Workplace Incivility – The Cruelest Story

By Dr. Annette Roter

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

As many of you know, my focus of research has centered on workplace incivility and toxic, unethical, abusive, and narcissistic leadership.

Many ask me why I focus on such a negative topic.

Why Not Focus on Happy Leadership Thoughts?

Disruptive leadership is a topic that is often ignored in the literature. Think about the times that we enter our favorite bookstore and look at the titles regarding leadership. All of the books teach us how to be better leaders. Even the works of Machiavelli (1469-1527) focused on how to be a great leader.

Machiavelli wrote about leadership back in the late 1400s and early 1500s, stating that the only bad leader was a weak leader, and it was up to the leader to keep subordinates in line, even if it meant cruelty (Kellerman, 2004).

That was then. But in today’s world, we still see this same type of cruelty in leadership.

Incivility in Leadership

Today’s workplace is a part of the society that we live in. Destructive behaviors can cause great psychological damage to victims.

As leaders and employees are faced with increased demands and pressures that impact their lives, we start to see incivility entering the workforce.

As a result of incivility, we find the following:

  • Higher than normal turnover
  • A large number of employees filing grievances and complaints
  • Increased complaints by customers
  • Reduced productivity
  • Cultural and communications barriers
  • Lack of confidence in the leadership
  • Inability to adapt effectively to change
  • Lack of accountability

To address these issues, organizations focus on developing employees to teach them how to communicate better, how to adapt to change, how to hold others accountable, and other training programs. But they fail to discuss incivility.

Promoted for Incivility?

Through my years of research, subjects have shared examples of how incivility has wreaked havoc in the workplace. One participant in a recent study shared a story of a leader who was involved in a relationship with his assistant. When this became public knowledge and was reported to senior leadership, a mock “investigation” took place.

Shortly after the investigation, all who were involved in testifying were eventually terminated from the organization. Reasons included lack of productivity, spreading malicious rumors, and lack of enthusiasm. The leader accused of the affair was not reprimanded. An apology was given to the leader with a promotion.

Later, people found out that senior leadership knew about the affair, and it was actually cheered on by others within the leadership team. However, several people lost their jobs because of the unethical behaviors of the leader and leadership team.

Take a Look at these Examples

In another example, a leader that can best be described as a narcissist would often come into work and fire people just because. One day, an employee was touted publicly as an outstanding performer and recognized for their contributions. Approximately two or three days later, the employee was terminated.

One leader fired an employee simply because the employee had more education than he did. The employee asked what was wrong with their performance, and the leader stated, “Nothing, it is outstanding. But, how does it look when an employee has more education than their boss?”

The Cruelest Story

Finally, the cruelest of stories was shared by several employees.

The leader would often come in, and one never knew what to expect based on the mood of the leader. The leader often shared personal accounts of activities they engaged in with their spouse on the weekend. This was a lunchtime conversation.

A young employee was trying to have a child and suffered several miscarriages. When she returned to work after her most recent miscarriage, she found a box that was beautifully wrapped on her desk.  She opened it only to find a doll in the box. The doll resembled a small newborn baby. It was a gift from the leader.

The employee was devastated, and the leader told the employee to pull it together. The leader said this with a roll of his eyes and a smirk.

A few days later, there was an accident where a woman was hit by a bus outside the building where this leader worked. Everyone knew that the leader was not in the office, and they ran to the window, hoping that the person hit by the bus was actually the leader.

Instead of sadness or concern for the victim, they were joking about seeing who would buy the beers to celebrate the demise of the leader! One of the employees stated that they were saddened when they turned around to find the leader returning from lunch unscathed.

Leadership is the Culture

Naimie (2003) stated that positive and negative behaviors “flow down an organization”. If leadership displays uncivilized behaviors, then the expectation is for employees to act the same way.

While these behaviors cannot be blamed solely on leadership, as leaders, we need to take a step back and reflect on our own behaviors. How do our behaviors impact others around us?

If leaders are acting out, then we can’t expect employees to behave any differently.

Have You Experienced Workplace Incivility?

