Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on May 16, 2023.
Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Christine Porath, a professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, details findings from her recent survey, which found that frontline workers have experienced a rise in workplace incivility in recent years and offers four tips to help organizations address incivility.
To track trends in workplace incivility—which Porath defines as "rudeness, disrespect, or insensitive behavior"—and gain a better understanding of the front lines of society, she surveyed over 2,000 workers across 25 industries worldwide. Respondents included frontline workers and individuals who observed them in the workplace.
According to Porath's most recent findings:
"Even amid a global health crisis in which frontline workers were heralded as essential and heroic, these employees still became punching bags on whom weary, stressed-out, often irrational customers (and sometimes fellow employees) took out their anxieties and frustrations," Porath writes.
These figures have increased significantly since Porath's 2012 survey about customer incivility. In 2012, she found that 61% of respondents said it was not unusual for customers to behave badly, 49% said they believed that bad behavior from customers toward employees was more common then than it was five years prior, and 35% said they believed bad behavior between customers was more common than it was five years earlier.
According to Porath's research, five "compounding factors and pressures" have led to the worsening of workplace incivility, including:
1. Increased stress
Porath's most recent data found that 73% of respondents who had been rude to a coworker attributed the interaction to stress, and 61% said it was due to their workload.
"[C]onsidering our reduced levels of self-care, exercise, and sleep," in recent years, "it's no surprise that we have a tougher time regulating our emotions," Porath notes.
2. Negative emotional status
A 2020 survey of more than 70,000 individuals found that the number of respondents who said anger was one of their primary emotions more than doubled between March and September, increasing from 20% to 45%.
"Naturally, as negative emotions swell in us, we may lash out or take them out on others, often without realizing it," Porath writes. "Even if we muster restraint, when we're not feeling well we're less mindful and less capable of interacting positively and respectfully."
3. Deteriorated relationships
In a study from 2014, Porath surveyed 20,000 people—and 65% said they did not feel any sense of community. This July, when she surveyed over 1,500 participants from the Conference for Women, she found that their sense of community decreased by 37% since the beginning of the pandemic.
4. Heavy technology use
While technology has a myriad of benefits, the heavy use of technology can come with a price, Purath notes. "We're taking in a whole lot of negativity (consciously or unconsciously) on a daily basis," she writes. "The content we consume affects not only us but others too. What we ingest from online sources can harm our mood and mental health, and we can pass our anxiety, depression, and stress on to others."
5. Low self-awareness
According to Porath, one of the biggest takeaways from over 20 years of research is that "incivility usually arises from ignorance — not malice."
"We may have good intentions and work hard to be patient and tolerant, but our tones, nonverbal signals, or actions may come across differently to the people we interact with and those who witness the interactions," she writes.
Over 20 years, Porath's research has suggested "over and over that incivility's effects are both mental and physical."
"Research shows that rudeness is like the common cold: It's contagious, it spreads quickly, anyone can be a carrier — at work, at home, online, or in our communities — and getting infected doesn't take much," she writes.
According to Porath, organizations can take four steps to address incivility, including:
1. Hire the right people
"Fostering a feeling of community begins with who you hire—so choose wisely," Porath writes. "During the hiring process, use techniques that will help reveal whether a candidate is well equipped to handle incivility on the front lines."
2. Train your employees to handle incivility
It is crucial for organizations to train employees to handle bad behavior from customers. According to Porath, this "is a critical component of creating a more civil workplace," adding that "[j]ust as important is determining how you expect those customers and patients to treat your employees and steering them toward that desired behavior."
3. Reward civility
According to Porath, "[o]ne of the most compelling ways to show how much civility matters to your organization is to recognize and reward it."
For example, displays of appreciation can lead to reduced burnout, increase retention, and boost mental health and well-being. "When reviewing performance, don't just focus on the results; also consider the how of the work by expressing gratitude for the full contributions people make, which includes handling uncivil behavior," she adds.
4. Be consistent
Organizations should ensure that their employees are given the tools they need to protect themselves from incivility, "both in the moment and over time," Porath writes.
Ultimately, "[w]e can't control what customers do, but we can equip our employees to handle bad behavior by establishing and enforcing norms of respect, coaching them to have difficult conversations, and showing them the value of rest and recovery," she adds. (Porath, Harvard Business Review, 11/9)
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