I remember the day I cried at work because my boss intimidated me.

I was in my 20s, and it was my first job. I was fresh out of a master’s programme from the London School of Economics & Political Science — fully minted as a graduate with potential, and I was eager to make my mark in corporateville.

After five years of university studies in the UK (including a year abroad in France), comprising my undergraduate and master’s degrees, I returned to Lagos, Nigeria. I got married two months later. So, there I was, an optimist who was fortunate to land an attractive job. Then I had to move to Abuja, the nation’s capital, to begin my career in a foreign mission.

Soon after I resumed, an older, more experienced female colleague, Antoinette, took me under her wing. She opened my eyes to diplomats’ racist attitudes and behaviours in foreign embassies where she’d previously worked. Being a greenhorn, I was shocked because my ‘corporate’ experience only consisted of various part-time jobs I held in the UK as an international student to cater for my living expenses. I hadn’t experienced racism or incivility at the workplace, but I was realistic enough to know it would come. And I was right.

Some months into my new role, the embassy where I worked received a diplomat from the headquarters abroad who was to provide some cover during the summer holidays. Now Diplomat D was an older gentleman, and from his attitude and body language, I knew I had to tread cautiously. However, the inevitable happened. After some incident (which I cannot now recall), I emailed my cousin in the UK to complain about my unfair treatment. I naively stated what I thought of the short-term diplomat and explained how I would focus on my work and ignore him. I was merely venting, of course, and felt better after sending the email.  However, the next day, I saw a printed copy of that email on my desk with a short note from Diplomat D instructing me to see him immediately. It turned out that my private email had been monitored and read. Since I hadn’t painted the diplomat in a favourable light, I knew what the meeting would entail. I was scared but also angry that my privacy had been infringed on.

The meeting was tense and didn’t go well. At the end of his speech, Diplomat D, with a face flushed with anger, stood up, came around his desk and stopped a few feet from where I was sitting. In a threatening stance, he spat out: ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’

I didn’t know how I found the courage. But I stood up and, in a shaky voice, replied coolly with a statement like ‘Well, I won’t take this.’ And I walked out the door.

I headed straight to my office. After closing the door, I slumped into my chair and fought back the tears, half successfully, for about two minutes.

My mentor, Antoinette, whom I’d confided in before the meeting, knocked on the door and came in. She sympathised with me but, in a firm voice, ordered, ‘Never let them see you cry!’ I nodded. I told her I was sure I’d be fired, but she laughed. She explained that my privacy had been breached, so the diplomats wouldn’t want to admit that error. She then reassured me that the temporal diplomat would only be in the office for a few months and would return to the headquarters in northern Europe. I shouldn’t be concerned about my job.  And she was right. Diplomat D left some weeks later, and work carried on.

Antoinette and I remained friends and stayed in touch after we both moved on.

Although I can’t remember the full name of Diplomat D and won’t be able to recognise him if I saw him today, I still remember how I felt. My naivety and belief in people being professional and always treating colleagues courteously at the workplace were shattered.

That incident with Diplomat D toughened me. So, when l later had a clash with another diplomat, Ms C, I could communicate my right to be treated with respect – which shocked the offender. She wasn’t prepared for me being ‘trouble’. In the second incident, the new ambassador, Ambassador B, a regal-looking woman with high integrity, strong emotional intelligence, and excellent leadership qualities, acted as the objective mediator. She told Ms C to apologise to me, which the latter refused to do. Nonetheless, I offered a general apology — not because I was required to, but to show that I was mature enough to do so. Ambassador B expressed appreciation for my apology, and the meeting ended. From that incident, I learned how to leave my ego at the door to try to build bridges; but I also discovered I wouldn’t allow myself to be intimidated or bullied by anyone at work.

The cost of incivility and why your company should care

Sadly, not much has changed at the workplace. Fast forward to twenty years later, and I’m still dealing with disrespect from colleagues. But now, sharpened by past experiences, a stronger appreciation of self, and communication skills that I’ve honed over the years, I’m better equipped to handle those unpleasant scenarios.

I’m not alone.

Even if you exclude unfair treatment based on race, gender, age, ethnicity, economic status or education, incivility remains a scourge that all professionals experience at some point in their careers.

Incivility encompasses rudeness, crudeness, unwelcome remarks, inappropriate jokes, discriminatory attitudes, stereotypical stances, and everything that doesn’t attune to the mantra: Do onto others as you’ll have them do onto you.

At its core, workplace incivility is a crisis of interpersonal relationships hinged on poor communication and weak emotional intelligence. This malaise also has a business cost, and the figures are not pretty.  In the summarised version of the TEDx talk below ‘Why Being Respectful to Your Coworkers Is Good for Business’, Christine Porath explains the numbers based on her research:

Courtesy of TED Talks

– 66% cut back their efforts at work

– 80% lost time at work dealing with the aftermath of unfair treatment

– 12% left their jobs

Watch her full TED talk to understand the impact of the incivility ‘bug’ not only on those who experience it but also on those who witness it.

