Neglects saying please or thank you.
  • Talks down to people.
  • Takes too much credit for things.
  • Swears.
  • Puts others down.

How pervasive is workplace incivility?
Sadly, very pervasive. Over the last couple decades I’ve noticed an increase in incivility. A quarter of the employees I surveyed in 1998 reported that they were treated rudely at work at least once a week. That figure rose to nearly half in 2005, then to just over half in 2011.

Also see:Workplace bullying costly, often unnoticed.”

Why do you think people behave uncivilly?
The No. 1 reason is that people claim they don’t have time to be nice. They say they are overworked, stressed and stretched. And while they don’t mean to, they are taking it out on others.

How does workplace incivility typically affect the mental and physical health of employees?

Incivility can chip away at people, undermining both their physical and mental health. It can really take a toll over time.

To what extent does a workplace culture of incivility hijack workplace focus and reduce productivity?

I found that, across experiments, incivility robs people of focus. They're not nearly as likely to pay attention or pick up on information even when they're just around incivility. Also, in all of my research I discovered that that even people who simply witness incivility aren't able to focus or remember as well. This leads to a decrease in their performance across a range of different cognitive tasks.

Also see:7 signs of a toxic culture.”

In workplaces where individuals are uncivil, how will client relationships be affected?
Incivility negatively impacts people’s moods and emotions. When people are treated uncivilly at work by another employee they don’t tend to perform as well. They also take it out on others. In one of our surveys, over 25% claim that they took out bad behavior on customers or clients even though they didn’t intend to do so.

Attraction and retention of top employees is a primary focus for most companies. Do people quit jobs because of bad bosses or abusive co-workers?
Absolutely. I found in one large study with over 700 employees that over 12% actually claim they left the workplace because of one uncivil incident they reported to us. There is other research out there suggesting that having a toxic leader is one of the primary reasons people leave jobs.

How can organizations measure the civility levels of individuals or groups within the organization as a whole?
Include questions in any kind of annual or workplace culture survey. Also, one of the recommendations I have for companies is to collect 360-degree feedback from different people in the firm when you are trying to capture information about how people behave. The problem I discovered is that less than 50% of employees are willing to report bad behavior to HR because they are either fearful it will get back to their boss or they feel a sense of helplessness that the organization won’t do anything with the information.

Also see:Workplace culture a benefits differentiator.”

What strategies can managers use to keep their own behavior in check and foster civility among others?
I think they need to just be mindful of their effect on others. One of the things I suggest is that leaders collect feedback from people and have open conversations and ask questions like “What are some things that I do that are working?” [and] “What are some of the things you wish I would change?” In general, you want to create norms for good workplace behavior. One of the ways to do that is have a conversation with your team around “Who do we want to be?”

Do you think civility should be a feature in performance reviews?
Absolutely. I think it’s an important part of organizational goals to have a positive workplace culture. Anyway you can capture that data is a good idea.

Also see:Are performance reviews dead?

Should employees be penalized for inappropriate behavior?
Definitely. Insolence should not be tolerated in an organization. I think it’s important that people are held accountable for any kind of rude, disrespectful, insensitive treatment of others. Even if they are talented people the organization wants to keep, if you offer them training and they are not willing to change, you need to let them go.

Are you aware of situations where an employer made a commitment to workplace civility and successfully modified a formerly toxic corporate culture?
I think that change is certainly possible and companies can start with small steps. Leaders can establish behavioral norms and demand the same standards from their employees.

Sheryl Smolkin is a lawyer and freelance writer based in Toronto.

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Employee Benefit Adviser content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access