Confronting Workplace Incivility: How to Foster a Positive Work Environment

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Confronting workplace incivility how to foster a positive work environment

Workplace incivility refers to rude, disrespectful, or insensitive behavior in the workplace that can negatively affect the overall work environment. This can include behaviors such as belittling comments, gossiping, ignoring colleagues, or displaying a lack of professionalism. In its simplest form, workplace incivility refers to any behavior that disrupts the normal flow of work. 

The impact of workplace incivility can be damaging, not only to individual employees but also to overall productivity and company culture. Employees who experience incivility may feel demoralized, stressed, and less motivated to perform their best. This, in turn, can lead to decreased productivity, higher turnover rates, and a toxic work culture where negativity thrives. According to Devi Akella and Vance Lewis of the Organization Management Journal, “… incivility not only creates an unpleasant office environment but negatively impacts the company’s profitability, reputation, and corporate image.” 

Human Resource professionals often find themselves at the center of incivility management, and it is often difficult to distinguish between business and personal coaching and remediation. Let’s delve deeper into the different forms of workplace incivility and explore strategies for addressing and preventing these toxic behaviors among employees.

Causes of Incivility in the Workplace

High stress work environment

Workplace incivility can stem from various factors, both internal and external to the organization. According to the study by the National Library of Medicine, “a direct relationship was found between being uncivil and organizational change, job insecurity, low social support from co-workers and high job demands.”  

Here are some additional root causes that contribute to a toxic work environment:

  • High-Stress Environments: Excessive workloads, tight deadlines, and overall pressure can lead to heightened emotions and increased tensions among employees. In addition, understaffing or inefficient workflows can also contribute to issues.
  • Unclear Policies: When guidelines and expectations are vague or inconsistently enforced, confusion and frustration can arise, giving rise to disrespectful behaviors.
  • Personal Behaviors: Individual behaviors like passive-aggressive communication or microaggressions can have a big impact on overall morale.

Effects on Productivity and Performance

When employees are subjected to disrespectful behavior, it can lead to decreased motivation, engagement, and job satisfaction. According to Christine Porath from the Harvard Business Review, “Seeing or experiencing rude behavior impairs working (short-term) memory and thus cognitive ability. It has been shown to damage the immune system, put a strain on families, and produce other deleterious effects.”

  • Direct Effects: Employees who experience incivility in the workplace may have difficulty focusing on their tasks and may be less likely to collaborate with their colleagues. This can result in missed deadlines, errors in work, and decreased overall productivity.
  • Indirect Effects: When employees are constantly on edge due to incivility, they are less likely to take risks, share ideas, or think creatively. This can stifle innovation and hinder the organization’s ability to adapt and grow.
Unproductive stressed employee

Workplace Incivility and Employee Turnover 

One of the most significant repercussions of workplace incivility is high employee turnover rates. A negative environment created by disrespectful behavior can drive talented employees away, impacting the overall health of the organization. According to Nur Afni Khairunisa and Muafi Uii’s research study published in ResearchGate, “…the higher the welfare felt by employees at work, the lower the employee’s desire to change places of work, and vice versa.” 

  • Connect the Dots: Research has shown a clear link between an uncivil work environment and increased employee turnover. When employees are subjected to disrespectful treatment, they are more likely to seek opportunities elsewhere, leading to a revolving door of talent within the company.
  • Long-Term Implications: High turnover rates not only disrupt team dynamics but also have a lasting impact on company culture. Constantly having to onboard and train new employees can strain resources and erode morale, creating a vicious cycle of turnover and instability.

The Impact of Workplace Incivility on Team Dynamics

  • Disruption of Teamwork: Incivility can lead to breakdowns in communication, collaboration, and cooperation within a team. When employees do not feel respected or valued by their colleagues, they may be less inclined to contribute to group projects or share important information.
  • Erosion of Trust: When incivility is prevalent in the workplace, trust among team members can quickly deteriorate. Employees may become skeptical of one another’s motives and intentions, making it difficult to establish meaningful relationships and work effectively together.

To strengthen team dynamics in the face of workplace incivility, organizations can implement strategies to promote cooperation and respectful behavior among employees. Encouraging open communication, fostering a positive work culture, and providing conflict resolution training are all ways to mitigate the negative effects of incivility on team dynamics.

Disrupted team dynamics

Impact on Customer Service and Brand Reputation

When workplace incivility is left unaddressed, it can have a detrimental impact on customer service and brand reputation. The interactions between employees can directly affect the quality of customer service provided to clients and customers.

