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Civility at Work

From bad bosses to toxic employees, we’ve all probably encountered incivility, or rude behavior, at some point in our careers. What is it, why does it matter, and what can we do about it?

From bad bosses to toxic employees, we’ve all probably encountered incivility, or rude behavior, at some point in our careers. What is it, why does it matter, and what can we do about it?  

What is incivility?  

Incivility is rude behavior that is disrespectful, insensitive, or condescending. It can take many different forms, such as:  

  • You have a one-on-one conversation with your supervisor each week, and every week your supervisor is late or is busy texting and emailing throughout the meeting.  
  • You have a team meeting with your coworkers, and someone tells you your idea is “terrible.”  
  • Your boss took credit for a huge project that you spent a lot of time and energy on. 
  • You’re told that you can’t work on a project or perform a certain task because you’re “just a product specialist.”  

Here’s the real kicker: incivility isn’t about whether people were actually treated poorly. It’s about whether they feel they were treated poorly. Because people have different views of what poor treatment is — based on personal experiences, cultural background, and other factors — incivility means something different to everyone. But it affects everyone the same way. It leaves people feeling devalued, taken advantage of, or even doubtful of their own abilities. Overall, incivility creates an environment where people feel they can’t be their best.

What’s more, incivility in a work environment often has a snowball effect. When you experience incivility, you are more likely to perpetrate rude behaviors toward others — and then they do the same, and it spreads throughout everyone’s work and personal lives.

 Why does it matter?  

Incivility takes a toll, both on the organization and on the people who work there. People who work in uncivil environments are more likely to experience physical and mental health issues related to stress and have decreased job performance. In turn, their organizations experience increased health care costs, increased employee absenteeism, and a weaker bottom line because their employees aren’t performing at their highest level.   

Incivility is a lose-lose situation. Civility, on the other hand, can reverse the effects listed above. According to Georgetown business professor Christine Porath, employees who work in civil organizations are healthier, more productive, and generally happier.

 What we can do about it?  

Even if you don’t work in an apparently toxic organization, you can use the concepts of civility to enhance your team’s performance and well-being. This means adjusting your behavior to show your colleagues that they’re noticed, respected, and valued.

  1. Assess your own behavior by taking this free online quiz.
  2. Use the 10/5 rule in the hallways: acknowledge coworkers as you pass within 10 feet, and say hello as you pass within five feet.
  3. Practice RASA in your meetings to show that you’re tuned in and you value what others have to say. Receive by paying attention; appreciate with periodic verbal acknowledgments, such as, “Oh, okay” or “Mm-hm”; summarize what the other person said (e.g., “So, what I’m hearing is …”); and ask follow-up questions after they finish.  
  4. Give more genuine thanks to coworkers and direct reports. People can usually tell when compliments are insincere, so it’s important to be specific about how their actions made a difference. (e.g., “Thank you for compiling the financial reports. The plotted graphs were especially helpful. I feel very prepared for our Rose Bowl travel prep meeting.”)  
  5. Ask your team to pick three civil behaviors that you will all put into action. (e.g., “I will not trash talk Goldy about Paul Bunyan’s axe.”) 
  6. Confront small-scale uncivil behaviors, such as coworkers unfairly complaining about others or excluding someone from group activities.  

Want to learn more? Check out the book Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace by Christine Porath or watch her TED talk.  

If you liked these tips and want to read more about getting ahead in your career, check out the Career Resources Library at

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