Clear Expectations Can Prevent Incivility, Experts Say

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR August 18, 2009

Research shows that rudeness and incivility in the workplace—the type of behavior that doesn’t quite reach the level of bullying or harassment—creates a wide range of spillover effects. Training, clear expectations and accountability can help.

Christine Porath, a professor at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, and co-author of The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It (Portfolio Hardcover, 2009), says the cost of employee incivility can be measured by analyzing turnover and commitment rates, productivity levels, and the estimated number of work hours lost because of negative interactions.

“We define incivility as seemingly inconsequential, inconsiderate words and deeds that violate conventional workplace conduct,” says Christine Pearson, professor of management at Thunderbird School of Global Management, who co-authored the book. “Examples include things like talking down to others, not giving credit where due, hoarding ‘plum’ assignments, taking credit for others’ ideas, failing to return phone calls or excluding people from meetings.”

The authors gathered research via focus groups and surveys, as well as scientific experiments which revealed that “people literally did not perform as well, weren’t as creative and became more dysfunctional and aggressive” when someone was rude to them, according to Porath.

For example, one of their studies, a U.S.-based survey of 775 managers and employees, found that of those who faced incivility at work:

  • 48 percent intentionally decreased work effort.
  • 47 percent intentionally decreased time at work.
  • 38 percent intentionally decreased work quality.
  • 80 percent lost work time worrying about the incident.
  • 63 percent lost work time avoiding the offender.
  • 66 percent said their performance declined.
  • 78 percent said their commitment to the organization declined.

Other researchers report similar findings.

In 2006 and 2007 Mitchell Kusy and Elizabeth Holloway, co-authors of Toxic Workplace! Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power (Jossey-Bass, 2009), conducted a U.S.-based study of over 400 leaders to explore what they referred to as toxicity. “Ninety-four percent of the sample reported they had worked with a toxic individual in the last five years,” Kusy said.

Kusy and Holloway, who are also professors at the Antioch University Ph.D. Program in Leadership and Change, said there are three primary types of toxic behavior:

  • Shaming, such as verbal humiliation, potshots and sarcasm.
  • Passive hostility, such as passive aggressiveness, manipulation and territoriality about physical space and information.
  • Team sabotage, such as meddling in team performance and using one’s authority to punish others.

Some believe that toxic behavior is a solo act, but Kusy and Holloway said there is often a “toxic protector” who enables the individual to get away with things and a “toxic buffer” who shields the team from their antics. Toxic protectors may enable this kind of behavior due to their relationship with the toxic person (such as a subordinate) or because the individual has valuable knowledge or is highly productive. Toxic buffers, on the other hand, place themselves between the toxic individual and the rest of the team, as needed, and may try to rationalize the toxic behavior.

Though feedback doesn’t generally work when it comes to the toxic individual, Kusy says it can be an effective means of curbing the behavior of protectors and buffers.

Containment and Training

Toxicity spreads like a virus, according to Holloway. “It may start with one person behaving badly, but what happens over time—often years—is that the people who work around that individual begin to behave differently,” she says. “The people in the organization begin to believe the organization has a high tolerance for toxicity and that they won’t do anything about it.”

One thing organizations should not do, Porath noted, is allow a problem employee to be transferred internally: “That’s the worst thing that can happen because then it spreads,” she said.

Porath said Cisco launched a global workplace civility program after learning about the research she and Pearson conducted. “They did the math,” she said, “saw how their bottom line was affected in the millions of dollars and were motivated to start the program.”

Many organizations, including Cisco and Microsoft, teach employees how to interact in a respectful and constructive manner, in some cases holding employees financially accountable, “because it’s so costly if there is turnover and people are leaving,” she added.

The type of training varies based on the industry and profession, she noted, with doctors getting “sent to charm school to brush up on interacting with patients, sales people being sent to negotiation classes and attorneys to anger management training.”

Leaders Need to Lead

In some organizations, incivility and toxicity is caused by those at the top.

Porath and Pearson’s research found that about 60 percent of the time the offender has higher job status than the target does: “The harsh reality of power is that when you have it, you can abuse it and flaunt it, mistreating people who don’t have it,” Porath said.

Leaders set the tone, she added. After all, people tend to “look up” to see how those at the top behave in hopes that if they mimic their behavior, they’ll get ahead too.

Wayne Hochwarter, the Jim Moran Professor of Management at the Florida State University College of Business, recently asked more than 1,200 employees to provide opinions regarding the narcissistic tendencies of their immediate supervisor. Their responses:

  • 31 percent reported that their boss is prone to exaggerate his or her accomplishments to look good in front of others;
  • 27 percent reported that their boss brags to others to get praise;
  • 25 percent reported that their boss had an inflated view of himself or herself;
  • 24 percent reported that their boss was self-centered; and
  • 20 percent reported that their boss will do a favor only if guaranteed one in return.

