How Email Incivility Can Harm Employee Well-Being

In the increasingly virtual workplace, employees spend an enormous amount of time on email – perhaps as high as one third of their time. Research has already shown that email incivility is linked to a slew of negative outcomes in the workplace, in personal life, and for well-being. However, research has yet to delve deeper into different forms of email incivility and their outcomes. Researchers in this study (Yuan, Park, & Sliter, 2020) surveyed employees and collected diary entries to analyze email incivility and to observe outcomes on employee health and well-being.


By surveying employees, the researchers were able to conclude that uncivil emails can be best categorized as either active or passive, with active incivility being perceived as more emotionally charged and passive incivility being perceived with more ambiguity.

In addition, email communication is asynchronous, meaning participants are unable to gather real-time feedback from each other such as body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. As a result, it can inhibit social norms that would typically restrict uncivil behavior in the workplace, making it easier to engage in active or passive email incivility.

For example, in the heat of the moment, one may find it easier to be actively uncivil by hitting the CAPS lock key and air one’s grievances via email than to raise one’s voice and use the same rude language when the receiver is an arm’s length away. 

There is also a risk of passive email incivility. For example, it’s easier to simply ignore an important email than to ignore a person who is physically present in the same room. Further still, the lack of social cues in email communication opens the door for passive-aggressive interpretations, where the same text can be interpreted multiple ways depending on the context – or lack thereof. 


The researchers also pursued the hypothesis that differences between active and passive email incivility will elicit different negative outcomes. Their study asked participants to record their sleep behavior and mood (affect) after experiencing email incivility. What they found was that only the instances of passive email incivility predicted insomnia symptoms and subsequent negative affect, a finding that could be overlooked when failing to differentiate between passive and active incivility.


Generally speaking, it is easier to identify active incivility due to its objective nature: for example, lewd or disparaging language, using CAPS lock to “yell,” threats, etc. However, passive incivility can be more difficult to track and address. This is an important nuance to consider, as this study has shown that the more subtle, passive forms of email incivility may harm well-being, but the active, aggressive instances of incivility were not found to harm well-being. 

In general, organizations should be more explicit on email norms in order to hold consistent expectations for what respectful communication looks like. Because passive e-mail incivility is rooted in ambiguity, organizations need to educate employees; incivility training and electronic media norms training have both demonstrated success in reducing workplace incivility and establishing organizational norms. With these expectations in place, HR can have an established approach for addressing passive email incivility.


Yuan, Z., Park, Y., & Sliter, M. T. (2020). Put you down versus tune you out: Further understanding active and passive e-mail incivility. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 25(5), 330–344.