February 5, 2012

Workplace Incivility, It's on the Rise

For parents out there, you're likely aware of, or dealing with bullying at schools. Anti-bullying campaigns are everywhere. But did you know it's on the rise in the workplace in a much more devious guise? Incivility. It's the silent-bullying that could be killing your business according to this article in the Calgary Herald. We've all experienced it or witnessed it, heck you may have even participated in it at one time or another. Incivility at the workplace are the emails without using a person's name, purposefully omitting to say "please" or "thank you," and can go so far as to be condescending and passive aggressive to colleagues.

There are a number of reasons for this behaviour: stress, lack of self-awareness, lack of empathy for others, and it can also be a response to the incivility already occurring at the office. Frankly, I think if you're aware you're doing this, you're just a bully. I can't be bothered to sugar coat it. If you're unaware of your behaviour then someone needs to bring it to your attention ASAP.

In the "real world", if someone treated you this way you might tell them to "get stuffed" and eliminate them from your life. In the workplace however, this incivility can be difficult to identify, prove or address and quickly become a de-motivator for employees impacting overall morale and performance.

Are you paying attention to this more subtle type of bullying? Are your managers setting the example to inspire others in the organization to follow?


  1. I'll offer a different perspective, if I may. I think it stems more from an inability (or a lack of desire) to communicate in the way in which I was educated - which is a combined result of an educational system that turns out people good at passing tests but poor in communication skills and the fact that communications in recent years have depended on dexterity with two thumbs and an ability to communicate in a brand new language (SMS).

    We talk about an education shortfall in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics - the so-called STEM gap. I think we have a larger shortfall that potentially has more far-reaching consequences. It's not so much an inability to communicate as a lack of patience to ensure that what we communicate is correctly interpreted at the other end of the chain.

    It's a linguistic evolutionary thing, I think. The English language (I don't know whether the same phenomenon is showing up in French, Spanish, German, Sanskrit, Urdu, Mandarin or Esperanto) has long prided itself on being a language in a continual growth phase - it lures other languages up dark alleys and mugs them for good words. So we shouldn't complain if the current evolution takes us into unforeseen areas of behaviour.

    But I am as guilty as the next person of sometimes omitting to take the time to make sure I am communicating politely as well as (I hope) articulately. Which could be because I now work from a home office rather than a corporate environment, and can only bully myself!

    Oh - and thank you!

  2. Hi Tim, I agree that technology is certainly impacting the way we speak with each other and I also agree that a lack of patience when communicating can also contribute to the problem. I think what's interesting in the workplace is the perceived owness on the listener to understand versus the speaker to communicate well particularly when delivered via email, SMS or BBM.
    It's similar to how people will rant in the comments sections of news articles or on consumer websites but wouldn't behave so in person. It's very easy to hide behind email when you feel like being uncivilized! Something I know you would never do! Thanks for the comments, always a great discussion!

    1. As usual, Cerys, you make a very good point. The ease with which the anonymity of e-mail - or any other mode of non-personal communications - lends itself to saying things one would never (or very rarely) say face-to-face has shocked me on more than one occasion. I think this has particularly become the case in politics today. The voter apathy of which we all complain at some point or another seems to be limited to actually getting the butt up from in front of the idiot tube and getting down to the polling booth. There is certainly no apathy when it comes to the number of people who indulge in lengthy ad hominem attacks on individuals, parties or policies.

      But in the politics of the office, I think we have to accept that standards of behaviour change from generation to generation - and are heavily influenced by technology. As a manager in the past I have on several occasions had to counsel team members after an inappropriately phrased e-mail or other communication has caused offense or upset. In every case (with one notable exception with an individual who was just a complete waste of skin) the offending team member has been shocked, chagrined and ashamed that offense had been taken, which wasn't the original intent.

      Electronic communication is virtually instant. The 'enter' key is very much a double-edged sword and once sent, a message cannot be recalled. How different it was when we used to write letters, memoranda and reports. Once typed there was an opportunity to review and edit before sending. There was also, I think, a conscious attempt to ensure we used appropriate and communicative language.

      These things aren't taught any longer - or at least, not in the way they were. Maybe the answer lies in continuing education - and perhaps industry has a responsibility in this as well as a valuable role to play. Language is a tool, but a disposable one - it doesn't need to be maintained, looked after or occasionally re-sharpened. Sic transit gloria mundi!

      Lest I be thought a one-dimensional grumpy old man, the above is more of an observation than a complaint. Times change and customs and morés change with them. Some may think it a pity. I think it is an inevitability and what we need to do is hold a mirror up for people to see what effect their communications have on others.

      And don't even get me started on those individuals who will quite deliberately set out to take offense....that will cause even more hair to be pulled out than I can now afford!

  3. As usual Tim, very well put! And an interesting idea to have industry take the initiative in establishing better communication. Obviously Human Resources already plays a key role, but wouldn't it be interesting if an industry could collectively get behind this idea - I'm sure it would lead to more productive employees, better partnerships, improved business, and a broader success currently immeasurable. I'm going to noodle that one .... brainstorming here I come.