Incivility common workplace issue, finds survey

Many in HR unsure of what to do, unhappy with lack of support
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/10/2011

Judging by the results of a Canadian HR Reporter survey, incivility is a common occurrence at Canadian workplaces. And many HR professionals who are unsure of how to respond are keen to have greater knowledge, tools and resources.

More than one-half (53.9 per cent) of the 308 respondents said they have heard of anywhere from one to five incivility-related complaints in the past six months. One-fifth (19 per cent) have heard of six to 10 such complaints.

The results aren’t too surprising, especially since the 2010 passage of Bill 168, Ontario’s anti-workplace violence and harassment law, said NamrataBalsara, HR manager at the Peel branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) in Brampton, Ont.

“I’ve actually had people in my office saying, ‘Would that be an incident of bullying or workplace harassment?’ So then you can have that conversation. Previous to that, it existed but it used to be something you’d just hear about.”

Guy Parent, president of Corporate Investigation Services in London, Ont., finds the numbers elevated but admits it’s tough to know how people defined “incivility.”

“I find the reporting aspect, if they’re actually reporting those kinds of numbers, I see that as rather high.”

But sometimes it’s an issue of perception, as a manager required to speak sternly to an employee because of poor performance may find himself accused of incivility, said Parent.

“I’m finding the newer generation coming up… they’re more sensitive to how it is that you speak to them and how they perceive instruction and direction.”

Margaret Michaels, however, is not surprised at the results, considering human nature.

“Our perceptions of incivility, they’re very linked to our own sense of self-esteem. So that a person with lower self-esteem tends to take comments more hurtfully than those who don’t,” said Michaels, founder of Margaret Michaels HRC, an HR consulting practice in Ottawa. While initially this might not warrant a complaint to HR, it does colour a person’s perceptions, she said.

“When you look at the world through a filter, you tend to ascribe motivations that aren’t necessarily there.”

When it comes to handling the situation, 38.8 per cent of respondents said they’re unsure of how to respond (compared to 58 per cent who are sure). And 37.2 per cent don’t know exactly how to fix the situation (while 60.1 per cent do).

This is a newer area for HR professionals and they still need to learn whether they should try to clean up what may be a one-time incident or make it a larger issue that requires a formal complaint, said Balsara.

“I don’t know that it’s always necessary to pull out a policy and say, ‘Here you go.’ You could blow up a tiny situation more than is necessary,” she said. “You almost need to know where you need just conflict resolution and where you need policies to be pulled out.”

But there is definitely a need to take some sort of action — incivility has a strong negative effect on productivity (91.5 per cent), inter-departmental
collaboration (89.5 per cent), absenteeism (79.2 per cent), talent retention (78.2 per cent), customer service (71.9 per cent) and brand reputation (51.7 per cent), according to the survey.

Just recently, an employee at CMHA took one week off because she was unhappy with the way a supervisor warned her about her performance, said Balsara. So low morale and absenteeism can definitely result from incivility, along with difficulties between departments.

“This is something that we’ve seen — if there’s ongoing tension and incivility between two managers, then the job doesn’t get done when they have to collaborate,” she said.

Certainly incivility has an impact on morale, absenteeism and stress leaves, said Parent.

“Loss of talent, without question,” he said, citing one instance where an investigation revealed the departing employee shared a desk with someone who was very unkind. “It wasn’t so much undermining, it was just rude joking and just picking on (him).”

Being dismissive, interrupting people, verbal bullying, not appreciating different points of view, a lack of normal courtesies — all that can add up, said Michaels.

“When a workplace tolerates that kind of rudeness, it kind of lowers the bar and, all of a sudden, what is a little bit of rudeness becomes commonplace and then you start getting with the anger and the resentment.”

In a non-respectful workplace, people become defensive and a destructive kind of competitiveness can set in. And some people don’t choose to stick around, said Michaels.

“Employee engagement, that whole aspect comes into it when people say, ‘Hey, I don’t need to put up with this in order to earn a living, there are options out there.’ People’s normal response for conflict and stress is to walk away — it’s self-preservation.”

More than one-half (57.1 per cent) of respondents said they wish management was more aware of incivility’s impact on business and 52 per cent wished they had more organizational support to deal with the issue.

It’s surprising more people don’t feel that way, said Balsara, who has had staff say an incident of incivility is not a big deal and the employee should be able to handle it.

“They may think everybody has the same confidence and ability to go do that,” she said, but they should realize people need options.

Managers tend to be self-confident people who do not identify with people who have difficulty standing up for themselves, said Michaels, so if any employees claim they’re being bullied, the managers just don’t get it.

And while a lunch-and-learn session on harassment can be effective in the short-term, a culture of respect has to be reinforced with training and opportunities for discussion to get the management team on board, she said.

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