Research indicates that human incivility, can and is the cause of many cases of “workplace bullying”. Workplace bullying can affect a company’s bottom line due to lost productivity and employee turnover. An ongoing issue, incivility is directly linked with the attitudes that start the actual bullying. Bullying crosses personal boundaries and hurts not only the people affected, but many organizations worldwide; from sales to hospitals, service industries to technology firms. Incivility and bullying deteriorate work performance and leaves those individuals experiencing these repeated attacks, physical or verbal, ashamed to not only return to their job, but with a feeling of helplessness and defeat. This article is written to not only to examine the shared traits and differences between incivility and bullying and how it affects individuals, but to better inform the working class and companies alike on how these activities affect personal well-being, work performance, and company profitability.
The Links between Incivility and Bullying in the Workplace
Civil behavior involves treating others with dignity and respect as well as acting with consideration for their feelings (Estes, B, ; Wang, J., 2008). Uncivil behavior, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. Incivility is described as behavior that is “unmannerly, rude, impolite, and discourteous.” (Estes, B, ; Wang, J., 2008). In its most basic form, incivility is a violation of the norms for respectful interpersonal interaction. Although civil behavior is expected and therefore typically unnoticed, incivility is unexpected and consequently noteworthy.
As individuals in the U. S. and other western cultures become increasingly disconnected from others near them, through today’s mobile technology, and living behind walled homes and gated communities, they are losing the more personal connections they have to others. This increased anonymity and decreased reliance on others has reduced the feeling to treat strangers and acquaintances with courtesy and respect (Estes & Wang, 2008).
Linking Incivility and Workplace Bullying
Workplace incivility is defined as “low intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent, in violation of workplace norms for mutual respect. Uncivil behaviors are characteristically rude and discourteous, displaying a lack of regard for others” (Estes & Wang, 2008). Bullying, on the other hand, is defined as a form of hostile, negative social interaction that is repetitive, patterned and ongoing, yet unwanted and unsolicited. It occurs in situations of power disparity where the perpetrator is in a more powerful position relative to the target (Parkins, I.S., Fishbein, H.D., & Ritchey, P.N., 2006). Thus, the essential differences between the phenomena are more a matter of form and degree than content, which we explore below.
In one study of 1,180 public sector employees, 71% of respondents reported experiencing workplace incivility in the previous five years, 17% of which experienced some true form of bullying (Bowling, N.A. & Beehr, T.A., 2006). As workplaces have become busier, more complex, and more stressful, the incidence of workplace incivility has increased-as has the myriad ways in which one can show a lack or regard for one’s co-workers (Parkins, Fishbein ; Ritchey, 2006). According to Estes and Wang (2008), “the need for civility becomes even greater when the interactions among people increase in complexity and frequency,” such as in the modern workplace. In fact, organizational dynamics may contribute to escalating incivility and aggressiveness at work-dynamics such as highly diverse workforces, restructuring and staff reductions, decreased resources coupled with increased productivity expectations, and autocratic management styles (Estes ; Wang, 2008). As the communicative complexity increases in changing organizations, so do the occasions for uncivil and rude communication. This is especially true for organizations in which change has not yet stabilized-where former work norms are no longer valid but new norms have yet to cohere or emerge (Salin D., 2003).
Analysis of Workplace Negativity
Incivility in organizational settings is also complicated by characteristics unique to workplace communication. Researchers have argued that negative social interaction at work may have more negative consequences on the individual than negative interactions in other settings (Bowling, ; Beehr, 2006). A critical analysis of the literature suggests that workplace negativity may be worse than other types of incivility for a variety of reasons. First, negative interaction at work is embedded in a situation with potential formal and informal power and status inequalities between the parties that, at times, make it possible to justify workplace negativity as necessary actions for “getting the job done”. Second, because daily attendance at work is generally mandatory, most employees cannot easily avoid workplace negativity (Glendinning, 2001).
Third, the quality of work life affects the quality of personal lives and overall life satisfaction (Parkins, Fishbein ; Ritchey, 2006). Fourth, to be able to provide for oneself and one’s family is a necessary and basic adult obligation as well as a central aspect of identity. Taken together, these realities suggest that in the workplace, people are particularly vulnerable when faced with incivility, especially when acts of incivility possess the seeds to blossom into a more intense and damaging type of negative social interaction. Indeed, the central risk of incivility is its escalation. A number or researchers agree that acts of rudeness, disregard for others, and incivility can be precursors to more intense, aggressive, and damaging workplace acts (Estes & Wang, 2008). Incivility can result in destructive, cyclical patterns that amplify workplace negativity as the actions of a first person lead to negative actions of a second person that lead to retaliatory acts of the first person, and so on. Witnessing coworkers may adopt this form of interaction as a workplace norm and create a culture of negativity.
