Toxic work environments sap much more than morale, says researcher

Do you dread going to work and having to face a tough boss or difficult colleagues? Christine Porath on the high cost of workplace incivility.

Do you dread going to work and having to face a tough boss or difficult colleagues? You're not alone, says Christine Porath. The Georgetown University associate professor says workplace incivility — rude, disrespectful or insensitive behaviour — is widespread and on the rise. More than half of the people she has surveyed, across 17 industries over the course of nearly 20 years, experience it weekly.

The researcher joins q host Shad to discuss the surprising and subtle effects of tough work environments, even for those who aren't the direct targets of bad treatment.

"Performance really plummets following even just witnessing incivility," she says.

What does workplace incivility look like? 

The trouble with measuring incivility is that it's subjective, says Porath. People have varying degrees of tolerance for difficult exchanges, and others even contribute to it subconsciously. Besides blatantly mocking or yelling at someone, there are quieter ways in which people add to toxic environments, including:  

1) Belittling subordinates: Giving harsh criticism that isn't constructive, especially in front of other colleagues. Saying things like "this is kindergarten work," can make people feel small and embarrassed. 

2) Taking credit for other's work: Withholding praise, gratitude and credit where credit is due. 

3) Treating curtness as efficiency: As a function of being stressed or overloaded, claiming that there's simply no time to be nice, or that brusqueness is simply part of playing in the big leagues. 

4) Ignoring tone in expressing disappointment: Putting little to no thought into what needs to be said, or how it might impact a worker with a particular personality. Assuming that one style fits all. 

5) Failing to make eye contact and smile: Contributing to a cold and detached climate by ignoring small opportunities for basic acknowledgement. 

WEB EXTRA | How toxic is your workplace? Take this quiz developed by Christine Porath and let us know your results. Do they surprise you? 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.