“Having a narcissistic boss creates a toxic environment for virtually everyone who must come in contact with this individual,” Hochwarter said in a statement. “The team perspective ceases to exist, and the work environment becomes increasingly stressful. Productivity typically plummets as well.”

But Porath said the managers and doctors they studied claim they don’t realize how they are being perceived, in part because the higher individuals are in an organization, the less feedback they receive.

However, some executives, doctors and attorneys push back, saying that employees are not thick-skinned enough and that they don’t have time to be nice.

Organizational Response

“Most organizations simply do not consider the adverse effects of narcissistic bosses on worker productivity and stress,” Hochwarter said. “In fact, many companies encourage it since narcissists are often seen as outgoing and confident—traits considered necessary for success in any managerial role. However, there is a fine line between self-confidence on the one hand and selfishness that negatively affects others on the other.”

Porath says it’s important for executives to think about how good behavior can fit into “each piece of the human resource cycle,” from the company’s mission statement, to its recruitment and training policies. “There should be a thread of civility through everything a company does,” Porath says.

That’s why Kusy and Holloway advocate a systems approach to intervention that targets first the organization, then the team and finally the individual.

Instead, what often happens, they say, is that an HR person gets a problem person “dumped in their lap” along with a demand to “fix this problem.” However, without effective role models and a performance management system that specifically addresses this kind of behavior, the HR person’s hands may be tied.

Kusy and Holloway recommend that behavioral values and expectations be clearly spelled out in advance and that employees be held accountable—for compensation purposes—at a level equal to the level of importance placed on work output. “If the values are so darn important why don’t we motivate people to live them?” Kusy asked.

When values are clearly identified, reinforced and documented it’s easier for organizations to fire an otherwise productive but toxic individual, thereby making it clear that the organization takes its values seriously, he added.

However, organizations need to heal survivors after a toxic individual is fired, Holloway added, through coaching or other interventions.

To create a civil workplace, Porath and Pearson suggest leaders:

  • Set zero tolerance expectations.
  • Look in the mirror to be sure they are role-modeling the right behavior.
  • Weed out trouble before it enters the organization.
  • Teach civility.
  • Train employees and managers to recognize and respond to early signals.
  • Put their ear to the ground and listen carefully.
  • Hammer incivility when it occurs.
  • Take complaints seriously.
  • Refrain from excuses for powerful offenders, even if they’re rainmakers or protégés.
  • Conduct exit interviews.

As part of their Toxic Organizational Change System (TOCS) model Kusy and Holloway recommend that organizations:

  • Identify and give feedback to toxic protectors and toxic buffers.
  • Design concrete, behaviorally-specific values of respectful engagement.
  • Weave these values into daily performance expectations, hold all accountable, and give targeted feedback when values are demonstrated or violated.
  • Use 360-degree team assessment systems, not just 360-degree leader feedback.
  • Make sure no one is exempt from organizational civility.

Beyond Turnover

As noted, Porath and Pearson discovered a wide range of responses to incivility. But few employees choose to leave their organization as a result of such behavior.

Workers who participated voluntarily in an online survey conducted during the summer of 2006—well before the global economic downturn began—were asked about non-physical hostile behaviors they experienced in the workplace, such as having equipment sabotaged, being reprimanded in front of others, having contributions ignored or being excluded from activities like coffee breaks.

"Of those who had experienced hostility in their current position, more than half (58 percent) of 309 respondents had no definite plans to leave their current job, according to Meridith Pease Selden, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Wilkes University, who conducted the research."

“Our data was collected before the current economic situation so presumably more people could have left their jobs had they wanted to do so,” Selden told SHRM Online. “I would guess that to some extent people expect, or perhaps excuse, a certain amount of hostility from someone who has power over them.”

According to Pearson, Selden’s research replicates what she and Porath discovered through their own research. “What we have found in studies we’ve conducted for the past decade is that about half the people who are targets will consider leaving their jobs, and about one in eight actually does,” Pearson said. “That may not sound like a lot, but if you start adding up the costs of turnover for any organization, it soon becomes ‘real’ expense.”

As to why employees stay when faced with such conditions, Pearson said some make peace with the situation or weigh the costs and benefits and decide the balance is still in their favor. However, some feel stuck or may simply fear the unknown more than the known.

She added: “In the best case, the offender leaves and everyone dances in the aisles.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Articles



Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.

Are you a department of one?

Expand your toolbox with the tools and techniques needed to fix your organization’s unique needs.

Expand your toolbox with the tools and techniques needed to fix your organization’s unique needs.



HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.