Leadership's Role in Preventing Incivility: Practices that Make a Difference

Leadership's Role in Preventing Incivility: Practices that Make a Difference

How civil is your workplace?

In March 2024, SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) conducted a survey of just over 1600 employees in the US to understand how often they witness or experience incivility in the workplace. One shocking statistic that came out of the survey is that these employees were witness to, or experienced two thousand acts of incivility in their lives every second. In fact, 66% of these surveyed employees believe that incivility in the workplace reduces productivity. So why is there so much incivility in the workplace?

Those snide comments in a meeting. A dismissive wave during a discussion. Or what about just a general air of disrespect that muddies the workplace - we've all been there. In fact, right now in your workplace, there may be incivility taking place right under your nose ranging from minor rudeness to outright hostility. We know it's something that no one should have to endure. We know it creates a toxic work environment, and impacts productivity, morale, and the bottom line. So, what are leaders, who influence the workplace culture, going to do to put a stop to this issue?

Table of Contents

Understanding Workplace Incivility

What is Workplace Incivility?

Nearly 40% of daily acts of incivility occur in the workplace! What is workplace incivility? A few examples are: answering questions in a curt manner, making a negative face in response to what coworkers say, not acknowledging the presence or ideas of others. Workplace incivility refers to low-intensity yet disrespectful behavior that violates what we'd consider acceptable workplace mutual respect. It’s doesn't quite join the ranks of harassment, but we know it's not acceptable behaviour. There are millions of conversations happening everyday in the workplace, and one third of US employees believe workplace conflict will increase in the next 12 months.

The Impact of Incivility

We know incivility is not nice. It can interfere with our ability to focus. It can limit our capacity to remember information correctly. And it disrupts our performance on the job. It certainly isn't given the same level of attention that more obvious forms of workplace misconduct is given like harassment and abuse, but its effects are far-reaching:

  • Decreased Employee Morale - When employees experience or witness incivility, their morale drops. This is because uncivil behavior undermines trust and respect - what creates a positive work environment. A toxic atmosphere created by incivility can lead to feelings of frustration, stress, and helplessness among employees.
  • Reduced Productivity - Incivility disrupts focus and hampers employees' ability to perform at their best. Time that could be spent on productive tasks is now wasted on dealing with the emotional fallout of rude behavior. Employees who are targeted by or witness to incivility may become disengaged, leading to decreased overall productivity.
  • Increased Turnover Rates - Employees who experience or are witness to persistent incivility are more likely to leave their jobs. High turnover rates result in significant costs for HR departments who need to hire and train new employees. Losing experienced staff can lead to a loss of institutional knowledge and durability, further affecting organizational performance.
  • Mental Health Impact - Incivility is also a contributing factor to a decline in mental health in the form of increased stress, anxiety, and depression. Daily stresses of navigating a hostile work environment can also contribute to burnout, which further diminishes an employee’s ability to perform effectively.
  • Deteriorating Team Dynamics - An uncivil workplace can lead to an erosion of trust among team members. When employees don’t feel safe or respected in the workplace, the workplace dynamic suffers. A breakdown in communication and teamwork leads to inefficiencies and a decline in the quality of work.
  • Increased Absenteeism - Employees who are witness to or experience incivility are more likely to take sick time off work. This is often a coping mechanism for avoiding a stressful work environment. Increased absenteeism disrupts workflow and will place additional burdens on other team members to make up for lost outputs.
  • Legal and Financial Risks - In some cases, incivility can escalate to harassment or discrimination charges, leading to legal action against the organization. Even if incivility does not reach this level, the organization may face financial risks due to increased turnover, absenteeism, and decreased productivity.

Leadership's Role in Shaping Workplace Culture

Leadership = Role Models

One instance of incivility can quickly erode an otherwise functioning organizational culture. When incivility is not addressed, it can quickly become a culturally (workplace) acceptable behaviour that leads to a pervasive disrespect that is difficult to reverse or remedy. When toxic behaviours become habituated, they can negatively impact the entire organization. What can leaders do? They can set the tone for the entire organization - from the top all the way down. Leadership's behavior is a powerful tool in signaling what is acceptable and what isn’t. Following through by consistently demonstrating respect, and calling out those who don't respect others can create a ripple effect throughout the company. Afterall, employees see what is acceptable behaviour from the top, take their cues from it, and mirror the same behaviour until it becomes the norm. What behaviour do you want your employees mimicking?

