It happens everyday in offices across the country. To men and women. To workers in all industries.

An employee ignores a co-worker who says ``hello' as they pass in the hall.A worker takes the last cup of coffee and fails to refill the pot with water.

A supervisor publicly berates an underling then adopts a smiling face for the boss.

Seldom reported but often gossiped about by employees, workplace incivility is far more pervasive than companies realize, according to a new study by a UNC-Chapel Hill researcher.

And incivility is hurting the bottom line, the study shows.

``We're talking about a very low-grade, nasty interaction that is characteristically disrespectful,' said Christine Pearson, a management professor at UNC-CH's Kenan-Flagler Business School. ``This is happening, this is costing companies money, and they don't know it.'

Pearson and her colleague, Lynne Andersson of St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, spent five years surveying companies across the country. They received 775 responses to their questionnaire, which asked about unpleasant interactions at work.

Incivility permeates the American workplace in companies of all sizes and in all industries, they found.

Left unchecked, this rudeness can poison a company's culture and create significant costs.

For example, more than half of respondents, or 53 percent, said they lost work time worrying about an unpleasant interaction and worry about running into the rude co-worker again.

Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they felt less committed to their employer and 22 percent actually decreased their effort on the job.

Twelve percent of workers quit.

``We're not talking about verbal threats or being shoved up against a wall,' Pearson said. ``These are very low intensity interactions, very low-intensity rudeness. But more than one in 10 people says I've had it, I'm out of here.'

Workplace incivility often starts with a simple rub. It then can spiral out of control, even leading to violence.

An employee fails to acknowledge a co-worker's contribution to a project, for example. Or a supervisor hovers over employees while they work, disrespecting their privacy. Then the person slighted acts out either against their ``attacker' or against another employee. Workers ruminate over the conflict. The unpleasantness lives on.

``It's a tit for tat perspective,' said Pearson, who is writing a book about workplace incivility based on the study's findings. ``If I'm nasty to you, you will be nasty to me. We will continue to escalate the intensity of what we are doing.'

This spiral of incivility can be damaging to company morale and an individual's self-esteem, but management often doesn't recognize the problem, the study found.

``It touches so many people's lives. Yet, leaders tend not to be aware of it,' Pearson said. ``They are sheltered.'

Researchers have studied incivility in society since the 1960s. But incivility at work has never been researched - until now.

Pearson and Andersson's study is the first of its kind, said P.M. Forni, a Johns Hopkins University professor who studies incivility in society.

``Only in recent years and months have we started to take rudeness and incivility seriously,' Forni said. ``For the first time, we have some figures. We have a sense of the costs of incivility,' he said of the study.

Reducing incivility on the job could also stem another growing problem: workplace violence.

Companies are paying more attention to workplace violence in light of recent publicized office shootings.

Last November, a Xerox employee shot seven co-workers to death at his Honolulu office.

In August, frustrated investor Mark Barton killed nine people and wounded 13 others at two brokerage firms in Atlanta.

This spring, a North Carolina jury awarded $7.9 million to the families of two men killed at a tool distribution center in 1995 by a violence-prone worker who had been fired. The jury found the center's two operators, Union Butterfield Corp. and Dormer Tools Inc., negligent in failing to protect them.

About two million violent acts occur in the workplace each year. Though the incidents Pearson and Andersson studied were not violent, understanding incivility can help prevent full-blown aggression in the future, they said.

Reducing incivility at the office also can help companies retain workers, which is crucial given today's low unemployment. And eliminating work rudeness can keep morale - and productivity - from slipping.

Exactly what causes incivility isn't clear yet, but stress and tension can trigger such behavior, Pearson said.

One theory points to relaxed work environments, such as casual dress days, as fostering casual, and at times, rude, attitudes.

When a worker loses a tie, sometimes he also loses formalities, such as saying ``please' and ``excuse me,' Forni said.

But no conclusive evidence exists showing dressing down leads to disrespectful behavior.

``It can go both ways,' Forni said of dress codes. ``Informality can bring about a more relaxed way of doing business and interacting in the workplace. On the other hand, when the environment is too relaxed, too informal, employees don't seem to know where the boundaries are.'

``We follow the clue of our clothes, so to speak,' Forni said.

Most Triad companies allow some form of dress-down days. At Jefferson-Pilot Corp. in Greensboro, employees are allowed to dress in business casual on Fridays. Business casual means no ripped T-shirts or shorts, for example. Sweater vests, polo shirts and pressed khakis are preferred.

The dress may be more relaxed on Fridays, but the attitudes aren't, said JP's spokesman, Mike Burney.

``We're still professional. I see no difference in behavior from day to day,' Burney said.

BB&T Corp.'s dress code varies by department. The Winston-Salem bank allows division heads to make the call. Tim Davis, a BB&T executive vice president and manager of the human systems division, said the company hasn't had any problems with employees mistreating another.

But incivility exists in the Triad and across the country. Triad companies and workers participated in the study, Pearson said, adding she couldn't reveal which companies because the survey promised confidentiality.

Regardless of why incivility happens at work, executives need to look for it among their ranks and stop it, Pearson said. Especially in this job market, where employees are in demand and can afford to leave a good job because they don't like the social climate.

Unfortunately, incivility is rarely reported, the study found. Instead, employees fume and spend company time looking for a new job.

According to the survey, management sometimes doesn't take employee concerns seriously, instead dismissing them as a personality conflict.

But bosses trivialize such concerns to the company's peril.

``They are smaller indignities for which there is little recourse, but they are an irritant in everyday life, and they add up,' said Forni, the Johns Hopkins researcher.

Adding to the problem is that the ``instigator,' or the rude worker, is often a supervisor with a good track record of getting things done.

Pearson and Andersson specifically addressed this issue in their survey, where they asked employees about which employees were rude the most often.

``...The instigator may operate from a position of power and with cunning,' the study concludes. ``In some cases, the instigator's power seemed to carry a level of 'clout' that made him or her impervious to personal criticism, shielding against corrective feedback and repercussions,' the study reads.

What can leaders do to root out rudeness?

Pearson and the study suggest:

Setting clear guidelines, perhaps in the corporate mission statement, as to the kind of inner-office behavior that will be tolerated.

Have management mimic expected behavior.

Don't make excuses for powerful people if they are accused of being rude.

Don't transfer or promote employees who treat co-workers or subordinates with disrespect.

Don't punish the messenger who reports the incident.

Recognize that rudeness affects not only the target but also bystanders who hear about the behavior.

Don't make excuses to evade a ``sticky' problem.

Over in Winston-Salem at Wachovia Corp., management sets the tone for how they want their employees to interact with one another. The bank also gives new employees a copy of its code of conduct during orientation.

The company's business philosophy is geared toward building relationships with clients, and for that to happen, employees need to be able to build relationships with one another first, said Hector McEachern, the bank's executive vice president of human resources.

``We value our human capital resources very highly,' he said. ``We have a code of behavior where managers are taught how to interact most effectively with employees, to value other employees as humans. A sense of belonging and to have people you feel comfortable with is important in a work environment.'

``It's true,' McEachern added, ``if it's a dysfunctional environment, healthy people won't stay.'

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