Workplace Incivility: An Unavoidable Product of Human Nature and Organizational Nurturing

Article excerpt

In the uncivil workplace, "Us and them" or "we and they" are distinctions that divide and alienate. In the civil workplace, there are no such elites nor is there a perception that some, executives, for example, have special privileges. Rather, there are programs and policies that promote inclusion and that offer everyone an equal opportunity for personal and professional growth. In the end, civility reigns

Richard, a junior manager in a large organization, was recounting his supervisor's behaviour, speaking in a monotone, the way that people sometimes do when they are trying to control sour feelings accompanying unpleasant memories.

"His targets were usually those of us who were most competent, which is what made the whole thing so weird. I mean if you're really concerned about performance, you don't pick on those who are performing best ....If you did well it could always have been better.... He'd get you for... small infractions, slight oscillations from the standard. One of my peers turned in a report that we all had a hand in developing. There was a form that reports were supposed to have which other groups regularly modified as the need arose.... She had done a nice job integrating some difficult material, and there was plenty of time to revise.... But the boss went into one of his things. You never knew when it was coming. He said something like, 'There are ways of organizing reports which you do not have the knowledge or skill to judge or change.' He was really talking down to her in our presence." (Fuller accounts of this story and the one below originally appeared in H.A. Hornstein, Brutal Bosses and Their Prey , Riverhead Books, New York, 1996).

Painting a vivid picture, Billy told me this memorable story about his boss's incivility.

"Almost anything could set him off. That's what made it so awful. You never could predict just when it was going to happen.... Don't imagine that I'm speaking to you about some wild-haired screamer. This fellow was a typical mid-forties, blue-suit type, balding, with a slight belly.... 'Billy,' he said, standing in the doorway so that everyone in the central area could see and hear us clearly. 'Billy, this is just not adequate, really not at all. We want to do better than this.' He was speaking...as if I were a three-year-old. As he spoke he crumpled the papers that he held. My work. One by one...holding them out...and dropping them just inside my office as everyone watched. Then he said loudly, 'Garbage in, garbage out.... You gave me garbage. Now you clean it up.' I did. Through the doorway I could see people looking away because they were embarrassed for me. They didn't want to see what was in front of them: A thirty-six-year-old man in a three-piece suit stooping before his boss to pick up crumpled pieces of paper."

Employees' experiences of workplace incivility like these two may not be an everyday event; but neither are they uncommon. Evidence from a worldwide study involving more than 1,000 working people who described their bosses' behavior, without any labeling or evaluation, shows that on any given day one out of five reported to a boss who was guilty of these misbehaviors; 90 percent had this painful experience sometime during their careers. (Hornsetin, The Haves and The Have Nots ). Cynical readers, those who would claim that whining employees are prone to exaggerate mistreatment, are invited to halve these data, and then halve them again, because the numbers remain alarming: Even after such reductions we can infer that in the United States alone, each and every day, approximately three-quarters of a million workers are being bludgeoned by their boss's incivility.

The 1000 employees described bosses who crushed conventional rules of conduct with behavior that was harshly rude and impolite. And they told stories about other bosses who demanded unquestioning obedience, threatening punishment if it did not occur. These employees had bosses who accused them of misdeeds, prohibiting any discussion, while forcing them to "stand" silently, like children, and listen. …

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