Incivility in the Nonprofit Sector: The Importance of Strong Leadership

workplace-incivilityI came to dread interactions with a client’s staff members.  There was an unhealthy culture of divisiveness, territoriality, and paranoia that permeates the organization, making it extremely challenging to move the organization forward.  Coworkers were convinced that their office mates were hired to “spy on them”.  They were routinely rude to one another, as well as to volunteers, members of the organization, staff leaders and even board members.  Incredibly, neither the executive director nor the board chair knew how to effectively mediate conflict or hold staff members accountable for their uncivil words and behavior.  Consequently, staff turnover was tremendous – seventy five percent left within a four month period.  I’d received an uncivil email on two occasions, but after reading a third flaming message from “Elaine”, I knew I had to take decisive action.

Perhaps you’ve received a similar message: short, terse sentences in bold, italicized, underlined, and capitalized text.  You can almost feel your hair being blown back from the virtual shouting.  Her message was clear: “I’m in charge here; this is my territoryI neither need nor want your helpBack off”.  As a consultant, I’m paid to identify problems and to help struggling organizations, and an executive coach, “Elaine” fits the profile of clients who are sent to me by their supervisors as a preemptive alternative to termination.  The question for me was, “What is the right to do in this situation?”

Research suggests that 75 to 80 percent of people have experienced incivility – some on a regular basis – throughout their professional career and the problem continues to rise.  In 2011, The Nonprofit Times included incivility among the top ten threats to the nonprofit sector (

Workplace Incivility – What Is It?

According to researchers at the American Psychological Association, workplace incivility is on the rise. Andersson and Pearson define workplace incivility as “low-intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm the target, in violation of workplace norms for mutual respect. Uncivil behaviors are characteristically rude and discourteous, displaying a lack of regard for others.”   Several studies report that people are deeply concerned about behavior toward one another.  A poll conducted by U.S. News & World Report found that 89 percent of respondents described incivility as a serious problem, with 78 percent stating that it had worsened over the past decade.   The research group Public Agenda found that 80 percent of Americans think that the “lack of respect and courtesy” has become a serious problem and that as a society, we should attempt to address it.

What constitutes uncivil behavior may come as a surprise to some.  Dr. Christine Pearson, Professor of Management at the Thunderbird School of Global Management and co-author of The Cost of Bad Behavior, cites a number of behaviors as examples of incivility, including the following:

Emailing/texting during meetings Not expressing gratitude or thanks
“Flaming” others on social media Omitting credit for others’ contributions to projects
Gossiping about others Reprimanding others publicly
Harming somebody’s reputation Rolling your eyes at others’ suggestions
Hovering over a coworker’s desk Sending “loaded” email messages
Ignoring people in person Setting others up for failure/sabotaging a project
Keeping people waiting for appointments Sharing private conversations or restricted content
Leaving a mess for others to clean up Taking credit for others’ work
Making condescending/demeaning comments Talking over/interrupting others
Not responding to emails in a timely manner Withholding organizational information

Causes of Workplace Incivility

Historically, the workplace has been considered by many to be one of the last ramparts of civility. Interpersonal relationships between colleagues have traditionally been characterized by formality, emotional objectivity and cordiality.  Today, however, “Corporate America” increasingly reflects the casual norms of society at large, and while social norms at work have relaxed, so too has the sense of employee-employer loyalty.  Organizational restructuring and outsourcing, use of part-time employees, budget- and staff cuts, and increased demands on productivity may contribute to an increase in uncivil behaviors indirectly through the additive effects of stress and anxiety associated with diminished job security.

Compounding the sense that our jobs aren’t as a secure as they once were, workplace incivility is also attributed to a frenetic, over-stimulated, stress-inducing lifestyle.  In a culture where our overall sense of ‘self’ is inextricably linked to our professional identity, more people report feeling overworked and over-stimulated, causing them to lash out at their colleagues.

