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Workplace incivility at the station: Costs, prevalence and the power of humor

Can firefighters’ dark humor, coupled with resilience, help manage workplace incivility?

Angry person surrounded by a group of people

Front view of a group of wooden cubes with icons representing persons. The main focus is on an angry person who has a cube over his head with a thought bubble full of insults

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By Dr. Jeremy Shadwick

As firefighters, we have willfully joined an occupation that involves elevated risk and high stress work environment coupled with extended periods of time spent together in close-quarter living conditions. We face not only the stress of emergencies but also potential negativity from our colleagues simply due to proximity.

We share a unique bond forged through mutual experiences and operating in hazardous environments, and the resultant relationships are often remarkably close, even comparable to a second family. However, as we all know, families do not always get along perfectly. After all, imagine being stuck at Thanksgiving dinner with all your extended family for 24 hours, add interrupted sleep and meals, and then toss in an emergency. At some point during the day, somebody will get aggravated, stressed and very unpleasant to be around. But unlike the once-a-year Thanksgiving with relatives, we repeat the day again the following shift.

So, how can we best manage the stress of emergency work while dealing with each other’s more problematic behaviors, which can, on occasion, progress into an experience called workplace incivility.

Understanding workplace incivility – and what it costs departments

Interpersonal mistreatment in the work environment is regularly written off as mere rudeness; however, researchers have labeled a specific type of subtle negative actions as workplace incivility, which is more specifically defined as a low-intensity, ambiguous and deviant behavior taking place in violation of workplace norms (Andersson and Pearson, 1999). Some examples:

  • Speaking to someone unprofessionally
  • Excluding an individual from an activity
  • Ignoring another employee
  • Speaking condescendingly to another individual

What sets workplace incivility apart from similar interpersonal abuses is the low-intensity and ambiguous nature of the behaviors. Bullying, aggression and outright violence are more apparent and intense. While most organizations have policies in place to address these more aggressive behaviors, the subtle characteristics of workplace incivility are regularly overlooked. Furthermore, in comparison to the more extreme negative interpersonal behaviors, workplace incivility may seem trivial, but the consequences of workplace incivility can manifest psychologically, physically and even organizationally within the work environment.

Workplace incivility is costly, too. In 2013, researchers pegged the approximate annual monetary cost of workplace incivility within an organization at $14,000 per employee due to work interruption and project delays (Porath and Pearson, 2013) – approximately $20,000 per employee in 2024 money. These costs can add up quickly, especially for a small department or organization.

The impact of workplace incivility goes beyond monetary costs, of course. Personal outcomes for employees exposed to workplace incivility can include depression, anxiety, increased physical health problems, low job satisfaction, reduced work performance and increased organizational turnover, all of which develop progressively (Dalal, 2005). There is also the potential spiraling effect associated with workplace incivility, wherein the behavior increases and surges among personnel. Employees experiencing workplace incivility will characteristically respond negatively and, in certain situations, will overtly retaliate, thereby propagating further undesirable interpersonal behaviors among employees (Lim et al., 2008; Porath & Pearson, 2013; Rosen, Koopman, Gabriel, & Johnson, 2016).

Workplace incivility can also obscure outright discrimination. One researcher suggested an increase of workplace incivility in the work environment might be a replacement for overt discriminatory conduct (Cortina, 2008). The ambiguous and low-intensity nature of workplace incivility allows intolerant individuals an avenue to direct prejudice toward targets based on race and gender minority status.

Workplace incivility is costly, persistent and detrimental to organizations as well as the individual employees. Curtailing this harmful behavior is vital to the success of the organization. The answer to resolving workplace incivility could lie in how firefighters cope with each other, emergency situations and stress in general.

The role of dark humor

The interpersonal dynamics among professional firefighters could be a regulating factor, diminishing engrossment with workplace incivility behaviors. One way to accomplish this is through humor. After all, many in service-driven industries employ humor as a means of dealing with day-to-day traumatic events. This humor can include gallows humor, typically an ironic humor making light of a taboo or difficult subject (Coughlin, 2002). Gallows humor is also considered clandestine in nature, meaning that while the humor is acknowledged covertly, it is also being disregarded (Moran, 2002). This is noteworthy, as workplace incivility behavior is also often ignored and disregarded due to the ambiguous and subtle nature of the behavior.

Research has shown that individuals in service-oriented professions often use gallows humor only among certain groups, noting that it is censored around others who are perceived to be unable to envision the type of work these professionals do (Scott, 2007). This highlights the inherent group cohesiveness formed among these professionals, creating separation between those who are in the group and those who are not.

