Here is a podcast that could potentially be worth your time:

The High Cost of Rudeness at Work

It’s a brief interview with Christine Porath, the co-author of the article “The Price of Incivility”. The article featured in a Harvard Business Review issue – but for fear of some copyright infringement, I’m not going to link to the pdf I found (I really don’t think it’s meant to be online…). If you want, you can pay $7 and download the 9-page pdf of But I can think of better ways to spend $7 – so if you’re happy to trust me as a medium of interpretation, then you can just take my summarised word for it.

What is Incivility

“Civility” is not a synonym for “door-mat”. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be angry with someone for being an idiot. It shouldn’t remove banter from the conversation; nor must it divorce people to safe distances where everything is polite, courteous and yet somehow cold. All those things are actually describing the absence of offensiveness.

It’s a bit like talking about “courage” as the absence of fear. It is not. The absence of fear is a psychological disease and those people require treatment.

That last quote is paraphrased from M Scott Peck. And not entirely coincidentally, one of his more famous books is “A World Waiting To Be Born: Civility Rediscovered”. In the book, he opens with the example of two men meeting on an airplane. The first man realises that the second could be a business prospect, so he excuses himself, makes a quick call to check the guy’s credit rating, and then comes back with a drink for “his new best friend”.

The question is: why does this behaviour seem, well, vaguely unethical?

Peck’s answer: the second businessman is being treated as a thing to be exploited, while ostensibly under the guise of being an intimate friend. Which is a problem, even though the first gentleman was being very polite.

So if we’re looking for a definition then: “incivility” is the act of treating people as inanimate objects.

The Trouble with Common Sense

Intuitively, this article should be stating the obvious. Here are some obvious statements:

  • When people treat me badly, I treat them badly back.
  • When people treat me badly, I sometimes lose sleep over it (either worrying about it, or plotting my revenge).
  • When people treat me badly, I often take it out on those around me, even if they haven’t done anything wrong per se.
  • When people treat me badly, I stop doing stuff for them.

So when you place those statements into a business dynamic:

  • If you make the wrong hire, particularly for a management position, you can sour an entire office of people.
  • People will lose work-time – either because they’re stressing about the situation, or because they’re deliberately electing not to work in silent protest.
  • Some of your employees will take out their frustration on customers.
  • And those are just the tame versions of reaction.

To help with putting that common sense into numbers, Christine Porath and Christine Pearson have spent the last 14 years doing lots of surveys.

The Incivility Statistics

  • 98% of people feel like they’ve been treated badly at work*.
    *The only surprising part is the 2% that feel like they’ve been treated well. Isn’t “feeling mistreated” a universal phenomenon? Of course – now I’m wondering what percentage of the population are (a) sociopaths and/or (b) pathological liars. And actually, if those 2% are the fundamental cause of everyone else’s unhappiness.
  • 48% of those people (so 47% of the workforce) admitted to intentionally decreasing their work effort.
  • Other similar stats: 47% intentionally spent less time at work, and 38% intentionally lowered the quality of their work.
  • 80% of people spent work-time worrying about their incivility incidents.
  • 63% spent work-time trying to avoid the person that was mean to them.
  • 12% resigned.
  • 25% took their frustration out on customers.

The real cost is probably sitting somewhere in those last two statistics: a 12% departure rate and 25% of your workforce being rude to customers. Staff turnover has all the hidden costs of re-training (and lost time); while being rude to customers loses you customers.

I mean – a quarter of your workforce being actively hostile in a sales setting??

What Some Companies Are Doing To Correct It

Companies that try to deal with the problem have some fairly standard solutions. They declare that their leaders need to be good role models; they like to put 360° performance reviews in place (where your PR gets feedback from underlings and peers – not just superiors); and they run civility training workshops.

And perhaps that works.

For me though: I know where I have been happiest in a work environment, and most capable of coping with negative feedback. And here were the things I appreciated:

  • The company provided lunch. Every. Single. Day.

Bring Back Staff Lunches

Here’s a neat truism: breaking bread breaks the ice.

There are few things that are as socially ritualised as mealtimes. And lunch, in particular, is the one meal where you’re most likely to be in a social setting – if only because it’s bang centre in the middle of the day.

From my own experience, when you are supplied with lunch:

  1. Many of the morning tensions are soothed with libation.
  2. People have interactions with each other that aren’t just “Where is this document?” and “You are NOT serious – WHEN will it be done?”
  3. Your work force is humanised – by getting a 30 minute daily reminder that they are more than just irritating voices behind an email, they also watched rugby over the weekend, or whatever.
  4. Meaning that, at its core, lunch is a daily team-building exercise.

So maybe, just maybe, the price of civility is as simple as providing a cooked meal.

But also, I like free lunches.

Happy Monday.

Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and the corporate life in general. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook at