Employer practices
Research Summary

Consequences of Workplace Incivilities toward Women in Low-Wage Jobs

Oluwasekemi OdumosuMarch 26, 2024
Source: Journal of Applied Social Science Title: Low-Wage Women’s Experiences of Workplace Incivilities Author(s): Katherine Tindell, Irene Padavic Original Publication Date: June 2, 2021 Read Full Research Article

Despite decades of gender equity initiatives, women are overrepresented in the low-wage US labor force and constituted 66 percent of US customer service workers in 2021. Incidents of workplace incivility, from beratement to sexual harassment, are regular occurrences in frontline jobs and tolerated by society in certain low-wage occupations. Women in jobs with less security—characterized by high turnover rates, low wages, and unstable hours—are particularly vulnerable to incivilities from supervisors, while the pervasive "customer is always right" mantra excuses customer misconduct, leaving employees largely unprotected.

Workplace incivility, also called bullying, can include repeated tormenting, excessive teasing, berating, and sexual harassment, often featuring a power imbalance. A 2023 study finds that one in two US workers have experienced or witnessed instances of harassment or misconduct, while an older survey found that the majority of US employers (72 percent) condoned or sustained bullying in the workplace. To supplement the quantitative research in the domain of workplace incivilities, detailed interview-based studies can provide qualitative analyses of targets’ experiences regarding various types of hostile relationships.

The featured research in this summary, “Low-Wage Women’s Experiences of Workplace Incivilities,” by Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University sociologist Katherine Tindell and Florida State University sociologist Irene Padavic, expands upon this body of research by delving into 35 experiences of incivilities among 18 women employed in low-wage positions within the service sector who have no expectations of continuous employment at the firms employing them. These women held jobs spanning customer service, retail, food service, pharmacy technician, and bank teller positions.

The incivilities documented by the two researchers caused the interviewees to suffer different mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and demoralization. The loss of income was another outcome, as about half left their jobs because of the mistreatment.

Other research has shown that incivilities can have a direct impact on business performance, being associated with higher levels of staff turnover, conflicts, and performance issues. In one study, employees exposed to workplace misconduct were 19 percentage points less likely to recommend their employer compared to those not exposed to misconduct, with that gap widening to 34 percentage points in firms where incidents were reported but not investigated. In contrast, when harassment or misconduct is addressed, employee recommendation rates for the organization significantly increase, emphasizing the importance of resolving incidences of workplace incivility.

Key findings
  • Of the 35 incidents of incivilities, more than half (54 percent) were attributed to supervisors, with nearly one-third (31 percent) stemming from customers, and the remainder (14 percent) from coworkers.
  • The majority (62 percent) of interviewees who reported experiencing incivilities were newto their place of employment, having been in their job less than a year at the time of incivility.
  • Among supervisors, disparaging the employee was by far the most common offense, with women supervisors more than twice as likely as men supervisors to engage in this behavior. Disparagement included attempts to humiliate the target and verbal berating, usually alleging the employee’s incompetence.
  • Among customers, perpetrators were overwhelmingly male, with offenses split between sexual harassment and disparaging remarks. Several interviewees deliberately dressed down or neglected hairstyling and makeup in an attempt to reduce the likelihood of customers’ sexual harassment.
  • Among coworkers, the most prevalent incivility was sexual harassment, always enacted by men. Women experiencing coworker harassment could not reliably expect support from fellow workers or supervisors, although such support was not unprecedented.
  • Seventy percent of the women experienced anxiety as a result of persistent incivilities. Some experienced the loss of their jobs and incomes: incivility led to nearly half the women quitting, transferring, or being fired. In contrast, the researchers learned of only one perpetrator who was fired for the behavior.
Policy and practice implications
  • Local, state, and federal labor laws could help ensure workers' rights to physically and psychologically safe workplaces. A crucial factor in the persistence of workplace incivilities is the lack of US labor laws safeguarding workers, with only sexual harassment and discrimination incivilities legally prohibited by federal statutes. This leaves individual workers isolated when confronting other forms of misconduct, such as bullying. Policies that prohibit management from protecting an employee from a customer, short of physical harm, sets too high a bar.
  • Businesses could integrate training on workplace incivilities alongside the ubiquitous sexual harassment training in US workplaces. Coauthors Tindell and Padavic suggest that awareness of the illegality of sexual harassment may contribute to lower rates of such offenses among supervisors. Firms could implement a zero-tolerance policy that extends beyond sexual harassment to encompass all forms of workplace incivility. This could deter such behavior among staff and prompt management to safeguard workers from customer misconduct.
  • Since new hires are particularly vulnerable, businesses could implement interventions such as regular check-ins during the initial weeks to address any issues regarding incivilities. New hires are vulnerable because they lack familiarity with coworkers, bosses, and workplace support systems. Firms cognizant of this vulnerability could implement measures to mitigate prolonged instances of workplace incivilities, increasing retention for new employees and improving their ability to perform their duties effectively.
  • Future research could incorporate workplace incivilities as a standard aspect of survey and interview protocols about working life. The scarcity of workplace incivility questions in US-based datasets limits understanding in this area. Expanding the range of questions on workplace incivilities could facilitate larger sample sizes for studying variations in experiences by factors such as race and ethnicity, immigration status, sexual orientation, and gender identity. A complementary study on incivilities toward men in the low-wage workforce also would provide insights on the challenges they may face in the workplace. Annual, nationally representative surveys such as the Workplace Bullying Survey or the General Social Survey could include related questions on workplace incivilities.

WorkRise has identified the following implications for policy and/or practice:

  • Employers could create formal support and accountability systems that provide grievance procedures, due-process rights, and opportunities to register formal complaints. Workers in low-wage positions, in particular, may feel pressured to endure misconduct from management, coworkers, and customers due to socioeconomic constraints. These processes can be outsourced to third-party labor advocates. Creating workplace cultures that are intolerant of harassing behavior by management, staff, and customers—and provide mechanisms for accountability—are essential for retaining current employees and recruiting new ones.
  • Policymakers could broaden eligibility for unemployment insurance or workers' compensation to encompass workers who have encountered workplace incivilities inadequately resolved by their employers. Given that targeted employees are more likely to leave their jobs than perpetrators due to lax attitudes toward incivilities, federal protections and compensation can facilitate their transition to safer workplaces.

Uncovering the widespread prevalence of a broad range of workplace incivilities toward women in low-wage jobs underscores the urgency for policy and practice changes by businesses and policymakers alike. From beratement to sexual harassment, these behaviors not only impact targets but also bystanders, leading to mental health challenges and higher turnover rates. Implementing legal protections, integrating comprehensive training programs, and fostering supportive workplace cultures are crucial steps to address these issues and ensure the safety and well-being of women in the low-wage workforce and more productive and profitable businesses.

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