“There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” (This quote is often associated with Phineas T. Barnum, the 19th century circus owner.) Really? Tell that to Amazon.
Amazon, which recently surpassed Walmart as the most valuable retailer in the country, has been all over the news recently, but not entirely for good reasons. A recent article in The New York Times highlighted supposed management practices that some former Amazon employees described as, to say the least, harsh, while it also noted that other employees had the opposite feelings about working at Amazon. This recent news coverage begs the question: if Amazon is the most valuable retailer in the world despite these former Amazon employee complaints regarding the described practices, should Amazon really be concerned?
The simple answer is yes! And we know Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s Chief Executive, agrees, because he has come out publicly to denounce such management practices as being unacceptable at Amazon.
But while a spirited debate continues between Amazon employees on both sides of the issue, research conducted, studying incivility in the workplace, has quantified the potential negative costs to businesses. Christine Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and Christine Pearson, a professor of global leadership at Thunderbird School of Global Management, published an article in the January-February 2013 issue of the Harvard Business Review reaching exactly that conclusion. Their article, which was based on numerous interviews with employees at all levels within the corporate structure and based on data they collected from over 14,000 people throughout the United States and Canada, lead them to conclude that “[i]ncivility is expensive, and few organizations recognize or take action to curtail it.” In the article, they summarize the percentage decrease reported by employees who are exposed to incivility in the workplace in numerous categories including overall productivity (48%), decreased time spent at work (47%), an intentional decrease in the quality of their work (38%) and an overall decline in their commitment to the organization (78%), just to name a few.
More recent research out of the University of Florida tends to reinforce these findings and concludes that “[r]udeness in the workplace isn’t just unpleasant: It’s also contagious.” The findings, published June 29, 2015 in the Journal of Applied Psychology, found evidence that everyday rudeness in the workplace spreads. In this vein, the authors of the Harvard Business Review article also concluded that individuals subjected to the rude workplace behaviors tended to adopt the behaviors themselves – read, “____ flows downstream.” We always knew that intuitively, but now we have a study to back it up.
Is there a solution? Professors Porath and Pearson think so. They outlined an approach that encourages managers to lead by example, seek feedback to be certain you are not missing something subtle that may not register in terms of how your managers perceive themselves – verses how they are perceived by their subordinates – implementing a plan to hire for civility and engage in exercises to teach civility, to name a few. If Amazon were to adopt this approach despite already being the most valuable retailer in the country, perhaps Jeff Bezos would discover “how much more successful they would be if they would only show the same kind of obsessive care about their employees as they do about their customers,” a sentiment expressed by Dan Kreft, who left Amazon after 15 years, 10 months and 11 days at the company, according to his comments posted on The New York Times website.