Risk Focus: Professional Liability

Incivility’s Growing Risk

Increasing levels of incivility in society are leaching into the workplace and bruising employers’ bottom lines.
By: | October 12, 2017 • 5 min read

Workplace incivility is on the rise.

Workplace violence — a frequent outcome of incivility — is reported to cost $4.2 billion dollars a year and claims 1,000 lives annually. The Journal of Nursing Administration reports incivility is often responsible for lost productivity, high turnover, low morale, reputational damage, workers’ compensation claims and lawsuits.


Toronto-based Bar-David Consulting, which helps firms create civil work environments, finds a direct connection from incivility to harassment and bullying and finally physical violence. That link constitutes “a big risk management worry,” said Lori Severson, health care loss control consultant, Lockton Companies.

In 1998, 49 percent of workers reported rude treatment at least once a month. In 2016, 62 percent said the same, according to research conducted by Christine Porath, associate professor, McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University, and Christine Pearson in the Harvard Business Review.

Michigan State University research found incivility is spreading, racking up an average annual impact of $14,000 per employee in lost production and work time.

Increasingly, Severson said, organizations are adopting strategies from the health care industry, generally considered the “gold standard of workplace safety.”

Some insurance products are adapting to a broader spectrum of risks. For example, some employment practice liability coverage will respond to bullying allegations, said Paul Marshall, managing director, McGowan Program Administrators. And some workplace violence policies added threat protections. “Now it will respond to just a threat,” he said.

Daniel Gugala, executive vice president and general counsel, Crisis Prevention Institute

All organizational change, including zero tolerance for uncivil behavior that can escalate into violence and lawsuits, begins at the top, wrote Valerie Keels, head of DC office services, Gavi, and member of the Society for Human Resources Management’s HR Disciplines Expertise Panel, in an e-mail interview.

“The CEO, president or other high-level authority figure in the organization must not only practice this behavior but also advocate for it publicly and often,” then follow up with organizational policies and procedures.

“Then the line managers and employees must be educated and trained about what civil behavior does and does not look like,” Keels wrote.

Uncivil behavior can often be subtle and unconscious. “Think of the manager who sends emails during a presentation … or the team leader who takes credit for good news but points a finger at team members when something goes wrong,” wrote Porath.

A Not-So-Hidden Liability Risk

Workers get on each other’s nerves, bringing personal habits into the workplace. They decorate their workspaces with photos of wives in bikinis, religious articles and political paraphernalia.

Most companies already have anti-harassment policies in place that define which personal items employees can and can’t have in the workplace, said Allison West, Esq., principal, Employment Practices Specialists, LLC, which might cover the issues of swimsuit photos and religious articles.

“You can reduce the risk with training, but you’ll never eradicate it. You can’t force people to be civil.” —Daniel Gugala, executive vice president and general counsel, Crisis Prevention Institute

A complete ban on personal items would be overkill, said West. But private employers have legal grounds to take that draconian step, since first amendment rights do not apply in the private workplace except for collective actions under labor laws, according to Katherine Stone, distinguished professor of law, UCLA School of Law.


Then there are snubs, unreturned emails and unacknowledged efforts.

If incivilities relate to gender, religion, race or any constitutionally protected groups, “that raises serious HR concerns and some liability exposure for the company,” said Stone.

Cases that “go beyond rolled eyes into marginalizing or excluding a co-worker because of race or gender can be a liability if the behavior is interfering with the person’s ability to do the job and succeed in the workplace.”

In those cases, she said, “there can be liability if the company knows about it and does nothing to stop it.”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace recommends civility training and bystander intervention training as part of a holistic harassment prevention program.

Most large employers understand the importance of safety, said Sam Estreicher, professor of law, New York University School of Law and director of its Center for Labor and Employment.

Sam Estreicher, director, Center for Labor and Employment, New York University School of Law

“An organization that’s willing to commit resources to how people communicate — both how they deliver and receive messages — may keep in check those who don’t have the propensity to follow the right path,” said Daniel Gugala, executive vice president and general counsel, Crisis Prevention Institute, an international training organization specializing in the safe management of disruptive and assaultive behavior.

“You can reduce the risk with training,” he said, “but you’ll never eradicate it. You can’t force people to be civil.”

You’re Fired

Employers have a legal obligation to run a safe workplace. Social media lifted the veil of privacy from off-duty behaviors, and sometimes those behaviors result in termination.

For example, at least four white nationalists who demonstrated in Charlottesville, Va., lost their jobs after being identified through Twitter.

This poses the question: Are legal but unsavory activities with a controversial group outside the office grounds for dismissal?

For public sector employees, no, said Stone, because of first amendment protections. However, employment in the private sector is “at will,” giving employees fewer protections.

The law varies by jurisdiction, but in general, private employers do not monitor employees’ behavior outside the workplace, said Estreicher. “Policing behavior outside the workplace is generally counterproductive.” Overzealous employers, he said, “will be clobbered in litigation.”


