What Business Should Know About The High Costs Of Uncivil Behavior


Last week, Mike Rice, Rutgers University men’s head basketball coach was fired after videotape of his verbal and physical abuse toward his players went viral. The video is a series of incidents showing Rice repeatedly yelling, cursing at his players and aggressively grabbing and pushing them, and throwing basketballs at them.

As if watching this display of outright bullying behavior wasn’t painful enough, later that week Sean Hannity from Fox news referred to the incident in laudatory terms;  in effect condoning the action and saying we need more of this kind of disciplinary behavior and character building.

His comments awakened me to the reality that, while Rice’s particular egregious display of bullying is more the exception than the rule in today’s workplace – abusive, disrespectful and uncivil behavior is occurring all the time and at higher rates in organizations of all different sizes and industries.

While dictionary definitions of civility refer to manners, tact and politeness as the essentials of civility, the root of the word stems from the idea of “good citizenship” and the “state of being civilized.”  Whether we call it respect or civility or etiquette, it’s really how people as citizens think about treating each other in a society.

A 2011 article by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) defines workplace incivility as “seemingly inconsequential, inconsiderate words and deeds that violate conventional workplace conduct.”

Trevor Cairney, writing for the Center for Apologetic Scholarship and Education, says that “civility refers to the behavior between members of society that create a social code and is a foundational principle of a civilized society.”

Jim Taylor, a psychologist at the University of San Francisco, writing in the Huffington Post, suggests “Civility is about something far more important than how people comport themselves with others. Rather, civility is an expression of a fundamental understanding and respect for the laws, rules, and norms (written and implicit) that guide its citizens in understanding what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. For a society to function, people must be willing to accept those structures. Though still in the distance, the loss of civility is a step toward anarchy, where anything goes; you can say or do anything, regardless of the consequences.”

The articles I read on leadership spend a lot of time and space on the traits, characteristics and methodologies of successful leaders. That’s important, but these articles are not  exposing the day-to-day nitty-gritty of office life – long, stressful hours filled with people who did not choose to work together – but in many cases must depend upon each other for work to be successful.

It takes above average interpersonal skills to navigate the pressures and demands of most workplaces today. For most people, these skills are not formally learned.

Pier M. Forni, professor of Italian Literature and founder of The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University and author of The Civility Solution: What to Do When People are Rude says “When we are stressed, we are less likely to be considerate and kind to others. We retire, retreat into the citadel of ourselves and we shut the door. We are more prone to anger. We are less tolerant of the mistakes of others.”

Add the following to an inherently stressful workplace and it’s no wonder that we’re experiencing a rise in workplace incivility and bullying.

Globalization. Life changing technology.  Chronic economic uncertainty. Toxic politics. The decline of privacy and personal time. Generational differences. Major demographic shifts. The easing of formalities in all spheres of life.  24/7 global media. Social media. Climate change. An individualist not collectivist societal mindset

What does incivility in the workplace look like?

In essence, what is considered “uncivil” is like beauty – it’s in the eye of the beholder and based on an individual’s perceptions of actions or words. However, here are just a few examples of uncivil behavior.

Condescending comments, writing demeaning notes or emails, disrupting meetings, reprimanding someone publicly, talking behind someone’s back, giving someone the silent treatment, not giving credit where credit is due, rolling your eyes, and yelling at others. Being uncivil also includes excluding someone from a meeting, neglecting to greet someone, interrupting people while they’re speaking, ignoring a colleague’s request, using disparaging language or voice tone, making inflammatory remarks, etc.

The Bottom Line of Uncivil Behavior

Of course there are profound human and institutional costs reflective of our culture’s moral compass in the workplace… but there are very deep financial costs associated with uncivil and bullying behavior that often go unexplored or even discussed. The statistics and costs are startling.

A 2012 survey, Civility in America: A Nationwide Survey found that nearly two-thirds (63%) of the American people believe incivility is a major problem and three-quarters (71%) believe that civility has deteriorated over the past few years and worsened since the financial crisis surfaced in 2008.

In the survey, respondents rated the level of incivility in the workplace at 31% and 34% reported that they have personally experienced incivility at work. 23% (two out of ten) said they have quit a job because of incivility at work.

