In my 35 years working in the private sector, the thing that appalls me most is incivility in the workplace. People who normally mind their Ps and Qs outside the office or shop can turn into the rudest individuals around. And people who are a little coarse to begin with turn into monsters. It affects everything in an organization from customer service to recruitment and retention.
I used to work on a bond trading floor. The tension there is thick, there is a lot of money at stake, and at the end of the day, a trader is judged by the size of his or her profits. I have seen objects thrown, glass partitions shattered, and holes punched in drywall. I know the pluperfect subjunctive tense of a verb that means to copulate because it was repeated daily.
That is, of course, an extreme environment, but it’s instructive all the same. You could make a case that behavior like that is abuse, not just incivility. And I wouldn’t argue very hard against the point. But there are sanctions against people who are abusive in the workplace, legal and otherwise. Besides, we are really talking about a difference in degree rather than a qualitative difference. You can’t defend that as civil behavior, after all.
Incivility – A Disease
Incivility is a disease. It spreads throughout an organization, nobody wants it, and yet once exposed to it, you’re going to have to fight it off or succumb. If Jack is having a bad day and Jill is on the receiving end of his incivility, she’s demotivated. Moreover, she may take it to someone else. The contagion spreads.
If incivility demotivates people (and it does among other nasty effects), recruitment and retention efforts have to overcome that. In the case of the bond trader, the corrosive environment was balanced out by fat bonuses (this was before the Great Recession). For a few million, a star trader will put up with a lot. For a new Mercedes, the kid at reception will take the shouting from the guy getting millions. And all of that is money that doesn’t go to shareholders, a real, obvious cost.
There are less obvious costs though. In economics, there is something known as opportunity costs. In other words, what does it cost you to do A rather than B. What do you give up? If you let incivility spread, what does it cost you because you didn’t stomp it out at the start?
Incivility Costs You Talent
The first thing that happens is you lose talent. It’s hard enough in this environment to keep good people. You can pay them more, give them more time off, develop new projects for them, but eventually, it stops being worth it to them. They look for greener pastures, and they find them.
The next thing that happens is the word spreads that people are leaving and that the environment is a contributing factor. Even before the Internet, people in an industry knew which firms were trouble and which were good. Now, thanks to Glassdoor and so on, people who don’t even know the industry can find out where incivility rules.
That makes recruitment and retention difficult. All things being equal, who wants to work in a place where they are mistreated by their managers and co-workers?
Incivility Costs You Sales
Then, there is the public perception. Research shows that people are less likely to do business with a firm perceived as rude. “Witnessing just a single unpleasant interaction leads customers to generalize about other employees, the organization, and even the brand.”
Above all, incivility takes the communal eye off the ball of bottom line results. Managers at Fortune 1000 firms spend 13% of their time dealing with the problems that stem from people being rude to each other – put it differently, in a single year, they spend from January 1 to lunch time February 17 addressing the issues raised. Imagine what they could accomplish if they spent that time on something else.