Sexual Harassment, gender inequality and discrimination are all issues that have been wrestled with in the workplace for decades. You would be hard pressed to find a manager or HR professional who hasn’t learned about these issues, received some sort of training about what they are, and strategies on how to help protect their organization against the damaging affects they can have. But another issue that can be just as damaging, yet not altogether clear on how to identify and address, is workplace civility. How do you differentiate workplace civility from harassment and discrimination? What risks does an organization have if it’s occurring in the workplace? And most importantly – how do you address it?
In its simplest form, harassment is unwelcome conduct that is intimidating, hostile or abusive; interferes with an employee’s ability to work; or becomes a condition of continued employment. Examples include racially derogatory jokes, comments or posters, or expressing negative stereotypes and more. Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal and physical abuse.
Discrimination occurs when there is adverse treatment of people because of a protected class, including race, religion, sex or gender, nationality, age, disability, genetics, or any other defining characteristic. Examples include paying a higher salary to white employees (because they are white) over African American or Hispanics (because they are non-white), giving preferential treatment to males (because they are males) and less ideal work assignments to females (because they are female), or making assumptions and not hiring a disabled individual because of their disability – without first exploring whether they can do the essential functions of the job (acting on bias or stereotype instead of facts).
Harassment and Discrimination are illegal; they are based upon defined, protected characteristics and those subjected to this behavior have legal recourse. So what is workplace incivility? Workplace incivility can be defined as, ”…a low intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm the target, in violation of workplace norms for mutual respect and courtesy”. (1) People who engage in uncivil behavior may not necessarily have bad or harmful intent. However, the behavior may violate norms for mutual respect or demonstrate antisocial behavior.
It’s likely all of us, at some point or another, have witnessed or been subjected to uncivil behavior in both our work and personal lives. Examples of common workplace incivility include the following:
- Ignoring someone or excluding co-workers or team members
- Berating a subordinate or co-worker
- Interrupting people or not allowing them to talk and provide input
- Mocking someone or spreading gossip
- Discourteous behavior
- Making unfounded accusations
- Use of demeaning language
- Creating unnecessary and irrelevant controversy
- Jamming a printer or copier and letting someone else deal with it
- Taking the last cup of coffee and letting someone else make a new pot
The key issue of workplace incivility that differentiates it from other forms of mistreatment is the concept of ‘ambiguous intent’. Perpetrators and victims aren’t always easily identifiable. For example; if a co-worker say’s, “hello” and the person they’re speaking with doesn’t reply back – it’s not clear whether the lack of response is intentional or if the person is simply distracted and/or didn’t hear the greeting. Regardless of intent, if this type of discourteous (or considered by some to be even – rude) behavior occurs frequently, whether by a few individuals or by many – it can have damaging affects to morale, productivity and employee retention.
According to Christine Porath in a Georgetown University study in 2016, 62% of employees were treated rudely at work once a month, a tendency that has grown steadily since the study began in 1998 where the number was 49%. (2) The study showed that inside organizations, 78% of employees experiencing rude behavior report being less committed, 66% show a decline in performance, and 47% find ways to intentionally spend less time at work. The impact also spreads outside of work, as 25% of employees report that rude behavior in the workplace causes them to take their frustrations out on others such as customers, friends and family.
It’s clear that incivility can be detrimental to any organization, and it’s contagious! Individuals tend to mimic the behaviors they’re subjected to over time. For self-preservation purposes or just by falling into bad habits surrounding them, uncivil behavior can begin to permeate a workplace and create a negative, even toxic, work environment.
But there’s no universal standard of what constitutes uncivil behavior; it’s often based on local norms and courtesies. Incivility is defined at a local and even personal level; what may be uncivil in one environment and to one person may be completely civil in a different situation. Bearing this in mind, what can employers do to create a more courteous and civil work environment and build consensus among employees of what that looks like?
Dr. Cynthia Clark, PH.D., R.N., developed a definition of workplace civility. It provides basic instructions on how to practice civility at work. She defines it as an “authentic respect for others, requiring time, presence, a willingness to engage in genuine discourse, and an intention to seek common ground.” (3)
Respect – Respecting your coworkers means valuing and affirming their worth as a person. You may not like them or admire them — but they are human beings with the same needs to be validated and affirmed as you. See them as equals, deserving the respect and dignity you deserve.
