Distinguishing workplace incivility and abrasiveness from bullying and mobbing

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Sunday’s weekly review section of the New York Times spotlights Christine Porath’s piece on workplace incivility and rudeness. Dr. Porath (Georgetown U.) is a pioneering researcher on workplace incivility, and the fact that the Times has given this topic such prominent play is a good thing. She starts her piece with a personal story:

MEAN bosses could have killed my father. I vividly recall walking into a hospital room outside of Cleveland to see my strong, athletic dad lying with electrodes strapped to his bare chest. What put him there? I believe it was work-related stress. For years he endured two uncivil bosses.

Porath goes on to examine the individual health effects and organizational costs of workplace incivility, much of which is drawn from her own extensive work in this realm. It’s an excellent piece that covers a lot of ground.

Incivility vs. bullying

Readers from outside of academe may be amused to learn that research on bad workplace behaviors has broken down into several camps. Two of these are the incivility researchers and the bullying researchers. At organizational psychology conferences, it’s not unusual to hear remarks such as “oh, she’s an incivility person” or “no, he’s more into bullying.”

When I started this work over 15 years ago, I treated these behaviors as parts of a spectrum, with many overlaps present, but it’s clear that sharper lines are being drawn, at least for the purposes of putting together panel discussions and writing dissertations.

For me, the most significant line is where behaviors become abusive, motivated in significant part by a desire to cause distress or harm. When that line is crossed, it’s not about incivility or bad manners; we’re now into the territory of bullying or mobbing.

Porath suggests that acts of workplace incivility are not necessarily intentional:

Incivility often grows out of ignorance, not malice. A surgeon told me that until he received some harsh feedback, he was clueless that so many people thought he was a jerk. He was simply treating residents the way he had been trained.

In some cases, I’d agree. Of course, it’s also possible that someone claiming to be unaware of how his behaviors are being perceived is simply lying. Think, for example, of instances of sexual harassment where the harasser untruthfully claims that he had “no idea” how unwelcome his behaviors were or that he was “only joking around.”

Furthermore, we can delve deeper into social attitudes that may fuel individual behaviors, such as those assuming that some people, by dint of their status, aren’t entitled to the same level of respect as others. For example, if a company’s leadership regards entry-level workers as being replaceable or expendable parts, then its employee relations practices will reflect these (lousy) values. Complaints about mistreatment lodged by one of these “uppity” workers will be handled accordingly.

Yup, even the line drawing gets complicated.

The role of the law

Porath does not mention the potential role of the law in regulating uncivil behavior. Some might consider it an oversight, but in the context of how she’s approaching this topic, it’s not. In fact, as the author of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill, I have long held that the law must intercede when workplace behaviors are abusive, rather than being merely rude or abrasive.

The role of the law should be to prevent and prohibit abuse, and to provide a means of compensation for people who have been subjected to it. Fostering civility, on the other hand, should be the product of good leadership, not rules or codes.

Of course, determining when conduct has become abusive can be a challenging task, especially in alleged bullying cases where bad behaviors are indirect and nuanced, but there’s often a point at which the light bulbs go on and the situation becomes clear.

Acknowledging abuse

Ask anyone who has experienced genuine workplace bullying, and they’ll tell you: There’s a world of difference between an abrasive boss or co-worker and an abusive one. The same distinction applies between lighter forms of group hazing and full-blown mobbing situations. These differences apply to relationships in general, so there’s no reason not to apply them to the workplace, yes?

Over the years, both incivility and bullying have attracted greater attention from employee relations stakeholders and the popular media. However, we’re still at a point where workplace incivility, rudeness, and abrasiveness are more readily acknowledged than bullying and mobbing. I have many ideas as to why this is the case, and they tend to circle around the nature of power. Those in charge are much more threatened by allegations of bullying than by claims of incivility.

This has led some to suggest that we should abandon the use of emotionally charged terms such as bullying, and instead fall back on softer, less threatening ones such as incivility and abrasiveness. I respectfully, but very strongly, disagree. When someone is being savagely abused at work, it’s not about bad manners or “jerky” behavior. We need to keep these distinctions in mind, even if it makes some people uncomfortable to face them.

6 responses

  1. As someone who was the victim of extreme workplace abuse several years ago (I fought back and won) but has recently begun experiencing the negative impact of extreme abrasiveness and incivility of a new employee, I applaud you for accurately highlighting the distinction between the two. Please don’t back down as you fight back against those who argue that the terms bullying and abuse are too emotionally charged. Keep on fighting the good fight!

  2. Incivility is vastly different than workplace bullying! Both behaviors create a hostile and stress filled work environment but in healthcare, these behaviors and our indivdual reactions to these behaviors create can create a delay in treatment or decreases nurse productivity affects patient care. I certainly hope healthcare organizations get the message and work with staff to create abetter work environment for employees.

  3. Maybe instead of using the words “workplace bullying,” use of the words “workplace abuse” may do a better job of bringing the attention where it needs to be.

    • Yes, DR, I agree 100%! “Abuse” would be a more legitimizing term in the attempt to distinguish it from “incivility”. Maybe David Yamada can clarify the evolution of “workplace bullying” vs “workplace abuse” in the fight for a U.S. law against it.

    • Folks, actually on the legal reform side we’ve been there from the start. The Healthy Workplace Bill uses the term “abusive work environment” to identify the prohibited behavior. “Workplace bullying” does not appear in the key definitional provisions of the template legislation, and this dates back to my original draft over a decade ago. As for what term is invoked in more public, everyday conversation, workplace bullying is the most popular, along with mobbing, workplace abuse, workplace harassment, and others.

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