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Workplace incivility affects people deeply – and not only the victims

Kristoffer Holm recently completed his PhD with a doctoral thesis on incivility at work. Photo: Mostphoto

It is not the person subjected to incivility whose behaviour is most strongly affected, but the people around them, argues Kristoffer Holm, who has published a doctoral thesis in psychology on workplace incivility. He finds that the digital workplace makes this even clearer:

“We need the informal meetings to iron out misunderstandings and soften harsh words.”

In the past two decades, extensive research has been dedicated to increasing knowledge around incivility in working life, including through investigation of victims and perpetrators of impolite behaviour. Fewer researchers have studied how incivility affects those who witness the behaviour, which is what Kristoffer Holm addressed in his doctoral thesis.

In two different surveys, Kristoffer Holm obtained responses to questions about incivility from close to 2000 people. The respondents are engineers and administrators in the welfare sector. Of these, around ¾ reported witnessing a colleague being treated impolitely on a regular basis. This can lead to feelings of stress, injustice and low job satisfaction.

“Our previous studies indicate that those who witness incivility find their own behaviour to be affected to an even higher degree than the person subjected to the impoliteness”, says Holm. “Now we have also found that people who witness incivility report having behaved rudely themselves to a higher degree, six months later. This indicates that impolite behaviour risks spreading to witnesses in the workplace over time.”

Incivility includes everyday breaches of norms on common decency and mutual respect. It includes behaviour such as not inviting someone to a workplace gathering, excluding someone from information and collaborations, taking credit for other people’s work, spreading rumours, using hostile body language, sending nasty emails or not encouraging subordinates.

“So it is about ambiguous behaviour which is not necessarily covered by legislation but which can develop into pure bullying if allowed to continue”, says Holm. The consequences are lower performance in the workplace, a drop in loyalty towards the employer and a reduction in employee well-being, both physically and mentally.

Thus, there is every reason to nip the problem in the bud. Of course, how the individual subjected to incivility reacts will vary from person to person. Some will suffer in silence, while others will object immediately or respond in kind; some will raise the issue with their manager while others will try to laugh it off.

Kristoffer Holm thinks that one should not respond in the same tone. This eventually legitimises a poor conversational tone overall. Instead, Holm thinks that the first step should be a constructive dialogue with the impolite person, who is sometimes not even aware that they have overstepped a mark. After that, if necessary, one can involve the manager who is responsible for the work environment.

Is there any risk of making the problem worse by not letting minor transgressions go?

“There has to be a balance, because of course how people experience things is subjective. You may have to be able to let some things go but if someone is causing you distress it is important to deal with it.”

Does incivility get better or worse with so many people working from home?

“This was not included in my investigation, but other research shows that incivility can express itself in other ways in a digital workplace. For example, through emails formulated in an unfriendly way, or left unanswered. The latter has been shown to be linked to sleeping disorders. It could also be perceived as rudeness if a colleague talks over others in a digital meeting or allows background noise to interfere when other people are speaking. When there are fewer informal meetings, the risk of misunderstandings also increases. But more research is needed about how working from home affects us.”

Download the doctoral thesis here:
Workplace Incivility: Investigating bystander behavior, well-being, and coping responses to perceived incivility – Lunds universitets forskningsportal


Text: Ulrika Oredsson (published on 22 March 2021)

June 4, 2021

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