  • Customer Service Quality: Negative interactions between employees can spill over into their interactions with clients, leading to poor customer service experiences. This can result in dissatisfied customers and damage the company’s reputation.
  • Brand Reputation: Incivility in the workplace can tarnish the company’s image in the eyes of the public. News of internal conflicts or mistreatment of employees can quickly spread, affecting customer perceptions and loyalty.

Legal Risks

  • Discrimination and Harassment Claims: Workplace incivility can escalate into more serious forms of misconduct, leading to discrimination and harassment claims. Employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe and respectful work environment for all employees.
  • Hostile Work Environment: Persistent incivility can create a hostile work environment, which may result in legal action. Employers can be held liable for failing to address and prevent incivility that contributes to a hostile workplace.

Financial Implications

  • Litigation Costs: Defending against discrimination, harassment, or hostile work environment claims can result in costly legal fees and settlements. These expenses can have a significant impact on an organization’s bottom line.
  • Turnover Costs: Workplace incivility can lead to increased employee turnover, resulting in recruitment, training, and productivity losses. High turnover rates can be financially detrimental to organizations.
  • Loss of Productivity: Employees who experience incivility at work are less engaged and motivated, leading to decreased productivity and performance. This can ultimately affect the organization’s overall financial success.

How Can HR Professionals Manage Workplace Incivility?

Role of leaders in combating workplace incivility

Strategies for Prevention

To create a positive and respectful work environment, organizations can implement the following strategies:

  • Develop clear policies: Establishing clear guidelines on acceptable behavior in the workplace can help prevent incivility. Employees need to understand what is expected of them and the consequences of uncivil behavior.
  • Reinforce company values: Communicate and reinforce the organization’s values that promote respect, diversity, and inclusivity. Encourage employees to embody these values in their interactions with colleagues.

Role of Leadership 

As leaders within an organization, it is crucial to understand the significant role you play in addressing and preventing workplace incivility. Your actions and behaviors set the tone for how employees interact with one another, and it is vital that you lead by example. According to Forbes, “Leaders at the top have to model and support a civil workplace. If the leaders are the problem, then it will be nearly impossible to change the organizational culture.”

Strategies for Leaders:

  • Model respectful behavior in all interactions with employees.
  • Provide ongoing training and education on the importance of civility in the workplace.
  • Address any incidents of incivility immediately and fairly.
  • Encourage open communication and feedback from employees on workplace interactions.

By taking a proactive approach to addressing workplace incivility, leaders can create a positive and respectful work environment where employees feel valued and supported.

Training and Development Programs

Training development programs

Training programs play a crucial role in fostering respectful communication and promoting professional conduct in the workplace. These programs aim to raise awareness about the impact of incivility on employee well-being and productivity, as well as provide employees with the skills and resources to effectively address and prevent uncivil behavior.

Importance of Ongoing Development

It is essential for organizations to invest in ongoing development programs to maintain a civil work environment. These programs should be tailored to the specific needs of the organization and its employees, and should focus on promoting a culture of respect, empathy, and collaboration.

  • Provide training on effective communication skills, conflict resolution techniques, and emotional intelligence.
  • Implement workshops on building positive relationships and fostering a sense of community within the workplace.
  • Offer resources on stress management, mental health awareness, and self-care to help employees cope with the pressures of a high-stress work environment.
  • Provide behavioral assessment tools, like DISC, which a trained facilitator can bring to your organization. Such assessments are designed to create a mutual understanding of differing workstyles, which are often misconstrued as micro-aggressions. 

By prioritizing training and development programs, organizations can create a culture of respect and professionalism that not only benefits employees but also enhances overall organizational performance and success.

Policies and Procedures for Reporting Incidents

Reporting incidents of workplace incivility

Having clear policies and procedures for reporting incidents of workplace incivility is essential for creating a safe and respectful work environment. It ensures that all employees are aware of the steps to take if they experience or witness uncivil behavior.

Importance of Reporting Procedures

By establishing clear reporting procedures, organizations can effectively address and resolve incidents of incivility in a timely manner. This helps prevent the escalation of conflicts and fosters a culture of respect and accountability.

Encouraging Accountability

A fair and transparent reporting process encourages employees to speak up about inappropriate behavior without fear of retaliation. It holds individuals accountable for their actions and demonstrates that workplace incivility will not be tolerated.

