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Author's profile photo Jeremy Kestler

Coach’s Corner – Be Happier in Your Career by Learning to Spot Incivility Early On

Find employers whose values align with your own

Early in my career, I looked on as our team leader scolded one of my coworkers. There was a misunderstanding the previous evening and the team leader felt that my coworker had rudely brushed him off in front of a client. The next morning, he ambushed her in front of our team expressing his disappointment and admonishing her, “You’re lucky you got a job, missy.” She quit that afternoon.

As sad as I was to see her go, I have always admired her decisiveness and her refusal to be treated so disrespectfully.

I’m a member of the SAP Global Talent, Leadership and Learning Team and an Internal Coach at SAP. The topic of incivility is important to me because I’ve seen the toll it can take on people and teams and I’ve also seen what high-performance teams can accomplish when working from a foundation of trust and respect.

Incivility is defined as disrespect, rudeness or ill treatment. Examples of incivility include behaviors such as mocking, belittling, teasing, insults, sarcasm or telling offensive inappropriate jokes. Other examples may also include bullying, harassment, escalation, infighting, posturing, information hoarding and territoriality. These behaviors are corrosive to an organization’s culture. When they go unchecked, they erode trust and create an unstable environment. And, incivility is contagious. This presents a challenge for leaders, employees and job seekers.

Typically, you won’t discover the more negative side of a company’s culture until you’re already on board; however, there are tools, such as Glassdoor, to help you learn what it’s like to be an employee of a company before you accept an offer from them. LinkedIn can also be a great tool to use to perform background research on a company and to identify contacts who can provide insights about a firm’s culture. It’s critical to research your future employers and managers as best you can because incivility in today’s workplace is unfortunately all too common.

As you navigate your career and choose your workplace, it can be helpful to examine what matters most to you by exploring your values. Consulting a professional coach is a great way to do this, especially early in your career when you are formulating your career goals. For example, your standards for integrity and fair treatment may not become clear to you until they are challenged.

One of my favorite singer-songwriters, David Wilcox, has a laugh line in his song Rule Number One about a couple on a first date: “If he’s rude to the waiter and it makes your heart confused / This is lesson number one…run!” This is also a great guideline to follow when deciding where to work and for whom.


The high cost of incivility

Dr. Christine Porath, an Associate Professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, studies incivility and its impact on companies and employees. She is the author of the award-winning book, Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace (2016) and coauthor of The Cost of Bad Behavior (2009). Her TED talk on this topic Why being respectful to your coworkers is good for business has more than 1 million views.

An inhospitable environment affects employees’ mental and physical health. Dr. Porath explains, “It affects our emotions, our motivation, our performance and how we treat others. It even affects our attention and takes some of our brainpower.” She has lots of data to support this. Based on her research, when people experience incivility at work, 66% of them cut back their work contributions; 80% reported that they lost work time worrying about the situation; and 12% left their jobs.

Incivility also impacts those who observe others being treated badly. Dr. Porath’s research showed that witnesses reported 25% worse performance and generated 45% fewer ideas. In another study, 20,000 employees were asked what they wanted from their leaders. Results showed that the most common response was respect. Those who felt respected were 56% healthier, 92% more focused, 1.1x more likely to stay with the organization and 55% more engaged.

Dr. Porath also makes a strong case for the financial benefits companies gain by creating a healthy work environment. She says, “Civility and respect can be used to boost an organization’s performance…When we have more civil environments, we are more creative, productive, helpful, happy and healthy.”


Leaders must set the tone

In Mastering Civility, Dr. Porath cites a recent study in which 95% of respondents believed that we have a civility problem in the workplace. Notably, 70% believed that incivility has reached crisis-level proportions. What does this mean for leaders? It means that leaders have a unique opportunity to help their companies stand out by creating positive, supportive cultures that nurture and encourage mutual respect among all employees.

In The Cost of Bad Behavior, the authors provide a top 10 list of guidelines that organizations should follow to create a civil workplace. For example, they encourage listening through 360 feedback surveys as a temperature check. They recommend training employees and managers on how to recognize and respond to signals of incivility. Here are my 2 favorites: #1 Set zero-tolerance expectations; #7 When incivility occurs, hammer it. I have been fortunate to work for some phenomenal leaders who adhere to these guidelines, and who have shown the courage and confidence to crack down on bad behavior. Sadly, however, it is far more common to have leaders who just let things go.

