The Price of Incivility is High - Incivility in the Workplace

Last Updated: 03 November 2023

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Janette Cooper

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My mother always said, "civility costs you nothing". The message I think she was trying to convey was to always behave well and treat people with respect. This is a fantastic sentiment and something to always keep in mind.

The truth is we are all only human, and when we are frustrated, hurt, or angry, our ability to use emotional intelligence and control our behaviour is often sorely challenged.

The truth is that incivility is costly and far more common than it should be.

Human Resources experts create values statements, and Nursing and Midwifery Boards create Code of Ethics documents that both exist in part to guide our behaviour towards each other in the workplace.

The sad truth, according to Porath and Pearson (2013), is that incivility in the workplace remains an ever-present reality - and nursing is no exception.

Workplace incivility is defined by Porath and Pearson as, 'the exchange of seemingly inconsequential and inconsiderate words and deeds that violate conventional norms of workplace conduct'.

Pearson, Anderson, and Wegner (2001) say:

'Workplace incivility is low-intensity deviant behaviour with ambiguous intent to harm the target, in violation of workplace norms for mutual respect. Uncivil behaviours are characteristically rude and discourteous, displaying a lack of regard for others.

Forms of Incivility in the Workplace

According to Diane Berenbaum (2010), incivility in the workplace can take the following forms:

  • Losing your temper and yelling at someone
  • Rude or obnoxious behaviour
  • Badgering or back-stabbing
  • Withholding information
  • Sabotaging a project
  • Damaging someone’s reputation

I’d like to add:

  • Using a sharp tone
  • Making faces behind someone’s back
  • Eye rolling
  • Making false and unsubstantiated claims about someone’s performance
  • Using a sarcastic tone
Incivility Image

How Incivility Affects the Workplace

People respond to uncivil behaviour differently. Sometimes, they may not even be aware that their behaviour is designed to punish the offender or the organisation they work for.

A survey conducted by Porath and Pearson (2013) of 800 managers and employees in 17 industries revealed how people on the receiving end of uncivil behaviour have responded:

  • 48% intentionally decreased their work effort
  • 47% intentionally decreased the time spent at work
  • 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work
  • 80% lost work time worrying about the incident
  • 63% lost work time avoiding the offender
  • 66% said that their performance declined
  • 78% said that their commitment to the organisation declined
  • 12% said that they left their job because of the uncivil treatment
  • 25% admitted to taking their frustration out on customers

The truth is when people feel that they have been subjected to uncivil behaviour, they respond in a way that is damaging to the organisation and to the customers of the organisation.

Creativity Suffers

Porath and Pearson, through further study, found that people who are subjected to incivility are less creative. How does this translate to healthcare? According to Simon Sinek (2014), when people feel under threat, they focus on their own safety. They don’t look for ‘out of the box’ solutions to problems.

Performance and Team Spirit Deteriorate

Developing a great workplace culture relies on everyone in the workplace being accountable for the way they behave towards their colleagues. Bullying and incivility will only stop or be reduced when people choose to behave better and when others stand up and support the person subjected to the incivility by letting the perpetrator know that their behaviour is not acceptable.

How Can We Improve?


The leader of the team has an important role to play in reducing incivility and creating a good workplace culture. Management is not just about managing. Managers have to lead. Leaders set the tone. If their behaviour is uncivil, then many team members will follow their lead. The leader must hold themselves to a higher standard.

Workplace Values

All healthcare organisations have a value statement. They should be visible in the workplace and not just in a file on a computer or in a document or only displayed in the admission area of the hospital. We have to be clear on the standard of behaviour that is expected. We have to discuss in the workplace with the work team what the values mean and how they will be expressed.

Training and Coaching

Often, people are not very aware of their behaviour and the impact that they have in the workplace. Emotional intelligence training will allow people to develop their self-awareness and self-control. Coaching is a process that supports people to create behavioural change and helps them to maintain that change.

Communication and Feedback

Open communication and feedback are important in the workplace. For that to happen, people have to feel safe. If managers don’t listen and react with anger and aggression when they feel they are being challenged, then communication and feedback are in danger.

We have to have well-developed interpersonal skills. If we want a colleague to change their behaviour, the quality of our communication skills is vital. Communicating with anger and aggression because you are stressed and feel under pressure is unlikely to get you the behavioural change that you are asking for.


We have to learn what it means to be respectful and courteous. That is why workplace values matter. Workplace values need to be visible in the workplace. If we are to reduce incivility in the workplace, we all have to hold ourselves to a higher standard.


Berenbaum, D 2010, ‘Workplace Incivility on the Rise: Four Ways to Stop it’, HR Exchange Network, 23 March 2010, viewed 25 January 2017, source

Pearson, CM, Andersson LM & Wegner, JW 2001, ‘When Workers Flout Convention: A Study of Workplace Incivility

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