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Study reveals effects of workplace rudeness on employee health, sense of belonging

Researcher Sandy Hershcovis finds persistent rudeness from powerful people has far-reaching impact
February 16, 2017

Research from the Haskayne School of Business and London School of Economics and Political Science highlights the psychological and even physical impact of workplace incivility.

According to the newly published research, when workers regularly experience incivility from the same person — including behaviours such as rudeness, being ignored or being put down — it can wreak havoc on victims’ sense of belonging, feelings of embarrassment, and job insecurity. The study also shows that victims can feel physical symptoms such as stomach problems, sleeplessness and headaches. Persistent incivility, particularly from a person in a powerful position, has far-reaching effects.

Incivility consequences include embarrassment and physical well-being

“The most significant finding is that even low-level forms of mistreatment such as incivility can embarrass targets, and can also threaten their feelings of belongingess, which affects both their feeling of job security and their physical well-being. Moreover, these negative consequences can persist for an average of three days after they occurred,” says lead researcher Sandy Hershcovis from the Haskayne School of Business.

“It’s also important to note that incivility is more embarrassing when it comes from someone who is powerful, and that the powerful exacerbate the already negative effects of incivility.”

The researchers conducted two studies of full-time employees in North America who had experienced this kind of behaviour in the workplace. The results have been published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

The research is among the first to demonstrate the relationship between workers’ experience of incivility and feelings of isolation and embarrassment. It also suggests that companies need to effectively address incivility because of its consequences.

Social support can help targeted employees feel less isolated

“One of the findings of our study is that incivility may make people question their value to the organization. It’s important for management to regularly reinforce people’s value to the organization, so that when employees inevitably experience incivility they won’t be as threatened by it,” adds Hershcovis.

“Our findings also show that employees are embarrassed when they are treated uncivilly, which implies that they care what witnesses think. This suggests an important role for witnesses, who can help targets by providing social support that help employees feel less isolated.”

The study was co-authored by Haskayne’s Tunde Ogunfowora, Tara C. Reich from the London School of Economics and Political Science and Amy M. Christie from Wilfrid Laurier University. The study was supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.  

Sandy Hershcovis, associate professor and area chair of strategy and organizations at the Haskayne School of Business, studied the impact of incivility on employee health.
Photo by Jazhart Studios Inc.

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