Study Highlights Importance of Employee Civility

Rude behavior among employees can negatively affect consumer perceptions — even when the incivility isn't directed at the customer, reveals new research from the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. Across a range of industries, including restaurants, banks, government offices, continuing care communities, retail stores and universities, consumers frequently report seeing employees behaving badly toward other employees, including derogatory comments or inappropriate gestures.

"These findings underscore the need for organizations to promote employee civility," said Deborah MacInnis, professor of Business Administration at the USC Marshall School of Business and Vice Dean for Research and Strategy. "Training employees to treat one another well enhances the bottom line because of its impact on customer behavior."

Across four studies, MacInnis and co-authors examined how consumers witnessing acts of employee incivility may extend their experiences to more general feelings about the company. They found that people witnessing employee incivility — in one case, a store manager calling an employee an "idiot" — were faster to jump to negative conclusions about the company than those who witnessed employee incompetence.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that customers turned against the company even in instances when the rude employee was trying to help the customer. In one of the studies, people who had to wait several minutes as an employee gossiped on the phone still formed negative impressions of the company when the employee was reprimanded rudely by another employee in front of them. "Whereas one might anticipate that incivility directed at consumers has extremely negative effect, we show that consumers are also negatively affected when they are mere observers of incivility between employees," the authors write.

The authors suggest ways for corporations to promote employee civility, including: training in civility, setting zero-tolerance expectations, and reprimanding incivility before it festers.

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