Today’s public-facing employees deal with insults, rants, and rudeness — and leaders must better protect them. Here’s how.
by Christine Porath
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that incivility on the front lines of business is on the rise. After all, as the pandemic wore on, we saw in real-time how frontline workers went from being seen as “essential” to being seen as, essentially, punching bags. What might not be obvious is that incivility doesn’t affect only workers who experience it directly — it also affects those who witness it, with consequences for businesses and society. Christine Porath has studied incivility for more than 20 years, looking at the experiences at work of people around the world. Her research shows that business leaders have the power to improve things, both for workers and for society as a whole.
In October 2020 Dr. Adrienne Boissy, then the chief patient experience officer at Cleveland Clinic, had a big problem, and it wasn’t just Covid-19. Caregivers at the hospital, already stretched thin by the pandemic, were coming to her with alarming reports of abusive behavior from patients and visitors: mean comments, screaming tirades, even racist insults. “It’s never been so bad!” she told me.
I’ve studied incivility — defined as rudeness, disrespect, or insensitive behavior — in workplaces for more than 20 years, polling hundreds of thousands of people worldwide about their experiences. But after that conversation with Dr. Boissy, who is now the chief medical officer at Qualtrics and a neurologist at Cleveland Clinic, I wondered whether incivility is getting worse over time, particularly for frontline workers, who labor in person and often interact directly with customers and patients. These workers’ industries include health care, protective services (think police officers), retail, food production and processing, maintenance, agriculture, transportation (including airlines), hospitality, and education.
My research has found that reports of incivility are indeed on the rise — as evidenced not just by viral videos of airline passengers refusing to wear masks or café patrons hurling racial epithets but also by my recent survey that asked more than 2,000 people around the world how they have experienced rudeness lately. Even amid a global health crisis in which frontline workers were heralded as essential and heroic, these employees still became punching bags on whom weary, stressed-out, often irrational customers (and sometimes fellow employees) took out their anxieties and frustrations.
This kind of incivility leads to negative outcomes not only for the workers who experience it directly but also those who witness it — all of which harms businesses and society. In this article, we’ll explore those consequences and discuss how leaders can help to improve things.
Note that incivility takes many forms, from ignoring people to intentionally undermining them to mocking, teasing, and belittling them. For this article, it does not refer to physical aggression or violence, although incivility can spiral into aggressive behaviors.
Where We Are
Identifying and studying incivility can be difficult, because bad behavior is often in the eye of the recipient. Behavior you consider uncivil may not be regarded the same way by a customer — but if you feel disrespected, whether your counterpart intended it or not, your work will suffer. In addition, what’s considered uncivil varies by culture, generation, gender, industry, and organization.
In August of this year, I designed a new survey to further track incivility trends and glean more insight into what’s happening on the front lines of business and society today. It drew on customer-focused studies I previously conducted with marketing professors Deborah MacInnis and Valerie Folkes at USC Marshall School of Business, as well as on insights from people in a range of consumer-facing industries.
In the new survey, the data I collected came from more than 2,000 people in more than 25 industries in various roles across the globe (representing every major region except Antarctica). They included both frontline employees and people who had observed them at work. Here’s what I found:
- 76% of respondents experience incivility at least once a month.
- 78% witness incivility at work at least once a month, and 70% witness it at least two to three times a month.
- 73% report that it’s not unusual for customers to behave badly.
- 78% believe that bad behavior from customers toward employees is more common than it was five years ago.
- 66% believe bad behavior from customers toward other customers is more common than it was five years ago.
These numbers have risen steadily and sharply since my 2012 survey about customer incivility. In that survey, 61% of respondents reported that it was not unusual for customers to behave badly, 49% believed that bad behavior from customers toward employees was more common than it was five years before, and 35% believed bad behavior from customers toward other customers was also more common.
In addition to this year’s survey, I conducted many interviews with employees, managers, and organizational leaders to learn more about how they’re experiencing incivility from customers and patients.
A pediatric emergency medicine physician shared:
Daily, families disparage, yell at, and belittle us while we provide care for their children. A few months ago, I asked a father to put his mask back on, per hospital policy. He stormed out of the room and said he was leaving because he did not believe in masks. I came back in and his six-year-old child told me, “Daddy spit on the ground.” Sure enough, there was a big spit wad on the hospital floor.
One retail employee related a customer’s response to her saying “Good morning”:
I do not need you for anything. Leave me alone. If I need you, I will call you. You are here to serve, not to talk with me.
A restaurant patron described her sister’s bad behavior:
She berated a waitress to the point of making her cry. Why? Because the waitress didn’t bring her salad just the way she ordered it.
A traveler shared their experience of watching a fellow passenger yell at a car service driver:
He yelled, “What are you waiting for?! Get your act together!” He shoved his luggage at the driver and stormed out. The driver stood blinking for a minute before following.
A former school principal explained what educators and staff must often shield themselves from:
Parents approach school staff with claws out, ready for blood. They’re unwilling to listen and are rude, mean, and threatening.
Then there are the reports of online behavior, exemplified by the emails received by the customer support team of a video game company:
In one interaction, a customer was upset about some experience they had in the game, and they sent long paragraphs of complaints that included comments such as telling the support representatives that they hope their wives and daughters will be raped.
Needless to say, it’s gotten pretty ugly out there. Some uncivil behavior may be too extreme to fix, and some people are unmotivated or unwilling to change; in my research, 4% of people report being rude because it’s fun and they can get away with it. But research shows that much of incivility can be reined in. To do that, we need to understand its drivers.
