Incivility Rising

Researchers say workers might not have the time to be civil.

By Donna M. Owens Feb 1, 2012
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Workplace incivility is common—and on the rise, says Jeannie Trudel. In 2009, she and a research partner studied three Midwest organizations across different industries, finding that 86 percent of the employees surveyed said they had experienced some form of incivility in the workplace within the past year. "Workplace Incivility & Conflict Management Styles: Impact on Job Performance, Organizational Commitment & Turnover Intent" has been accepted for publication in an upcoming issue of the Human Resource Development Quarterly.

Trudel is associate vice president for strategic initiatives at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Ind. She teamed with Thomas G. Reio Jr., associate education professor at Florida International University in Miami, to examine uncivil behaviors, concluding that rudeness can have pervasive effects that permeate right to an organization's bottom line.

What is workplace incivility?

There is a well-established definition by L.M. Andersson and C.M. Pearson: Workplace incivility is "low-intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm the target, in violation of workplace norms for mutual respect. Uncivil behaviors are characteristically rude and discourteous, displaying a lack of regard for others."

This takes many forms: dirty looks, condescending comments, and being disruptive or hogging meetings. It ranges from public reprimands to the silent treatment.

What's interesting is this idea of ambiguous intent. Someone can do something rude and say "Oh, I didn't mean to."

What was most striking about your findings?

This is a common problem. It's not limited to any one industry. And it's not just bosses and supervisors who are being uncivil. One of the reasons for that may have to do with the current economic climate and employment market, and all that workers have to do. Civility takes time, but if workers don't feel they have it, incivility may result.

How does such incivility impact an organization?

Over a period of time, there can be accumulated stresses. It can affect organizational commitment, job performance, and turnover and retention.

Incivility can cross into aggression or violence, so manage conflict to keep employees safe. If incivility is at the lower end of a continuum going all the way to workplace violence, you want to deal with it at the lower levels so it doesn't escalate.

What are the implications for HR professionals?

In our study, few employees complained to HR officially about incivility. But HR professionals need to be vigilant, and make civility part of the culture. Corporate leaders should ask, "Do we promote civility?" Is there a strategic plan for addressing conflict and certain behaviors?

How can employers curb incivility?

Start with screening for personality styles or conflict management stylesduring recruitment. Our research indicated that those with a collaborative style of conflict management are less likely to engage in uncivil behaviors, while those who use a more forceful, aggressive style of conflict management are more likely to be uncivil as well as to be targets of incivility.

Have a policy and code of conduct aimed at encouraging respect. Think about role modeling and leadership training. Collaborative strategies can help people learn to engage in positive ways. If they feel comfortable, they are less often targeted or less likely to be uncivil.

Finally, HR professionals can help employees cope with stress. For instance, organizational changes need to be managed carefully. Employees need to be part of the process. If they're not informed, stress and incivility can result.

The interviewer is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.

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