The head of human resources for a major hospital group recently spoke about a cultural transformation initiative at a networking event I attended. They were addressing the problem of shattered morale in one of their hospitals caused by doctors who frequently and publicly berated nurses. Even though they clearly communicated the new guidelines for proper conduct, one powerful doctor continued his disrespectful behavior. Despite stern warnings, he continued his offensive behavior and was fired. The head of HR highlighted his firing as the pivotal moment when the cultural turnaround gained momentum because it demonstrated to the nurses that the company would support them and safeguard their treatment on the job.

Although cracking down on incivility is critical, leaders must go further. As Dr. Porath points out, “Not holding someone down, isn’t the same thing as lifting them up…How can you lift people up? Saying thank you, sharing credit, listening attentively, acknowledging others, smiling.”


Culture and “human skills” as differentiators

SAP Chief Learning Officer Jenny Dearborn champions the growing importance of “human skills” such as creativity and innovation, empathy, emotional intelligence, cross-cultural awareness, persuasion, active listening, and acceptance of change (Soft Skills will be Essential for Future Careers, September 11, 2017.) These competencies will become critical differentiators for workers in all career fields as automation replaces the repetitive aspects of many jobs.

To practice and cultivate these skills, you must be in a work environment where they are valued. Companies that become known for developing the careers of their employees will become more attractive to job applicants and top performers. These firms will retain the best employees and win the war for talent, enabling them to win in the marketplace.

By defining your values, recognizing and avoiding work environments that tolerate incivility, and by improving your own “human skills,” you will be paving the way to a successful and rewarding career.


Check out more blog posts in the series: Coach’s Corner.

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      Author's profile photo Candace Horton
      Candace Horton

      Thank you Jeremy for bringing the statistics to an important part of our lives - being human! How we treat others and the words we use has a tremendous impact on us and how we perform at work.

      Author's profile photo Jeremy Kestler
      Jeremy Kestler
      Blog Post Author

      Thank you so much Candace So true!


      Author's profile photo Radha Devaraj
      Radha Devaraj


      Thank you for such an excellent  and relevant blog on a unique topic.

      I could just read through it so easily and could understand the powerful message behind every line.

      Here are some of the key points that I could gather  from the blog as most valuable:

      • “Civility and respect can be used to boost an organization’s performance…When we have more civil environments, we are more creative, productive, helpful, happy and healthy.”
      • I agree that the courage and confidence of leaders to crack down on bad behavior rather than let things go makes a difference to the organization and  for the people working for it.
      • How can you lift people up? Saying thank you, sharing credit, listening attentively, acknowledging others, smiling

      Very good blog….great thoughts….and a good blend of powerful messages  and statistics……

      Author's profile photo Jeremy Kestler
      Jeremy Kestler
      Blog Post Author

      Thank you for the kind feedback Radha. I’m very glad to hear that you found the content relevant and useful and easy to read.


      Author's profile photo Barbara Jamelli-Sefchik
      Barbara Jamelli-Sefchik

      This is a great blog Jeremy!  Our humanness should be something we nurture every day and in every situation. I was in a negative situation with a manager once: he didn't use EI in any way/shape/form.  His incivility was insidious, and I ended up leaving a team I had loved until that point.  Thank you for raising this very important issue.  We all have a responsibility to one another!


      Author's profile photo Jeremy Kestler
      Jeremy Kestler
      Blog Post Author

      Thank you Barbara. Way too common! Lots of bad apples out there. And while coaching can help you gain perspective on difficult situations or other workplace conflicts, the best thing by far is to avoid or leave those situations, just as you did.

      Think about that manager you mentioned. Estimate how many other people were also negatively affected. I imagine that there were a lot. Unfortunately, these things typically go on for a long time unabated.

      Author's profile photo Kelly Rider
      Kelly Rider

      Great article! When I worked at SFSF, the #1 rule was "No Jerks" (actually it was a little different but I'll use the 'cleaner' version of the rule). I loved seeing this as a guideline for anyone who worked at the company and it really represented the culture of respect and dignity that should be followed in all work environments. As we see so much incivility in our 'outside of work' lives - these behaviors simply cannot be tolerated in a work environment. I'm proud to work with you and appreciate your commitment to making SAP a best run company 🙂

      Author's profile photo Jeremy Kestler
      Jeremy Kestler
      Blog Post Author

      Thanks so much Kelly. Great to have that rule! Short and sweet. And even better that it sounds like it was also enforced. The SFSF culture that you all brought over has been terrific for SAP in many ways. Proud to work with you as well! My all time fave Far Side cartoon below. (c) Gary Larson. (Hope I'm not violating any laws or community rules by posting!)

