Incivility in the Workplace: How Common Discourtesy can lead to Bullying Claims


Workplace incivility is a pattern of low intensity discourteous behaviour that often precedes an employee making a formal grievance or bullying claim.  When viewed objectively these behaviours may appear trivial, however for an employee on the receiving end of daily workplace incivility and rudeness, the cumulative effects can be harmful.  What may start out as a refusal to make eye contact, say hello or include an employee in work related conversations can easily escalate to a bullying situation as many claim have their genesis in what is ostensibly rude behaviour.


The intent of such behaviour can often be ambiguous and may be the product of thoughtlessness and insensitivity rather than outright malice. Incivility in the workplace tends to be subtle and insidious and it will generally manifest in three ways:


Interpersonal Incivility


Interpersonal incivility is characterised when one person is directly rude to another for example ignoring a co-worker who says “good morning” (whether or not the person in question actually intended to be uncivil). It is unclear from this interaction if any deliberate harm was meant by the co- worker, and it is this potential lack of intent that differentiates incivility from other more obvious forms of interpersonal maltreatment, such as verbal abuse or violence.


Cyber Incivility


Cyber incivility is behaviour commonly associated with workplace correspondence more specifically emails including sending blunt messages, terse responses or not responding at all. The inherently impersonal nature of electronic correspondence can lead to tenor and meaning misunderstandings due to the lack of sensory cues such as voice inflection relied upon in everyday conversation

and used to construe meaning.  Given that the majority of workplace interactions now take place electronically, etiquette and the tone of email communication has become increasingly important, especially if a communique is copied to third parties.


Workplace Discourtesy


Thirdly, incivility in the workplace can be victimless, in that it may come across as bad manners or a lack of consideration for others.  Examples of this type of behaviour include leaving rubbish lying around in communal areas, failing to refill printers, disturbing others by talking on mobile phones and generally behaving in a negative and inconsiderate manner towards colleagues.


The Cost to Businesses


While workplace incivility can be easily dismissed as being low level and insignificant, the prevalence of these types of behaviours is high.  It is estimated that almost all employees have experienced some level of incivility from colleagues, managers and/or clients. While an isolated act of incivility

is rarely egregious, the cumulative effect of these types of behaviours can have harmful effects on employees and workplace culture more generally including an increase in sick leave, lower productivity and a deterioration of performance and employee morale.


There is also a risk that workplace incivility will spread and become contagious due to the perception that an employee is behaving in a rude manner.  It is unlikely that an employee will continue to

smile and greet others if they are constantly faced with a stony silence or blank looks. Further if an employee is perceived to be hostile it may cause others to retaliate contributing to a toxic and unpleasant working environment. It is also likely that some of these behaviours will escalate towards more overtly hostile acts resulting in employees making bullying and harassment claims.


What to Do


While it may be unreasonable to demand temperamental managers attend ‘charm school’ it does fall to management to promote behaviours that are courteous and respectful towards all employees.


If organisational leaders condone or exhibit behaviour that violate social norms, employees may perceive this as being acceptable in the workplace and mimic accordingly. Others may be unaware they are being uncivil so it is necessary to set clear expectations of what is acceptable behaviour towards colleagues in the workplace.  Lastly, ensure that all employees from arrogant bosses to standoffish employees understand that the consequences of their behaviour affect not only the people around them but also the entire company.


© Labour Pains Legal 2014