Gallows humor might allow firefighters to mitigate the emotional consequences of dealing with traumatic events and workplace incivility, or it could be an interplay between humor and group cohesiveness. And researchers have observed that humor can be implemented at nearly any time to connect, defuse or escape from disagreeable realities (Craun and Bourke, 2014).

It is possible that humor used among firefighters, whether gallows or otherwise, allows us to moderate subtle forms of interpersonal mistreatment such as workplace incivility. This might be owing to either the social cohesiveness among these professionals or that the workplace incivility behavior is simply misinterpreted as typical workplace banter.

Building resilience

Another thought is that individuals working in the emergency services field have grown a resistance to interpersonal mistreatment due to repetitive exposure to traumatic events. It is common for individuals to develop resilience after an incident exposure, and most are then able to function at their normal level when exposed to moderately stressful experiences such as workplace incivility (Bonanno, Westphal and Mancini, 2011).

Firefighters possess resilient emotional skills derived from vicariously experiencing the emotional and physical pain of their customers/patients (Sattler et al., 2014). In addition, there is the unique social support provided by fellow firefighters, enhancing self-esteem, camaraderie and adaptive coping. It is likely a combination of this exposure to trauma, our use of subtle guarded humor, and the extended time together that allows firefighters to not only do their jobs, but to also effectively moderate negativity.

Tips for managing incivility

Overall, the impending direction of research concerning workplace incivility and other forms of interpersonal mistreatment would benefit from a solid and more defined understanding of how firefighters moderate and cope. In any profession and any work environment, an individual is likely to experience workplace incivility or simply just rudeness in the workplace. Taking a lesson from those of us in the emergency services field could be of benefit.

The next time you meet a rude coworker or just a random individual during your day, take a cue from firefighters. Here are a few takeaways.

  • Lighten the mood: A well-timed joke can diffuse tension and create a more positive atmosphere.
  • Build camaraderie: Fostering strong relationships with colleagues can create a support system to weather workplace challenges.
  • Develop resilience: Learn to adapt and move on from minor annoyances.

While firefighters’ experiences are unique, their approach to negativity offers valuable lessons for anyone dealing with workplace incivility. By incorporating humor, building strong relationships, and cultivating resilience, we can all create a more positive and productive work environment.


  • 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.
  • Bonanno, G.A., Westphal, M., & Mancini, A.D. (2011). “Resilience to trauma and potential trauma.” Annual Review of Clinical Trauma, 7,1–25.
  • Cortina, L.M. (2008). “Unseen injustice: Incivility as modern discrimination in organizations.” Academy of Management Review, 33(1), 55–75.
  • Coughlin, J.J. (2002). “Gallows humor and its use among police officers” (doctoral dissertation). James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA.
  • Craun, S.W., & Bourke, M.L. (2014). “The use of humor to cope with secondary traumatic stress.” Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 23(7), 840–852.
  • Dalal, R.S. (2005). “A meta-analysis of the relationship between organizational citizenship behavior and counterproductive work behavior.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 90, 1241–1255.
  • Lim, S., Cortina, L.M., & Magley, V.J. (2008). “Personal and work group incivility: Impact on work and health outcomes.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(1), 95– 107.
  • Moran, C.C. (2002). “Humor as a moderator of compassion fatigue.” In C.R. Figley (Ed.), Treating compassion fatigue (pp. 139–155). New York, NY: Brunner-Routledge.
  • Porath, C., & Pearson, C. (2013). “The price of incivility.” Harvard Business Review, 91(2), 114-138.
  • Rosen, C.C., Koopman, J., Gabriel, A.S., & Johnson, R.E. (2016). “Who strikes back? A daily investigation of when and why incivility begets incivility.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(11), 1620–1634.
  • Sattler, D.N., Boyd, B., & Kirsch, J. (2014). “Trauma-exposed firefighters: relationships among posttraumatic growth, posttraumatic stress, resource availability, coping and critical incident stress debriefing experience.” Stress and Health: Journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress, 30(5), 356–365.
  • Scott, T. (2007). “Expression of humour by emergency personnel involved in sudden death work.” Mortality,12(4), 350–364.


Dr. Jeremy Shadwick serves as a firefighter with the Bartlesville (Oklahoma) Fire Department. He is also a senior operations consultant for Rendezvous Industrial Organizational (RIO) Consulting. Shadwick has a doctoral degree in organizational psychology, and focuses his efforts on improving workplace culture, employee performance, work-life balance and emotional intelligence.