Civility, micro-behaviours and how to respond to everyday 'isms'

There are also many subtle positive and negative messages in our interactions with people which can have a significant impact on those around us leading them to be feel more included or not


The Harvard Business Review reported in 2013 that rudeness at work was rampant, and on the rise (1). Surveying thousands of workers about how they’re treated on the job, 98% reported experiencing uncivil behaviour. Behaviours included direct insults, ignoring or making ‘jokes’ about a particular group of people, as well as more subtle behaviours such as sending text messages in a meeting or disrespectful emails, talking loudly in open offices, being dismissive of less senior employees or leaving common areas untidy.

Incivility or subtle unconscious micro-behaviours are often directed at minority or out-group members and those in less powerful positions.

The impacts of incivility on the workplace are similar to the impacts of bullying, i.e., low productivity, absenteeism, high turnover etc., as well as impacting on creativity, team cohesion and team accomplishments.

However, respect and civility can be learnt and individuals and organisations can influence workplace behaviour. Paying attention to your own behaviour and modelling good behaviour, creating positive group norms, rewarding good behaviour, and actively teaching civility can all assist. (2,3)

Subtle messages and micro-behaviours

Being aware of our biases and recognising subtle positive and negative messages in our interactions with people can have a significant impact on those around us leading them to be feel more included or not.

Negative micro-behaviours

  • Ignoring, talking over people, dominating conversations, interrupting, emailing or texting during meetings, consistently mispronouncing a person’s name, excluding from activities, neglecting to say please and thank you, taking too much credit for collaborative work, spreading rumours, or sending angry, embarrassing or excessively long emails and at disrespectful times.

Positive micro-behaviours and affirmations

  • Nodding, smiling, giving praise, making eye contact, pronouncing people’s names correctly, asking team member’s opinion or for their involvement, acknowledging contribution of others, sharing information and resources, listening attentively, sharing menial group tasks, being thoughtful and deliberate about how, what, when and why we email.

Responding to everyday 'isms'

Sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, ableism, etc., are often expressed in everyday conversations and delivered as ‘humour’, off-hand comments or story-telling. Be an active bystander when witnessing such behaviour and speak up and support those it’s directed to.

Some examples of responses:

  • “I don’t think that’s okay”
  • “What do you mean by that?”
  • “I don’t find that very funny”
  • “I feel uncomfortable when …”
  • “I’m not sure how’s that relevant?”
  • “I didn’t know you felt that way about women/Māori/homosexuals …”
  • “I understand you think it’s okay/funny, but many others wouldn’t”.

In short, treat everyone with courtesy, dignity and respect. 


  2. Christine Porath. Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace. Hachette Book Group. 2016
  3. M. Leiter. Stopping Incivility in the workplace. Canadian HR Reporter. March 2011