How We Got Here
So, why does it feel like incivility is getting worse? My research suggests that several compounding factors and pressures have brought us to this point:
Over the years, I’ve found that stress is the number one driver of incivility. In my most recent data, 73% of respondents who had been rude to a coworker blamed it on stress, and 61% pointed to being overloaded with work.
The pandemic, the economy, war, divisive politics, the changing nature of work, and continued uncertainty are all taking a toll. Any (or all) of these factors may contribute to our stress and burnout, which have risen to unprecedented levels recently. And considering our reduced levels of self-care, exercise, and sleep, it’s no surprise that we have a tougher time regulating our emotions.
In October 2020 my brother Mike Porath and I reported data from The Mighty, a supportive community Mike founded for people facing health challenges and those who care for them. A survey of over 70,000 readers and community members found that the number of respondents who chose anger as one of their top emotions more than doubled from March to September — rising from 20% to 45%.
Naturally, as negative emotions swell in us, we may lash out or take them out on others, often without realizing it. Even if we muster restraint, when we’re not feeling well we’re less mindful and less capable of interacting positively and respectfully.
We can also attribute the epidemic of rudeness to a general fraying of community and workplace relationships. I define “community” as a group of individuals who share a mutual concern for one another’s welfare. In a 2014 study of 20,000 people for my book Mastering Community, I found that 65% didn’t feel any sense of community. In July of this year a colleague and I surveyed more than 1,500 Conference for Women participants, finding that their sense of community has decreased 37% since the beginning of the pandemic.
The feeling of lacking community is exacerbated when people don’t feel valued, appreciated, or heard — which applies to the vast majority of employees. Sometimes subtle (or not-so-subtle) behaviors are what sting most. A European participant in my recent survey explained:
Nothing happened — and that was the rudest part itself: A junior colleague got completely blanked by a more senior figure. He said good morning and the senior staff member just continued walking.…Not surprisingly, the junior person left after about six months.
For all its benefits, technology can lead to greater disconnection and rudeness. It can also distract us from the humans in front of us, as countless frontline employees and cashiers have reported. Often we’re too busy scrolling through Instagram or listening to music on our headphones to interact with those serving us or ringing up our groceries — much less to utter a simple “Hello,” “Please,” or “Thank you.”
This heavy use of technology, and of social media in particular, may come with a price: We’re taking in a whole lot of negativity (consciously or unconsciously) on a daily basis. The content we consume affects not only us but others too. What we ingest from online sources can harm our mood and mental health, and we can pass our anxiety, depression, and stress on to others.
Finally, in the digital age messages are often subject to communication gaps and misunderstanding — and, unfortunately, putdowns are more easily delivered when it doesn’t happen face-to-face. While electronic communication can bring us together in remarkable ways, it also liberates us to voice our frustrations, hurl insults, and take people down a notch from a safe distance.
Lack of self-awareness.
One of the biggest takeaways from my decades of research is that incivility usually arises from ignorance — not malice. People lack self-awareness. According to research by Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist and a collaborator of mine, a whopping 95% of people think they’re self-aware but only 10%–15% actually are. That means 80%–85% of people misunderstand how they’re perceived and how they affect others. We may have good intentions and work hard to be patient and tolerant, but our tones, nonverbal signals, or actions may come across differently to the people we interact with and those who witness the interactions.
The Costs of Incivility
Research shows that rudeness is like the common cold: It’s contagious, it spreads quickly, anyone can be a carrier — at work, at home, online, or in our communities — and getting infected doesn’t take much.
When incivility does spread, it affects people and organizations in several ways.
Incivility’s mental and physical toll.
My research has shown over and over that incivility’s effects are both mental and physical. This tracks with sociologist Charles Horton Cooley’s 1902 notion of the “looking-glass self,” which explains that we use others’ expressions (e.g., smiles or snarls), behaviors (e.g., ignoring or paying attention to us), and reactions (e.g., listening or belittling) to define ourselves. How we believe others see us shapes who we are and how we behave. Brief interactions signal respect or disrespect. People feel valued when we acknowledge and thank them. When we cut people down, we make them feel smaller and uglier.
These dynamics help to explain why the effects of incivility are so damaging. Merely being exposed to rude words reduces our ability to process and recall information. Dysfunctional and aggressive thoughts (and sometimes actions) can skyrocket. Witnessing rudeness and triggers of incivility — such as reading a nasty comment on social media or listening to an argumentative interview — takes a cognitive toll, interfering with our working memory and decreasing our performance. And these disruptions can be catastrophic. For example, exposure to rudeness has been shown to negatively impact medical teams’ diagnoses and procedural performance.
Incivility’s toll on business.
In my recent research, I found that when people witness rude treatment of employees or frontline workers, 85% report being annoyed, 80% are upset, and 75% are angry. Additionally, 61% report being distressed and 43% feel threatened.
When customers witness other customers being uncivil to employees, they have a few responses. Their attitudes toward the employees improve, but their feelings toward the workers’ organization shift in costly ways: 42% report that the rude behavior changes their perception of the company, 40% question whether they want to do business there again, 65% think the organization should better protect its employees, 45% question its values — and, overall, people’s willingness to use the company’s products and services drops 35%. MacInnis, Folkes, and I found that these feelings are tied to concerns for human dignity and whether others are being treated respectfully.