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The hidden toll of workplace incivility

Source | McKinesy : By Christine Porath

As the workplace becomes faster-paced, more technologically complex, and culturally diverse, civility matters. Among other things, it helps dampen potential tensions and furthers information sharing and team building.

Yet workplace incivility is rampant and on the rise. The accumulation of thoughtless actions that leave employees feeling disrespected—intentionally ignored, undermined by colleagues, or publicly belittled by an insensitive manager—can create lasting damage that should worry every organization. In research over the past 18 years, I have polled tens of thousands of workers worldwide about how they’re treated at work. Nearly half of those surveyed in 1998 reported they were treated rudely at least once a month, a figure which rose to 55 percent in 2011 and 62 percent in 2016 (exhibit). There’s no single reason for the trend. Workplace relationships may be fraying as fewer employees work in the office and feel more isolated and less respected. Some studies point to growing narcissism among younger workers.1Globalization may be causing cultural clashes that bubble beneath the surface. And in the digital age, messages are prone to communication gaps and misunderstanding—and unfortunately putdowns are easier when not delivered face to face.

The share of employees who report being treated rudely by colleagues at least once a month has risen by 13 percentage points since 1998.

Whatever the underlying causes, the costs of incivility rise as employee stress levels increase. Among the problem areas are the following:

  • Workplace performance. Nearly everybody who experiences workplace incivility somehow settles the score—with their offender and the organization. Of the nearly 800 managers and employees across 17 industries that I polled with Christine Pearson, a professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, those who didn’t feel respected performed worse. Forty-seven percent of those who were treated poorly deliberately decreased the time spent at work, and 38 percent said they intentionally decreased the quality of their work. Not surprisingly, 66 percent admitted their performance declined and 78 percent said their commitment to the organization had declined. Part of the performance penalty is related to how employees internalize stress levels. Eighty percent lost work time worrying about the incident, and 63 percent lost work time in their effort to avoid the offender.
  • Employee turnover. Many losses go undetected when employees leave the organization. Typically those who quit in response to an experience of bad behavior don’t tell their employers why. Turnover costs add up quickly: an estimated twice an employee’s annual salary in the case of high-level employees.2In our survey, of those treated poorly 12 percent said they had left their job because of the uncivil treatment.

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