Civility in the Workplace

If there’s one thing the recent election has done, it’s put the concept of civility in the workplace front and center in conversations around the country. The volatility and polarization related to many of the issues facing the nation, are being discussed in what seem to be 24/7 media cycles. These discussions spread from living rooms, neighborhoods, bars, restaurants, grocery stores and social media channels into workplaces around the country. Given the closeness of the election and the strong feelings on each side that continue to drive discussion—and dissension—HR professionals need to be taking step to ensure that the workplace doesn’t devolve into another battleground.

It used to be that most people adhered to the common, and common sense, advice of avoiding political and religious discussions in any settings. All of that has changed over the past several years as both issues have become part of national discourse. We could debate whether, or not, that’s a good thing. What’s not up for debate, though, are the potential implications of such discussions in the workplace.

In workplace settings, a lack of civility can lead to verbal abuse, physical abuse and even sexual harassment. These are issues that are of obvious concern to organizations both from a productivity, and potential liability, standpoint.

What to do? There are three key steps that HR can help organizations institute to diminish the potential negative impact of incivility in workplace settings:

  • Communicate expectations.
  • Model desired behaviors.
  • Take swift and decisive action to hold everyone accountable.

Communicate expectations

Employees need to know what’s expected of them—explicitly. While it may be tempting to think, “well, everybody knows that…,” avoid the temptation to make assumptions. Spell out, in detail, what you expect from employees in terms of their interpersonal interactions in the workplace. Indicate both what behaviors are expected—and what behaviors will not be tolerated. Give examples to help illustrate areas that may be ambiguous: e.g. what behaviors do you consider to be “disrespectful.”

Communicate from the top to the bottom of the organization to ensure that senior leaders, managers, supervisors and employees all understand what’s expected of them, and what they can expect from their colleagues and managers.

Communicate regularly. Start during the hiring process, continue through onboarding and incorporate into ongoing discussions at staff meetings and in other settings. Make it clear through multiple channels that civility is an expectation that is taken seriously at the organization. Ensure that there are no misunderstandings in terms of what that means.

Model desired behaviors

Senior leaders, managers and supervisors have an important role to play in terms of modeling desired behaviors for employees. If employees observe a senior leader acting in a disrespectful way toward others, what message does that send about how important the organization considers its stated policies and practices to be. Leaders should model desired behaviors in their interactions with each other, with staff and with customers and other stakeholders.

Take swift and decisive action to hold everyone accountable

If you’ve stated an expectation in a policy, you need to stand behind that expectation in practice—regardless of whose behavior raises concern. Think about that carefully. If you aren’t going to be committed to expecting your top performing senior leaders, or biggest revenue-generating rainmakers to adhere to stated expectations, don’t state those expectations. It will do more harm than good.

However, if you are truly committed to creating and nurturing a culture of civility, hold everyone accountable to those expectations. On the flip side, take steps to ensure that you are recognizing and rewarding examples of situations in which leaders and others in the organization have demonstrated a solid commitment to civility, even in tough or contentious situations.

Being civil doesn’t mean that there should not be disagreement within organizations. Disagreement can lead to innovation and spur new ideas and new ways of thinking. However, disagreement can and should adhere to principles of civility that may include: avoiding personal attacks, listening to others with an intent to fully understand their point of view, being open to respectful disagreement, being supportive of others.

In an article for Harvard Business Review, Christine Porath, associate professor of management at Georgetown University and the author of “Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace” (Grand Central Publishing, 2016), says: “In my study of over 20,000 employees, those who felt respected by their leader reports 92% greater focus and prioritization and 55% more engagement.

Civility matters. Yes, it’s the right thing to do, and to expect from employees. But, as research by Porath and others support, it’s also the fiscally responsible thing to do. Civility drives better business results. Make it an expectation in your workforce.

Civility in the Workplace
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