Incivility is a bottom line issue

In Season 1 of The Newsroom, the latest series by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame, the uber-intelligent, talented, opinionated and really cranky anchor of the fictitious Newsnight, Will McAvoy (played by Emmy award winner Jeff Daniels), decides he's on a 'mission to civilise'. Ironically his attempts to appeal to the better nature of his targets are so offensive he cops a drink in the face the first two times he tries it! Apart from a bruised ego and some dry cleaning bills, Mr McAvoy's failure to be civil while delivering his message about civility really didn't cost him much. But what if you could put a dollar figure on how much rudeness and 'incivility' in the workplace actually costs?

That's precisely what business consultants and professors, Christine Pearson and Christine Porath have done in the their book The Cost of Bad Behaviour - How Incivility is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It. Based on a decade of research they've come up with a model for calculating the dollar costs of incivility in the work place. And the costs aren't just confined to the obvious ones like the cost of staff turnover (although that's a biggy) and loss of customers through rude frontline staff.

The introduction on the dust cover of the book is compelling: "Now more than ever, tensions are running high at the office. But while managers everywhere are trying to cut costs and maximise productivity, chances are they're missing one potentially devastating expense: the high cost of bad behaviour."

The costing model is based on a case study of Cisco Systems calculated on hard data from Pearson and Porath's study into the incidence and previously obscure effects of incivility among 775 non-Cisco employees including:

  • 53 percent of employees surveyed lost work time worrying about the incident and future interactions with the offender.
  • 37 percent reported a weakened sense of commitment to their organisations.
  • 28 percent lost work time trying to avoid the offender.
  • 22 percent reduced their efforts at work.

Additionally a whopping 46 percent thought about changing jobs to get away from the offender, 12 percent actually did change jobs and 10 percent decreased the amount of time they spent at work.

Cisco estimated that one employee in a hundred would experience incivility at work in the course of a year - a total of 490 employees out of 49,000 at the time. Cisco consistently ranks in the top echelon of Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For so this conservative estimate of workplace incivility isn't misplaced. However, despite this, the dollar impacts were still considerable.

A baseline calculation of weakened commitment and time lost worrying about future interactions with offenders was US$2 million. Add in lost productivity and new hire costs for employees who actually did leave the company and it totals US$8 million. And that's before calculating reductions in effort at work, time spent avoiding work or the even more obscure secondary effects on those who've witnessed incivility towards colleagues or customers who've witnessed employees being rudely treated by their colleagues/superiors. You can easily see how, even in a very civil work environment like Cisco, these costs could mount up.

The authors' state in their preamble, "Serious costs associated with incivility existed in virtually every organisation that we studied. People who experienced incivility were affected deeply, and nearly everyone took action to get even." And they go on to say targets of incivility in the workplace - whether it came from above, from co-workers or subordinates - would intentionally lower their productivity, work to rule, lose respect for their managers and even leave their jobs. Despite this, few managers registered the fact that incivility could be very costly to the organisation, resulting in no tracking and no inclusion of costs in the profit and loss.

I was particularly interested in the chapter entitled Time Wounds All Heels: Even Offenders Lose. Pearson and Porath found that over the years they've been researching, across industries, a staggering 94 percent of targets get even with their offenders, citing many examples of retribution such as sabotaging a boss by not submitting a report on time or failing to pass on a vital message to a colleague. Some of these reactions can be subtle, covert and long term, bringing new meaning to the old saying, "Revenge is a dish best served cold". In addition the authors' state that offenders themselves also, over time, suffer losses to their reputation and eventually their career prospects.

All of this has a cost associated with it, for the organisation and most definitely the individuals involved - both targets and offenders alike. Thanks to this fascinating and practical book – the Cost of Bad Behaviour, these costs can now be measured.

And if you’d like some further, compelling reading on civility and more importantly, how to practice it, take a look at P.M. Forni’s little book Choosing Civility – The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct. It’s a keeper.