The single biggest reason why chronically uncivil employees continue to work in your organization is that management had for years allowed the problem behaviour to continue without meaningful consequences. Had management taken action when the bad behaviour first appeared (and that was likely many moons ago), these folks would by now be wonderfully civil contributors, or they would be working for an altogether different employer.
Instead of nipping the behavior in the bud, management (and please accept my apology if this includes you) engaged in a series of actions that were utterly ineffective or, at best, only partially successful, or they took no action at all. Typical leaders’ mistakes include bad modelling, slow reaction, fear of taking a stand, favouring the intent of the offending person over the impact it has on others, taking the wrong action, or mishandling complaints. Top that off with performance appraisals that contain no mention of the problematic behaviours, and you’ve got full-blown management culpability on your hands.
As they do so, leaders are inadvertently leaving everyone else on the team to fend for themselves or suffer through years of having to deal with the disagreeable person using (much more than) fifty shades of grey. And by the way, by not addressing the situation early and competently, they are being unfair to the uncivil person too: rather than offering opportunities to self-correct and do better, they are setting this person up for failure.
And if you ask how I can be so sure that management has committed so many missteps, my answer is simple: the proof is in the pudding. The only reason that chronically uncivil employees can keep their job while also behaving miserably is because they are allowed to do so.
If you are in a leadership position, you might right now be extremely frustrated with me. I can hear you saying that I really don’t understand your reality. You might, for example, say that it is impossible to fire anyone in your organization because you have an all-powerful union, or that you have been doing performance management with this person forever and are getting nowhere with what seems to be an unsolvable situation. And you would probably add that these situations are exceedingly challenging to diagnose in the first place.
And my response is that as much as my heart goes out to you, I still believe that it can be done, even in difficult circumstances. Where there is a will, there is a way. Where management is convinced that it is responsible for providing everyone with a respectful work environment where they can perform at their best, it will find a way to do it.
* The above is an adapted excerpt from my upcoming book (now in final proofreading stages): Trust Your Canary—Every Leader’s Guide to Taming Workplace Incivility.