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Online Incivility by Supervisors May Lead People to Quit

2012 April 4

ResearchBlogging.orgA recent study by Giumetti et al[1] examines cyber incivility, which is defined as low intensity “rude and discourteous” behavior that takes place through an internet or intranet-based communications system (e.g. e-mail, chat, or Facebook).  They found that those reporting having experienced cyber incivility were more likely to skip work, burn out, and report their intention to look for a new job.

Incivility differs from traditional interpersonal organizational deviance in that it is less severe and more casual.  While a person engaging in interpersonal deviance might steal their coworker’s stapler in order to annoy them, incivility might be expressed simply by that coworker making seemingly off-hand negative comments about their coworker’s workspace.  Deviance is much easier to detect because it is generally obvious and with clear purpose; it is immediately clear that someone was acting inappropriately.  Incivility, on the other hand, might be purposeful or it might not – it is difficult to know for sure, even for the victim.

As an example of cyber incivility, consider this scenario: a supervisor assigns work over the weekend to a subordinate.  On Monday morning, the supervisor shoots off a quick e-mail that only says, “I hope you had a good weekend.”  The subordinate is unclear on how to interpret this, as it might 1) be a half-hearted apology for assigning work over the weekend, 2) indicate that the supervisor didn’t remember or didn’t care about the extra work, or 3) represent the supervisor sarcastically rubbing in that s/he ruined the subordinates weekend.  Thus, this is incivililty; the supervisor should not have sent the e-mail at all, or if it was not ill-intentioned, should have been more clear about the apology.

To examine their hypotheses, the authors collected surveys from two samples: 1) 407 university staff members and 2) 207 business school alumni.  They modified a standard incivility questionnaire (the Workplace Incivility Scale) by adding the word “online” to the end of each statement.  In addition to the effects of incivility on absenteeism, burnout, and intention to quit, the researchers also found these relationships to be moderated by neuroticism, i.e. the relationship between experienced incivility by a supervisor and burnout/intention to quit was stronger for people higher in neuroticism.

As a survey study, we can’t use this to conclude that supervisors acting rudely to their employees online causes these negative outcomes (it is equally plausible that there is a third variable predicting both), but it does explicitly link negative employee outcomes with the experience of a boss acting rudely online.

  1. Giumetti, G., McKibben, E., Hatfield, A., Schroeder, A., & Kowalski, R. (2012). Cyber Incivility @ Work: The New Age of Interpersonal Deviance Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15 (3), 148-154 DOI: 10.1089/cyber.2011.0336 []
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  1. Nicole Neff permalink
    April 4, 2012

    I just did a blog post on our DoDEA interal social networking cite about Incivility. I’m going to post a comment and link to your blog post. Thanks for the timely posting!

  2. Rena permalink
    April 4, 2012

    I find this study personally intersting because as manager I use email and chat a lot, maybe more than I should! One, it’s just easier and two, most of the time I need a record of the converstation (especially if it’s like instructions or something). I think the neuroticism moderator bit totally makes sense. People who are more anxious may be more likely to “read into” comments without having access to non-verbal cues. If ambiguity is a culprit in perceptions of online incivility, I wonder to what extent about the use of emoticons and even an avatar would solve that problem. Just some thoughts. Thanks for sharing, Richard!

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