Key Components of Reporting Procedures

  • Confidentiality: Ensure that reports of incivility are kept confidential to protect the privacy of those involved.
  • Accessibility: Make reporting procedures easily accessible to all employees through multiple channels, such as a designated reporting system or HR department.
  • Investigation and Response: Outline the process for investigating reports of incivility and taking appropriate action to address the issue.
  • Follow-up and Support: Provide support to employees who have reported incidents of incivility and follow up to ensure that the situation has been resolved satisfactorily.

Ultimately, having effective policies and procedures for reporting workplace incivility is crucial in creating a positive and healthy work environment for all employees.

Conflict Resolution and Mediation Techniques

Leader mediating workplace conflict

When workplace incivility arises, it’s essential to have effective conflict resolution and mediation techniques in place to address the issues at hand. Christine Porath from the Harvard Business Review provides the following tip when confronting workplace incivility, “Concentrate on your own effectiveness and, in future encounters, follow the acronym BIFF: Be brief, informative, friendly, and firm.”  The following techniques can also help de-escalate situations and repair disrupted relationships within the organization.

Methods for Resolving Disputes

  • Active Listening: Encourage employees to listen actively to one another’s perspectives to understand the root cause of the conflict.
  • Collaborative Problem-Solving: Work together to find mutually beneficial solutions that address the needs of all parties involved.
  • Mediation: Bring in a neutral third party to facilitate a conversation between conflicting parties and help them find a resolution.

The Role of Mediation

Mediation plays a crucial role in repairing disrupted relationships after incidents of incivility. A trained mediator can help facilitate open and honest communication between parties, identify underlying issues, and guide them toward a resolution that satisfies everyone involved.

Monitoring and Evaluating Workplace Climate

By keeping a close eye on the workplace climate, companies can proactively address any issues or conflicts that arise. It allows management to identify patterns of behavior and take steps to intervene before they become more serious.

Tools and Techniques

  • Employee Surveys: Conducting regular surveys can provide valuable insight into the employee experience and help gauge overall satisfaction levels.
  • Focus Groups: Bringing together small groups of employees to discuss their experiences and feelings about the workplace can uncover hidden issues.
  • Observation: Managers can observe interactions and behaviors in the workplace to gain a better understanding of the overall climate.
  • Performance Metrics: Tracking metrics such as absenteeism, turnover rates, and employee engagement can provide indicators of the health of the workplace environment.

Building a Respectful Workplace Culture

Respectful diverse workplace

When employees feel valued and respected, they are less likely to engage in disrespectful behavior. A positive culture acts as a buffer against incivility by fostering a sense of community, trust, and collaboration.

  • Lead by example: Leadership sets the tone for organizational culture. By demonstrating respect and integrity in all interactions, leaders can inspire employees to uphold similar values.
  • Establish clear policies: Clearly communicate expectations for behavior in the workplace. Outline consequences for incivility and ensure that all employees are aware of the repercussions of disrespectful actions.
  • Promote open communication: Encourage employees to voice their concerns and provide feedback in a constructive manner. Create a culture where differences of opinion are valued, and conflicts are resolved through dialogue.
  • Recognize and reward positive behavior: Acknowledge and celebrate instances of kindness, empathy, and respect among employees. Implement rewards programs that reinforce the importance of mutual respect in the workplace.

Steps to Promote Mutual Respect

Organizations can take specific steps to build and sustain a culture that promotes mutual respect:

  • Conduct regular training sessions on diversity and inclusion to increase awareness and understanding of different perspectives.
  • Encourage team-building activities that foster camaraderie and collaboration among employees.
  • Implement a zero-tolerance policy for harassment and discrimination, providing support and resources for employees who experience or witness uncivil behavior.
  • Allow for different workstyles by educating employees on behavioral differences and the value-add associated with them. 


Workplace incivility is a pervasive issue that can have detrimental effects on both employees and organizations as a whole. From decreased productivity and high turnover rates to legal consequences and damage to brand reputation, the risks of unchecked incivility are far-reaching.

It is crucial for organizations to take a proactive approach to cultivating a culture of civility and respect. By implementing strategies such as training programs, behavioral assessments, conflict resolution techniques, and clear reporting procedures, companies can foster a healthy and productive work environment.

At EnformHR, our HR business partners are highly skilled in managing workplace incivility and promoting a positive culture. Our staff includes DISC-certified facilitators as well as workplace investigation specialists. Please contact us if we can help your business remain civil and respectful. 

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Cristina Amyot

Cristina Amyot, SPHR, the firm’s President, leads the HR Services Group. Ms. Amyot graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree and Master’s Degree in Human Resource Management from Rutgers University. She holds a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) certification from the Human Resources Certification Institute and a Life, Accident, and Health Insurance License from the State of New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance.

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