Beware: Incivility at Work

By Sara-Jane Linton

What is Incivility?
Workplace incivility is discourteous, rude behaviour with a complete disregard for the feelings of others and can be disguised as dismissive, passive-aggressive behaviour.

Moreover, there is a distinction between bullying and workplace incivility. Bullying involves incidents or patterns used to intimidate, offend or degrade and assert power. In contrast, because of its ambiguity, incivility occurs through office gossip, exclusion of colleague(s) and the forming of office cliques—all of which can harm a colleague’s status, reputation and confidence in their ability to perform and function within the workplace.

Recognizing Incivility
Incivility at work goes unreported because employees tend to suffer in silence, making it difficult for employers to recognize it as a systemic issue within the organization.

As employees, we spend a significant number of hours each week, and perhaps many years working with the same colleagues; unfortunately, the adverse impact of incivility on emotional well-being and organizational productivity can be subsumed by ‘group think’ as a result. Comments along the lines of “We’re like family” or “You need to develop thicker skin to work here” provide little support.

Incivility should never be dismissed as part of team dynamics or the normal work experience as these are prime reasons why incivility grows within organizations. In order for a psychological safe and healthy work environments to thrive employers need to be cognizant of how the intentional act of incivility creates an inferior work environment for employees.

Incivility at Work
Incivility can be subtle and covert in nature, ranging from spitefully withholding vital information a colleague needs to perform their job to excluding and ostracizing a colleague during work lunches and breaks. Prevalent examples of incivility are:

  • bad mouthing of colleagues through gossip;
  • choosing to ignore and not respond to a colleague’s inquiry when spoken to; and
  • purposefully asking uncomfortable or inappropriate questions of colleagues in front of others to create intentional discomfort.

Workplace incivility also appears when a manager or supervisor uses their authority to ask a subordinate, who obliges (either out of fear of the reporting hierarchy or because they are willing to participants) to observe, monitor and report back on what their colleagues are doing during work hours. This within any organization should be considered unacceptable behaviour of a manager; it exhibits poor and underdeveloped managerial skills and creates a culture of mistrust between organizational leadership and colleagues.

Detrimental Impact of Workplace Incivility
The emotional toll of incivility occurs because it affects the emotional well-being of employees creating an uneasy, unfriendly and toxic work environment, leaving employees feeling emotionally drained and unsure where to turn for assistance. For employers, this can lead to lower productivity due to poor team cohesion as employees experience feelings of resentment towards colleagues for fostering low morale, chronic stress both physically and emotionally, and even disdain towards management for failing to intervene and create a safer and more emotionally supportive work environment.

Employees may feel the need to distance themselves from the toxicity of the work environment and the prevalence of absenteeism, presenteeism and turnover can potentially increase.

The psychological strain of workplace incivility can also have an adverse impact on employees personal lives as some may lack the social support at home to handle the associated stress. As a result the emotional strain can lead to long-term affects on their personal well-being. From a variety of perspectives, employers have an obligation to manage workplace incivility; failure to do so can harm an organization from the inside out, from turnover to brand reputation.

How to Build a Civil Workplace
Promotion of a respectful, supportive and inclusive workplace should be a goal for all organizations. This begins with addressing gaps such as organizational policies, codes of conduct and collective agreements that fail to incorporate incivility. The practice of implementing written incivility policies should not only cover behaviours to avoid, but outline proactive corrective measures pertaining to conflict resolution, ongoing education and training. This demonstrates organizational commitment and an assertive stance against workplace incivility while making clear the expectations of acceptable conduct for all employees.

By providing examples of incivility, as well as informing employees where they can turn for assistance and how incivility will be handled, employers can provide greater surety in the workplace.

Another actionable measure against workplace incivility is developing a work culture of compassion, empathy and social support. As a strategy, this requires input and collaboration of employees from all levels of the organization to participate in safe forums to discuss their personal experience(s) of incivility. This will give employees the chance to provide insightful information and recommendations to embed positive change into the organizational fabric.

Moving Towards Change
Incivility at work goes beyond written policies, it’s the conscience, awareness and understanding of how our words, actions and sometimes inactions impact colleagues emotionally.

As employees, we must take ownership of our work environment, making it supportive, uplifting and overall a psychologically safe place to be. It is the duty of all employees to lead by example and create an organizational atmosphere of respect and kindness towards each other.

Educating employers on the importance of Workplace Health & Wellness initiatives is a passion for Sara-Jane Linton. She actively researches and studies psychosocial issues and its impact to employee health. She has extensive work experience as a human resources professional working for both public and private sectors.


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