Interestingly, Pearson and Porathfound that many repeat instigators reported insufficient time as a primary reason for their lack of civility to their colleagues…not enough hours in a day to be nice, it seems.  Interestingly, one-fourth of the instigators surveyed attributed their uncivil behavior to lack of training.

The Costs of Incivility

Far beyond a mere breach of social decorum, incivility is a significant economic liability to organizations, costing billions each year.  For those inclined to dismiss the effects of workplace incivility as inconsequential, it may be sobering to learn that for typical Fortune 1000 firms, senior executives spend as much as 13 percent – or nearly seven weeks annually per executive– managing relationship challenges among workers.

Incivility is caustic to organizational culture and that employees who experience workplace incivility will respond in a number of ways that are undermine productivity.  Research by Pearson demonstrated a profound impact of disrespectful on employee productivity and morale, including the following:

80 percent felt less committed to the organization following an incident of incivility
65 percent lost time ‘worrying about their offender’
53 percent lost work time worrying about the incident or future interactions
50 percent considered changing jobs to get away from the instigator
50 percent reported that they reduced their work effort
50 percent reported cutting back on work time
37 percent reported a weakened sense of loyalty to their organization
33 percent intentionally decreased the quality of their work
28 percent lost work time attempting to avoid the instigator
12 percent actually did change jobs in order to avoid the instigator

The last statistic is particularly poignant; for every eight employees who self-identify as targets of workplace incivility, one is likely to leave the organization.  This may appear to be a small number, until one considers that when employees leave the organization, they take their institutional knowledge, relationships and networks, and expertise with them.  Beyond these intrinsic assets, the organization must bear the obvious burden of time and money associated with recruiting and training a target’s successor.

Perhaps even more frustrating to managers, these valuable employees may never divulge the actual reason for their departure due to fear of retaliation. Additionally, the lag time between an incident of incivility and their departure may be weeks or years, making it increasingly difficult for managers to demonstrate a cause-effect relationship between incidents of incivility and staff departures.

careercoach18Like many workplace stressors, there are often spillover effects associated with organizational incivility.  Seventy percent of targets express their frustration to friends and family outside the work environment.  Some targets may displace their frustration and sense of helplessness by becoming combative and uncivil themselves with spouses, service personnel, and/or subordinates.

When incivility cascades beyond organization boundaries, it can harm organizational relationships, damage the organization’s hard-won reputation, and create spillover effects that impair or distract from the organization’s ability to carry out its mission and bottom line objectives.9  Despite its subtle and often ambiguous nature, organizational incivility can be deeply and broadly detrimental to both individuals and organizations – both lose.

Strategies for Preempting and Correcting Employee Incivility

Based on a series of interviews and focus groups, Pearson and Porath (2005) determined that only 25 percent of those who experienced workplace incivility were satisfied with the way in which such transgressions were handled by management.  Given the pervasiveness of incivility, its propensity to spread, and lack of skills by management to effectively resolve cases of incivility, it is critical to identify intervention strategies for dealing with violations of organizational norms for acceptable behavior.  Pearson and Porath (2005) recommend the following “best practices” to preempt and address workplace incivility.

Establish Zero-Tolerance Expectations

Nonprofit organizations should establish clear expectations and norms for workplace conduct and interpersonal interactions.  Establishing an official policy regarding standards of conduct and employee civility will significantly reduce employees’ feelings of distrust and unfairness because such standards eliminate ambiguity concerning what behaviors will (and will not) be tolerated.  Include the policy statement in employee handbooks, regularly-scheduled performance evaluations, and board/volunteer orientation packets.  Expectations must be established and implemented in a top-down approach and revisited regularly, both verbally and in writing.

