You might go to work everyday and barely notice that things have changed. Maybe it’s the employee in the staff meeting who insists on texting a friend rather than listening to what is being discussed.
Or maybe it’s just that your co-workers don’t talk as much to you, preferring to spend break times alone.
Or maybe a co-worker simply refuses to make a new pot of coffee after he takes the last cup, a violation of office etiquette.
A testy economy can manifest itself in a lot of ways in the workplace, but perhaps one of the unexpected effects of current economic doldrums is its impact on civility.
Longer hours, staff cuts, job insecurity, and pressures to keep up production seem to be affecting the way workers treat each other. And, not in a good way.
Jeannie Trudel, a professor at Indiana Wesleyan University-Marion, says workplace incivility seems to be building today
“It’s a growing and prevalent problem,” she says. “And, it’s not always easy to detect.”
Her complaint is with workers who have started to display bad manners or are just being rude to the people around them. Often their actions are a reaction to what is going on around them, a passive-aggressive statement of discontent.
Trudel says researchers from Indiana Wesleyan studied three Midwest companies and found that 86 percent of the workers they polled indicated that they have witnessed incivility on the job in the past year. That’s up from a traditional level of about 70 percent.
The offenses may seem minor, Trudel says. It can be a change of attitude among co-workers, an unwillingness to chit-chat, or simply isolated instances of rudeness that you scarcely think about.
Trudel argues that these are “low-intensity behaviors that violate respectful workplace norms, appearing vague in intent to harm.”
She suggests they point to a growing dissatisfaction that can become a serious problem in the workplace. Lower morale, loss of loyalty and increased job turnover can be the real effects that capture the attention of companies.
Trudel says that taken on their own, the incidents of incivility might well go unnoticed. Anyone can have a momentary rudeness and we’ve come to expect that. But when it happens repeatedly or is widespread, she says you can detect the danger.
“It’s very hard to target because you don’t really know if someone actually means to be rude or if it’s just off the cuff, so it’s an insidious problem,”she says. “There are very, very negative effects of accumulated minor stresses.”
And, it is the impact of these repeated incivilities that should concern employers, says Trudel, who released the study findings at annual conference of the American Psychological Association.
The findings also suggest an important warning that workers can only handle so much workplace stress before seeking relief and that their methods of getting relief will be in their best interest, not the best interests of their employers.
The true force of these incivilities is probably impossible to calculate, although Georgetown University professor Christine Porath estimates that the lost productivity and stress created by them is result in multi-billion dollar losses to employers.