Managing Incivility in the Workplace



Our last Delfi column made a strong case for the high business and personal costs of incivility, toxic people and toxic behaviors in the workplace.  Recent research confirms that 98% of employees surveyed had experienced toxic behaviors in their workplace, and 62% of employees were experiencing this on a weekly basis.  The business costs include loss of productive employee work time, decreased commitment to the organization, a decline in performance, increased absenteeism, decreased quality of work, less work effort, a more negative customer experience, and higher levels of resignation of good employees.  Research also shows that these business costs are dwarfed by the human costs arising from the employee stress of having to regularly tolerate toxic behavior or incivility in the workplace, from leaders, co-workers or customers/clients.

The costs are real and the solutions are simple for leaders and business owners. Understand what incivility is, recognize it when you see it, call it out and make it unacceptable, and when coaching fails, remove the source.  This sounds simple, but in reality, not necessarily easy to implement.  But no one has ever claimed that leadership is easy.

  1. Recognize Incivility.  Incivility is deviant behavior that goes against the normal workplace or social norms for mutual respect and courtesy, and has an ambiguous intent of harming the target.  In other words, it can be subtle behaviors, without a clear perpetrator and victim. When there is clear intention to psychologically harm another person through verbal aggression, emotional abuse or threats of violence, it is more easily recognized as bullying or potential workplace violence.  Workplace legislation clearly indicates what the responsibilities are as an employer or employee.  However, with incivility this intentionality to harm is not obvious  but the behavior still has impact.  Incivility can show itself in three major ways.  It can be interpersonal in nature, where one person regularly breaks the norms of normal interpersonal decency and respect (ignoring co-workers, not responding to requests, not returning phone calls, pretending someone not there).  A second type of incivility is cyber-related uncivil behaviors using computer-mediated interactions.  This growing category includes blunt or terse e-mails,  not responding to e-mails, and engaging in inappropriate texts or social media interactions.  A third type is victimless incivility where there is no clear target or immediate intended negative impact but the behaviors clearly violate the norms of decency and courtesy.  Examples might include leaving a shared printer or copier in fault mode or out of paper, not picking up after oneself in a shared kitchen or common area, tossing trash near the trash bin and not picking it up,  or reading messages on a cell phone during a meeting or conversation with another person.


  1. Call it out and Make it Unacceptable.  As a leader, when you see incivility happening, intervene directly or through a very timely personal coaching session and address the matter with the offending employee or customer.  As a leader, you set the tone in the workplace through how you behave and how you allow others to behave.  If you engage in any of the above behaviors, then stop immediately!  If you see violations of reasonable social norms of interpersonal behavior and courtesy, then step up to the plate and call it  the same way that as a parent, you might address unacceptable behavior of someone at home.  Get comfortable with using such phrases as -This is not how we behave in our workplace; This behavior is unacceptable on our team; Your behavior is unacceptable to me and breaks our norms of decency and respect for others. If the behaviors continue and the source is an employee, then start down an accelerated path of progressive discipline  verbal coaching, written coaching, documented time off with or without pay, and yes then, if required, a facilitated or forced exit with or without cause.


If the source is a regular customer or client, then a polite but firm conversation by the manager or supervisor with the offending person to better understand the reason for the behavior, using some version of the suggested statements above are in order.  And yes  some clients or customers can be fired.  You do have an obligation to protect your employees from unnecessary bullying and acts of aggression in your workplace – including those that come from customers.


Without corrective action being taken, the incivility will be seen as acceptable, perhaps be responded to with similar or amplified acts of incivility.  This enables things to quickly spiral out of control like any other virus – and the workplace costs detailed above start accumulating.


If you are reading this as an employee who is witnessing or experiencing acts of incivility in your workplace, please raise your concerns with your manager, or with a designated Human Resources person in your organization.  Better still, practice saying the third suggested response above and address the matter politely but firmly. Some people are not blessed with self-awareness and need direct feedback from peers to understand the impact of their behaviors on others.


If managers and employees take the necessary steps to make acts of incivility in the workplace unacceptable, then everyone benefits and the human and business costs associated with incivility and toxic behaviors can be reduced.  Lets do it!  Lets all step up and lessen incidents of incivility at work.