Publicly acknowledging your organization’s commitment to a strong culture of civility broadcasts a very clear message about expectations for behavior.  Many organizations make public statements regarding their unwavering service to the communities or clients served by their mission, either directly in their mission statement or in a values statement.  Very few make issue public statement on how employees should treat each other.  A wonderful example comes from AT&T’s value statement:

“We treat each other with respect and dignity”

Leaders… Self-Evaluate

As a leader, you must be the manifestation of the values upon which your organization’s mission was established.  In short, you must lead by example.  This may seem like a trite statement, but in fact, 25 percent of those who behave disrespectfully at work reported doing so because their leader also behaves in an uncivil manner.  Such leaders are sending a clear message that incivility is not only tolerated, but encouraged.

If you’re in a position of leadership, consider how your words and behavior impact your colleagues and subordinates – they are watching you to determine what is appropriate and accepted behavior.  If you’re unclear about how you are perceived with your organization, consider soliciting candidate peer feedback or videotape your interactions with others at meetings.

Preempt Incivility Before it Infects the Work Environment

The most effective way to reinforce a culture of civility is to hire civil employees.  Discernible patterns of behavior tend to be repeated throughout an instigator’s employment history and consequently, identifying chronic offenders is relatively easy.  It goes without saying that professional references should be verified thoroughly.  This is especially true when the candidate is being considered for a leadership position within the organization.  Civility 1If you’re recruiting for a leadership position, consider hiring a professional recruiter to check references. These professionals can gather information to objectively benchmark the candidate’s skills and personal qualities against the job description.  Additionally, they tend to be masterful at drilling down through initial comments that make a reference truly useful. For example, if someone states that a candidate was a skillful development officer but didn’t get along well with the executive director, a recruiter might ask, “Is that unusual in the organization?”

Candidates generally do not offer references who would not give glowing testimonials.  Another advantage of hiring a professional recruiter is that they tend to have extensive personal and professional networks who can follow up with references that have not been named by the candidate. Lastly, professional recruiters check references much more frequently than the average nonprofit leader, so their expertise and comfort in making reference calls can help glean the most value out of each interaction.

Civility Training

Orientation sessions for new employees should always include material on workplace civility (see “Establish Zero-Tolerance Expectations”).  While formal classroom training opportunities are plentiful for sexual harassment and other information-based situations (e.g., legal definitions and obligations, etc.), training for civility requires skill-based mastery of interpersonal relationships.  Consequently, providing employees with opportunities for professional growth in related areas, such as conflict mediation, listening, stress management, understanding and dealing with high conflict personalities may effectively prevent and reduce incidents of workplace incivility.  Mastery of these skills has the added benefit of enhancing the employee’s personal (i.e., non-work) relationships as well, encouraging work/life harmony.

Hold Instigators Accountable

Leaders should confront all instigators in a calm and honest manner, regardless of rank or position, immediately.  Following a face-to-face discussion of the incident, the violation of company’s civility policy should be thoroughly documented in writing at the earliest opportunity, with written notification (a “civility letter”) forwarded to the instigator.  The purpose of the civility letter is to notify the instigator that his/her conduct is in direct conflict with the organization’s expected norms for civility, respect, and decorum.  A narrative of the incident should be included in the letter, along with constructive feedback for correcting the immediate situation and preventing future incidents.  Additionally, a statement should be included that unambiguously articulates consequences for repeat incidents, including corrective action up to and including termination.  The civility letter should include a space for the instigator to sign and date the document, acknowledging that s/he has been notified of the violation, that s/he commits to corrective actions, and that s/he is aware of the consequences of repeated violations.  The letter should be signed and dated by the appropriate supervisor, and a copy of the dually-signed document given to the instigator for his/her records.  The original signed document should be retained for performance evaluation and personnel purposes.

Don’t Make Excuses For Instigators

How many times have you heard dismissals of rude or belligerent behavior such as, “Oh you know Roger, he’s just curmudgeonly.  Nobody takes him seriously.” or “Diane’s just moody; she’s like that to everybody.”  Even worse than excusing the instigator’s behavior is dismissing the target’s concerns or feelings about uncivil encounters, such as, “You shouldn’t be so sensitive” or “Just ignore Joe’s cracks and don’t take it personally; he’s just kidding.”

