Workplace incivility: Gaslighting, shaming, gossiping are on the rise

Angela had been in the media industry for over a decade when she began to notice dismissive behaviors from others at a new job. There was rudeness in meetings, gatekeeping of important information, ignoring her contributions in Slack room discussions, and gaslighting about it all, including from a series of managers. It eventually all took a toll. 

“It affected my self-esteem, big-time,” Angela, who is being identified by her middle name for privacy, tells Fortune. “‘Rude’ isn’t a performance metric. Basic human communication is not a part of what was discussed or expected, but that’s what we’re talking about. To me it’s about basic respect.”

She frequently thought about leaving, but her job was a good one, and she was hesitant. Still, she says, “I was boxed out … At what point do you throw in the towel?” The behavior eventually got so bad that it sent her to therapy—and, finally, out the door. Now, still shaken and questioning her skills as a result of the experience, she’s seriously considering a career change, noting, “It was really bad for my psyche.”

And she’s far from alone. On Glassdoor discussion boards, there’s an endless scroll of people talking about being treated poorly at work—distrusting themselves because a boss questions every move, or facing aggression and gaslighting from coworkers to the point of experiencing “crippling dread and anxiety” and even “PTSD.”

It’s all part of what human resource experts see as a rise in what’s called workplace incivility—behavior that is inconsiderate or rude that “violates social norms for workplace behavior and that leads to negative effects for the employee as well as the organization,” according to John O’Brien, a psychologist and executive coach with a forthcoming book on the topic. 

It’s unlike bullying, which is more easily identifiable and “much more often intentional, usually with a specific target, and meant to intimidate someone so that the bully can have some certain outcome,” O’Brien explains. And it could be an element of “toxicity,” which is more of a catchall about high-stress environments. But incivility, he says, is more often, though not always, unintentional. It’s a collection of “stress-related behaviors that emerge spontaneously and may be seemingly inconsequential, such as eye-rolling,” and which feeling upset over might be brushed off by others as “overreacting.” 

A March 2024 survey of over 1,600 U.S. employees by the membership-based Society for Human Resource Management found that 66% had experienced or witnessed incivility at work within the past month, while 57% had experienced or witnessed such behavior within the past week—with the most common forms of incivility being addressing others disrespectfully (36%), interrupting others who are speaking (34%), and excessive micromanaging (32%). 

It also found only 25% believe their managers are effective at handling incivility when it rears its ugly head.

Further, a 2022 survey of 2,000 global workers by Georgetown University professor of management Christine Porath found that 76% and 78% of respondents, respectively, experience or witness incivility at least once a month, while 78% believe that bad behavior from customers toward employees is more common than it was five years ago. 

“There is such an increase,” Joyce Russell, an executive coach and Dean Emeritus and Professor of Management at the Villanova School of Business, tells Fortune. “I hear this from a lot of people.” When she offered a monthly chat to leaders on the topic recently, she says, “they jumped on the call and just had example after example.” 

Among them: People ignoring others, sending “not nice” emails to an employee and copying everybody, spreading rumors, gossiping, eye rolling in meetings, taking credit for the work of others, and being quick to assign blame and never taking responsibility for problems. “They’re behaviors that have always existed,” Russell says, “but people feel like they’re more acceptable now.” 

Why is this happening?

O’Brien, who has also noticed the rise and believes it mirrors the increasing lack of incivility in society at large, attributes it to a number of factors, including that most ubiquitous of culprits: social media. 

“The more impersonal ways of communicating I think is part of it,” he says, though there’s more to it, as well.

“Stress levels in society have risen and, even prior to the pandemic, levels of depression and anxiety were rising, and I think that has contributed to it,” he says. “Plus the political landscape and cycle that we are in right now—of people getting rewarded for negative behaviors at the national level.” 

Then there are America’s deep political divisions, the fact that many of us have not yet readjusted to coming together in person, and leftover stress from the pandemic. “People don’t know where to put that,” he says, “and if there’s not a lot of emotional intelligence, it comes leaking out in certain ways.” 

While “blatant bullying” is easier to be aware of, point out, and report, says Russell, “smaller signs of disrespect that people are giving each other” are a little harder to pinpoint.

She stresses, though, that such behaviors almost always come from the top down—whether leaders are behaving unethically themselves or simply failing to take action against others who do, thereby condoning it.

“We see this at the highest levels, even from the previous Administration,” she says. “People always look to the leaders, even in firms… If they’re not taking action, then other people think, well, it’s OK. You see a difference in companies where leaders take action or demonstrate better behaviors.” 

Effects—and solutions

When subject to uncivil behaviors, whether by coworkers, leaders, or customers/patients, O’Brien says, “People’s stress levels rise, so they find themselves more tense, irritable, and maybe more reactive.” 

It can also exacerbate mental health issues, he adds, explaining that for people already at risk of depression and anxiety, dealing with workplace incivility “can sometimes be one of the major stressors that triggers a level that may need medical attention.” Plus, quality of work will typically suffer, from standpoints of both productivity and engagement. “Many wind up losing time at work ruminating about the incident,” says O’Brien, who adds that often, those who get treated poorly in turn treat others that way—so the fallout is both “individual and systemic.” 

Also huge, says Russell, is how workplace incivility impacts morale—and how it continues the buildup of stress very likely still lingering from pandemic times. “COVID was such an impactful experience, and I don’t know that we allowed people the time to recuperate from that … People feel overworked and tired, and they just got right back into the race.” Feeling abused on top of it all, she says, “can mean people not wanting to be as loyal or committed” to a workplace. 

So what’s a fed-up employee to do? 

O’Brien suggests people start by trying immediate, direct options, such as having a conversation with the person who has been uncivil. It could also be helpful to consider that the offender may have been so unintentionally. 

“One classic example is someone who is interrupting others in meetings,” he says. ”You may assume they don’t respect your opinion, but in fact there may be something else completely going on. They may have trouble with impulse control.” Sometimes, he suggests, talking through what happened with a boss or a mentor or a peer can help in figuring out how to approach the situation.

“Even talking to friends outside of the organization,” O’Brien suggests. “And if it starts to rise to a level of more significant distress, getting into therapy or seeking out a coach.” Through those discussions, he says, it will be helpful to think about whether or not incivility is the norm at your company. “If that’s the norm, then maybe they have to find a different work environment,” he says. “But that’s the exception as opposed to the rule.”

For leaders, Russell says that bringing in a mediator to help with difficult situations could be “a really good solution, because you’re getting people to try to work together.” 

And in general, she adds, “I don’t think people have good skills with conflict management.” It’s why an outsider could be helpful. But doing more in organizations to properly train leaders to manage and understand conflict can go a long way in battling incivility, she stresses—as can establishing codes of conduct, which she calls “critical.”  

“It all sounds like common sense, but people have gotten away from behaving the way they need to,” Russell says. “And it starts with the leader who can set the right tone and establish guidelines.”

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