An Overlooked Epidemic Affects Workplace Health

Workplace microaggression

By Ashley Green, College of Education & Human Development

Small and insignificant comments made in passing, or as jokes, around the workplace can snowball over time causing negative effects.

“You look tired today.”

“You’re young; don’t you know how to use this thing?”

Workplace incivility is taking over organizations, professional relationships and everyday interactions, and understanding why it happens and how to address it starts with awareness, said Jia Wang, associate professor of human resource development at Texas A&M University.

“When we think about incivility, we think about something major, but it doesn’t have to be,” Wang said. “Most of the time it’s the little things accumulated in your daily life that make a huge impact.”

When incivility happens and affects enough employees, the climate can impact productivity and, eventually, an organization’s bottom line. Uncivil acts, also called “microaggressions,” have been cited as a major cause of employee turnover, poor workplace climate and job dissatisfaction.

“Many people experience incivility, but they choose not to speak up because they need the job or worry about retribution,” Wang said. “I want to help people to be courageous and say ‘this is not right, and it needs to stop.’”

So, what can an organization do to reduce and prevent incivility in the workplace?

Define acceptable behavior

The process starts with the organization’s leadership. To make a change in the workplace, leaders need to develop behavior statements. These statements define what qualifies as uncivil on both personal and organizational levels.

“If I was holding a workshop session, I would have [an employer] sit down and brainstorm as many statements as they could,” Wang said. “I would have them think about things they have observed and experienced and what they would consider uncivil.”

Engage with employees

It also is important for the leaders to take a look at their own actions and determine whether they are being civil to their employees. The leadership team has to be willing to engage in conversations with and take feedback from colleagues.

Unfortunately, a lot of people – including CEOs and corporate leaders – are not willing to discuss uncivil behavior because it is uncomfortable and often confrontational.

Recognize behavioral patterns

Wang recommends making small, daily changes such as starting a meeting to discuss bad behavior a company wants to stop and good behavior that deserves recognition.

“To me, incivility is a culture thing and culture change does not happen overnight,” Wang said. “But, you can educate people to be culturally aware and culturally competent.”

Remain accountable

Human resource professionals can play a key role in this process by playing the role of executive coach. This relationship can support cultures and policies that measure behavior and hold individuals accountable.

“What kind of culture do you want to foster in your organization? How do you translate that?” Wang asked.  “The leadership really needs to be serious and sincere about that… being their coach is very important.”

Reinforce your values

Wang said that setting clear behavioral expectations is not enough to stem the flow of uncivil behavior, especially when they are only posted in hallways or addressed once a year.

Continually reviewing and talking about an organization’s behavior statements shows employees that the leadership team is not just checking off a box, but really cares about changing the climate.


Media contact: Ashley Green, Communications Specialist, College of Education & Human Development, at 979-458-1334 or; or Elena Watts, Division of Marketing & Communications, at (979) 458-8412 or

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