Thus, incivilities such as leaving one’s trash in the lunchroom, flaming one’s colleagues on e-mail and speaking abruptly to co-workers can lead to other, more escalated forms of negative interaction, including workplace bullying. For instance, Lutgen-Sandvik, Tracy & Alberts (2007) conceptualizes workplace aggression as occurring on a ten point scale with incivility at one end and physical violence on the other; he states, “incivilities would range from 1 to 3 while bullying covers mild to severe interference with the accomplishment of legitimate business interests, reflecting scores of 4 to 9. The highest score is reserved for battery and homicide”.
Characteristics of Workplace Bullying
Workplace bullying does not arise out of a vacuum. Rather, it is often a consequence of unmanaged incivility, rudeness, and injustice that contaminates the workplace. Incivility, over time, can develop into bullying as repeated, long-term acts wear down, demoralize, stigmatize, and isolate those targeted (Estes & Wang, 2008). Feeling bullied at work is not just the response of a few thin-skinned, trouble employees. Workplace bullying is an extreme form of incivility that targets describe as being like water torture; that is, it is a constant drumbeat, a relentless picking away at what they do, what they say, how they look, how they sound, and how they work (Tracy, Lutgen-Sandvik, & Alberts, 2004). In order to understand workplace bullying and the role of communication in its enactment, we need to briefly explain the characteristics of bullying and how the phenomenon differs from routine incivility.
Workplace bullying is conceptually different from specific types of negative interactions at work, and given the costs associated with bullying, it is important to research it as a distinct phenomenon. Unlike incivility which can occur sporadically, bullying, by definition, is characterized by its persistence (frequency, duration). (Glendinning, P.M. 2001). Repetition necessarily requires some length of time in which to occur, so duration and repetition together comprise the pattern of communication that targets come to interpret as stigmatizing and punishing. When bullies repeatedly monitor, criticize, scream, deride or exclude targets, a cumulative effect changes communicative meaning and the impact of that communication. (Glendinning, P.M. 2001). Like group synergy in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, meaning morphs with frequent repetition and takes on an ominous tone not evident in a single message or behavior. Without repetition, negative social interactions such as incivility, rudeness and mistreatment, while unpleasant and possibly even painful, are not considered bullying. Thus, bullying is fundamentally about ongoing badgering and harassment of persons targeted.
The repetitive nature of negative attacks is not just central to a definition of bullying, it is key to understanding its third characteristic, harm. Although incivility may be unpleasant, even distressing, it is rarely linked with significant long-term harm in the workplace. Because of its repetition and duration, however, bullying eventually breaks down targets and inflicts incredible harm, even pushing some traumatized targets to suicide or attempts at suicide (Bowling & Beehr, 2006). Pain, damage, misery, anger, powerlessness and angst are central to targets’ stories. An analysis of the literature suggests that repeated, enduring abuse at the hands of bullies undermines the targets’ sense of ontological security, fundamental identity construction, and the belief that they are worthy persons and competent workers (Bowling & Beehr, 2006). It is clear that from these studies, one can make the determination that bullying detrimentally affects physical health, psychological well-being, and occupational functioning .
Power disparity, defined as targets’ inability to defend themselves, is a fourth characteristic of workplace bullying that differentiates it from other types of negative communication such as incivility (Nielsen, M.B., Matthiesen, S.B. ; Einarsen, S. 2008). Bullying, by definition, involves power differences between the actors in which the target is unable to stop or prevent further attacks (Lutgen-Sandvick, Tracy ; Alberts, 2007). The power difference may be present at the onset of bullying, as with a superior’s abuse of the subordinate, or may develop as a dynamic of the interaction between actors. In the latter case, over time one party to a dispute or disagreement comes to have a disadvantaged position in relation to the bully. This may be due to the bully’s ability to attract others, convince others, or gain support from organizationally stronger allies.
The fifth and final characteristic of bullying is that targets perceive themselves to be on the receiving end of negative acts. Unlike cases of incivility, where recipients may attribute the negative behavior specifically to the perpetrator or to a more general failure of manners, bullying is defined as occurring when recipients understand themselves to be recipients or targets of attacks. Thus, bullying cannot be ascertained simply by objective measures such as the number of negative acts, the frequency of negative acts, medical/mental-health diagnoses and duration; rather it must also include subjective measures such as the perception of being targeted (Lutgen-Sandvick, Tracy ; Alberts, 2007)
In conclusion, characteristics that differentiate bullying from other negative workplace interactions are (a) frequency/repetition, (b) duration, (c) harm, (d) power differences, and (e) perception of mistreatment. Despite the differences that exist between workplace bullying and incivility, they do share one important characteristic-at their heart, they are both communication phenomena.
