Job market trends to more workplace bullying, incivility

Incivility-Bullying Infographic

Infographic and article by Patricia Bouweraerts

(Updated Sept. 8, 2018)

Two trends in the U.S. are likely contributing to increased incivility at work, even toward more overt bullying. One other trend is revealing, or reflecting, these difficulties.

The first two currents in question are turnover and a greater number of overqualified staff on the job. The trend that reflects greater workplace incivility is a general acceptance of bullying in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Management professionals and psychologists say that incivility and bullying carry an enormous cost to companies and the people who work for them.

Dana Kabat-Farr, Ph.D. Photograph

Dana Kabat-Farr, Ph.D.

Dana Kabat-Farr, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Nevada, Reno said the interpersonal aspect of the workplace is something she tries to illuminate with her research.

“Incivility (and bullying) does translate into wanting to leave your job — it all adds up — and people don’t want to stand for it, and so they go,” she said. “And it’s a huge cost. The cost of that behavior is that we lose a lot of money for turnover. But it is also lost productivity, as people who experience incivility need to take time to emotionally process the mistreatment. So taking time at work to process this bad behavior can cost money, health and well-being — it’s stressful to experience bullying on the job.”

She said that one reason there is a trend to more workplace bullying is increased employee turnover. It’ a kind of unproductive cycle.

“I do think that the workforce has changed, in that there are more temporary workers — there’s more of a transient nature to positions,” Kabat-Farr said. “When you operate from the perspective that you might not be in the same job forever, you might not take the time to nurture social relationships at work because you are thinking of your job more as a means to an end. For example, you might think of your current job as a stepping stone, thinking ‘I hope to be here to get these five years of experience, but after that I hope to be moving on.’ This is different than say, 30 years ago when we thought of careers developing within one organization. Being able to climb that organizational ladder using the social network was to our advantage.”

Ronald Riggio, Ph.D., writing for Psychology Today, agrees that workers are not staying as long at a job — and are therefore not developing those close bonds with fellow workers.

“This leads to weak organizational cultures, where people feel isolated and disconnected, and this fuels unhappiness,” he wrote in a 2014 article. “Oftentimes, dissatisfaction with the job is either because managers aren’t doing a good job of challenging workers, or workers settling for security over challenge. …With an ever-changing cast of workers, a lack of social connections, and poor leadership, the incidence of bad employee behavior increases. Rather than working as a team, some people see the workplace as a competitive environment, with other employees as the competition for scarce jobs and resources. Coupled with apathy from other employees and management, bullies and others are able to get away (and get ahead) with their bad behavior.”

So, what we’re theorizing is that people who are overqualified may be excluded from the workplace via incivility and therefore maybe withdraw from work and have less satisfaction on the job.

Dana Kabat-Farr, Ph.D.

New study on overqualified workers shows more withdrawal and dissatisfaction

The second trend is that people are taking jobs for which they are overqualified, because they need to keep working, or can’t retire during tough economic times.

Kabat-Farr is currently writing up a study about overqualified workers who feel incivility more strongly and often respond to it with even greater withdrawal from the workplace. Her research samples are child care employees who have more advanced degrees than what is required for their job, and a sample of those who work in domestic violence resource centers.

“What we’re finding is that overqualified workers actually experience negative outcomes at work — so less job satisfaction, more withdrawal from work, and one reason that might be is that they’re experiencing more rudeness,” she said. “So, what we’re theorizing is that people who are overqualified may be excluded from the workplace via incivility and therefore maybe withdraw from work and have less satisfaction on the job.”

Bullying is accepted because people associate leadership with male gender qualities

It is widely known that higher up in the managerial chain of most U.S. corporations, fewer women are found in positions of power.

“There’s a lot of work on gender and leadership, gender and power, where there’s something called, ‘think manager, think male,’” Kabat-Farr said. “This is the idea that when we think about what a manager should look like — what a leader should be like — we stereotype that role into one which is authoritative, displays overt power, and is comfortable claiming their position or their status.”

She said that the role of leader is consistent with the common stereotype of male gender.

“But empathy — that is a quality more aligned, stereotypically, with feminine qualities,” she said. “And so when we look for people who we are going to advance through our organizations, the inconsistency between our perceptions of people who display empathetic traits and what it means to be a ‘good leader’ may result in empathetic, and possibly female, employees not getting tapped for promotion.”

We’ve heard lots of interviews of (political candidate) supporters saying ‘oh it doesn’t matter; he’s going to help us.’ So, I think that’s the same kind of behavior that might play out in the workplace.

Dana Kabat-Farr, Ph.D.

Acceptance of bullying in 2016 politics may reflect workplace incivility

In the past, Americans might have excluded bullies and cheered for the underdog. In the current election cycle, though, there have been clear incidences of bullying language without negative consequences for candidates displaying aggressive behavior.

