The Price of Incivility


This article appeared earlier this year in Harvard Business Review and looks at how rude and disrespectful behavior, often from the top, affects a company’s bottom line.  When employees are treated badly, this reflects negatively on the company’s performance and services to the clients.  Needless to say, there are more ways than one to treat people respectfully.  The Golden Rule of Inclusion states: “treat everyone the way you would like to be treated:”  However, the Platinum Rule of Inclusion trumps it by saying: “treat everyone the way they want to be treated.”  It does make a big difference.

When we talk about inclusion in the workplace, starting from a position of mutual respect is one of the most basic rules. Nobody likes working for a boss who constantly treats you disrespectfully, ignores your qualities in favor of your faults, however minor, and overlooks your achievements.  If employees are expected to give their best at work, the least they can expect is to be treated respectfully.  Being treated with respect bears more importance in certain cultures, such as Native American, or Asian.  The concept of “losing face” is also something that employers, managers and supervisors need to be aware of, as it can have serious repercussions for people outside the dominant culture.

“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% have reported experiencing uncivil behavior. In 2011 half said they were treated rudely at least once a week—up from a quarter in 1998.

The costs chip away at the bottom line. 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. About half deliberately decrease their effort or lower the quality of their work. And incivility damages customer relationships. Our research shows that people are less likely to buy from a company with an employee they perceive as rude, whether the rudeness is directed at them or at other employees. Witnessing just a single unpleasant interaction leads customers to generalize about other employees, the organization, and even the brand.

We’ve interviewed employees, managers, HR executives, presidents, and CEOs. We’ve administered questionnaires, run experiments, led workshops, and spoken with doctors, lawyers, judges, law enforcement officers, architects, engineers, consultants, and coaches about how they’ve faced and handled incivility. And we’ve collected data from more than 14,000 people throughout the United States and Canada in order to track the prevalence, types, causes, costs, and cures of incivility at work. We know two things for certain: Incivility is expensive, and few organizations recognize or take action to curtail it.

In this article we’ll discuss our findings, detail the costs, and propose some interventions. But first, let’s look at the various shapes incivility can take.

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, sometimes a big one. We spoke with a man we’ll call Matt, who reported to Larry—a volatile bully who insulted his direct reports, belittled their efforts, and blamed them for things over which they had no control. (The names in this article have been changed and the identities disguised.) Larry was rude to customers, too. When he accompanied Matt to one client’s store, he told the owner, “I see you’re carrying on your father’s tradition. This store looked like sh– then. And it looks like sh– in your hands.”

Matt’s stress level skyrocketed. He took a risk and reported Larry to HR. (He wasn’t the first to complain.) Called on the carpet, Larry failed to apologize, saying only that perhaps he “used an atomic bomb” when he “could have used a flyswatter.” Weeks later Larry was named district manager of the year. Three days after that, Matt had a heart attack.

The conclusion of Matt’s story is unusual, but unchecked rudeness is surprisingly common. We heard of one boss who was so routinely abusive that employees and suppliers had a code for alerting one another to his impending arrival (“The eagle has landed!”). The only positive aspect was that their shared dislike helped the employees forge close bonds. After the company died, in the late 1990s, its alums formed a network that thrives to this day.

In some cases an entire department is infected. Jennifer worked in an industry that attracted large numbers of educated young professionals willing to work for a pittance in order to be in a creative field. It was widely accepted that they had to pay their dues. The atmosphere included door slamming, side conversations, exclusion, and blatant disregard for people’s time. Years later Jennifer still cringes as she remembers her boss screaming, “You made a mistake!” when she’d overlooked a minor typo in an internal memo. There was lots of attrition among low-level employees, but those who did stay seemed to absorb the behaviors they’d been subjected to, and they put newcomers through the same kind of abuse.

Fran was a senior executive in a global consumer products company. After several quarters of outstanding growth despite a down economy, she found herself confronted by a newcomer in the C-suite, Joe. For six months Fran had to jump through hoops to defend the business, even though it had defied stagnation. She never got an explanation for why she was picked on, and eventually she left, not for another job but to escape what she called “a soul-destroying experience.”

Incivility can take much more subtle forms, and it is often prompted by thoughtlessness rather than actual malice. Think of the manager who sends e-mails during a presentation, or the boss who “teases” direct reports in ways that sting, 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 recognize that it has tangible costs. Targets of incivility often punish their offenders and the organization, although most hide or bury their feelings and don’t necessarily think of their actions as revenge. Through a poll of 800 managers and employees in 17 industries, we learned just how people’s reactions play out. Among workers who’ve been on the receiving end of incivility:

  • 48% intentionally decreased their work effort.
  • 47% intentionally decreased the time spent at work.
  • 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work.
  • 80% lost work time worrying about the incident.
  • 63% lost work time avoiding the offender.
  • 66% said that their performance declined.
  • 78% said that their commitment to the organization declined.
  • 12% said that they left their job because of the uncivil treatment.
  • 25% 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 we conducted with Amir Erez, a professor of management at the University of Florida, participants who were treated rudely by other subjects were 30% less creative than others in the study. They produced 25% fewer ideas, and the ones they did come up with were less original. For example, when asked what to do with a brick, participants who had been treated badly proposed logical but not particularly imaginative activities, such as “build a house,” “build a wall,” and “build a school.” We saw more sparks from participants who had been treated civilly; their suggestions included “sell the brick on eBay,” “use it as a goalpost for a street soccer game,” “hang it on a museum wall and call it abstract art,” and “decorate it like a pet and give it to a kid as a present.”

Performance and team spirit deteriorate. Survey results and interviews indicate that simply witnessing incivility has negative consequences. In one experiment we conducted, people who’d observed poor behavior performed 20% worse on word puzzles than other people did. 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: Only 25% of the subjects who’d witnessed incivility volunteered to help, whereas 51% of those who hadn’t witnessed it did.

Customers turn away. Public rudeness among employees is common, according to our survey of 244 consumers. Whether it’s waiters berating fellow waiters or store clerks criticizing colleagues, disrespectful behavior makes people uncomfortable, and they’re quick to walk out without making a purchase.

We studied this phenomenon with the USC marketing professors Debbie MacInnis and Valerie Folkes. In one experiment, half the participants witnessed a supposed bank representative publicly reprimanding another for incorrectly presenting credit card information. Only 20% of those who’d seen the encounter said that they would use the bank’s services in the future, compared with 80% of those who hadn’t. And nearly two-thirds of those who’d seen the exchange said that they would feel anxious dealing with any employee of the bank.”

The article by Christine Pearson and Christine Porath appeared in Harvard Business Review, and is an excerpt from their book “The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It”

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