      Author's profile photo Jeremy Kestler
      Jeremy Kestler
      Blog Post Author are a couple of great HBR articles on this topic. Can you believe they were studying jerks as early as 2005? 😉

      HBR: Fool vs. Jerk: Whom Would You Hire?
      HBR: Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks


      Author's profile photo Joshua Margo
      Joshua Margo



      This is a very well written article and it deals with one of my favorite subjects: being a mensch, a decent human being.  Imagine what the world could be like if we all acted with civility toward each other.  Thank you for this contribution.

      Author's profile photo Jeremy Kestler
      Jeremy Kestler
      Blog Post Author

      Thank you for the kind words Josh! Truth!

      Author's profile photo Jayne Phillips
      Jayne Phillips

      Jeremy, great blog and thank you for sharing.  It is an important topic and I love your initial story about your co-worker who quickly made the choice to move on and away from the hostility she experienced.  I feel personally fortunate that if I were to be placed into a similar situation today I would have choices and options; I feel I would have the resources and fortitude to deal with the incivility or to remove myself from the situation.

      However, not everyone is as fortunate.  Sadly many people face incivility and because of their circumstances they cannot combat it or extricate themselves.

      I think it is incumbent on all of us to be aware and to help those in tough situations to manage them, remove themselves or to cope.  Coaching is one of the valuable resources available to many and those of us in SAP are very fortunate for our inclusive environment and values of respect.

      Kelly Rider I also resonated with the "no jerks" (modified version) from SuccessFactors values.

      Author's profile photo Jeremy Kestler
      Jeremy Kestler
      Blog Post Author

      Thank you for making this important point Jayne. This is what is so insidious about this problem. It puts people in the hospital because the pressure is so great. People can’t just give up their livelihood or risk their financial well-being. It often takes a mental and physical toll.

      Author's profile photo Joachim Rees
      Joachim Rees

      Hey Jeremy,

      thanks for your blog and for secondary-tagging it with "SAP Community" - that way, it showed up on my (RSS-)radar. I wouldn't have noticed it otherwise.

      I'll try to sum it up to this:

      1. be excellent to each other
      2. if someone is not excellent, leave!

      Good advice, I think!


      PS: Sorry for breaking up the "SAP-only"-pattern in the comments here! 😉

      Author's profile photo Jeremy Kestler
      Jeremy Kestler
      Blog Post Author

      Joachim, thanks for your comment. Glad to have a non-SAP perspective. 😉 And glad it showed up in your feed. I like your short sweet summary. A good guiding principle, sometimes difficult to implement however. And similarly, if you find a great culture and great people, you are lucky, and should stay!

      Author's profile photo Ina Kirchner
      Ina Kirchner

      Thanks Jeremy for sharing this brilliant article!

      Incivility often goes hand in hand with a lack of people skills or lack of EQ. As you point out it is a lot more common than one would think, even in really good companies. Not always does it show in an obvious and blatent verbal violation. Sometimes there is a small instance which one first tries to ignore, but then it repeats and repeats until there is an issue.

      Most people feel quite helpless when faced with incivility. Or they are even ashamed to share openly what happens to them. Therefore I do agree with you that coaching can be a good instrument to deal with the situation in a protected space and find solutions to address the conflict. In addition to that, companies could include an "anti-incivility / pro-civility" paragraph in their values statement and outline clearly what happens in case of violation. Employees should know where they can turn to and get helped. Zero-tolerance is essential to create a trusted workspace.

      Author's profile photo Jeremy Kestler
      Jeremy Kestler
      Blog Post Author

      Thank you for the kind feedback Ina. I agree that it's not always a big "blow up" or an event where uncivil behavior shows. Lots of little things do add up in this case. I think you're right about policies too as Kelly pointed out above, the expectation and tone is set at the top. But policies have to be enforced to have any real meaning. Thanks for your comments!