Sept. 20, 2021

Workplace incivility harms marginalized employees more than others

Haskayne researcher finds the way victims respond to bad behaviour at work can help or hurt  

It seems anyone who has ever had a job has encountered workplace incivility — someone belittling your ideas, being condescending, or doubting your expertise. This “low-intensity deviant or rude behaviour” is very common.

“Research shows that virtually 100 per cent of employees have experienced incivility at some point in their career,” says Dr. Sandy Hershcovis, PhD, associate dean and Future Fund Professor in Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at the Haskayne School of Business.

This “low intensity” mistreatment can cause people to dislike their job, even want to quit. It can also adversely affect their performance at work and harm their psychological and physical well-being.

“It can have physiological effects on the body, including upregulation of the sympathetic nervous system through, for example, increases in cortisol,” she says. “It has similar adverse effects to other, more severe forms of mistreatment such as workplace bullying.” And people in “equity-seeking groups” such as BIPOC or LGBTQ2S+ are likely to experience more incivility on the job.

Hershcovis and colleagues Lilia Cortina from the University of Michigan and Kathryn Clancy from the University of Illinois have found that how someone responds to the incivility can either mitigate the harm or make it much worse. Their study,  The embodiment of insult: A theory of biobehavioral response to workplace incivility, documents four different responses to workplace incivility: reciprocation, retreat, relationship repair, and recruitment of support.

"Fighting back and avoiding the situation are generally ineffective strategies,” she says. These approaches rarely resolve the mistreatment, nor does it reduce the stress felt by the target of the incivility.

“Those who engage in ‘fight or flight’ responses are more likely to have adverse physiological reactions to incivility as compared to those who connect with others, seek out support, or try to reconcile with perpetrators,” says Hershcovis.

Sandy Hershcovis

Adrian Shellard for Haskayne School of Business

In some cases, the person who demonstrated incivility may not even be aware they behaved badly. Having a constructive conversation to try to resolve the matter may help the victim reduce their stress level. And if the victim isn’t comfortable talking with the perpetrator, they can talk with colleagues, supervisors or friends, interactions that help reduce the stress they’re feeling.

Not every victim of incivility has necessary support

Most employees can seek support to help return to a calmer state. “But, systematically disadvantaged employees have less access to such supports, and therefore are more likely to experience a sustained increase in their stress response, resulting in a corresponding increase in serious downstream health effects,” says Hershcovis.

These isolated employees are “more likely to experience worse physiological reactions. They experience an upregulation of their sympathetic nervous system, that is, higher stress.”

Employers can curb toxic workplace cultures — and prevent their employees from suffering physiological harm — by fostering inclusion practices and positive social interactions at work to help equity-seeking groups find the social supports they need to respond to workplace incivility.

“This could include team-building activities that cultivate meaningful relationships among employees from diverse backgrounds,” she says. “It could also include a mentoring system in which mentors ensure that all mentees are able to build strong ties in the workplace.”

Building strong supports for isolated employees to ensure inclusiveness has the added benefit of ensuring all employees have adequate social supports at work. Further, it’s important to examine the official and unofficial reward systems within an organization.

Leaders need to reject beliefs that valorize toxic competitive systems, such as masculinity contests or ‘dog-eat-dog’ cultures,” she says. “Organizations need to adapt their reward systems to discourage displays of dominance and rewarding high-performing jerks and start rewarding high-performing employees who display inclusivity.”

The research suggests new ways to curb incivility by focusing on relationships and inclusiveness at work Ultimately, the goal of the paper is to spur new science, knowledge and solutions for workplace incivility.

“Like other aspects of organizational life, this biobehavioural theory of incivility response is anything but simple,” says Hershcovis. “But it may help explain how seemingly ‘small’ insults can sometimes have large effects, ultimately undermining workforce well-being.”