Time and Presence – Respect the time of your coworkers: respond to their emails and calls quickly, ask them if they have time to chat with you before you interrupt them. Be present at meetings, willing to offer your ideas and feedback. Be present at social gatherings to get to know your coworkers.
Willingness to Engage and Intention to Seek Common Ground – Engage in dialogue, not debate. Do not argue with coworkers. Instead, try to understand their points of view. Seek to understand their perspectives by saying, “Tell me more about that” or “I’d like to hear your perspective on that.” The goal of a workplace conflict or conversation is not who wins and who loses. It is seeking common ground for the improvement and good of the company.
In an article by Neal Woodson, “Ten Ways to create a more civil workplace” (2), he discusses the book written by P.M Forni, Choosing Civility, in which Forni identifies twenty-five rules that are most essential in connecting effectively and happily with others. (4) A few of the key behaviors for the workplace include:
- Acknowledge Others. No one should feel invisible. Make eye contact. Greet people with “good morning”, “good afternoon”, etc. Use people’s names. Make people feel welcome in your presence.
- Think the Best. Most people are not trying to intentionally ruin things or do harm, try to assume positive intent. Until proven wrong, give the benefit of the doubt that people are trying to do the best they can with the resources and tools available to them.
- Listen. Stop focusing on yourself and your needs; instead, focus on other people. Don’t assume you need to solve anything, just hear and try to understand clearly what they are saying. Respect what others think and honor their right to see things differently than you do. It doesn’t mean you have to agree, just hear them.
- Speak Kindly. Be respectful in word and tone, particularly when delivering critical feedback.
- Accept and Give Praise. It is said that one of the greatest things you can give someone else is a sense of their own worth. Praising the accomplishments of others and showing appreciation cost you nothing but deliver tremendous value. And when you are praised, a kind thank you is all that’s necessary. Gracious humility is a virtue.
- Be Agreeable. Be open to and look for opportunities where you can accommodate others, compromise, or simply allow someone else’s ideas to be implemented. Your way isn’t the only way.
- Respect Other People’s Time. Be punctual, end things on time, wait your turn to speak, show up to everything you’ve promised, and every time you fail to do so, apologize.
- Apologize Earnestly. Be clear about the error you’ve made and do not make excuses. Let others know that what you did was wrong and that you understand and regret the negative impact you’ve made.
- Accept and Give Constructive Criticism. Be clear about your intentions. If your intention is to help, then be helpful, however, if your intent is revenge or to manipulate things to your benefit, re-evaluate and walk away. When receiving criticism, assume the positive intentions of others. Be grateful, not defensive.
- Don’t Shift Responsibility and Blame. If you are part of the problem, own it, apologize if necessary, and help in finding a solution. Trying to place blame rather than working to find a solution makes you an obstacle. Don’t be that person.
As with anti-harassment and discrimination initiatives, promoting and maintaining a civil work environment should be a priority of business leaders and HR professionals alike. In this fast-paced world where business demands and work pressures continue to mount, practicing civility is not always easy. By defining what civility looks like in your organization and ensuring those behaviors are modeled by leaders at every level, you’re more likely to maintain a positive work environment and reap the rewards of it long-term.
A special thanks to Terry Salo with strategic HR inc. for sharing her insights and findings on civility. If you have any questions or would like to share your comments, contact us at info@strategicHRinc.com.
- Andersson LM, Pearson CM. Tit[***] for tat? The spiraling effect of incivility in the workplace. Academy of Management Review. 1999;24:267-85
- Ten ways to create a more civil workplace. November 8, 2018. https://nealwoodson.wordpress.com/2018/11/04/ten-ways-to-create-a-more-civil-workplace/
- First Sun EAP Employee Newsletter, August 2017.
- Choosing Civility: The Twenty-fixe Rules of Considerate Conduct, by P.M. Forni. Macmillan, February 28, 2002.