The results of a survey of 775 employees conducted by Christine Pearson and Christine Porath showed the effects of uncivil behavior on employee engagement and productivity.

53% lost work time worrying about the incidence of uncivil behavior and future interactions with the offender

28% lost work time trying to avoid the offender

37% reported a weakened sense of commitment to their organizations

22% reduced their efforts at work

10% decreased the amount of time they spent at work

46% thought about changing their jobs

12% actually changed jobs (est. replacement costs)

Using these statistics they applied them to a health care company (not indicated) with 10,000 employees and an annual gross income of $999,856,000. The company estimated that 50% of their employees would experience one episode of incivility per year – 5,000 employees.

In order to calculate the organizational cost of incivility based on the above percentages, they calculated that the annualized revenue per each of the 5,000 employees was $100,000. Here’s how the costs turned out:

 53% lost work time worrying about the incidence of uncivil behavior and future interactions with the offender =

$ 63,693.75

28% lost work time trying to avoid the offender = $ 33,649

37% reported a weakened sense of commitment to their organizations =

$ 5,549,200.80

22% reduced their efforts at work = $ 528,770

10% decreased the amount of time they spent at work = $ 312,455

46% thought about changing their jobs = $ 221,122.00

12% actually changed jobs (est. replacement costs) = $ 60,000,000

Factoring in additional costs for the effect on witnesses (an average of two witnesses per each act of uncivil behavior) stress or health care costs, legal costs and managing incivility by HR and absenteeism, the grand total estimated loss caused by incivility, per year is $70,911,390.55

What Can We Do About It?

  • Civil behavior must be a requirement of the organization and of employment. Every organization and department should consider making civility a  core value, a principle that guides the internal conduct of the team or organization. Prospective employees need to know how important mutual respect/civility is in the organization. There should be a no-tolerance policy in place.
  • In order for employees to believe how important civility is, leadership must set the example. You can’t expect employees to treat one another with respect if managers don’t treat employees or each other with respect.
  • Employees need to be aware of the effect of their actions, attitudes, and behaviors on others. The basis of interpersonal effectiveness is self-awareness – the foundation of emotional intelligence.  Only self-awareness can lead to constant self-regulation – the understanding of the impact that others have on you – and that you have on others. Through coaching, managers can help employees see how their behaviors negatively or positively affect the workplace.
  • People are the priority, not strategy. Organizational culture is composed of people. Remember – “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Organizations need to promote healthy relationships and realize that business transactions are done through people, not robots.
  • Employees need to know specifically what behaviors are expected and which are not acceptable. Rules, guidelines and best practices for civil behavior need to be established.
  • Healthy communication among all employees and  management  is a key requirement for respect. Put systems in place that encourages open communication, and promote constructive feedback so that it becomes the norm. Organizational leaders need to lead responsibly and create a safe environment so employees are not fearful when sharing concerns or reporting incidents.

 Civility is Our Mutual Responsibility

We can’t stop the relentless pace of change. Though we may tactfully try, we may not even be able to get our co-worker to clean up his cubicle and stop leaving garlic bread in his garbage can.  Every organization and institution, backed by the daily practices of their leaders, needs to adapt a Credo of Civility  – and live by it.

But in the end it’s about us. We’re all subject to stress – everyone has pressures and everyone has a story. Sometimes when we truly listen – the loads that our neighbors are carrying are surprising, and often, moving.

Ultimately creating a civil world – being thoughtful and respectful citizens – is up to us. One act at a time.

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. 

George Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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2 thoughts on “What Business Should Know About The High Costs Of Uncivil Behavior

  1. Great post, George. And the best thing is, civility is one of those incredibly useful skills that we don’t need to practice for 10,000 hours (ref: Gladwell’s Outliers book) to truly master. (But daily practice is still strongly advised.)


    • Hi Ronnie,

      Thank you for your comment. I had to laugh at the idea of Gladwell’s 10K practice. You’re correct, the wonderful part of practicing the simplest act of civility, is that the payoff reverberates.
      There are many studies now that show that often people don’t “lack empathy” they are just so distracted and stressed they don’t pay attention to that part of their experience.



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