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6 ways to combat workplace incivility


Have you considered the potential cost of workplace incivility at your business?

If you’re like most business leaders, you spend a great deal of time worrying about receivables, employee turnover and inventory – and other hard costs that may be more obvious business expenses. But what about the costs associated with incivility?

Workplace incivility has been defined as “low intensity” behavior that may be demonstrated through actions such as being mildly but consistently rude, discourteous or impolite – or violating workplace norms of behavior.

Incivility can be tough for a manager to spot because it tends to be more subtle than workplace bullying, yelling or physical violence. Incivility may present itself as eye-rolling, interrupting or talking over someone in a meeting, making dismissive comments, or speaking disrespectfully while not saying anything that could cause legal action.

Further complicating matters, incivility means different things to different people, so it can be easy for a manager to overlook or miss. This conduct tends to be less of a black-or-white issue compared to more blatant forms of undesirable work conduct such as sexual harassment, stealing or lying.

Nonetheless, incivility is just as insidious and disruptive to productivity as more extreme behaviors. In fact, it’s been described as the “gateway drug” to workplace harassment or creation of a hostile work environment which makes incivility worthy of every leader’s attention.

Here’s what workplace incivility may be costing your company and what you can do to build a culture of respect and politeness.

The cost of incivility

Rudeness chips away at your bottom line if it goes unchecked. Remember, most employees fail to report incivility because they’re worried about retribution or being perceived as a complainer. Instead, they worry in silence and get less work done.

Studies show that an employee who feels disrespected becomes stressed and is more likely to:

  • Avoid offering new ideas and solutions
  • Deliberately decrease their productivity
  • Lower the quality of their work
  • Avoid offering help
  • Steer clear of the offender, creating inefficiencies
  • Take their frustrations out on customers
  • Spend less time at work
  • Leave the company

Perhaps worst of all, when incivility spills into customer view, it reflects poorly on your company and makes customers uncomfortable (and more likely to take their business elsewhere).

What can you, the business leader, do to promote a more civil workplace?

Steps to encourage civility in the workplace

If you’ve noticed a general malaise among your workers, or tensions that seem to be brewing just beneath the surface, consider whether incivility among your staff could be the culprit.

Hoping the problem will go away isn’t a solution. Without intervention, productivity is sure to suffer. Turnover will also likely increase.

Instead, you must proactively address your workplace culture and take steps to minimize the instances of rudeness and reinforce respectful, acceptable behavior.

1. Model good behavior

You’ve heard it before: Leaders must exhibit the behavior they want to see in their employees.

When it comes to creating a culture of civility in the workplace, this means you must police yourself and always speak politely and respectfully to everyone. No raised voices, no cutting remarks, no door slamming, no talking over people, no sideways glances that stop employees in their tracks, no teasing remarks that sting.

2. Don’t make excuses

If an employee tells you they have a problem with the way another worker speaks to them, don’t dismiss their concerns because you don’t agree with their perception.

If an employee feels disrespected, it doesn’t matter what you think. It matters what they think because it’s bothering them enough to step up and talk to you. And it’s a sign that there’s a problem that’s likely to harm productivity.

Some common excuses for rudeness include:

  • “Oh, he doesn’t mean anything by it, that’s just the way he talks.”
  • “We’ve all been on the receiving end of her temper. Ignore it.”
  • “He brings in all the big sales, so we have to put up with it.”
  • “It’s happened to all of us. Welcome to the club!”
  • “Well, that wouldn’t bother me.”

If you hear yourself thinking or saying anything along these lines, it’s time to remind yourself that people problems cost a business just as much, and sometimes more, than logistical or technical problems.

3. Hold everyone accountable all day, every day

Just as with any human habit or trait, people tend to continue conduct that doesn’t cause them discomfort or pain. That’s why it’s so important to address disrespectful behavior as soon as you notice it or it’s brought to your attention.

If you notice Sam interrupting Dana repeatedly in meetings, it’s time to take him aside, point out what he’s doing, explain that it’s disrespectful, and encourage him to be more aware of his meeting conduct.

Likewise, if Margie excludes a teammate from important conversations, you must immediately talk to her privately about how such actions undermine teamwork and productivity.

When it comes to corrective actions, assume the perpetrator isn’t deliberately being rude. Incivility is often the result of thoughtlessness, stress, unconscious bias or misjudgment of group norms, and often can be corrected with a mild reminder.

4. Define acceptable conduct

Because different departments may have their own norms of behavior, it can be helpful to let your team create a list of what’s acceptable conduct and what’s not.

For instance, a hard-charging team of lawyers may be accustomed to arguing loudly and talking over one another, while your HR department is more comfortable when every person takes a turn speaking.

To establish rules of behavior within your team, hold a meeting and have everyone agree on 5 to 10 rules of conduct. This will provide the foundation for how you all interact. Then, encourage coworkers to enforce the rules they’ve established for themselves.

Each department may be slightly different and that’s okay, just as long as each team is productive and contributing to the organization’s mission.

5. Hire and train for civility

One way to build a culture of civility in your office is to deliberately hire people who show signs of good manners. As you interview candidates, pay attention to how they treat everyone they encounter, from the receptionist to potential teammates.

Ask yourself: Does the candidate seem to listen to questions fully before beginning to answer? Does she interrupt or talk over people? Does he make cutting remarks about former coworkers or workplaces?

If a candidate exhibits such negative behavior during the interview, just imagine what their conduct might be once they’re hired and have settled in and gotten comfortable.

Also consider using your personal network to find out how a job candidate is regarded by former coworkers. Toxic employees tend to leave a wake of badly treated coworkers and subordinates that you can uncover, but you have to dig past their résumé to find the information you need to hire for civility.

It’s also a good idea to incorporate civility training into your employee development curriculum. That way, you consistently reinforce the positive behaviors you expect from employees throughout their tenure with your company.

6. Pay attention to the larger world

Current events impact workplace behavior.

For instance, when rudeness is displayed by public figures on television, social media and at public events, it becomes normalized. Three to six months later, that incivility tends to bubble up at work, too.

You can prevent such negative behaviors from infecting your business by talking to employees who seem stressed by a news event, the economy, overwork or personal situations.

If you don’t address workplace incivility swiftly, you’ll likely end up dealing with its after-effects through turnover, low morale and productivity gaps. Is that a price you’re willing to pay?

For more tips on how to nurture employees and inspire them to perform to the best of their ability, download our free e-book, How to develop a top-notch workforce that will accelerate your business.