Diversity and incivility: Toward an action-oriented approach

Document Type

Conference Presentation

Conference Title

HRD's role in addressing workplace incivility and violence


Drexel University and the Philadelphia Chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management


Philadelphia, PA

Date of Presentation



The problem and the solution. Some individuals experience incivility at work based on others’ perceptions of whether they are different from the norm. Incivility, the often-unintentional violation of social norms, can occur as a result of perpetrators’ unconscious prejudice. Such activity can result in decreased employee satisfaction, increased likelihood of looking for another job, and decreased mental and physical health. Employers can take these threats seriously by considering how to integrate diversity initiatives and incivility initiatives. Common diversity interventions might unintentionally lead to increased acts of incivility due to the likelihood of suppressing true feelings. Additionally, programs that encourage diversity awareness development and continuous introspection have been criticized for not leading to meaningful action. This article culminates in addressing how diversity initiatives might be reimagined using an incivility framework that seeks to integrate an action orientation. Keywords: workplace diversity resistance, group dynamics, training, organization development, human resource development Workplace diversity issues have become increasingly prominent in the last 15 years, as diversity is recognized as a core competitive strength and is seen as more than a compliance goal. Reflecting broader societal changes, workplaces have become more diverse and overt discrimination has decreased due to social taboos. However, deep-rooted prejudice cannot be wiped out in such a short time span (e.g., Pincus, 2000). As a result, subtler forms of discrimination have become more common, which can be described as acts of incivility. Workplace incivility is the violation of social norms in which perpetrators may unintentionally inflict harm (Cortina, 2008; Estes & Wang, 2008; Pearson & Porath, 2005). A link exists between incivility, job dissatisfaction, and health, leading frequent targets of incivility to consider leaving their jobs at higher rates than others (Cortina, Magley, Williams, & Langhout, 2001; Lim & Cortina, 2005). Incivility targeted toward those who are different often results from “aversive discrimination,” which occurs in situations where neither the instigator nor others are aware of its roots because the instigator internally and externally condemns prejudice (Cortina, 2008). Most organizations have legitimately attempted to control overt discrimination and harassment in organizations using a top-down approach. Employers must protect their workers from discrimination and harassment. However, power is not one way. It permeates from all points in a fluctuating interplay between actors at all levels (Foucault, 1978). Legitimate topdown efforts have resulted in prejudice seeping out in unconscious ways through acts of incivility (Cortina, 2008). These subtler forms of prejudice are more complex and harder to eliminate than conventional forms of discrimination (Bond & Pyle, 1998a). Perpetrators of 1 uncivil behavior based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, age, class, or disability can engage in this behavior unconsciously. To address these issues, organizations have developed various types of diversity programs. Despite many successes, efforts to increase appreciation for diversity have faced persistent backlash. Subtler forms of discrimination are harder to address through human resource development (HRD) efforts, due to their elusive nature. The question now is how to best grapple with incivility resulting from one’s personal characteristics. Applying Foucault’s ideas (1978), we can consider that those engaging in individual acts of incivility against minorities are not merely seen as individuals committing temporary aberrations. Instead, they are treated as troubled individuals having deep-rooted prejudice. For example, labels such as “racist,” “sexist,” or “homophobe” are commonly applied to perpetrators. These labels can lead to ascribing acts of incivility to psychological conditions that need to be acknowledged by the individual, treated through an intervention, and cured. Of course, with the exception of high profile or extreme cases, these conditions are rarely treated through formal clinical treatment. Instead, the most common form of “treatment” occurs through employer-sponsored education sessions, which do not always lead to meaningful action to improve the work lives of members of minority groups (Ellsworth, 1989). Instead, these efforts can lead to endless attempts to understand differences, in which members of minority groups are placed in the position of educating others about the salience of diversity issues. This education often takes the form of testimonials from diverse individuals and recounting discriminatory experiences (Mayo, 2007). Such efforts often fail to result in substantive change (Ellsworth, 1989) and sometimes result in guilt being transferred to members of majority groups (Brown, 1996). These problems also raise questions about whether focusing on “minority groups” is the most effective approach. Such questions have lead to suggestions about utilizing broader conceptions of diversity and difference (Mor-Barak, 2011; Thomas, 1991). In this article, I (a) provide an overview of the purposes and perspectives on workplace diversity, (b) summarize the approaches to diversity culture change through HRD interventions, and (c) explore whether incivility prevention is a useful approach for addressing workplace culture improvement related to diversity. Because acts of workplace incivility can happen to anyone, it is important to consider whether incivility should be dealt with as a broad concept in which any of us could become a target or whether incivility prevention should somehow be integrated with diversity-related initiatives. This discussion is parallel with debates in the workplace diversity realm over the appropriate breath of diversity initiatives. I juxtapose these discussions with similar debates regarding whether to focus on identity-centered change efforts, common action for broadly inclusive groups of many types of people, or some combination of these approaches.