Workplace Incivility

Workplace incivility refers to behaviors that people experience at work that are rude and discourteous, and that generally go against norms for mutual respect and dignity. Examples of incivility include being berated for an action in which one played no part, being excluded from a meeting, and having one’s credibility undermined in front of others. Neglecting to greet one another, interrupting others while speaking, failing to return borrowed supplies, and spreading rumors and gossiping constitute incivil acts. Incivility is considered a subset of counterproductive work behaviors (CWBs), employee deviance, and workplace aggression. However, incivility only includes behaviors that are relatively mild (e.g., verbal, passive, and indirect), whereas CWB, deviance, and aggression also include behaviors that are physical, active, and direct. Although incivility is less intense than other forms of CWB or deviance, it is far more common. Unlike employee deviance or aggression, incivility is characterized by an ambiguous intent to harm. That is, an act of incivility may be perceived by the instigator or target as a deliberate attempt to cause harm or it may be attributed to more benign causes. For example, the instigator may claim the behavior was because of ignorance or an oversight on his or her part or may accuse the target of misunderstanding the behavior or being overly sensitive. Incivility is also distinct from mobbing, bullying, and social undermining in that these constructs generally refer to a recurring pattern of deliberately injurious behavior wherein an individual may be systematically targeted by one or more individuals at work. The unique contribution that is made by including incivility alongside these distinct albeit related constructs is the idea that behaviors do not necessarily have to be clearly and deliberately hostile to negatively affect an individual or organization.

Interest in workplace incivility has grown recently as interest in uncivil behavior in society at large such as cell phone use and road rage has increased. The common perception is that incivility is on the rise, but no empirical data are available to substantiate this view. However, several changes in the way we work may have contributed to a relaxing of social norms and a concurrent increase in incivility. For example, organizations have loosened formal rules for dress and behavior as companies become flatter and less formal to increase responsiveness and encourage innovation and creativity. The absence of these formal cues for behavior may be contributing to an increase in incivility. Modern communication technology may also be a factor as electronic communication such as e-mail and instant messaging is more susceptible to misinterpretation because it is unable to convey the subtleties of nonverbal communication including body language and voice intonation that can mean the difference between a statement interpreted as gentle ribbing or a provocative insult. Moreover, the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of the workforce means employees are more likely to encounter others with different cultural norms and expectations regarding what is acceptable and courteous behavior. Finally, the increase in corporate downsizing, restructuring, and mergers coupled with a heightened emphasis on short-term profitability often means that workers are expected to do more with less. All these factors translate into a more complex and fast-paced working environment that leaves little time for niceties and proper manners.

Social Interactionist Perspective on Workplace Incivility

Incivility is generally characterized as occurring within an interactive social exchange dynamic described as an incivility spiral wherein an act of workplace incivility on the part of one individual leads to an act of incivility by a second party (the original target) that may be of equal or increasing intensity. In the former case, the exchange is nonescalating, but these exchanges may have cumulative negative consequences for organizations by altering norms about such behavior and increasing emotional fatigue among participants and observers of the exchange. The latter case, however, results in an escalating spiral of incivility wherein each act of incivility is followed by an increasingly negative act. Situations such as these have the potential to lead to more intense forms of CWB, perhaps resulting ultimately in aggression or violence wherein the intent to inflict harm is indisputable.

Workplace Incivility Instigators and Targets

Instigators of workplace incivility are more likely to be male, and some are also high performers at work. Instigators do not discriminate based on gender or age when choosing a target; however, they are more likely to target individuals who hold lower status positions than themselves. Thus, incivility is more likely to be perpetrated by individuals in positions of power and aimed at individuals with less power. Research indicates that being the target of incivility can lead to increased job stress and job dissatisfaction. Targets often respond by withholding effort or other citizenship behaviors, avoiding the instigator, performing other counterproductive behaviors, or leaving the organization. The effects of incivility may also extend beyond the original involved parties to affect other individuals who may witness uncivil exchanges by creating a stressful working environment, changing organizational norms about how people treat each other at work, and potentially leading to spillover uncivil behavior.

Prevention of Workplace Incivility

There are many steps that organizations can take to reduce the occurrence of workplace incivility. Perhaps the most important is to set and clearly communicate expectations and standards for employee behavior to build a culture that will not tolerate rudeness or incivility. To be effective, it is critical that these policies are supported and modeled at all levels of the organization, particularly by those in top management. The selection and recruitment process should also align with the organization’s policies on civil interpersonal treatment. Companies should take care to inform potential hires of behavioral expectations and standards and use the interview process and reference checking to identify individuals with a higher propensity to instigate incivility. Organizations can also provide training to employees to provide them with more productive ways of interacting with others and to make them more aware of the negative effects of incivility. Employee performance appraisals and evaluations should also reflect these standards for behavior. Finally, individuals who violate policies against incivility should incur consequences regardless of status. Because many instigators are in positions of power and possess valuable knowledge and skills, organizations may be reluctant to take action; however, the costs of tolerating incivility are too great to be ignored.


  1. Cortina, L. M., Magley, V. J., Williams, J. H., & Langhout, R. D. (2001). Incivility in the workplace: Incidence and impact. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 6(1), 64-80.
  2. Johnson, P. R., & Indvik, J. (2001). Rudeness at work: Impulse over restraint. Public Personnel Management, 30(4), 457-465.
  3. Pearson, C. M., Andersson, L. M., & Porath, C. L. (2000). Assessing and attacking workplace incivility. Organizational Dynamics, 29(3), 123-137.
  4. Pearson, C. M., & Porath, C. L. (2005). On the nature, consequences, and remedies of workplace incivility: No time for “nice”? Think again. Academy of Management Executive, 19(1), 7-18.
  5. Penney, L. M., & Spector, P. E. (in press). Job stress, incivility, and counterproductive work behavior (CWB): The moderating role of negative affectivity. Journal of Organizational Behavior.

See also: