Transitioning from Uncivil Times to Civil Workplaces – How to Make Peace

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May 24, 2017 | Ray Bixler | HCI

Have you noticed how uncivil our society has become? If you use social media, watch television or read the papers, it’s pretty clear society seems to be in an ugly mood. We live in a time where insults, bullying or worse, seem to have replaced productive dialogue. And cyber-trolling, tweet wars, and an increasingly polarized citizenry are fueling even more bad behavior.

The workplace is also seeing a significant rise in uncivil behavior. Media coverage has abounded lately with claims regarding harassment, Animal House-like workplace cultures, and hostile work environments – many among highly regarded companies. There have been cases where even customers are not treated with respect – who can forget the infamous video of a passenger being physically dragged from a plane?

A hostile workplace can take many forms, everything from workplace politics (intentionally undermining co-workers or taking sole credit for a team accomplishment), isolating or “freezing out” certain employees to outright insults or belittling and physical assaults.

Statistics bear this out. Christine Porath, author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace, and an associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, has surveyed workers on the problem of incivility for nearly 20 years. In 1998, one-quarter said they were rudely treated at work at least once a week, and by 2011 that percentage had risen to 55%. In 2016, Porath did the survey again and 62% reported such incidents.

In another survey, Civility in America 2016, 95% of 1,005 U.S. adults questioned said incivility is a problem. Further, 74% noted they believe civility has declined in the past few years, and 70% said incivility has risen to “crisis” levels (up from 65% in 2014). 

All of this bad behavior has a huge impact on the workplace. For one, incivility takes a toll on employee morale and productivity. In a 2016 Harvard Business Review article, author Porath said: “In laboratory settings, I’ve found that simply observing it [incivility] makes people far less likely to absorb information. Seeing or experiencing rude behavior impairs working (short-term) memory and thus cognitive ability. It has been shown to damage the immune system, put a strain on families, and produce other deleterious effects.”

Another 2016 study co-authored by a Michigan State University business scholar, Russell Johnson, and reported on in the school’s MSUToday magazine, offered evidence that incivility is contagious.  For the study, 70 employees filled out a survey relating to incivility and its effects three times a day for 10 consecutive workdays.  “People who are recipients of incivility at work feel mentally fatigued as a result, because uncivil behaviors are somewhat ambiguous and require employees to figure out whether there was any abusive intent,” noted Johnson. “This mental fatigue, in turn, led them to act uncivil toward other workers. In other words, they paid the incivility forward.”

All of this stress is bad for business, too.  According to the American Psychological Association, workplace stress costs the U.S. economy $500 billion per year, reflecting 550 billion workdays lost yearly to stress on the job. And then there’s incivility’s legal consequences:  The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says that nearly one-third of the 90,000 charges of discrimination filed with the agency in 2016 included allegations of harassment.

How to Create a Kinder Workplace

You can take steps to build a more tolerant, kind atmosphere.  Consider these preventive strategies:

  • Create a guidebook on professional and ethical behavior and then make it required reading for all employees – new hires as well as your tenured employees;
  • Train new hires in civility awareness – and set high standards, e.g. no taking calls, texting or checking emails at meetings, being supportive when giving feedback to direct reports, never disparaging another’s religious or political beliefs;
  • Help employees discover their hidden biases (to test yourself, check out the Harvard Implicit Bias Test (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/index.jsp)

Hiring Strategies to Build Workplace Civility

In The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It, Porath and co-author Christine Pearson note that only 11% of organizations measure an applicant’s civility during the hiring process.  But it’s at this important juncture where you have enormous power to prevent importing bad temperament and behavior into your company. Here are some tips for screening potential hires: 

- Let your team meet your potential hire to get the group’s consensus on the candidate’s fit for the role.

- When interviewing potential hires, use structured behavioral interviews to probe how a candidate handles difficult situations or resolved past interpersonal conflicts.

- Use online reference checking, and get detailed, candid feedback on critical soft skills from a candidate’s past co-workers and managers. For example, you can find out from references if a candidate:

  • Treats other people, including those of different backgrounds, beliefs, and gender, with fairness and respect;
  • Builds strong, positive working relationships with others (managers, peers, coworkers)
  • Cooperates with others to achieve common goals
  • Accepts feedback without becoming angry or defensive
  • Exhibits maturity and self-control, even in situations involving conflict or stress

Incivility in our society is on the rise. To fight against it, you can build a positive, more compassionate workforce by setting standards and providing training, taking quick action to address offenders and –the most effective step – building a positive workforce via smart hiring strategies.