Commentary: Are we more uncivil in Washington these days? What are the costs?

March 31, 2013

Adam, a promising employee at a hedge fund, was an honor student and class officer from a top undergraduate business school. In his short tenure with his firm, he realized that some of the investment bank’s systems for booking trades were inefficient and error prone. On his own initiative, Adam redesigned the systems. While these changes scored him a promotion, he hit a wall with his new manager, Corinne (not her real name). She spewed stinging e-mails and belittling comments, and engaged in passive-aggressive power ploys. She would blow by Adam in the hall without so much as acknowledging his greeting.

Adam quickly recognized that he was spending a disproportionate amount of his time trying to deal with Corinne’s incivilities. He discussed the situation with her boss, and eventually, a C-suite leader. The boss shrugged off Adam’s concerns. The C-suite member explained that he “had bigger fish to fry,” but he also promised to look out for Adam. A year later, Adam decided it wasn’t worth staying. “Corinne killed any possibility of me pursuing plum opportunities in the firm, so I’m leaving.”

Adam articulated what we’ve heard so many times before. Workplace incivilities push employees over the edge. Adam confessed that he was no longer a team player, that he was playing for himself.

“It’s tough to measure, but it matters. Now my focus is all about leveraging myself into a better place where I don’t have to deal with this,” said Adam, who has since graduated from a top MBA program and started his own company.

Christine Pearson, a professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, and I have been studying the impact of bad behavior on the workplace for 15 years. We’ve learned that incivility continues to be on the rise. One-fourth of employees we polled across industries in 1998 said they were treated rudely by fellow employees at least once a week. By 2005, that number had risen to nearly half.

Our latest research suggests that the prevalence of incivility is even greater today, and the costs are growing. We’ve found that:

47 percent decreased their time at work.

63 percent lost work time avoiding their offender.

66 percent cut back their work efforts.

78 percent said their commitment to their organizations declined.

80 percent lost work time worrying about what happened.

88 percent found a way to get even with their organizations.

94 percent found a way to get even with their offenders.

12 percent said they left their job as a result of their uncivil treatment.

Experiments by Amir Erez of University of Florida offer additional insight — those treated rudely were 30 percent less creative than others and produced 25 percent fewer ideas. Performance also declined, as people who observed incivility performed 20 percent worse on word puzzles than others did. Teamwork and helpfulness also plummeted. Only 25 percent of subjects who had witnessed incivility volunteered to pitch in, whereas 51 percent of those who hadn’t witnessed incivility helped.

The ripple effects can negatively impact many others — including customers. Studies by Debbie MacInnis and Valerie Folkes at the University of Southern California revealed that customers witnessing employee-to-employee incivility is quite common. Whether it is a manager berating a waiter, or a store clerk criticizing a colleague, disrespectful behavior makes people uncomfortable and upset. People are four times more likely to distance themselves from a brand or organization — and for good.

The toll of incivility is more costly and far-reaching than most assume. Thoughtless acts and disrespectful behavior can cost you in terms of lost productivity, lost employees and lost customers.

Christine Porath, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and co-author of “The Cost of Bad Behavior.”

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