Again, there are exceptions, Estreicher said, especially where employers perceive potential harm to their brand. Say an employee identified as attending a white supremacy rally is a supervisor, not “just a guy on the line,” the employer should bring him in for a talk. “You say, ‘You’re acting as my agent and you’re putting my company in a bad light.’ That would be consistent with a reasonable civility policy,” said Estreicher.

Civility, Stone said, “is in the eyes of the beholder” and some types of employee activities that might appear uncivil can trigger the protection of labor laws.

“The law allows employees to criticize their employer about working conditions, sometimes loudly and profanely. Some might consider those protests to be uncivil, disruptive or inappropriate.”

To merit legal protections, those kinds of behaviors would rise above “one disgruntled person griping, but trying to get colleagues to join the conduct as a protest,” Stone said. &

Susannah Levine writes about health care, education and technology. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Risk Management

The Profession

Janet Sheiner, VP of risk management and real estate at AMN Healthcare Services Inc., sees innovation as an answer to fast-evolving and emerging risks.
By: | March 5, 2018 • 4 min read

R&I: What was your first job?

As a kid, bagging groceries. My first job out of school, part-time temp secretary.

R&I: How did you come to work in risk management?

Risk management picks you; you don’t necessarily pick it. I came into it from a regulatory compliance angle. There’s a natural evolution because a lot of your compliance activities also have the effect of managing your risk.

R&I: What is the risk management community doing right?


There’s much benefit to grounding strategic planning in an ERM framework. That’s a great innovation in the industry, to have more emphasis on ERM. I also think that risk management thought leaders are casting themselves more as enablers of business, not deterrents, a move in the right direction.

R&I: What could the risk management community be doing a better job of?

Justified or not, risk management functions are often viewed as the “Department of No.” We’ve worked hard to cultivate a reputation as the “Department of Maybe,” so partners across the organization see us as business enablers. That reputation has meant entertaining some pretty crazy ideas, but our willingness to try and find a way to “yes” tempered with good risk management has made all the difference.

Janet Sheiner, VP, Risk Management & Real Estate, AMN Healthcare Services Inc.

R&I: What was the best location and year for the RIMS conference and why?

San Diego, of course!  America’s Finest City has the infrastructure, Convention Center, hotels, airport and public transportation — plus you can’t beat our great weather! The restaurant scene is great, not to mention those beautiful coastal views.

R&I: What’s been the biggest change in the risk management and insurance industry since you’ve been in it?

The emergence of risk management as a distinct profession, with four-year degree programs and specific academic curriculum. Now I have people on my team who say their goal is to be a risk manager. I said before that risk management picks you, but we’re getting to a point where people pick it.

R&I: What emerging commercial risk most concerns you?


The commercial insurance market’s ability to innovate to meet customer demand. Businesses need to innovate to stay relevant, and the commercial market needs to innovate with us.  Carriers have to be willing to take on more risk and potentially take a loss to meet the unique and evolving risks companies are facing.

R&I: Of which insurance carrier do you have the highest opinion?

Beazley. They have been an outstanding partner to AMN. They are responsive, flexible and reasonable.  They have evolved with us. They have an appreciation for risk management practices we’ve organically woven into our business, and by extension, this makes them more comfortable with taking on new risks with us.

R&I: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the U.S. health care industry and why?

I am very optimistic about the health care industry. We have an aging population with burgeoning health care needs, coupled with a decreasing supply of health care providers — that means we have to get smarter about how we manage health care. There’s a lot of opportunity for thought leaders to fill that gap.

R&I: Who is your mentor and why?

Professionally, AMN Healthcare General Counsel, Denise Jackson, has enabled me to do the best work I’ve ever done, and better than I thought I could do.  Personally, my husband Andrew, a second-grade teacher, who has a way of putting things into a human perspective.

R&I: What have you accomplished that you are proudest of?

In my early 20s, I set a goal for the “corner office.” I achieved that when I became vice president.  I received a ‘Values in Practice’ award for trust at AMN. The nomination came from team members I work with every day, and I was incredibly humbled and honored.

R&I: What is your favorite book or movie?

The noir genre, so anything by Raymond Chandler in books. For movies,  “Double Indemnity,” the 1944 Billy Wilder classic, with insurance at the heart of it!

R&I: What is your favorite drink?


Clean water. Check out Water.org for how to help people enjoy clean, safe water.

R&I: What’s the best restaurant at which you’ve eaten?

Liqun Roast Duck Restaurant in Beijing.

R&I: What is the most unusual/interesting place you have ever visited?

China. See favorite restaurant above. This restaurant had been open for 100 years in that location. It didn’t exactly have an “A” rating, and it was probably not a place most risk managers would go to.

R&I: What is the riskiest activity you ever engaged in?

Eating that duck at Liqun!

R&I: If the world has a modern hero, who is it and why?

Dr. Seuss who, in response to a 1954 report in Life magazine, worked to reduce illiteracy among school children by making children’s books more interesting. His work continues to educate and entertain children worldwide.

R&I: What do your friends and family think you do?

They’re not really sure!

Katie Dwyer is an associate editor at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]