Mean Colleagues, Mean Mamas?

Research suggests surprising consequence of workplace incivility: poor parenting

Posted Sep 08, 2018

We all know them—the coworkers who make rude, disparaging comments. The colleagues who routinely fail to return your phone calls or ignore your emails. The bosses who constantly take credit for your work. Yes, these office “jerks” are everywhere, and their presence undoubtedly makes our workplaces unpleasant and frustrating.

Photo by rawpixel from Pexels
Source: Photo by rawpixel from Pexels

However, the sting of a colleague’s rude behaviour may be far worse than you might think. Defined as workplace behavior that is rude, discourteous, impolite, or otherwise violates workplace norms of respect [1], workplace incivility is deceivingly dangerous. While the low-intensity and often ambiguous nature of this conduct leaves many dismissing this behavior as nothing more than a nuisance—an unpleasant, but relatively benign artifact of many organizational environments—we now know based on much empirical evidence that the outcomes of workplace incivility are vast and negative. For example, being on the receiving end of workplace incivility has been linked to higher levels of stress and anxiety, depressive symptoms, emotional exhaustion, lower energy levels, reduced performance on the job, and impaired decision-making.[2]

With that said, very little is known about how being treated rudely at work affects one’s home life. My co-researcher Dr. Kathryne Dupré (also from Carleton University) and I wanted to explore this issue, and in particular, how workplace incivility affects parenting.

We proposed that when working mothers experience incivility on the job, the confidence they have in their parenting abilities would be poorer. Why? When someone is repeatedly rude to you, disrespects you, or otherwise treats you badly, you may very well start to think: “What’s wrong with me?! Why I am being treated this way? If my colleagues are constantly mistreating me, do I actually deserve it!?” Workplace incivility may essentially convey negative, implicit information about one’s self-worth—a process that aligns with a century-old social psychological phenomenon known as the “looking glass” self[3]. According to this perspective, people’s self-perceptions are largely shaped by the way they perceive themselves as being viewed by others. Like peering into a looking glass (a traditional English term for a mirror), the development of one’s self-concept becomes a social exercise, as people come to see themselves the way they think others do.

 Photo by Ryan McGuire from Gratisography
Source: Photo by Ryan McGuire from Gratisography

Based on previous research showing how other workplace stressors can spill over to impact one’s personal life[4], we thought this may also be the case with incivility and parenting; This mistreatment may very well erode one’s self-perceptions and be enough to wreak havoc on the confidence women have in their abilities – including those as mothers.

So, what effect might this have in the home?

Decades of research have shown the importance of self-efficacy to people’s motivation and behaviors, and importantly, that those who doubt their abilities may not only be less motivated to engage in the practice of concern, but in fact, may ultimately behave in an anti-social ways. Research shows that lower self-efficacy is related to lower levels of positive relationship behaviors—such as kindness and cooperativeness—and higher levels of anti-social conduct.[5]

Thus, we predicted that when the confidence working mothers have in their parenting ability is depleted as a result of workplace incivility, the outcome will be more authoritarian parenting—a restrictive, punishment-heavy parenting style, characterized by nagging, yelling, very strict rules, unrealistically high expectations, and very little nurturance[6].

This is precisely what we found.

Mean colleagues, mean mama.

Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels
Source: Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels

These findings are particularly troubling, as additional research shows the damage to children caused by this parenting approach. Children of authoritarian-style parents often suffer from depressive symptoms, poorer self-perceptions, academic and social difficulties, externalizing problems, and display aggressive behavior.[7]

Yikes! Suddenly the office “jerk” seems much more menacing, and workplace incivility much more perilous. These findings not only suggest some previously undocumented ways that women in particular, suffer as a result of this form of workplace aggression, but in uncovering how this form of workplace mistreatment interferes with positive mother-child interactions, they also speak to a previously unacknowledged group of indirect incivility victims, namely children.

So what now?

Unfortunately, studies show that workplace incivility is a problem that’s not going away. In fact, some studies show that as many as 98% of workers experience incivility, with approximately 50% experiencing such conduct weekly[8].

Something must be done.

To this end, organizations are on the hook. First, leaders have a responsibility to communicate explicit expectations regarding the interpersonal behaviour of their employees - both verbally and in writing – and demonstrate those principles through their own behaviour. They need to “walk the talk.” Second, organizations need to be teaching civility. While we might assume that everyone knows what respectful conduct looks like, research suggests that this assumption is false. In fact, one study found that a quarter of the instigators of incivility blame their discourteous behaviour on a lack of training.[9] Third, when incivility does occur, organizations need to do something about it. There must be consequences. Complaints need to be put into personnel files. Counselling may be warranted. And, if the incivility becomes habitual or escalates, more drastic measures may need to be implemented. Organizations must take workplace incivility seriously if they want to protect their employees.

Finally, at the individual level, if you find yourself being the butt of someone’s jokes or on the receiving end of their temper tantrums, recognize that the mistreatment is not your fault, report it to someone in a position of authority, and seek support from more trusted colleagues and leaders. Alternatively, if it’s you who is actually the office jerk, the next time you’re tempted to speak condescendingly to a peer, pass sarcasm off as humour, or fail to mind your Ps and Qs—think again. While perhaps unintentional, you may not only be compromising the well-being of your peers, but your actions may be having vicariously dangerous effects on their children.


[1] Andersson, L. M., & Pearson, C. M. (1999). Tit for tat? The spiraling effect of incivility in the workplace. Academy of Management Review, 24, 452-471.

[2] Schilpzand, P., De Pater, I. E., & Erez, A. (2016). Workplace incivility: A review of the literature and agenda for future research. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 37, S57-S88.

[3] Cooley, C.H. (1902). Human nature and the social order. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

[4] Bolger, N., DeLongis, A., Kessler, R. C., & Wethington, E. (1989). The contagion of stress across multiple roles. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 51, 175–183.

[5] Bandura, A., Caprara, G.V., Barbaranelli, C., Pastorelli, C. and Regalia, C. (2001), “Sociocognitive self-regulatory mechanisms governing transgressive behavior”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 125-135.

[6] Robinson, C. C., Mandleco, B., Olsen, S. F., & Hart, C. H. (1995). Authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive parenting practices: Development of a new measure. Psychological Reports, 77, 819-830.

[7] Booth-LaForce, C. M., & Oxford, M. L. (2008). Trajectories of social withdrawal from grades 1 to 6: Prediction from early parenting, attachment, and temperament. Developmental Psychology, 44, 1298-1313.; Chang, L., Schwartz, D., Dodge, K. A., & McBride-Chang, C. (2003). Harsh parenting in relation to child emotion regulation and aggression. Journal of Family Psychology, 17, 598-606.; Gadeyne, E., Ghesquière, P., & Onghena, P. (2004). Longitudinal relations between parenting and child adjustment in young children. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 33, 347-358.; Lamborn, S. D., Mounts, N. S., Steinberg, L., & Dornbusch, S. M. (1991). Patterns of competence and adjustment among adolescents from authoritative, authoritarian, indulgent, and neglectful families. Child Development, 62, 1049-1065.

[8] Porath, C. L., & Pearson C. (2013). The price of incivility. Harvard Business Review, 91, 115–121.

[9] ibid.