The cost of workplace incivility on your business


Here’s a bold statement for you: All employees—regardless of title, salary, work history or level of education—want to do inspiring work, and they want to be valued and respected while doing that work.

Employees who experience these three things at work are engaged. With these three things, they are able to love what they do. They love who they do it for. They love why they do it.

When we allow our employees to feel inspired, valued and respected, we set the stage for them to be engaged.

Wait. What do I mean by “allowing”? Isn’t it the responsibility of the employees to do this for themselves?

Well, yes and no. It’s especially instructive when we look at the “no.”

There are circumstance where, despite how hard the employee tries to care or how much the employee tries to do the right thing, the employee is going to lose. Somewhere along the way there is something at work that prevents the employee from being his or her best.

Put Your Head Down. Keep Your Chin Up.

When this happens, we give them suggestions of how to handle themselves. The advice we give to those employees is essentially to put their heads down, do their work, and try to stay out of the line of sight. And, for God's sake, don't complain, lest you incite the wrath of someone in charge.

In my work, I engage companies who are challenged by their workforce and complain about, among other things, high turnover or lousy work ethic of employees. These complaints are typically associated with a specific department or position. While it’s natural to assign blame to the employees, it usually turns out that the culprit is the manager over the department or position. And the cause of high turnover/lousy work ethic is that manager’s bad behavior.

Bad behavior likely shows up as “workplace incivility.” Workplace incivility, as described by McKinsey and Company, is “the accumulation of thoughtless actions that leave employees feeling disrespected—intentionally ignored, undermined by colleagues, or publicly belittled by an insensitive manager.”

One Bad Apple Spoils the Bunch

I know of very few companies that intentionally cultivate a ruthless or toxic work environment. Most companies want the opposite. They strive to be positive places with happy, thriving workers. They seek a reputation as a great place to work. Sometimes, however, even the best companies fall short on the ideal.

There's the expression "one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch." Well, the same is true for one bad manager. One department with a bad manager whose behavior leads to a toxic work environment can ruin the reputation of the entire company.

It’s not just the business leaders who don’t realize the implications of bad managers, the managers themselves are oblivious to their own behavior. They lack self-awareness. They are incapable of recognizing their own part in inflicting workplace incivility on their colleagues and direct reports.

As Miss Piggy does at the suggestion of any wrong-doing, these bad managers exclaim incredulously, Moi?

The worker—the victim in the case of workplace incivility—can experience negative implications impacting both mental and physical health, from stress to insomnia. This is serious stuff.

The company also experiences negative consequences of a toxic work environment. Most notably, because of a manager’s bad behavior, employees check out. They either quit and go work for another company (i.e., high turnover). Or, worse still, they quit and stay employed at the original company.

They put their heads down, do their work, and try to stay out of the line of sight. Of course, no extra effort is coming from these people. No innovation. No care. They just do the minimum (i.e., lousy work ethic).

What To Do If This Means You

If you're experiencing something similar at your company (e.g., high turnover, lousy work ethic), I encourage you to take an objective look at your workplace to see what is truly happening. What is preventing your employees from being engaged. Survey them to learn how they experience working for you. Ask what motivates them and what irritates them. Then do more of the former and less of the latter.

Companies also complain about the inability to find “qualified” candidates, especially in this time of ridiculously low unemployment.

I remind them, though, that retaining existing employees—and making them better—is the easiest and most cost-effective way to improve a company’s workforce situation. It’s easier than finding new employees (again, with the ridiculously low unemployment).

So, if one of your managers is chasing people out the door because of his/her bad behavior, if one of your managers cultivates a toxic work environment or inflicts workplace incivility on direct reports, it’s only making it worse for you.

Andrea J. Applegate is president of Applegate Talent Strategies, LLC, a firm that advises employers on their people practices to ensure they can attract, retain and engage their best workforce.


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