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Workplace incivility: how it happens and how to combat it quickly

a man pointing and laughing at his coworker is showing workplace incivility

Workplace incivility isn’t easy to identify.

It can be toxic to your company’s culture if left unchecked. Rudeness, negativity and lack of courtesy can certainly bring down the mood in your office, but they can also end up costing your company serious money. 

It can be difficult to measure or define how prevalent it is; opinions will differ between victims, perpetrators and observers.

But incivility needs to be challenged. To do that, it has to be identified and talked about openly. Company culture can be both a cause of, and solution to, the problems of incivility.  

Below, we'll look at the definition and causes of incivility in the workplace, how to manage it, and how to catch yourself when you’re in danger of crossing a boundary. 

Table of contents

What is incivility in the workplace?

To define incivility in the workplace, we have to consider what incivility in the wider world is first. 

We usually define ‘civil’ as meaning polite and courteous. It’s related to ‘civilization', and brings to mind the way we interact with each other within the guidelines of societal rules and implied codes of conduct. We need civility in our civilization to organize ourselves and keep things running smoothly. Without it, we invite conflict into our affairs. 

The same goes for businesses and other organizations that bring together people for meaningful interaction. In these circumstances, everyone has to be civil or else the group’s ability to do their work properly will be in jeopardy. In the workplace, teams and groups will usually have their own official and unspoken rules of civility.

Incivility - the adjective being ‘uncivil’, rather than ‘incivil’ - is the opposite. It means demonstrating a rude or impolite attitude or behavior towards others with the effect of making them uncomfortable.

This could include behaviors such as;

  • Insulting or demeaning comments
  • Jokes made at someone’s expense
  • Loud, distracting, or inappropriate conversation 
  • Being discourteous or impolite towards someone

These things are all up for interpretation, of course. What some may see as light-hearted banter might be taken for rudeness or impropriety by others. 

Introducing a deadpan Brit or boisterous Aussie to an earnest American workplace, for example, might yield a clash or two when their tone is misunderstood. 

So it’s sometimes difficult to pin down whether a behavior is uncivil or not. 

Incivility in the workplace can sometimes include, or lead to, more severe behaviors such as: 

  • Unwanted physical contact, whether affectionate or sexual
  • Racist abuse or discrimination
  • Threatening behavior
  • Physical or verbal attacks
  • Harassment and stalking

In these cases, it’s pretty clear that the way to manage them is via the HR-led intervention and disciplinary route. 

But in general, incivility is a low-intensity behavior; a lot of the time it’s hard to spot, let alone call people out on and punish them for it. It can manifest in single incidents or a set of acts over a period of time.

What are the effects of workplace incivility?

It’s not just a few extra awkward daily moments that are borne from incivility. It’s a range of measurable, tangible negative outcomes that can have a direct effect on your company’s bottom line and the psychological safety of your employees.

Some of the effects of an uncivil workplace can include: 

Sickness absence - if an employee really doesn’t like coming into work because of uncivil behavior from their colleagues, they’re much more likely to take a leave of sickness absence. Whether that’s from genuine afflictions like stress, depression or burnout caused by an unwelcoming culture, or simply wanting to take a day away from the situation, you’ll lose productive days. 

Poor performance - outbursts of inappropriate conversation can distract anyone in earshot, causing a break in concentration and feelings of annoyance. But it’s the longer-term effects of incivility that can cause real harm to individual and team effectiveness. Incivility over time breeds contempt and resentment; this will prevent ideas being shared freely and workers start to see each other as adversaries, not team-mates.

Loss of staff - you’ll struggle to retain talent if they’re pushed out by an uncivil culture. If it’s just a plan awful environment to work in, don’t be surprised if your best performers start looking elsewhere. Longer-term, if your company ends up with a reputation for being a horrible place to work, you’ll have a really hard time shaking it off. Both from online employer review sites and word of mouth, you’ll find it harder and harder to hire positive, proactive personalities - they’ll go to your competitors instead. 

How to respond to incivility in the workplace

Intervening when you spot uncivil conduct 

Removing the sources of incivility might be the first thing you think of. But you can’t just change up your staff roster at a moment’s notice, so an intervention will sometimes be necessary. 

If you notice an uncomfortable interaction, observe, and take a moment to speak with the ‘victim’ of the incivility. 

Ask them if the other person made them uncomfortable, and whether it’s a one-off incident or ongoing concern. Ask what they’d feel alright with you doing in response - this is important so to not embarrass them (“John said you made him feel uncomfortable!” can cause more disruption than it solves). 

For a first-time offence, if action is warranted, it’s time to have a private word or two with the perpetrator. You don’t want to leap in with an accusation when it was caused by a simple misunderstanding that can be defused with a sincere apology. 

If there’s a pattern emerging, though, you’ll probably want to consult a HR professional. Disciplinary action might be on the cards if they’re targeting someone in particular, or disrupting the workplace through rudeness or impropriety. The important thing is to make it a fair process - what’s perceived as rude by someone could be seen as harmless by another, so a bit of diplomacy will be needed.

That said, if behavior patterns emerge that aren’t limited to one person, you’ve got a cultural problem. And that requires a different approach. 

Preventing a culture of incivility

One of the most effective ways to prevent incivility overcoming your company is to hire the right people in the first place, and set proper expectations. 

This means probing at peoples’ values during the recruitment phase; does their conduct during the interview give you more clues than you realise towards how they might behave outside of specific job responsibilities? 

Maybe you hire someone because they’re skilled and you can imagine yourself having a beer with them. What happens, though, when they have one beer too many at the office Christmas party and embarrass you in front of your boss? 

The good thing about building a smaller team, like in a startup for example, is that you can create a tight-knit culture where everyone is supportive of each other. You can hire people who are really interested in your company and want to help preserve, maintain and strengthen its culture.

As well as sensible recruitment, preventing incivility has to come from leadership setting the example. 

Your company culture will reflect the values of the people who lead it.  When a problem arises, it doesn’t just highlight an issue with your hiring policy or management - it’s a reflection of the embedded values of those at the top.

If you’re behaving badly as a manager or owner, it will percolate throughout your company culture until it’s accepted as a regular part of operations. Boozy lunches, profane communications, and uncouth conversations might technically be your prerogative as a higher-up, but they set an example for anyone within earshot. If you get to lounge around and tell bawdy jokes in the office, why shouldn’t the junior intern do the same? 

If you forbid such behaviors in policy while still partaking in them, you’ll just seem like a hypocrite and will lose everyone's respect. If you let them slide instead, nobody will know to act any different - and that’ll cause different problems.  

You can’t have one rule for yourself and one rule for the others when it comes to acceptable conduct in the office. 

You should never underestimate the impact that your own behavior can have on your team.

How to stop yourself from being uncivil in the workplace 

Are you known as a ‘big personality’ in the office? This can be a great compliment to your charisma and magnetic persona, and it can be something to be proud of.

It can also be a euphemism used behind your back to describe your penchant for crossing the line of what’s socially acceptable. 

How can you tell which side of the line you occupy? Ask people for honest feedback. Questions such as these might help: 

“Have I ever been a bit too much?” 
“Have I ever crossed the line?”
“Have I ever offended you or anyone else without realising it?” 

This is an opportunity to learn, take responsibility and improve your cultural leadership for the better. While it can be humbling and a little embarrassing to hear that you’ve crossed the line in the past, it’s valuable and useful feedback that can prevent further problems and ensure people talk fondly of you even when you’re not around. 

People who are in positions of authority are rarely questioned or criticized by those they might affect the most, which is why seeking feedback can provide valuable insight you might not normally hear. 

It’s not a reason to hang up your hat and stop being a fun character. You don’t want to lose the reason why people like having you around. It’s just important to learn why they might not like having you around sometimes. And that’s an important step in building a more civil workplace. 

F4S can help you resolve team conflict by identifying areas of friction on your team. Get started for free today.

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