Why do we need research on incivility?

Previous studies indicate that incivility at work is a growing problem. Karin Villaume, researcher at the Department of Learning, Informatics, Management and Ethics (LIME), intends to survey the current situation in the Swedish retail trade.

Photo: Oskar Omne

Text: Lotta Fredholm. First published in Swedish in the magazine Medicinsk Vetenskap no 2 2019

What made you interested in this subject?

“We were inspired by Canadian researchers who carried out a focused initiative at a hospital, with great results – sickness absence decreased by 38 per cent, trust in the management increased, while the signs of stress, burnout and cynicism all decreased. The initiative consisted of organising work group seminars at least once a month. Within each unit, they talked about how civility, incivility and disrespectful behavior were expressed within the work group and possible ways to deal with incivility. The highly positive results made us interested in carrying out a similar study in Sweden.” 

In what way is incivility a problem?

“Where it occurs, it can be a work environment problem. Earlier studies have shown that 99 per cent of the employees asked have witnessed or been subjected to incivility. Half of those who had been subjected to incivility report that they consciously make less of an effort at work, two out of three say that they waste time trying to avoid the perpetrator, and one in four say that they let their frustrations spill over to the customers. In addition, creativity, problem-solving abilities and productivity all decrease, so incivility does have consequences.”

Could you provide some concrete examples? 

“There may be some cultural differences, but things like not holding the door for the person behind you or ignoring others. In e-mails, incivility can be expressed through the use of all caps and expressing frustration, rather than using friendly and objective language. Incivility is interesting as it is not necessarily enacted consciously, unlike aggressiveness for example. Talking loudly on the phone and disturbing your colleague is not necessarily done on purpose, but can still be perceived as incivil.”

Why do you want to look at the retail trade?

“Retail takes place all over the country, and it is also the type of workplace where many young people start their working life. I am running this project with my colleague Dan Hasson, and we will start with a preliminary study where we will send an extensive web-based survey to tens of thousands of employees in order to investigate the possible occurrence of incivility. We will also look at possible correlations between incivility and the psychosocial work environment, signs of long-term stress and sickness absence. And we are also very interested in identifying good examples.”

Is it not enough to work to counteract harassment, abuse and bullying?

“It is important to actively strive towards a good and healthy working environment and to focus on a desired outcome. You then of course also have to define and counteract behaviour that is completely unacceptable.”    

More reading