“We’re seeing some of that play out in the political arena, where normally we would think people will chastise a bully, by declaring ‘oh you totally don’t fit here’ and excluding them; instead, we’re actually seeing people rally around a bully and overlook some of that bad behavior with the idea of ‘he can get things done,’” Kabat-Farr said. “So, we’ll take all that bad stuff — a supporter of the person will say the interpersonal respect doesn’t matter. We’ve heard lots of interviews of supporters saying ‘oh it doesn’t matter; he’s going to help us.’ So, I think that’s the same kind of behavior that might play out in the workplaces. People, not realizing the costs of bullying behavior, focus on the potential advantage, or what they see as an advantage, excusing the nastiness.”

How do you recognize the difference between incivility and bullying, and then handle it?

Incivility Graphic

Infographic by Patricia Bouweraerts

If the trend toward more incivility and bullying does continue to grow, employees can better manage the changing workplace with three strategies; knowing the difference between incivility and bullying, asking leading questions when interviewing, and concentrating on meaning in their work.

“Incivility is distinguished from bullying in that incivility is subtle and ambiguous in intent to harm, that is, it’s hard to maybe put your finger on incivility, and say ‘Oh, he or she definitely meant that,’” Kabat-Farr said. “So, if you are ignored in the hallway — it’s hard to say — is that person just busy or having a bad day? Or, are they really kind of giving you the cold shoulder? Another example may be excluding you from camaraderie. If your name is left off an email of a happy hour at work, was that on purpose? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it was just a simple oversight.”

Bullying, rather, is repeated and shows a pattern.

“So, bullying is much more overt in that it’s by definition repeated and more overt or severe, so you could maybe write down some dates of different events that have happened to you coming from one aggressor — so there’s a pattern,” she said. “That is not to say incivility doesn’t manifest over time in a pattern format. But bullying has to have a pattern.”

Questions to ask in a job interview

Bullying Infographic

Infographic by Patricia Bouweraerts

When interviewing at a new company, Kabat-Farr advises prospective candidates to ask questions about company culture and employee turnover, rather than about rigid work structures.

“Specifically asking questions about the culture at work is certainly legitimate and something I recommend people interviewing for jobs to do,” she said. “I would ask about the social aspects at work. ‘Do you find this to be a collegial place to work?’ And just kind of feel out what they say. It can be hard just based on an interview to feel out cultural aspects of the job.”

Another approach is to ask the interviewer the average length of time an employee works for the organization, and then judging whether the answer is something you would expect, or shorter than typical for that type of job.

“If they say something startling like two years when you expect it to be 10, then you could ask ‘are there any reasons you’ve noticed for why people are leaving?’ to give them an opportunity to explain possible reasons,” she said. “Likely, the interviewer will not be forthcoming with negative information. No one wants to reveal in the interview that it’s a nasty place to work, but it would maybe provide some opportunity to get an insight. If they have a great answer, then it might just soothe you a little bit. … If they’re struggling to make up a politically correct answer, then you might wonder.”

So taking time at work to process this bad behavior can cost money, health and well-being — it’s stressful to experience bullying on the job.

Dana Kabat-Farr, Ph.D.

It can help to concentrate on the meaning of your work

Riggio wrote that concentrating on your own reactions can help manage a difficult situation at work.

“Realize that ultimately satisfaction or dissatisfaction at work is related to how you approach your job,” he wrote. “Try to find meaning in your work, or work that is meaningful to you.”

What do you do if you’re excluded or bullied?

Kabat-Farr said that incivility may be under-reported.

“So we know that, especially for incivility, reporting is very low,” she said. “Because what are you going to do? Go to your manager and say, ’Oh, she didn’t say hi to me.’ No one’s going to report that. …From a management perspective, establishing a culture that incivility isn’t acceptable, but also making very clear that there are avenues to come forward to express grievances. It is important to make people feel as though experiencing rudeness is a legitimate concern. In terms of bullying, that again is that pattern of behavior, so repeated complaints against someone would be definitely something you’d want to take into consideration as a manager.”

Padmaja Ganeshan-Singh, in an article for, wrote that there are several things a person can do if he or she feels bullied:

  • Assess if it’s a one-time incident, or a pattern
  • Address your mental health first and take a few days off to think it through, or seek professional help
  • Record your interactions with the perceived bully
  • Confront the bully and see if they were just unaware of the situation, or if they become defensive
  • Be aware of how your company typically handles reports of bullying
  • Keep to objective facts and be non-emotional when reporting a bully
  • Stay prepared whether or not your company takes any action

Even though the workplace may be trending for now toward more incivility, employees can develop the needed skills to recognize it, research possible strategies, and plan how they want to handle their own reactions when challenging situations come up on the job.

Additional resources about incivility and bullying:

Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success,” by Adam M. Grant

The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t,” by Robert I. Sutton

Cyberbullying & Substance Abuse,” Walter Keenan, Ph.D. and David Cohen, M.D.

The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It,” by Christine Pearson and Christine Porath

Martha Stout, Ph.D, is a clinical psychologist and also a psychology department faculty member at Harvard Medical School for 25 years. She has written a book called, “The Sociopath Next Door” about individuals incapable of empathy. Also, she addresses bullies at work directly in an interview with Book

The Workplace Bullying Institute features articles and podcasts offering help, education and research about being bullied in the workplace.


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