In the black comedy Horrible Bosses, three friends conspire to murder their overbearing, abusive bosses and hilarity ensues.

Moviegoers might view the film as a satire on relationships and it is certainly easy to see the scenes of workplace mistreatment and the murderous plot it ultimately inspires as rather extreme.  Nonetheless, workplace aggression is a serious issue, can take many forms and its effects on organisations is only just beginning to be understood.

According to a survey by a global jobs portal 64 per cent of more than 16,000 workers polled around the world said they had been bullied and were either physically hurt, driven to tears, or had their work performance affected as a result.

Yet there are also other forms of workplace mistreatment, less overt than bullying or physical abuse, but which can also be highly damaging.

With demands increasing for more cross-team collaboration within and outside the workplace to enhance connectivity and hence productivity, employees seldom work in silos. As these pressures grow, interactions between staff can give rise to frictions and without checks and balances even seemingly minor acts of incivility, such as ignoring a co-worker persistently, can cause some surprising negative effects.

‘Workplace incivility’

One area that is drawing growing attention from HR managers and organisational scholars is the detrimental impact caused by low-intensity mistreatment such as rudeness and disregard for others. Such behaviour has been labelled “workplace incivility” in the management literature.

As workplaces become more interdependent, it is imperative for employers, supervisors and co-workers to pick up on tell-tale signs before real damage is done.

In a recent research study, working with colleagues at Oregon State University, we identified several short term negative effects when individuals are singled out and treated with incivility, among them stress, withdrawal and self-blame. However, we also found that when the mistreated individual shares the same bad experience with a colleague, the impact of the harm is diminished.

As email is a common form of workplace exchange within the workplace, we devised an experimental online game scenario in which some 240 individuals were asked to interact with other users on a small creative project using an email messaging system.

The game was designed to place participants on the receiving end of low-level bullying behaviour, or witness another participant being mistreated. However, unknown to the participants, the other members of their assigned teams were actually computer generated avatars.

A consistent result was that individuals in the game nearly always blamed themselves when faced with aggressive behaviour. However, the extent of self-blame diminished when individuals experienced such behaviour as part of a group. While the shared experience makes it less stressful, it can also result in larger consequences.

The results suggest individuals take cues from how they view others being treated and that can impact their workplace performance, creativity and helpfulness towards others.

Ignored and undermined

For example, targets of incivility who were ignored, undermined in front of others, or experienced abusive supervision tend to have difficulty recalling information and are more distracted at work. These in turn can have a significant impact on an organisation’s overall productivity and morale.

As workplaces become more interdependent, it is imperative for employers, supervisors and co-workers to pick up on tell-tale signs before real damage is done. However, more often than not, little action is taken – perhaps because of a lack of awareness among employers over ways to monitor and prevent such behaviour.

In Singapore, for example, the Ministry of Manpower’s tripartite advisory group on “Managing Workplace Harassment” found that conflicts of a personal relationship nearly always met with little or no intervention by employers or HR staff.

Yet there are effective steps employers can take. To curb bullying behaviour within the workplace, firms can formalise work policies and build in intervention mechanisms to reduce or prevent incivility.

A first step would include clearly defining what constitutes uncivil acts in the workplace. From there firms can devise training programmes for employees about incivility and it can also be incorporated into performance appraisals.  Knowing what to look out for, supervisors can periodically review the tone used in their team’s interpersonal interactions and communications.

Being alert to uncivil verbal or written interactions would help identify specific areas for mediation in a timely manner.

Second, firms should encourage managers to intervene and point out inappropriate behaviour when necessary. This is most important especially when managers are aware of uncivil episodes between staff. Tell-tale signs of individuals causing harm to others, would be those who behave uncivilly to single targets in private, as opposed to those who publicly lash out at multiple people.

Third, simple prompts and reminders for civil exchange could be built into organisations’ internal messaging systems to curb incivility before it begins. These intervention mechanisms will help employees refrain from blaming themselves, and reduce other harmful effects caused by mistreatment.

In order to curtail incivility, more organisations need to emphasise civil behaviour in their HR policies. Given the mild character of uncivil workplace behaviour, targets, perpetrators, bystanders and leaders should intervene early, instead of dismissing it. This will help build more cohesive and productive work environments for everyone.