Beyond Dollars: Unveiling the True Cost of Workplace Incivility and Empowering Employers to Make a Change

By Erika Portolese

Dr. Christine Porath, an author and mastery of civility recently presented at an NIH (National Institutes of Health) seminar that “civility pays” and “the cost of incivility is high.” These may seem like puns, but in fact, they are a true reality, particularly within the workplace.

Webster’s Dictionary defines civility as “Civilized conduct; especially: Courtesy, Politeness.” Most people understand the concept of civility; we understand being civil means being kind, respectful, and thoughtful about what we say or do and how we say or do it. From an early age, many of us are taught to say “please” and “thank you”, extend a smile to those we greet, or even wave to those driving by when we are within their view.  

The lack of civility, known as incivility, has consequences – or at minimum comes off as ill manners within our personal lives, but it can have a far-reaching and costly impact within the workplace. During a recent webinar a speaker for Littler Mendelson P.C. called workplace incivility “low intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm.” One could argue that unintended incivility occurs just as frequently and can be just as harmful. Regardless of intent, while workplace incivility may be a “low intensity behavior,” it can lead to more serious behaviors with legal implications such as harassment and discrimination. The impact of harassment and discrimination on an organization can be far reaching, both financial and otherwise. 

Workplace incivility also has a dire influence on collaboration and teamwork. In 2012 Google conducted a study around the most effective teams and found five key attributes: Psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact. Out of the five, psychological safety was found to be the most crucial factor, with some teams indicating their goals fell short by up to 19% when psychological safety fell short. Psychological safety, or the belief that sharing ideas or expressing concerns is safe because one feels respected, valued, and accepted, allows for better decision-making, more diverse perspectives, higher job satisfaction, and increased productivity. 

Without psychological safety, organizations are at true risk for unhealthy teams and work culture, disengaged employees, and higher turnover. Trust-building is one of the key components of psychological safety. As civility plays a significant role in strengthening and maintaining trust over time, there cannot be trust without civility. 

These issues speak to the real and exorbitant costs of incivility within the workplace. According to Gallup, disengaged employees alone are responsible for a productivity decline of 18%, not to mention the average cost of losing an employee which in total, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), can range from 90% to 200% of an annual salary.

But it is not just the financial costs that employers should be concerned about. Individuals who lack the ability to demonstrate civility in the workplace are less likely to be viewed as a leader, according to Dr. Porath. They are also known to perform at a lower level. 

Mental health is at the forefront of our culture right now, as so many (individuals) employees experience mental health struggles. It would be remiss to ignore the impact workplace incivility has on overall wellbeing. AAPL (American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law) studied the impact of workplace incivility on those who practice law and determined it caused stress and compassion fatigue, and that it negatively impacted job satisfaction. They went on to describe the (many) areas stress can negatively impact an individuals’ life. These findings are consistent with research done by the NIH, reflective of the healthcare industry, which has shown individuals experiencing workplace incivility develop low energy levels and often plan to leave their job. Many others have conducted similar research with the same results; workplace incivility impacts mental wellbeing in a negative way.

The average person spends more than a third of their waking hours at work. Now more than ever, organizations are focused on removing obstacles from the workplace, understanding the time committed to work and the impact work can have on an individual’s overall life. More businesses are allowing remote work or flexible work arrangements, focusing on DEI&B initiatives, and other items that enhance their employees’ experience at work. Workplace incivility has the power to turn back time, erasing any progress made on initiatives such those around inclusivity. It is clear the time for ensuring workplace civility is built into an organization’s DNA is now. 

Here are seven key tips to increasing workplace civility within your organization:


  1. Define Civility. It starts here. Think about what civility means to your organization and how it can be applied. Perhaps you determine your company values turning on your camera when participating in virtual meetings to wave and say hello before going off camera. You can define behaviors that embody workplace civility, such as active listening, showing appreciation, and always treating others with respect, and ensure they are shared with all.
  2. Train, Educate, and Hire Around Civility. Consider training sessions or workshops around workplace civility and ensure anyone recruiting for your organization knows how to spot the signs of incivility; incivility can be uncovered during the hiring process.
  3. Lead by Example. Encourage leaders and managers to model civil behavior in their interactions with employees, clients, and stakeholders. Utilize and speak about emotional intelligence (EQ) within the workplace and encourage others to do the same.
  4. Ensure Open Communication: Create channels for employees to express concerns, provide feedback, or report incidents of incivility without fear of retaliation, ensuring any potential issues are addressed before they escalate. Do not shy away from hard conversations but do them in a respectful manner where every person involved feels a sense of psychological safety.
  5. Allow for Conflict Resolution: Ensure fair and respectful conflict resolution, as supported by your company policies and processes. Bring in a mediator or neutral third party when needed so all parties feel heard.
  6. Recognize/Discipline Behaviors: Acknowledge instances of exemplary civility, reinforcing the behavior, and also ensure incivility is not tolerated. Ensure there are consequences and enforce them consistently. 
  7. Be open to Improvement: Foster a culture where continuous improvement is desired. Ask for feedback from employees and implement any necessary changes. Ensure leaders are checking in with their teams.


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