Ashlyn Patterson
Ashlyn Patterson

Has a colleague ever interrupted you during a meeting? Made a snide comment by the water cooler? Borrowed your stapler without returning it – again? If so, you’ve been the victim of workplace incivility. Unlike workplace harassment, workplace incivility is more subtle and can be perceived as unintentional, but it can affect productivity and morale.

“It’s incredible what a negative impact such subtle behaviour can have on people,” says Ashlyn Patterson, a PhD student in psychology. “You never really know when you’re the target whether someone is doing it because they don’t like you or because they’re just having a bad day.”

It’s that ambiguity that makes workplace incivility difficult to address.

Patterson points to increased pressure and fast-paced work environments as the cause, resulting in stressed-out employees who don’t have the time or the energy to be courteous to one another. “When people are busy,” she says, “they can unintentionally engage in this rude behaviour.”

Aside from stress, she says other predictors of workplace incivility include negative feelings toward the organization that could stem from a perception of being treated unfairly.

Workplace incivility isn’t just bad for employees; it’s also bad for employers, adds Patterson. Ongoing animosity among colleagues can lead to increased absenteeism and decreased productivity. Victims may have difficulty concentrating at work because they’re worried about the next incident. They may also become less engaged with their work and their colleagues. She says toxic work environments also contribute to mental and physical health problems.

In extreme cases, the workplace may become so intolerable that people decide to find a new job. That creates extra work for human resources staff to fill vacancies. Resolving workplace disputes also takes time away from supervisors, she says.

Intentional negative behaviour in the workplace can lead to what Patterson calls the incivility spiral. “Incivility over time can lead to more intense forms of aggression.” She warns that if left unaddressed, it can escalate into more serious forms of harassment, bullying or violence.

Although laws exist to protect workers from these types of behaviour, she says workplace incivility is more insidious and thus more difficult to control because it could be perceived as unintentional. With varying degrees of incivility, some people may view an incident as inappropriate while others may not.

For her master’s degree, Patterson looked at emotion regulation as a coping mechanism. She advises it may be helpful for people who have experienced workplace incivility to reappraise the event by considering contextual factors. For example, they can change their perception by reappraising negative experiences in a positive way, or recognize that perhaps their colleague is having a bad day. Try not to perceive what happens to you as the end of the world, she says, and consider how dealing with a difficult colleague can be a learning opportunity for both the target and the perpetrator of incivility.

Retaliation is never justified, adds Patterson, because it only feeds the cycle of retaliation. Even though the behaviour is wrong, the employee engaging in it may temporarily feel better by doing it. The situation only gets worse when the victim responds similarly. Negative interactions between colleagues can also spread to new hires, who may adopt this type of behaviour because they think it’s the norm.

Why do some people engage in workplace incivility? “Some people do it because of this desire for retaliation or a desire for power,” says Patterson. “It’s seen as getting even with the organization, a supervisor or someone else in the organization.”

Since people often work in teams, group dynamics are affected when people don’t get along. “You need that collaboration,” says Patterson. “Generally, people don’t work in isolation, so you need a climate that fosters respect and civility.” Instead of waiting for problems to arise, she says supervisors can help create a positive work environment in which workplace incivility is less likely to occur.

Given that people spend most of their time at work, it makes sense to create a hospitable work environment, but that isn’t always the case. Workplace incivility “creates a barrier in social dynamics,” she says. “Being respectful and civil conveys a sense of value and a sense of belonging, whereas uncivil behaviour and being rude to someone creates a boundary and sense of rejection.”