Weekly Wrap: Are People Really Getting Nastier in the Workplace?

© Thomas Perkins - Fotolia.com
© Thomas Perkins - Fotolia.com

Sometimes, I hear about a new “trend” and it makes me scratch my head.

That’s because what some think is “new” may actually be something that has gone on for a long time and is just now being discovered.

So it seemed this week when I found this story in USA Today proclaiming that bad behavior is a growing problem at work. Here’s a bit of what the story said:

‘Workplace incivility’ is on the rise, researchers said Sunday at the American Psychological Association annual meeting.

The academics define workplace incivility as “a form of organizational deviance… characterized by low-intensity behaviors that violate respectful workplace norms, appearing vague as to intent to harm.”

Translation: rudeness, insults and plain old bad manners.

Research suggests “75% to 80% of people have experienced incivility. It’s a growing and prevalent problem,” said Jeannie Trudel of Indiana Wesleyan University-Marion…

In a study she co-wrote, 86% of 289 workers at three Midwestern firms reported incivility at work.”

Is incivility really the problem here?

Wait a minute — 86 percent of workers at three companies in the Midwest reported bad behavior on the job? That makes me wonder what those three companies are, because there has got to be something going on to cause so many people to act badly in those places.

Yes, when you hear 86 percent it sounds like bad workplace behavior is out of control, but another study cited in the USA Today may actually be a little better indicator of the problem:

The Civility in America 2011 poll of 1,000 adults found 43% of Americans say they’ve experienced incivility at work, and 38% believe the workplace is increasingly disrespectful. In the online survey, done in May by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate in partnership with KRC Research, 67% cited a “critical need” for civility training.”

Those numbers make a little more sense because they cut the problem they’re having at those three unnamed Midwest firms in half. But it makes me wonder: is this really the huge workplace issue that the USA Today story seems to indicate?

Unfortunately, that’s about as deep as the story gets (so much for depth and meaningful insights from USA Today). CBS News did a story on the same topic and dug into it a little more, but it still makes me wonder: is workplace incivility really the huge problem the mainstream media are making it out to be?

Maybe the issue is really a lack of leadership

This quote in the CBS News story, from “generational workplace expert” Jason Dorsey, seems to take this discussion in a different direction:

Article Continues Below

A company’s culture is a direct reflection of their leadership,” Dorsey said. “If leadership is not doing their job, you’re going to see that in the culture. So whatever is happening in a company, at the end of the day, is on the shoulder of the leaders. And anybody who does anything different just doesn’t get it. And the second part is what can leaders do? I mean, from my viewpoint, the leaders have to step up and model the behavior. One of my favorite stories is, when I was at a company and doing a little bit of a secret shopper hanging out, checking out things, like I do a lot, and there was a manager absolutely chewing out this young employee below the sign that said ‘Our company mission is to value our employees.’ That’s the message you’re living.”

OK, now this makes more sense. As Dorsey sees it, the problem we’re seeing — if there really is one — isn’t so much spontaneous incivility taking place in the workplace as much as it is a “direction reflection” on the lack of skilled leadership helping to manage workers and keep things moving along smoothly.

In my longtime experience as a manager, bad behavior from employees can only take place if it is tolerated from above. If managers aren’t actively engaged in managing the workforce, incivility can breed and multiply. What seems to be a rash of workers behaving badly is actually the byproduct of clueless and disengaged management.

Call it what you want, but studies pointing to growing incivility on the job are simply measuring the increasing lack of management skill and attention. When is there going to be a psychological survey digging into THAT?

What workers need to do to succeed on the job

‘Of course, there’s more than incivility on the job in the news this week. Here are other HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of HR and talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • What workers need to do to succeed today. This story from The Miami Herald makes it very clear: “Headhunters and CEOs have a message for today’s workforce: You need to be a tech-savvy problem solver, flexible about taking on new tasks, and seek out training that will keep you fresh in your field … In this employers’ market, firms are taking twice as long to fill jobs, waiting for the perfect employee who doesn’t need costly training. And when there are fewer positions to fill, employers prefer candidates with wide-ranging skill sets who are willing to take on multiple tasks and learn new ones, too.”
  • But maybe what we need is a little more humility on the job. Find it hard to be humble? According to the Chicago Tribune, being a little more humble at work might pay dividends. As the story says, “learning to admit you don’t know everything might be the key to a better office environment, Harvard professor says.”
  • Sick days in Seattle. The move to require businesses to require mandatory sick days is spreading, and according to the Seattle Times, it is close to happening in the Emerald City. “Under a Seattle City Council proposal … every business owner in the city would be forced to provide paid sick leave for their workers. Bigger businesses would have to offer more paid days than smaller businesses, but all companies would be required, for the first time, to compensate employees for missing work for medical reasons, most often because they or a family member were sick. About two dozen small-business owners have joined labor unions and civil-rights organizations to support the measure. Groups representing the broader business community decry it as a government intrusion.”
  • Sexual harassment on the job. Here’s a great YouTube video on how NOT to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace. HR pros, please enjoy.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

Topics