Shedding more light on the toll of incivility at the workplace, in a McKinsey Quarterly article, Christine Porath revealed that research showed that poor treatment at work triggered the following: weak performance (with 38% of those surveyed intentionally reducing the quality of work and 78% admitting their commitment to the organisation dropped), a decline in customer service (with 25% of sufferers delivering poor service to customers), and a reduction in collaboration.

Incivility affects not only the bottom line but also negatively impacts the mental state of professionals. In a post-pandemic world with a prioritised work-life balance and the reckoning of the ‘great resignation’, people won’t stay in toxic environments where they perceive their worth is shredded.

Use effective communication to diffuse incivility in the workplace

So, how can you tackle incivility at work?  Now Christine Porath offers some remedies in her insightful TEDx talk that you can easily implement. As she rightly explains, simple actions such as smiling, sharing credit, and saying ‘Thank you’ help create an atmosphere where people can thrive.

But your company can do more. It should strive to eliminate incivility and provide a psychologically safe environment for employees by taking the two actions below:

1) Updating company policy to include zero tolerance on incivility

At a minimum, you should have a written policy that lists zero tolerance for harassment or bullying. But expand this section by defining what incivility is and provide several examples. Use simple, concise, and clear language (the three beacons of effective communication), and complement the organisation-wide communication with explainer videos and visuals if necessary.     

Sometimes, aggressors hide behind the intent of their actions. They may cloak impolite remarks and disrespectful behaviours as ‘constructive feedback’ or imply that the aggrieved staff were too sensitive or that they took well-intentioned discourse out of context.

Don’t fall for those denials.

Make it clear that if the aggrieved party perceives that he or she has been subjected to incivility, then the claim becomes valid — it isn’t contingent on the intent or viewpoint of the aggressor. The accused party cannot convince the victim that he or she should not feel a certain way because emotions are complex. If you shut down concerns once or twice, the aggrieved employees won’t report subsequent incidents. Nevertheless, they’ll retaliate in ways that research has shown are detrimental to your organisation.

For staff to trust the policy that corrects incivility, they should be assured that all complaints will be handled professionally and swiftly by a neutral third party. They should also be confident that management would follow through on recommended actions. Moreover, whistleblowers who report cases of incivility on behalf of fearful staff should not be victimised.

2) Training managers, supervisors, directors, and the top brass on interpersonal communication skills

The first step to compelling identified aggressors to unlearn their behaviours and embrace new ways of communicating effectively is a no-brainer: You must arrange regular, practical workshops that shed light on how poor one-on-one communication and disruptive nonverbal behaviours trigger harassment and incivility.

Next, email communication etiquette should be tackled. Emphasis should be placed on adopting the appropriate tone and knowing how to de-escalate tensions without resorting to rude exchanges and written attacks.

For a more effective outcome when training C-suite executives, hire external facilitators who would deliver hard-hitting interactive sessions without the fear of reprisals. Follow-up sessions should be arranged periodically to assess progress.

Finally, sessions on navigating cross-cultural communication would help colleagues deal with different generations of people (millennials, Gen Z, etc.). Introduce scenarios in these programmes that draw upon current work realities and ensure strategies are applied at the workplace. When done right, the older generations (Gen X and Boomers) would appreciate that collaboration and innovation can only be achieved if they value the younger generations and consider them valuable co-contributors to your organisation’s success.

Your managers should also realise that they’re positioned to empower teams and drive results if they consider their roles as nurturers of talents.


I’ve learned from that experience, where, at 26, I was discriminated against and intimidated at work by an older professional.

Now in my mid-40s, I’ve realised that sometimes you may need to lose a battle to win the war. You may also need to overlook minor annoyances based on your circumstances. 

However, as a professional, you deserve to be treated with courtesy at work. And if you’re a female professional in a minority group, you know you’re twice as disadvantaged. So, request respect as a minimum — clearly and dispassionately. Use whatever resources you must to change the situation or seek help from a trusted, older mentor/sponsor. But don’t endure a toxic situation for months on end without taking some action. 

And if you’ve honed your communication skills over time (which you should commit to as soon as you enter corporateville), be assured that your clear, intentional speech or written complaint will drive outcomes.

Trust me on this.

Over to you:

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N.B: First and second images are courtesy of Stuart Miles via freedigitalphotos.net. Third image is courtesy of Arek Sochaa via Pixabay. Fourth image is courtesy of Cristian Ferronato via Pixabay.

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