The High Cost Of Incivility In Business

Did your parents ever say, “We’re going to [insert boring place here] for dinner and we want you to behave”? This was followed by you reluctantly shelving all self-expression and spontaneity for the robotic and “proper” behaviour that was requested.

Sounds like a scene from the popular British television series Downton Abbey where early twentieth-century correctness in manners and dress trumped all. From a business perspective, if you placed the characters from Downton Abbey in a time machine and transported them to today’s corporate environment, they’d be sorely out of place.

Good behaviour in the workplace is vanishing faster than the shine from a well-walked 19th-century oak staircase as increasing numbers of managers and employees adopt a win-at-all-costs approach to getting ahead, often at the expense of their colleagues and customers.

Uncivil employees are costing their organizations millions of dollars due to lost business and employee disaffection. Politeness is often seen by many up and comers as well as certain executives as a quality of those who are indecisive and weak who would never be considered ‘leadership material’. However, it should be seen as a prerequisite for business success. Any professional from human resources to sales who avoids the issue of rudeness or disrespectful behaviour among co-workers does so at their peril and the numbers prove it.

Bad behaviour is not restricted to certain celebs.

While certain celebrities exercise their ability to act out and live through the consequences while most of us go about our regular days unaffected, this is not the case when it comes to the workplace. Harvard Business Review reports that 98 per cent of US employees polled over the past 14 years have reported experiencing uncivil behaviour from colleagues and management. In 2011, half said they were treated rudely at least once a week versus a quarter in 1998.

Lack of civility manifests itself in many ways including gossiping about colleagues behind their backs (not surprising that this has a hugely negative effect on company morale); criticizing or humiliating subordinates in front of colleagues or clients; not acknowledging the presence of others and outright bullying about appearance or work performance.

In The Price of Incivility, authors Christine Porath and Christine Pearson paint an anguished picture of the results of uncivil bosses and supervisors. After extensive research among workers who have been on the receiving end of incivility, their results are quite telling, and should act as an eye-opener for business leaders:

  • 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.

With the uncertainty of the job market, most people stay in their jobs unless they have something else to walk into. However, Porath and Pearson found that 78% of those polled said their commitment to the organization declined. 12% actually left their job because of the treatment. Why would any leader let bad behaviour affect their organization in such a way?

Successful leaders will foster good behaviour

It can take constant vigilance to keep the workplace civil; otherwise, rudeness and indifference tends to creep into everyday interactions. Managers can use several strategies to keep their own behavior in check and to foster civility among others.

Here are article few options, both from the HBR article and from personal experience:

  1. Self-Management: Leaders set the tone, so you need to be aware of your actions and of how you come across to others.
  2. Model good behavior: If employees see that those who have climbed the corporate ladder tolerate or embrace uncivil behavior, they’re likely to follow suit.
  3. Be aware of changing morale: If you get to know your employees and you are involved in the day-to-day, then you will notice a shift toward the negative. You can nip it in the bud before it gets to be a problem.
  4. Conduct anonymous 360 peer assessments: this gives you a chance to see how your team views each other. It also allows for each member to see where they need to improve.
  5. Follow through on consequences: If an employee knows there is no repercussion for their behaviour, there is no incentive to change

The manners and decorum of Downton Abbey may seem extreme to many of us, but the core principles of civility still wield tremendous clout among leaders of profitable companies who value and respect their employees.

Evan Thompson (@CSuiteProspects) has 30 years of experience as a leader in the communications industry and has successfully provided personal brand and business relationship development coaching to professionals at all levels of business. As founder and president of Evan Thompson & Associates, he helps people in business and social situations become memorable as collaborative listeners who add to the conversation versus attempting to dominate it.


Dr. Carlos Todd, the founder of Conflict Coaching & Consulting, Inc. His passion is to equip couples, individuals and organizations with the skills and resources to effectively manage life’s conflicts. Dr. Todd is part of an elite group of individuals who can claim expertise in conflict management that has been tested by academic rigor. He completed doctoral studies in conflict management and has applied this training to address conflict in relationships as well as organizations. He has used this model to inform his ongoing work on couples conflict resolution. Dr. Todd is also a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) granted by the North Carolina Board of Licensed Professional Counselors in 2005 and is a Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC) granted by the National Board Certified Counselors 2002.

Like this article?

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Linkdin
Share on Pinterest