Sideswiped at Work By a Rude Colleague? Your Kids May Pay the Price

Far from harmless, workplace incivility can make female targets question their own parenting skills
workplace bullying

The essentials

Being on the receiving end of rudeness at work can take an emotional toll. Employees who experience incivility from their colleagues are more inclined to exhibit low energy, increased levels of stress and anxiety, and symptoms of depression. New research from Angela Dionisi (Sprott School of Business) and Kathryne Dupre (Carleton University) reveals that those negative effects may also follow employees home, taking a toll on their personal lives and their parenting. In particular, women who experience impolite or discourteous treatment on the job may experience an erosion of parental confidence leading to stricter, more controlling behaviour with their children. Dionisi and Dupre, who both completed PhDs at Smith School of Business, talked to Smith Business Insight about their research and its implications for managers and workers.

How did you realize there could be a relationship between people being rude to coworkers and how children are treated at home?

We’re very interested in the interrelationship between work and family as well as the far-reaching effects of workplace mistreatment. We know that what happens at work affects families and vice versa. And we know that incivility – behaviour that is rude, discourteous, impolite, or otherwise violates workplace norms of respect — is widespread at work and linked to many adverse psychological consequences. We began to think about how this workplace mistreatment may shape the way one feels about the self and, in turn, how these potentially compromised self-perceptions may impact the enactment of one’s various roles, in this case as a parent.

What surprises you most about your results?

Unfortunately, these results as a whole are not surprising, given previous research that strongly supports the idea that there are many negative outcomes associated with incivility at work, and that the work experiences of one family member affect other family members. But just how widespread the effects of negative workplace experiences are – especially when considering that workplace incivility is considered to be “low intensity” deviant behaviour – is still shocking. We’re not talking about extreme acts of aggression or violence here. This is a form of mistreatment that many likely dismiss as non-effectual. It’s unpleasant, it’s frustrating, but it may boil down to one seeing a coworker behaving as a “jerk.” But our findings suggest that this “low-intensity” behaviour can actually erode one’s sense of parental competence and, as a result, may also be harming one’s children in a vicarious way.

You surveyed 146 working mothers and their spouses. Why did you take this approach to your research?

We wanted to question both mothers and their spouses as we felt that, first, only women themselves could comment on their personal experiences of workplace incivility and feelings of parental competence. At the same time, we wanted to collect information pertaining to the parenting behaviours of women from their spouses, to help minimize potentially biased views of one’s own parenting.

Why did you only look at how rudeness at work impacts women/mothers?

We decided to explore women’s parenting behaviours in light of research suggesting that women tend to experience workplace incivility at higher rates than men. With that said, while there is no research to date that has explored the impact of workplace incivility on the parenting experiences of fathers, we do intend to explore this question in subsequent studies. Previous research supports the damaging psychological, physical, and job-related consequences that male targets of workplace incivility experience, and also that other forms of workplace stress can impact the personal lives of men. Moreover, the impact of mistreatment on one’s self-concept has been shown across genders. So it seems plausible that workplace incivility may also be damaging to fathers’ parenting, well-being, and behaviour.

Will this research provide fuel for those people who think kids suffer when their mothers work?

There is no evidence to suggest that fathers would not experience the same detrimental effects of workplace incivility that we find is the case for mothers in this study. Further, there is no evidence to suggest that these negative effects are isolated to the workplace – experiencing incivility, for example from one’s neighbours, friends, or family members could have the same effects. Finally, there is research showing the benefits that women and their children experience as a result of mothers’ work. So there is no evidence emerging from this study, or otherwise, to suggest that women should not work. On the contrary, because both men and women experience incivility in various contexts, and because all genders and their children often experience positive outcomes as a result of work, work is often invaluable for all genders and parents. We argue that the evidence from this study suggests we must strive to better manage incivility in the workplace, not remove individuals from the experience of work.

How does workplace incivility affect those who are not parents?

Based on much empirical evidence, we now know that the outcomes of workplace incivility are vast and negative. Research suggests that being on the receiving end of workplace incivility takes an emotional and psychological toll. For example, the experience of disrespectful, uncivil behaviour on the job has been shown to lead to emotional exhaustion, depressive symptoms, lower levels of energy, and increased levels of stress and anxiety. Experienced incivility is also associated with a number of counterproductive behavioural responses in its targets, for example retaliatory or deviant behaviours at work. Employees who are targets of workplace incivility also show decreases in task performance and creativity and display impaired attention. More recently, research has also started to consider how workplace incivility may affect life outside work, which is where our study comes in.

What are the implications of your research for managers and employees?

Providing evidence and awareness about the outcomes associated with incivility is the first step towards stopping this pattern. We hope that this line of research will provide the impetus for organizations and policy makers to better understand and manage a form of workplace mistreatment that is at times not taken seriously. Our results suggest that workplace incivility has the potential to detrimentally affect mothering well-being and specific negative parenting behaviour. As such, organizational interventions and supports need to address this. But before this is likely to happen, there must be widespread support for change. Individuals, families, and organizations must be aware of the evidence and supportive of the notion that incivility at work must be managed in an effort to mitigate the negative consequences.

Emerging evidence does suggest that training and education may make a difference when it comes to workplace incivility, but we need more research in this area to better inform individuals about what they can do to stop this pattern.

Overall, we hope these findings provide greater impetus to mitigate and manage workplace incivility, and will encourage working mothers who experience this mistreatment at work to seek support.

Meredith Dault

Smith School of Business

Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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