Workplace Incivility: Why Nice Employees Finish First!

Topic(s): Counter-Productive Work Behavior, leadership, performance, work environment
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2015)
Article: The effects of civility on advice, leadership, and performance.
Authors: C. Porath, A. Gerbasi, & S. Schorch
Reviewed by: Kayla Weaver

Organizations have seen a drastic increase in the amount of workplace incivility that employees experience on a weekly basis. Way back in in 1998, research revealed that 25% of employees experienced rudeness in the workplace at least once a week. A decade later, nearly 50% of employees reported experiencing incivility in the workplace at least once per week. Incivility is formally defined as “insensitive behavior that displays a lack of regard for others” (Anderson & Pearson, 1999), and is very costly for organizations as it is related to decreased performance and creativity, as well as increased employee turnover.

As the modern workplace becomes increasingly fast-paced, technologically complex, and impersonal, it is difficult—inconvenient even—to foster positive workplace relationships and interactions. While civility research has tended to focus on negative, uncivil behaviors, one research team (Porath, Gerbasi, & Schorch, 2015) is asking whether it actually pays to be nice.


Civility consists of a range of behavior that helps to cultivate mutual respect in the workplace. Examples of civil behavior include actively listening to peers, including a coworker in a conversation, and being mindful of the opinions or feelings of others. These are qualities to which employees should aspire. Yet, the old adage “nice guys finish last” suggests that being civil may be hazardous to one’s career.

A recent two-part study of workplace civility investigated the extent to which behaving civilly was related to positive workplace outcomes including performance, perceptions of leadership ability, and perceptions of approachability. 


To examine the actual effects of civil behavior, the researchers collected survey responses from a team of research and development professionals within a biotechnology firm. Each employee was asked to rate all of the other Research and Development employees on how civil they were, the extent to which they would ask other employees for advice, and whether or not they considered the other employees leaders in the organization. In addition to the survey responses, the human resources department provided the researchers with performance data on employees at the time of the study and one month after the study ended.

The results from the study revealed that individuals who rated employees as civil were more likely to seek out the civil employee for work advice, and were more likely to perceive the civil employee as a leader. In addition, when an individual was perceived as civil by other coworkers, he or she exhibited higher performance than uncivil employees. In sum, when employees engage in civil behavior they are seen as someone who is approachable for advice, seen as a leader in the organization, and they also demonstrate high performance. 


After researchers determined that civil employees reap both social and performance benefits, they conducted a second study to understand why civil behavior leads to positive outcomes. In this study, 181 college students enrolled in a management course were asked to read a scenario about an employee who was either civil, uncivil, or neutral, and then give ratings of that employee.

The results of the study showed that civil employees were perceived as warmer and more competent than uncivil or neutral employees. Further analyses demonstrated that civil individuals evoke perceptions that they are warm and competent, thus leading to perceptions of the individual as a leader and as an outlet for work advice.

Thus, civility extends beyond work behavior; civility increases the perception of an individual as warm and competent, and these perceptions may boost civil employees’ authority and effectiveness at work. 


Because civility can foster positive workplace relationships and may result in higher performance, organizations can benefit by making civility a priority. The researchers suggest that civility could be an important factor in hiring new employees, selecting employees into work teams, or identifying and promoting influential individuals. Although civility research is in its infancy, the initial results indicate that engaging in civil behavior can yield benefits for entire networks of individuals and the organization as a whole.

Though hiring civil employees is an effective way to promote civil behavior in an organization, managers can also encourage current employees to become more civil. In fact, workplace training that targets civil behavior may help improve workplace relationships and interactions. Thus, civility training allows employees to practice active listening, delivering positive feedback, and perspective-taking, which may make them more effective employees and leaders.


Porath, C. L., Gerbasi, A., & Schorch, S. L. (2015). The effects of civility on advice, leadership, and performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(5), 1527-1541.