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Workplace Incivility in the UK

By Melissa J. Anderson

According to a new study by Cardiff University, people with disabilities and long-term health problems are the most likely targets for ill-treatment at work – including violence, unreasonable treatment, and disrespect.

Authored by researchers Ralph Fevre, Duncan Lewis, Amanda Robinson and Trevor Jones, the study involved 4,000 in home face-to-face interviews with UK residents. Almost half of respondents reported experiencing unreasonable treatment (i.e. being forced to take on an unmanageable workload), and 40% said they had experienced “incivility and disrespect” like teasing or bullying. A small portion (6%) of the sample had experienced violence at work.

Yet, the researchers note, this is still a large number of people. They write, “It is important to grasp that these are nationally representative figures. Scaling up these responses shows that, even on our lowest scoring item, over 1 million British employees are injured in some way as a result of violence in the workplace.”

These percentages do include incivility perpetrated by clients, customers, and the general public – and the incidence of ill-treatment of those in public facing jobs was considerably higher than average. But, outside this, according to the study, a major perpetrator of ill-treatment is management. That’s why, the researchers say, any efforts to remedy workplace ill-treatment and bullying must start with culture change at the top.

Management and Bullying

According to the survey, almost a third of employees experience “unmanageable workloads and impossible deadlines” and a quarter said their views and opinions are ignored. One in five said their employers “did not follow proper procedures.”

The study explains:

“…for the most part, it would not be too far-fetched to rename unreasonable treatment as ‘unreasonable management’. We also found evidence that much of this unreasonable treatment has a serial form with the same person, probably a manager, being responsible for two or more incidences of ill-treatment.”

When it comes to incidents of unreasonable treatment, a change in the nature of one’s work or role can be a factor. But according to the report, when it comes to incivility and disrespect, the workplace culture is more often the culprit than the role one occupies.

The study goes on to suggest that managers should be measured on their performance when it comes to fairness. They say, “Genuine commitment to fairness and respect is the only way in which organisations can hope to place the drive for fairness and respect on a par with any other organisational priorities. Indeed, it should be pursued at the same time as other priorities.”

They add:

“Altering the behaviour of managers is the key to the adoption of successful solutions to ill-treatment because they are responsible for so much of it, and because it is managers that leaders will use to help them extend the requirement to promote fairness and respect throughout the organisation.”

Top-down leadership is key to ending workplace ill-treatment.

Other Factors

According to the report, individuals who are most likely to experience unreasonable treatment, incivility, and disrespect are those who with psychological or learning disabilities. “For example they were more than five times as likely to experience gossip, rumours and allegations, nearly five times as likely to experience people excluding them from their group; and eight times as likely to feel threatened,” the report says.

The researchers posit that managers and coworkers are targeting this group because they feel they are getting special accommodations they don’t deserve.

“We believe much of this incivility and disrespect is related to managers and co-workers impressing on workers with other disabilities that, if they had different needs to other workers, they did not deserve the same rewards or, perhaps, to hold onto their jobs. This may well be why they were more than three times as likely to be ridiculed in connection with their work, persistently or unfairly criticised or be in receipt of hints that they should quit their jobs.”

Looking at the larger picture, the researchers suggest that whether employees are treated as people can strongly influence workplace relations. They write, “Employees who thought people were not treated as individuals were at the greatest risk of unreasonable treatment across the board in our model, stronger even than having less control over one’s work or having a disability.”

When managers and coworkers acknowledge one another as individuals, they can better work to create civil and productive workplaces.

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