If you have ideas about workplace incivility that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

Would you like to contribute a post?

Dr. Annette Roter
Dr. Annette Roter
Annette is an experienced leadership and organization development professional. Her research focus is on toxic and destructive behaviors within organizations. Her email is
  • These behaviors show a sense of detachment from the personal effect that they have on another human being. It is this lack of sensitivity for the welfare of others, and a belief that these concerns are not part of the job, that make this a challenge for a manager to change. This is not limited to managers, by the way. Line staff are seen to mistreat their co-workers, and even their superiors (upward bullying)

    The issue is much larger than inappropriate or offensive treatment of others. This belief system is what is also responsible for sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination, arrogance, targeting, attacking, blaming, discrimination, character assassination, spouse abuse, and other unacceptable behaviors.

    They exist only because they are allowed to. As the last sub-head says, it becomes part of the culture, an accepted way of doing things.

    We tend to focus on the very negative aspects of this behavior, but as managers we need to realize that we are witnessing a mindset that is 180 degrees/diametrically opposed to what a true leader is, and how harmful it is to the organization’s ability to succeed. The difference in the type of results that good and bad managers can create is astronomical, which makes it a crime that bad behavior is not curtailed. It makes upper management complicit and guilty of the greater crime because their inaction ends up affecting the whole company. Penn State is an example of this, a rotten culture that no one was willing to address until it was too late. The unfeeling detachment extended to the very top, and ruined the lives of many.

  • Barbara Daiker says:

    Your article made me wonder if the challenges of incivility are worse now because of the low number of jobs in the marketplace. People might feel less empowered to speak up and instead “put up” with poor leaders due to lack of opportunity to leave the job. A leader that knows this might take their behaviors a little further.

  • Tina Crouse says:

    When I was a young woman discussing these types of things with young men, most told me that you were ‘suppose’ to treat each other this way at work. They were having bad experiences and had every intention of visiting them on the next guy – a type of hazing. They knew it was wrong (morally) but knew it was ‘right’ professionally. These young men are now senior professionals and all have surpassed me in their careers.

  • Alfred Bolden Jr says:

    Thanks Annette, we all can share stories of our experiences in dealing with “bad” leaders. Your article reminds us of how not to be, and these are important reminders. Again Thank You

  • Barbara,

    I think that because of the economy we are asked to do more with less. Stretching leaders too thin and as a result acting out in an inappropriate ways. Some of the behavior listed was in my research prior to the issues with the economy. I do believe though you make a great suggestions!

  • You are well Alfred. It is a topic that so many people struggle with yet, is also one that does get addressed! A topic that we all have to keep focused on and addressing these topics when we see this type of behavior happening

  • It really surprises me how this type of management behavior can happen. My experience goes with your saying the employees actions will replicate the actions of their manager. It really changes the morale and work ethnic in a department. I look forward to your next article.

  • Hello Brenda,

    Thank you for your response. Yes, if a leader is acting in a way that is not civil or is viewed as toxic, employees will morph and adopt these behaviors as well. Sadly, this type of behavior happens quite often in today’s organizations! Annette

  • Mark Cody says:

    Leaders is a misgiving name for some managers as it is quite evident from some organizations that they do indeed = dont lead!!

    Leaders inspire and invite change and promote democracy within the environment.

    Nice post too!

  • Florida Starks says:

    Really good article. Information provided clearly articulates the need for organizations to focus on a basic concept with such a grand impact when done appropriately.

  • Mark Cody says:

    Some Organisations are like ‘Tribal Villages’ they create their own culture and ‘buzz’ words and you have to fit in or your out. I believe there is a large bullying element in these Companies and the average Employee is unlikely to speak out!

  • Gary Ellis says:

    Interesting post and outlines the culture of the company and how important they can sometimes put themselves above people skills!

  • I get the perception that managers discipline more than ‘lead’ – this is a culture thats inbred in most companies now.

  • Working for myself its difficult sometimes to motivate and to keep ahead in the management game. Nice post – interesting

  • Quite right that leadership skills flow from the top and should be applied in a professional manner at all times. Interesting article!

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