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How much did that off-colour joke cost you?

More than you probably think, because we all work harder and better in workplaces where we feel respected

If you think those off-colour jokes, sexist comments, or the occasional angry outburst are harmless, you should think again. The research is clear that rude behaviour can hurt your farm’s bottom line.

For more than 20 years, Christine Porath, an associate professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., has been studying what the HR people call “incivility” in the workplace.

She has found that employees who are subjected to rude behaviour are less motivated, less creative and less productive. Plus, the stress of dealing with this kind of behaviour can result in employees quitting their jobs or experiencing serious physical symptoms such as ulcers and heart attacks.

Even witnessing uncivil behaviour has been shown to reduce employee performance, says Porath, who has a TED talk and book on the subject.

What do we mean by incivility

Incivility is defined as rudeness, disrespect or insensitive behaviour, says Porath. It includes offensive jokes, teasing in ways that sting, put downs and mocking. It even includes texting in meetings or when someone is talking to you.

If you’ve said things like: “If I wanted your opinion, I’d ask for it,” or “Are you an idiot, that’s not how it’s done,” you’ve been guilty of uncivil behaviour, says Porath.

Unfortunately, managers may be oblivious to the problem. Incivility is in the “eye of the beholder,” explains Porath. “What matters is not whether people actually were disrespected or treated insensitively, but whether they felt disrespected.”

What do people find offensive?

Our perceptions vary not only among individuals, but also by gender, culture, generation, industry, and organization.

Incivility is a growing problem, according to Porath’s research. She speculates that misunderstandings due to cultural or generational differences and an increasing amount of time spent in a digital world may account for at least part of the increase. People say things in an email or on social media that they would never say in person.

Even worse, incivility is contagious and is spreading not only throughout workplaces but also into schools and the community, continues Porath.

Uncivil behaviour frequently occurs when there is a power differential and a mistaken belief that “nice guys finish last.” However, Porath’s research shows that people work harder for bosses who treat them with respect.

People feel valued and powerful when they feel respected, she explains, and they are more focused and engaged when they feel appreciated and heard.

“Rude people succeed despite their incivility, not because of it,” says Porath. Research has shown that civility elicits perceptions of warmth and competence. These impressions dictate whether people will trust you, build relationships with you, follow you, and support you, she says.

Leaders can foster civility in the workplace in many ways, including modeling appropriate behaviour through their own actions. Even little things such as smiling, humbly asking questions, listening attentively, and sharing credit can make a big difference. So can eating lunch with employees and showing an interest in their personal lives.

Other actions that management can take include making civility part of the company mission statement, creating a civility code with employee input, recruiting people who are civil, correcting bad behaviour quickly and firmly, and providing civility training to employees.

Because people tend to be rude to others when they are stressed or overloaded, Porath says leaders can help ensure they are fit to manage others by managing their own workload, eating healthily, trying to get enough sleep and exercise, and using mindfulness techniques to help them cope with stress.

Sometimes we are unaware of our own uncivil behaviour. “Incivility usually arises not from malice but from ignorance,” says Porath. By way of example, she points out that she used to have a bad habit of interrupting people before they had finished expressing their thoughts.

After a colleague pointed this behaviour out to her several years ago, she has been mindful of not jumping into conversations prematurely. While her urge to interrupt others hasn’t disappeared completely, with practice, Porath says, her self-control has improved.

Similarly, if you’re a talkative sort of person, train yourself to get into the habit of stopping to ask people what they think. Then listen!

To determine if you have problem behaviours that you are unaware of, Porath suggests eliciting feedback from friends, family, co-workers, bosses and employees. It all starts with awareness.

Porath points out that just because no one has complained, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem with incivility. Generally speaking, employees who experience incivility in the workplace, whether from co-workers or superiors, tend to “suck it up” and not tell anyone.

Even so, when an employee is absent a lot, or if they avoid working with someone, appear to have less energy, or are withdrawn or frustrated, these could be signs that there is a problem with disrespectful behaviour.

To help manage the stress of rudeness, Porath advises employees to follow good self-care practices and to learn stress management techniques. Identifying areas for growth and learning and building positive relationships both at work and outside of work, and connecting with a mentor, can also help counterbalance the negative effects of incivility in the workplace.

While employees may not be able to have as much impact on the corporate culture as the leadership, Porath says each one of us can “be the change we want to see” by treating others the way we hope to be treated.


  • Christine Porath’s TED Talk can be found here.
  • Christine Porath’s book, Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace, shows how you can enhance your influence and effectiveness with simple acts of civility. Based on research in nearly every industry and type of organization, the book reveals the wealth of problems uncivil behaviours can produce. It then offers an eye-opening civility checkup as well as provides essential tools and actionable resources to turn civil behaviours into a daily practice for you and your organization. And finally, it lends much-needed advice on what to do if you are the target of incivility.
  • This short ‘Assess Yourself’ quiz can help you pinpoint areas where your behaviour could use some improvement.

About the author


Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

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