Hidden Business Costs
The fact is, that workplace bullying is a bad thing, it is a significant expense to the operation of an organization. Victims of the bullying can suffer from increased stress, anxiety, exhaustion, sleeplessness, depression, anger and embarrassment. Loss of work time, sickness and workmen’s compensation claims can be the result of incivility in the workplace. Many times, employees would rather quit their jobs and move on to another job than report an incident. Incivility in the workplace is a problem that will not go away unless a concerted effort is made to control and eliminate it starting at the home, the playground, at school, and in all parts of our daily lives. Only by making civility part of our daily routine, can we eliminate incivility. The choice is ours to make.
In research conducted by Brad Estes and Jia Wang (2008), one of the main points point made is that companies can make more money by having employees that use civil behavior while at work. In contrast, employees that are not conscientious of their behavior while at work can cost the company money. Also, in dealing with the companies’ customers, proper etiquette should be used. Customers that are impressed by courteous and helpful employees will return because of the way they were treated and not necessarily because of the stores prices. The article also states that companies should enforce proper etiquette, not just embrace it (Estes ; Wang, 2008).
Additional research conducted by Nathan A. Bowling (2006), states when workers are not treated properly, or have experienced some sort of incivility they will not be as productive, but rather counterproductive. Physical illnesses are also debilitating to a business, causing sick days to be used. The causes of increasing workplace incivility according to the article are layoffs, part time versus full time employees, and increased stress resulting from management pushing for increased productivity. The article also states that companies should take a proactive step to prevent workplace rudeness, and in so doing will help to increase their worker productivity and the company’s bottom line (Bowling, 2006).
Lastly, there is an interesting relationship between declining economic activity and increased incivility. In her extensive research, Denise Salin (2003), states that workplace rudeness is on the rise due to many factors: layoffs, tightening budgets and internal competition. This, according to Salin, is decreasing the companies’ profits due to employees not being as productive. Her research goes into great depth stating that employees who experience workplace bullying should record the incident and report it to their supervisor. Salin states that companies should be proactive in the fight against workplace rudeness to curb the appeal of bullying. Such activities, as an example, would be to hold mandatory workshops on workplace etiquette; which would then be followed up with proactive peer reviews. A negative peer review would get priority and go on the employees record and serve as grounds for possible separation from the company.
As we can see, there are numerous outside factors that can influence the underlying emotions that will indeed lead to uncivil behavior. As this behavior escalates, it clearly leads to social unrest spinning itself into social or physical harm of the unsuspecting by-stander. This, to the layman, is known as “bullying”. Much of the motivation for this article came from my negative firsthand experience, having encountered numerous negative exchanges – of course, in the workplace.
I have withstood many negative verbal attacks on more than one occasion at my current occupation – via the Executive Chef. The longer I would to sit and ponder why I am a target of this behavior, the more motivated I became to find the answers and so I began to write this paper. I am one of the best employees at a high-end steak house on the Las Vegas Strip, according to my General Manager. My ego was telling me one thing, as the Executive Chef was telling me much different – certainly a conflict. This bullying certainly was not stemming from my performance – or was it? I have been an employee there since the opening in October of 2006. Some days, I appear to be the executive chef’s best friend, but on most I am talked to and treated like I am two-feet tall. Bullying, as we are now educated, is repetitive unwanted negative behavior in succession, lasting up to 6 months or longer. Well, I qualify as a “workplace-bullying” candidate. It appears I could even add to the ongoing research that is conducted in this hotly contested, yet seemingly “hush-hush” subject – so “hush-hush” that many businesses address most of this behavior “behind the scenes”.
As we know, many business environments like to minimize this damage as much as possible, taking care of conflict “behind the scenes” so that the incivility and unruliness is diminished on the spot. I agree with the tactics presented, however, incivility will always exist. Just as the air we breathe will contain oxygen, a fundamental part of human behavior is to be unruly, especially in times of conflict. At first glance, there is no solving ‘workplace-bullying”, only minimizing the effects of it. There are alternatives to educate and treat employees and management alike that could possibly curve bullying altogether with a proactive management tool put in place. Education seems to be the key in most cases. I agree that an employee educated in how to socially engage in a professional manner is less likely to act in an uncivil manner. The educational and psychological treatment, however, can be costly to most organizations.
I do find it intriguing how uncivil behavior was linked as the possible root-cause of the initial bullying attempts. It is a much different path than most take in this field of study I have noticed, therefore it is fairly new and not many articles have been written on the subject. I give many thanks to the professionals in the field of Psychology and Business in helping me utilize their wonderful research they have compiled, so that I may make sense of it all in my own article. The process has been highly educational for me, and in fact, has given me a sense of closure to some of the incidents that have scarred me from these bullying incidents. I know I shall walk with my head a bit higher than I have with the scolding and negative connotations that have been drowning me for the past 2 years. Writing this article has not only released much of the guilt from my shoulders as I have realized I am not a bad employee. I understand now the dynamics of the environment I have been a part of for so long. I can only offer this article to others that are in a position like myself to further educate not only the people that have hurt so much from bullying, but also the bully’s and the companies that condone this behavior.