An Employee’s Uncivil Behavior Can Harm Other Employees and Customers

word of mouth

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More than three years ago (12/13/09 to be precise), I wrote about people with a situational value system. That post in December 2009 was about my experience as a waiter and my story about a rude customer, the wife of a famous baseball player, who snapped her fingers in a demanding way to get my attention.

The situational value system post has become the most visited post on WorkplacePsychology.Net. Over the months, and now years, that followed, I have tried to come up with a follow-up or related post. It’s not easy to do a follow-up to something that has been so well received.

Based on the number of visits and people who have shared the post or clicked on the “like” button, it seems many people can relate to or have their own stories about knowing, experiencing, and/or witnessing someone with a situational value system (i.e., an individual who treats people differently based on that person’s status).

What I have wanted to do since that time was to further explore mistreatment and uncivil behaviors in the workplace. Because my original post in 2009 talked about the impact that one customer had on me (an employee), this post in 2013 will be about the negative effects of employee uncivil behaviors on customers, coworkers, or subordinates (if the employee is in a managerial role). There’s quite a bit of research in this area, although my guess is that by writing about it, it will not be anywhere near as popular.

Harm to Customers Who Directly Experienced It or Were Witnesses to It And the Negative Business Effects

Customers Who Directly Experienced Uncivil Behaviors

Hawkins and Mothersbaugh (2010) outlined three coping strategies customers use when confronted with bad customer service (p. 381):

  • Active coping: Thinking of ways to solve the problem, engaging in restraint to avoid rash behavior, and making the best of the situation.
  • Expressive support seeking: Venting emotions and seeking emotional and problem-focused assistance from others.
  • Avoidance: Avoiding the retailer mentally or physically or engaging in complete self-denial of the event.

The customer might work with the organization to try to resolve the situation (active coping). Other customers might decide to vent their frustrations to the company (expressive support seeking) or they might tell their friends or broadcast it online about their bad experience (negative word of mouth [WOM]). The last case, avoidance, is also damaging because a customer might choose to avoid an organization completely or continue to be a customer but makes an effort to avoid the company (either physically or mentally), in which case the result will be lost sales (Hawkins & Mothersbaugh, 2010).

“Many times, however, consumers do not complain to the company, but instead take actions such as switching brands or engaging in negative word of mouth (WOM)” (Hawkins & Mothersbaugh, 2010, p. 636).

Customers Who Were Witnesses to Uncivil Behaviors

Porath, MacInnis, & Folkes (2010) found that when an employee mistreated or was uncivil (e.g., being rude or discourteous, ignoring or making derogatory remarks, passing blame for their own mistakes, belittling the efforts of others, etc.) toward another employee, customers who witnessed it tended to “make negative generalizations about (a) others who work for the firm, (b) the firm as a whole, and (c) future encounters with the firm, inferences that [went] well beyond the incivility incident” (p. 292). What researchers discovered was that “consumers [were] also negatively affected even when they [were] mere observers of incivility between employees” (Porath et al., 2010, p. 301).

Harm to Coworkers or Subordinates

Pearson & Porath (2009) discovered in their studies that 1 in 5 employees reported being targets of incivility from a coworker at least once a week. About 2/3 said they witnessed incivility happening among other employees at least once a month. Ten percent said they saw incivility among their coworkers every day.

A survey of public sector employees in the United States found that 71% of respondents reported at least some experience of workplace incivility from a supervisor or coworker (e.g., being treated rudely or discourteously, having a coworker or boss ignore or make derogatory remarks, being blamed for a colleague’s mistakes, being belittled, having someone set them up to fail, being shut out of a team, etc.) during the previous 5 years, and 6% reported experiencing such behavior many times (Cortina, Magley, Williams, & Langhout, 2001).

Lim, Cortina, and Magley (2008) found that (1) “uncivil work experiences also appear to have a direct negative influence on mental health” (p. 104), (2) employees who experienced incivility were more likely to be dissatisfied with their boss and coworkers than with the the job itself, and (3) those personal experiences of workplace incivility can lead to them eventually quitting their jobs.


An employee who engages in uncivil behavior (i.e., being rude, insensitive, or disrespectful) is harmful to: (1) other employees inside the organization, and (2) customers who are direct targets of such behaviors or who might simply be witnesses (from the outside) to uncivil behaviors between employees.


Cortina, L. M., Magley, V. J., Williams, J. H., & Langhout, R. D. (2001). Incivility in the workplace: Incidence and impact. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 6(1), 64-80.

Hawkins, D. I., & Mothersbaugh, D. L. (2010). Consumer behavior: Building marketing strategy (11th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

Lim, S., Cortina, L. M., Magley, V. J. (2008). Personal and workgroup incivility: Impact on work and health outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(1), 95-107. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.93.1.95

Pearson, C. & Porath, C. (2009). The cost of bad behavior: How incivility is damaging your business and what to do about it. New York, NY: Portfolio.

Porath, C., MacInnis, D., & Folkes, V. (2010). Witnessing incivility among employees: Effects on consumer anger and negative inferences about companies. Journal of Consumer Research, 37(2), 292-303.