Incivility ignored (and thereby tacitly reinforced) will surely encourage additional rude behavior, whether by the original instigator, who believes that there is no accountability for such behavior, or by others, who observe the instigator get away with it.

Chronic instigators who are adept at “managing up” may deny any negative intent in their words and behaviors. Instead, s/he may claim that the target was simply “too sensitive” or that his words or behaviors were meant in jest (“I was just kidding!”). Don’t buy it.  A leader can never ignore unacceptable behavior, nor can she accept the rationale that “that’s just how Bernard is.”

Conduct Post-Departure Interviews

Post-departure interviews with former employees can be extremely useful in eliciting detailed information regarding their experience with your organization, including any unreported (or under-reported) incidents of workplace incivility about which you may be unaware.  Ideally, the meeting will be scheduled 3-6 months following their resignation, when they’re stable in their new employment environment.  Why wait so long?  Not only are people less emotional by that time, but they’ve also had sufficient time to reflect on their experiences.  Additionally, former employees no longer feel compelled to restrict their feedback because they need a “good reference”.

It’s unfortunate – and unnecessary – when valued employees leave because they’re treated disrespectfully at work.  As we’ve already seen, however, only a small number of incivility incidents are reported.  Since there’s also typically a lag time between incidents of incivility and departure, it’s often difficult to determine a direct link between incivility and staff turnover.  Finally, only 25 percent of targets felt that their grievances were effectively handled by management even when they were reported.  Taken collectively, these factors compound the challenge of ferreting out workplace rudeness, making proactive correction difficult. Even a single, chronically offensive employee critically positioned within your organization can be a significant liability if not identified.  Post-departure interviews may be an invaluable tool for leaders to identify insidious foci of incivility.

Civility Takes Courage

Incivility is on the rise in the workplace and its far-reaching economic and emotional toll on organizations and individuals is significant.  Even so, organizational responses are inconsistent at best and often nonexistent.  Many managers would prefer to ignore incivility because they lack mastery of the interpersonal skills necessary to navigate an effective outcome to organizational conflict.  Some managers never learn about the incidents or, if they do, tend to dismiss their significance as “personal matters” in which they refuse to intervene.

In the end, civility is about courage – it takes courage for an employee to report an incident to management, particularly if the target is a subordinate of the instigator.  It takes courage for managers to deal with cases of incivility – professionally, calmly, and swiftly.  It takes courage to tell a colleague that their words or behavior have infringed upon the rights and dignity of another person.  As organizational leaders, we have a responsibility and an obligation to create and safeguard a workplace culture that honors the dignity, diversity, and safety of every employee.  Behaviors that erode the fabric of interpersonal relationships in the workplace and are detrimental to employees’ overall well-being organizational effectiveness should not be tolerated.

We Teach People How to Treat Us

you_teach_people_how-57050So, what did I do about “Elaine’s” loaded email message? I reported the incident immediately to the organization’s executive director and board president.  To my utter dismay, the president replied that “if she became upset every time she received a rude email from the organization’s staff members, she would have left a long time ago” and suggested that I just ignore it.  The executive director, being extremely conflict-averse and not wanting to deal with the situation at all, said and did absolutely nothing.  Ultimately, his refusal to insist upon a culture of civility made him a target of chronically rude and uncivil behavior by his business manager. The response from the organization’s leadership sent me and “Elaine” a strong message – that a culture of civility wasn’t a high priority for the organization, that leadership didn’t want to “rock the boat”.  Holding staff accountability for rude behavior was (apparently) more painful to deal with than the high turnover of talent.  I chose to immediately terminate my contact with the organization; it was the right thing to do.  Civility and respect can only prevail in an organization when it is a part of the culture, is reinforced, and rewarded.

Cheryl M. McCormick, Ph.D., Founder and CEO, Ascend Nonprofit Consulting and Executive Coaching,


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