The Incivility Risk: It’s Time to Connect the Dots

The below article provides an analysis of the surprising results of a survey we designed for the HR Reporter magazine in summer 2011.  The survey focused on workplace incivility. Analysis was published in the magazine on October 10, 2011.

Consider this: if incivility is comprised of ‘seemingly inconsequential, rude or discourteous words and actions’, it would be utterly logical to assume that from an organizational perspective, this phenomena would be equally inconsequential, right?

Well, this survey demonstrates that the opposite is true. As seen from HR’s unique vantage point, incivility is exceedingly damaging to business.  An overwhelming majority of our 308 respondents ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘somewhat agreed’ that incivility has a significant negative effect on crucial organizational indicators.

First, productivity: 92% observed that incivility had negative effects in this domain. 72% noted the same about its impact on customer service. Absenteeism received a score of 79%, and 78% stated that talent retention was affected. Furthermore, 90% stated that incivility had a strong negative impact on interdepartmental collaboration and 52% viewed it as damaging to the brand reputation itself.

These figures are striking, even shocking. They tell us that incivility poses a tangible risk to organizations. Previous US-based research has already pointed to a relationship between incivility and similar organizational indicators, however our survey’s high figures go well beyond what has been previously observed. What respondents relayed is that this seemingly benign form of bad behaviour comes with hefty price tags. When your brand is eroding, customers are going elsewhere, you’re having difficulty attracting and retaining talent and the cost of sick leaves is rising, your capacity to carry out the organization’s objectives is severely hampered.

Given this, you’d naturally assume that organizations, and their HR professionals, would be busy dealing with this risk head on. You’d surely expect them to be equipped with the necessary skills and confidence, right?

Well, wrong again. The data point to a lack of understanding of incivility’s far reaching impact. The majority of respondents (81%), ‘wish management was more aware of how incivility impacts the business’. Furthermore, we see within HR itself large pockets which lack both confidence and skill in dealing with the issue. This is true despite the fact that 73% of survey respondents comprised of executives, managers and supervisors, and another 17% identified themselves as ‘senior individual contributors’.

Here’s a demonstration of the pervasiveness of this confidence and skills gap: when asked about their reaction when they received formal or informal civility-related complaint, a staggering 77% of respondents “wished they had more knowledge and tools to deal with this situation”.  It is therefore no surprise that 39% ‘felt unsure how to handle the situation’ and 37% did not ‘know exactly what to do’ to fix it.  Furthermore, these professionals operate within an organizational context that is equally at a loss: a whopping 72% stated that they ‘wish they had more organizational support’ to address things. Only a handful of respondents, in the open comments sections, demonstrated commendable clarity of understanding and decisiveness of action.

Equipped with questionable support from management and a compromised skill set, here’s what HR folks do: they get busy revising policies (69%), however only 7% of organizations initiate the creation of Team Charters that would help employees take ownership of these revised policies.  They do a decent job at providing training to management (51%) and front line staff (54%), but only 17% are able to create an overall strategic organizational response.  34% hang posters, distribute pamphlets and do newsletters write-ups, however only 34% make it ‘a topic of conversation across the organization’. And many, as gleaned from the survey’s open comments sections, simply ‘do nothing’, or they deal with the issue on a case-by-case basis.

These results point to a glaring incongruence between the magnitude of the incivility risk and organizational responses to it. The organizational resources dedicated to solving the problem dwarf in comparison with the costs associated with its impact.

Admittedly, the data confirms that there are many good reasons for this gap. The vast majority of the comments found in the survey’s open-ended sections, point to two major obstacles that get in the way of an effective organizational response to incivility.

Not surprisingly, the first obstacle respondents describe is this: senior managers are often the biggest offenders. As one respondent put it: “it’s hard to do anything about it when leaders don’t realize that their own behaviour hinders the organization”.

The second obstacle relates to the murky nature of the problem, and its multi-dimensionality. For example, “more often than not, things are said in a joking way”; “sometimes what was ok yesterday, is not okay today!!!”; “some people are perceived to have ’untouchable’ status”; “most incidents of incivility are not brought to the appropriate personnel“;  and; “there are no laws about incivility, so companies have no specific policies on this”.

Still, this survey tells a compelling story which had previously not been told in our Canadian landscape:   incivility is alive and well in Canada coast to coast, in organizations ranging in size from one to 5,000+. Most HR professionals hear about it regularly (up to 15 times in a six months’ period), but feel they are insufficiently equipped to deal with it. Furthermore, they operate within an environment where management doesn’t recognize the issue as a problem or, alas, is itself a major part of it.

Even more importantly, incivility erodes factors that are crucial to organizational success, yet the response to it tends to be tactical rather than strategic, localized rather than global.

The time is now for organizations to begin connecting the dots: incivility is a risk that needs to be managed just like any other risk. It needs to be diagnosed correctly and addressed in a thoughtful way. And it’s HR’s responsibility to gain the skills and confidence it needs in order to help their organizations connect these dots and to provide leadership in implementing change.

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