Leadership Practices for Preventing Incivility

Office gossip and rumours can negatively affect workplace morale. A culture of civility isn’t just about avoiding negative behaviors; it’s about actively promoting positive ones. A respectful and inclusive workplace is an environment where employees feel valued and are more likely to be more innovative and collaborative. This workplace environment doesn't just magically exist, it takes work. It’s created by leaders who prioritize and model respectful behavior. Here's how they can establish some clear expectations:

  • Communicate Clear Standards - The first step in creating a civil workplace is to set clear expectations. Leaders can communicate what respectful behavior looks like in their workplace, and make sure everyone understands these standards. Communication can take place through employee handbooks, lunch and leans, training sessions, annual reviews, and regular reminders in meetings.
  • Develop a Code of Conduct - An all-encompassing code of conduct is a great foundation for establishing expectations. The code will outline the behaviors that are acceptable, and what happens when deviation from these expected behaviours occurs. The code should be easily accessible, easy to read, and easy to reference.
  • Demonstrate Respect - Leaders must walk the talk by demonstrating respect in all interactions. How can they do this? Be punctual for meetings. Listen attentively. Acknowledge others' contributions. When leaders consistently exhibit these behaviors, it sets a powerful example for the rest of the team.
  • Addressing Personal Biases - Everyone has biases, but effective leaders acknowledge and address theirs. Self-awareness ensures everyone is treated fairly and respectfully. Leaders who are able to become vulnerable and open about their own journey in managing biases will inspire others to do the same.
  • Implement Training Sessions - Regular training sessions are essential to ensuring nothing gets forgotten, including how a civil workplace creates respect. Training should always cover topics like effective communication, conflict resolution, and cultural inclusion.

How Whistleblower Hotlines Combat Workplace Incivility

Whistleblower hotlines are a key tool to help promote an ethical culture within an organization. Creating a culture of transparency and honesty is a long-term process that requires ongoing commitment from leadership. Anonymous whistleblower hotlines can be used by employees to report incidents of incivility, harassment, or other forms of misconduct without fear of retaliation.

  • Safety of Anonymity - One of the main advantages of whistleblower hotlines is that they offer employees an anonymous opportunity to report incidents if they feel uncertain about speaking up directly to management. The anonymity of whistleblower hotlines ensures employees feel safe from possible retaliation. As well, they can feel sure that their concerns are taken seriously.
  • Encourage Reporting - Many employees hesitate to report any wrongdoing they experience or are witness to for fear of retaliation, or they believe that their complaints will be ignored. Anonymous whistleblower hotlines encourage reporting by providing a safe and secure platform, ensuring any employee reporting incivility can be confident that management will receive their complaint and addressed it promptly.
  • Foster a Culture of Integrity - Whistleblower hotlines contribute to fostering a culture of, accountability, integrity, and transparency where employees feel empowered to speak-up about issues safely. This transparency is crucial in identifying and addressing patterns of incivility that might otherwise go unnoticed.
  • Build Trust - When employees see that their organization takes reported concerns seriously and acts on them, it builds trust in the leadership and the organization as a whole. This trust is essential for maintaining a positive and respectful workplace culture.
  • Identify Trends - Reported concerns generally enter into a case management system where management can collect and report on the data received. Analyzing this data can help identify hotspots, trends, and recurring issues that should be investigated. By analyzing these reports, organizations can pinpoint problem areas, understand the underlying causes, and develop targeted interventions and resolutions.
  • Preventive Measures - Sometimes, businesses can find themselves in a damage control situation when misconduct, illegal, unethical, or unsafe activity strikes. Implementing proactive detection measures can result in learning about misconduct sooner, and this results in lowering financial, reputational, and employee relations losses significantly.
  • Recognize Respectful Behavior - Positive reinforcement is powerful. Recognize and reward respectful behavior. This can be through formal awards or simple acknowledgments in meetings. When employees see that civility is valued, they’re more likely to emulate it.

Creating a culture of civility is an ongoing commitment. It requires consistent effort and collaboration. But with dedicated leadership and strategic initiatives, it’s entirely possible to foster a respectful and thriving workplace.


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photo Amanda Nieweler
About the Author
Amanda writes for WhistleBlower Security about ethics, compliance, workplace culture, and whistleblower hotlines. Amanda brings her nearly two decades of risk and compliance experience to the WBS blog where she is dedicated to helping people and companies promote speak-up cultures.

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