Employees Who Are Treated Poorly May Adopt Bad Behavior Themselves

Topic(s): workplace deviance
Publication: Journal of Business and Psychology (2022)
Article: Incivility Begets Incivility: Understanding the Relationship Between Experienced and Enacted Incivility with Customers Over Time
Authors: C. Thomas, L. Johnson, A. Cornelius, H. Cobb, L. Murphy, D. Vega
Reviewed by: Matthew Swanson

Workplace incivility is characterized as rude and condescending behavior intended to inflict harm. Reports suggest that as much as 98% of all employees experience workplace incivility in the US, with research highlighting the toll that chronic exposure to incivility can have on the stress load of workers. New research (Thomas et al., 2022) helps clarify the conditions under which experiencing incivility from customers leads to subsequent incivility toward customers.


Researchers collected survey data from 372 critical-care nurses in the US. Nurses were asked how often they experienced incivility from their patients in the past week, such as reporting how often patients doubted their judgment. Nurses also reported the level of care required for their patients. One week later, nurses were asked to describe the negative emotions they felt toward their patients. After another week, participants were asked to fill out a measure of compassion fatigue (the overall feeling of burnout) and the extent to which they engaged in incivility towards patients.

Results indicated that when nurses experienced incivility from their patients, they were eventually more likely to act with incivility toward their patients. Further, the researchers found that after nurses experience incivility, they have an ensuing increase in both negative emotions and compassion fatigue. This helps explain why they may in-turn act with incivility toward their patients. The effects found in this study were even stronger when employees experienced additional job stressors. The authors explain that experiencing incivility reduces cognitive resources and makes emotion regulation more challenging, allowing further incivility to occur more easily.


Organizations should identify employees with the greatest potential to experience incivility and provide them with additional resources. Given that most organizations have less control over how their customers behave, it may be effective to address mechanisms that make customer incivility more prevalent. The authors also suggest that organizations provide supportive work environments and establish work units that encourage respect for employees and customers. This may ultimately help mitigate the likelihood of workplace incivility.


Thomas, C. L., Johnson, L. U., Cornelius, A. M., Cobb, H. R., Murphy, L. D., & Vega, D. (2022). Incivility begets incivility: Understanding the relationship between experienced and enacted incivility with customers over time. Journal of Business and Psychology, 37(6), 1255–1274.

Image credit: istockphoto/Estradaanton