My life was made more awesome by iTunes. It gave me iTunes U and podcasts – the two things that make my time in traffic worthwhile*. And this weekend, on my way out to dinner, I listened to this one:

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 the January/February Harvard Business Review – 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

When I first wrote the above headline, I deleted it and started writing something else. But as I got a bit further, I realised that this is actually a necessary place to start: because when I think about “civility” and “incivility”, I get bored. If we’re honest, most of us tend to associate the word “civility” with ponies and rainbows and being all tra-la-la about climbing every mountain.

Which is rubbish possibly a bit trite.

“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. Because that’s just 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.

The point that I’m getting at: “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.

Unfortunately, the above principles often tend to fall into the category of “beliefs”. And we are not a generation that works off belief – we work off facts. So before the common sense gets placed into practice, it needs to prove itself in financial terms.

As a sidebar: I’m not sure where all the skepticism started – but it’s completely irrational. Here’s the (paraphrased) statement: “Respect takes effort; and therefore, I’ll need to know that there’s a pay-off before I’ll make the effort.” So – the millennia of empirical human observation don’t count, and what we need is a scientific survey? In all seriousness, even if we’re going to question the status quo, what we should be doing is disproving the consensus before we abandon it – not proving it before we’ll take it up again.

But it is what it is. So Christine Porath and Christine Pearson have spent the last 14 years doing lots of surveys. And they have some results.

The Incivility Statistics

  • 98% of people feel like they’ve been treated badly at work. The only surprising part of this story 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.

Some Cost Estimates

I hear people talking about the lowering of work quality and the time lost. But legitimately, I think that more time is lost to facebook, whatsapp and twitter. Also: even when we talk about bad treatment – I think that we’re all quite sensitive about our work or our attitudes being criticised. So regardless of how the criticism is delivered, we’d probably spend some time stressing about it.

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; and being rude to customers, like, loses you customers.

A quarter of your workforce being actively hostile in a sales setting? And we know what an unhappy customer does:

  • He/she embellishes the story on Facebook, Twitter, and HelloPeter; and
  • The story grows with every re-telling at dinner parties.

Is it unrealistic to suggest then that a quarter of your potential revenues are being lost? Maybe. But you need to throw those numbers around to get some grasp of “magnitude of potential loss”.

What Some Companies Are Doing To Correct It

Companies that try to deal with the problem don’t seem to be particularly creative about 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. As though the majority of people that are rude just don’t realise that they’re rude… And actually, they only need to be made aware of it and then they’ll stop.

I’m just not sure that’s true.

From my side: 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.
  • Everyone regularly went on team-building weeks.
  • There were great coffee machines on every level.

Oh – everyone worked really hard (and also really really well). But the lunch and coffee machines were an acknowledgement of my “being-more-than-just-a-resource”. And I think that team-building turns your work colleagues – bosses and subordinates alike – into more than just annoyances at the water cooler. And aren’t we generally more pleasant to people that we do stuff with?

Also, more to the point – here I am, long after the event, and I’m still punting their good name in blogmmentary.

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

*I know I know. I say it often.