Shaming, ignoring, gossiping, gaslighting: HR experts say ‘workplace incivility’ is 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 took a toll on her.

"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 

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