A recent New York Times op-ed by Georgetown business professor Christine Porath discussed the toll that incivility takes on modern office workers—a story that quickly and unsurprisingly made the rounds on social media as people who’ve suffered from bullying bosses and mean coworkers passed it along.

But the experience of incivility on the job doesn’t affect all of us equally.  In a 2009 paper for Work, Employment & Society, Vincent J. Roscigno, Randy Hodson, and Steven H. Lopez drew on a large pool of published ethnographies to look at how negative social dynamics function in workplaces.

They note that workers who are particularly vulnerable because of race, class, gender, or other factors often bear the brunt of poor workplace management.

Roscigno, Hodson, and Lopez find that one big driver of incivility is “organizational chaos”—that is, the kind of workplace where work isn’t well organized or coordinated. Workplaces often get chaotic when downsizing or outsourcing make work life unpredictable and force everyone to “do more with less.”

When workplaces are poorly organized, the resulting temper flare-ups don’t hit everyone evenly. One ethnography the authors looked at described a meatpacking plant. Management there had set the speed of a conveyer belt too fast for workers to correctly cut the meat. Instead of trying to change that situation, a supervisor targeted the low-paid Latino workers doing the cutting.

Another workplace account of a restaurant kitchen illustrates the way that social privilege affects not just boss-employee interactions but those involving coworkers. Here, white male kitchen workers sought to defend their higher position in the workplace, including by using racist slurs and even pushing a Chinese worker down on the floor.

Roscigno, Hodson, and Lopez find the only type of workplace incivility that isn’t found more in chaotic workplaces is sexual harassment. They write that it “seems to emerge primarily from conflicts over the status of women as women rather than from battles centering on vertical or horizontal control over the specific details of production.”

Yet, at the same time, they note that women with less power on the job—including women of color and women with low seniority—are most likely to be victims of sexual harassment.

The universal prescription to be nicer to each other at work is, of course, a good one. But it’s clearly also important to look at the power relations underlying nastiness on the job and, perhaps, the ways they might be changed. Roscigno, Hodson, and Lopez note that one measure that seems to reduce conflict is a formal grievance system for addressing bad behavior, like those typically included in union contracts.

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Work, Employment & Society, Vol. 23, No. 4 (DECEMBER 2009), pp. 747-773
Sage Publications, Ltd.