Any workplace is an eclectic group of personalities, and co-workers can rub each other the wrong way with the things they say and do. Some days, it's easy to annoy a co-worker without even trying.
But what about the subtle, petty slights that are meant to offend? Maybe it's an eye roll, a sarcastic reply or an exasperated sigh. These seemingly trivial acts of incivility speak volumes to employees on the receiving end who become less productive and less loyal.
"We found that 1 in 8 people will leave an organization because of [incivility] and not report it," says Christine Porath, a management professor at the University of Southern California and co-author of The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Damages Your Business and What You Can Do About It. Porath collaborated on one survey that found that 80 percent of participants who experienced impoliteness lost work time worrying about the incident, while 48 percent deliberately decreased their work efforts. "People performed a lot worse when they experienced incivility," she says.
A poor economy increases the chances of hostility on the job, says P.M. Forni, author of The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude and founder of the Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, which has studied civility for more than a decade. In uncertain times, Forni says employees feel more insecure and get more territorial over their expertise, their tasks and even their physical work space. At the same time, they're looking for the hidden meaning behind every gesture, conversation and decision. "Adversity makes thinkers out of us," Forni says. "We start asking ourselves questions [like], 'OK, the boss didn't say hello to me today. What does that mean?'"
Of course, you can't spend all day psychoanalyzing your staff, and some conflict is inevitable. Rachel Thebault, founder of New York City confectionary shop Tribeca Treats, once had a new employee walk out in the middle of a busy workday after a manager offered some constructive criticism. For Thebault, 33, it was the icing on the cake after repeated problems, and she parted ways with that employee. "There [has to be] a balance: You don't want people being uncivil, but you can't have people being oversensitive," she says. Five-employee Tribeca Treats, which projects 2009 sales in the six figures, now has the best applicants train for half a day to assess both personality fit and skill level.
Nip minor incivilities in the bud and set a good example, too. "Leaders, whether they like it or not, are role models," Forni says. Given the risks, sweating the small stuff is a very big deal.
Chris Penttila is a freelance journalist whose work has also appeared in The Costco Connection, Oregon Business magazine, QSR Magazine, TheStreet.com and other publications. She lives in the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, area, where she manages two kids, a husband and a feisty cat when she's not writing.