Civility at Work

The 2011 Civility in America poll reported that 38 percent of workers believe the workplace is becoming more disrespectful, and that 67 percent believe there is a strong need for civility training.

By Catherine Mattice, President, Civility Partners, LLC

The 2011 Civility in America poll reported that 38 percent of workers believe the workplace is becoming more disrespectful, and that 67 percent believe there is a strong need for civility training. In an online search, more than 12 million mentions of “civility” surface—a 460 percent increase from 2010, according to Weber Shandwick, the firm responsible for the poll. Clearly, Americans are taking notice of the need for respect at work.

Perhaps that’s because the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that 25 percent of businesses have workplace bullying, CareerBuilder found that 35 percent of workers report that they are bullied at work, and the Corporate Leaver Survey found that 71 percent of respondents strongly discouraged others from seeking employment at their previous employer because they felt publicly humiliated.

Incivility, bullying, harassment, and discrimination affect the bottom line because these behaviors increase anxiety, depression, absenteeism, presenteeism, and turnover; and decrease motivation, quality of work, output, job satisfaction, and ability to meet goals. Communication ceases, problems can’t be solved, people can’t learn, gossip takes over, customer service suffers, and stress prevents effective decision-making. Further, the consequences of negativity extend far beyond the perpetratorand target relationship. Anyone witnessing the aggressive behaviors, even if they don’t necessarily feel victimized by it, loses loyalty to managers and the organization,and, thus, their work suffers, too.

Organizational success depends on a climate of fairness and compassion; supportive working environments are consistently identified as an important attribute of an effective learning organization. In order to learn, employees must feel safe to disagree, ask questions, and make mistakes. They must recognize the value of competing ideas andfeel encouraged to take risks. If your organization’s culture is one of negativity and aggressiveness, none of this is allowed to flourish. As author Kim Cameron cites in his book, “Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance,” “people are literally able to take in more information when they experience positive emotions.” Civility is, indeed, a cornerstone of learning and retention.

Finally, culture dictates behavior. That means training doesn’t change behavior, the environment does. If you train a group of sales reps on a new product, for example, the training session will give them the information needed to sell, but the managers’ support of the required behavior change is what makes a difference in the bottom line. If the manager is abusive, all of that necessary coaching and follow-up training to accomplish behavior change is moot—employees won’t take the information in during real time learning.

Policy, Culture, and Leadership

The initiatives you can implement in your own organization to reach a civil work environment are nearly unlimited; you just have to get creative. No matter what action items you decide to implement, however, your efforts must focus on three areas: policy, culture, and leadership. Here are three ideas from each area:

  • Policy: No doubt you have all of the required harassment and discrimination policies in your employee handbook—you’ve provided your employees a list of what they should not do. But have you provided a list of what they should do instead? When you remove behaviors, you have to replace them. If you tell employees not to do something, you have to offer alternatives. Therefore, implement a healthy workplace corporate policy that provides information about what respectful and civil behavior looks like in your organization. This policy also will allow you to address behavior that may not be as egregious as sexual harassment, for example, but is uncivil enough to cause a breakdown in communication and damage work product and customer service.
  • Culture: To gain buy-in for your new policy, seek help from your employees. During your next harassment training, break your attendees into groups and ask them to tell you what behaviors they would like to see from their co-workers and managers. As each group provides their answers, make a list on the whiteboard so they can see that they all agree. (Interestingly, I’ve done this exercise in more than 50 organizations of all industries and sizes, and the list is always roughly the same 15 items.) Include the list in the healthy workplace policy, use it to create values statements and action items, and intertwine the list with performance management programs. Also, provide training on those behaviors, as well as in areas that highlight positive behavior, including conflict resolution, negotiation, interpersonal communication, assertiveness, forgiveness, gratitude, empathy, stress management, leadership, and optimism.
  • Leadership: Training professionals are being asked to demonstrate ROI, but negative corporate culture will circumvent positive return on training programs. Leadership must be transparent about their support for a civil work environment for it to come to fruition. In addition, leaders should be trained on positive leadership skills, coaching uncivil employees, and publicly rewarding those who engage in positive workplace behaviors. They should be trained in building upon employee strengths, rather than finding and correcting their weaknesses.

Reaping the Benefits

The benefits of a healthy, safe, positive, and supportive working environment are endless. Companies that openly promote civil communication among employees earn 30 percent more revenue than competitors, are four times more likely to have highly engaged employees, and are 20 percent more likely to report reduced turnover, according to a 2003 study by Watson Wyatt. Another study by found that only 44 percent of companies that had won a great workplace award laid off workers in 2008, while a whopping 86 percent of Fortune 100 companies without this recognition laid employees off during the same year.

Positive workplace cultures motivate and inspire, decrease turnover, improve internal communication, increase customer satisfaction and work quality, reduce stress, improve employee health, increase learning and retention, ignite better decision-making, and promote excitement among employees to achieve greatness.

Catherine Mattice is the president of Civility Partners, LLC, a training and consulting firm focused on ending workplace bullying and building positive workplaces. She is the author of BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.