Workplace incivility, unprofessional conduct, bad behavior, bullying—whatever you call it, the consequences for modern workplaces can be dire. Incivility can lead to poor performance, employee turnover and can even have an impact on customer service, says Michelle Thompson, vice president of human resources at XMI.

As the changing demographics of the workforce have helped set new expectations about acceptable behavior, incivility has come to the forefront in recent years. “Employees simply will not tolerate incivility or even perceived incivility in the workplace,” she says.

While the authoritative style of management became outdated years ago, Thompson says you might be surprised how many managers still think that’s what leadership is about. “Whereas previous generations of workers may have grinned and bear it, today’s workers are a lot less patient with managers behaving badly,” she says.

Shifting demographics aside, a 2016 McKinsey report found that workplace incivility is on the rise. From 1998 to 2016, the share of employees who reported that they were treated poorly by colleagues at least once a month rose 13 percent, from 49 percent to 62 percent. 

In “The Hidden Toll of Workplace Incivility,” the author explained there’s no single reason for the upward trend but did offer a few ideas: “Workplace relationships may be fraying as fewer employees work in the office and feel more isolated and less respected. Some studies point to growing narcissism among younger workers. Globalization may be causing cultural clashes that bubble beneath the surface. And in the digital age, messages are prone to communication gaps and misunderstanding—and unfortunately putdowns are easier when not delivered face to face.”

All of this underscores the importance of dealing appropriately with workplace incivility when it occurs—and heading it off with proactive steps. Here’s what Thompson recommends:

Invest in leadership training for new leaders: Spending X number of years at a company might put a rising star in line for a management position, but that promotion doesn’t magically turn them into a good leader. “There can be a huge gap between someone being good at their job and someone being able to lead people,” she says. “Invest the time and expense in providing leadership training to make sure your new managers are set up for success.”

Create the right environment for reporting: Employees have to feel safe enough to be able to report when a coworker behaves unprofessionally toward them. Establish a reporting chain of command (consider an HR or other leadership position that can bypass a direct supervisor) and include workplace civility policies and protocols in the employee handbook.

Investigate incidents immediately: When an incident has been reported, it’s important to investigate it before taking action. “Don’t approach it with the preconceived notion that what was reported was 100 percent accurate,” Thompson says. “Sometimes things are misunderstood or misreported.”

Deal with offenders appropriately: It’s important to make sure the employee accused of unprofessional conduct has the chance to share their side of the story. Find a private place to meet face-to-face to share what was reported and give them a chance to respond. Empathy and compassion are as useful here as they are when talking to the accuser.

Follow up with both sides promptly: While it’s a good idea to take a little time to analyze the findings of your investigation, it’s also important to follow up with both sides promptly. To the accuser, you’ll want to thank them for sharing, explain that the issue is being addressed, and encourage them to come forward if something happens again. To the offender, even if it’s a high-level manager, resist the urge to simply issue a slap on the wrist or a written warning—these types of gestures do little to change behavior, Thompson says. “The best companies will train, coach and support the person who didn’t perform well, instead of the old disciplinary way of writing them up and warning them but not helping them.”


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