When it comes to incivility at the workplace — including gossiping, rude behaviour, eye-rolling and derogatory comments — men and women have very different responses.
When women are faced with incivility, they respond by working harder while men withdraw from work, according to an Australian study.
One explanation for this difference may be that women place more importance on good personal and social relationships with colleagues, said Jennifer Loh, a senior lecturer at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia, and lead researcher of the study, which has yet to be published.
This is why women will stick it out for a long time when they are subject to unprofessional and rude workplace behaviours, said Heather MacKenzie, president of the Integrity Group in Vancouver.
“If they are the target of incivility in the workplace, what women will do is try to prove themselves more, thinking, ‘Why am I on the receiving end of this?’ They tend to look at themselves with some sense of blame: ‘Maybe I’m being misunderstood.’” she said.
“If they’re not being liked, they’ll try harder to be liked. If they’re not being valued, they will try harder to prove their value.”
But unless women take measures to ensure the incivility doesn’t continue, they are setting themselves up to be victims, said Dawn Ricker, senior advisor, dispute resolution and support, at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.
“If your solution to a problem is, ‘I’ll just try harder to get along and I’ll not raise issues that are going to create conflict,’ then you’re going to be contributing to a culture that isn’t functioning sufficiently.”
Women also use more passive coping strategies to deal with workplace incivility, found the study of more than 300 white-collar workers. Rather than wanting to punish their harassers, they are more interested in putting a stop to the undesirable behaviour itself.
In comparison, men use a more confrontational style and are more likely to react head-on to uncivil behaviour in an effort to stop any problems early on, found the study.
“Men are more apt to say something right off the bat. If someone is discourteous to them in the workplace, they’re much more likely to say, ‘Just a second here,’ and address it,” said MacKenzie. “Women are more apt to process it longer and analyze it in a different way and internalize it more.”
Men are also more likely to withdraw from work by completing work assignments late, missing meetings and taking longer breaks and more sick days, found the study.
Managers should be trained on the different ways men and women may react to incivility.
“(It’s helpful if you) can help to equip your leaders with sensitivity around those things — or an understanding — so they can also be paying attention because there are ways you can identify when there are conflicts or issues before anyone verbalizes it,” said MacKenzie.
Each case of workplace incivility should be handled on an individual basis. If someone approaches HR about this, HR professionals should ask: “How is this feeling for you? How are you reacting to this? How do you react when you are put in these situations, including physical and internal reactions?” said Ricker.
“It’s listening to people and helping them create the plan that’s the best for themselves and sometimes it’s not getting too involved in necessarily escalating situations, but trying to give people skills on an individual basis to be able to face those challenges head-on and resolve them.”
Employees should be well- educated about the support systems a company has in place and where they can turn if they need help or want to put forward a complaint, said Loh.
To help prevent incivility, employers should have a policy on the workplace code of conduct and the expected behaviours of staff members, she said. Employers also need to make sure they follow through.
“If you say, ‘Oh, I’m just going to let this go because Betty’s worked here for 30 years and that’s just her personality,’ that sends a really strong message about what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. So it’s about having a zero tolerance around these things — addressing things as they happen,” said Ricker.
It’s important to have full support from upper management to create a culture that doesn’t tolerate incivility.
“Organizations need to model civility and really put a lot of pressure on senior leaders to model that behaviour and get peer feedback so people know how they’re doing as leaders in organizations,” said Ricker.
The cheapest and easiest way to prevent workplace incivility is to not hire bullies in the first place, said Jacqueline Power, assistant professor of management at the University of Windsor in Ontario.
HR should make sure it is using personality tests in the interview process to weed out potential bullies, she said.
“You’ll weed out people who like to manipulate others, narcissists, people who have high levels of hostility, aggression,” said Power. “(They) are very good at fooling people so it’s hard to find out otherwise — you need the tests.”
If incivility is not handled properly, it can create a toxic work environment and the person experiencing incivility may develop anxiety, depression, insomnia or physical reactions such as rashes, said Power.
From the organization perspective, it’s “extremely expensive,” said Ricker, resulting in lost work time, turnover, sick days and reduced productivity, morale, creativity and investment in work
It can also be damaging to an organization’s brand, said MacKenzie.
“The person on the receiving end of the uncivil behaviour goes home and talks to friends about it: ‘Is my boss doing anything about it? No.’ Then the friends ask, ‘Why don’t you go talk to HR?’ And they respond, ‘Are you kidding me? They let this kind of stuff happen. That’s the kind of workplace it is.’ That’s not good for the corporate reputation.”
And with more and more legislation coming into force against workplace bullying and harassment, as well as some high-profile lawsuits — such as the $1.4-million bullying suit against Walmart in Windsor, Ont. — employers should be especially careful, said Power.
“The courts take it quite seriously… and there are going to be more lawsuits,” she said.
“It’s a bit like sexual harassment. When sexual harassment came up on the radar, everybody was ‘Oh, this is a situation women just have to deal with, that’s just life’ — and then the lawsuits started.”
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