How Tapping into Common Decency Can Support a Positive Workplace Culture

Common decency can be a helpful tool for HR managers who are trying to set expectations for how coworkers should treat each other.

Toxic workplace culture is top of mind for employees right now. A recent study on employee attrition shows that disrespect, a lack of fairness, dishonesty, and outright aggression are driving employees to quit and look for work in more positive environments. The incivility we’re seeing throughout society is having an impact on workplace behavior, and it’s not good. For all the effort companies have put into training workers on soft skills, emotional intelligence, and team orientation, have people lost a basic sense of what it means to be a decent, honest, respectful human?

During the last 30 years, American culture has seen an increase in divisive communication styles that likely impact how people relate to each other at work. The words people are choosing and ways that discussions are phrased in absolute terms of right and wrong today can leave people feeling like they’re being judged unfairly, disrespected, and even excluded. Workplaces run on relationships, and when we can’t trust people to treat us with fairness and respect, it affects our whole sense of how things are supposed to work—it’s unsettling and damaging to individual and group well-being. One way to reset expectations for team culture is to talk about common decency. It’s a back-to-basics approach that resonates with our sense of how humans are supposed to treat each other.

What is common decency?

Common decency is about how humans treat each other to build trust, fairness, and cooperation. It comes from a long human history, across cultures and time, because humans have evolved to know that working with others is good for us. When we act with common decency, our bodies and our brains release chemicals that help us know what we’re doing is in our best interest.

In my research for the book Rooted in Decency, I found there are four core values that define decent behavior: Truth, Respect, Responsibility, and Compassion. When we face a question of how we should treat others and whether an action is ethical, we weigh and balance the competing demands of these four values. Let’s look at two of those values in more detail since they touch on some of the key reasons people say they are leaving toxic work cultures.

Decency Value 1: Truth

When we’re honest in our words and actions, people know they can trust us. Being a decent, honest person means we sincerely intend to state the facts. We act in an honest way, not manipulating, cheating, or bending the truth to work to our advantage. Society may talk about a “post-truth” culture where the facts don’t matter—but really, they do. First, we can’t make good decisions with bad data. Second, teammates need to be able to count on each other, and when people undermine the truth for their own purposes, it’s hard to trust them. It’s in each person’s best interest, and it serves the team’s ability to cooperate when each contributor is trustworthy.

Decency Value 2: Respect

One of the reasons we’re seeing so much disrespect today is that some people have a misconception that treating someone with courtesy is the same as agreeing with them or validating their views. But when we look at the real meaning of respect, it’s about treating someone with care because we think it’s important to do so. That means we may not be acting respectfully because we esteem the person directly. We don’t have to admire or even agree with someone to treat them with respect. Instead, we treat everyone with respect because we think it’s important to maintain civility in the workplace, and we value the idea that all people deserve dignity. Treating people with respect means we’re making the effort to treat others in a way we would accept in return. It’s an expression of fairness and common dignity that helps us cooperate toward shared goals, including the goal of having a civil, non-toxic work environment.

Common Decency in Action

Our shared understanding of common decency can be a helpful tool for HR managers who are trying to set expectations for how coworkers should treat each other. These fundamental behaviors are part of human evolution, and scientists explain that our brains and bodies have adapted to help us know when we’re acting in line with these four values that encourage trust, fairness, and cooperation. So talking about workplace dynamics in terms of common decency can help people connect with what feels right and good in how we treat each other.

HR leaders can make common decency actionable by creating specific examples for their company or industry. For example, to address some of the more divisive communication styles we’re seeing today, team values might include some guidance like this:

  • We act with a sincere intent to help the whole team achieve shared goals.
  • We communicate accurate facts that we need to make valid choices.
  • We listen to opinions we don’t agree with and offer objections respectfully.

These behaviors grounded in shared ideas about common decency help employees connect with how honesty, respect, responsibility, and compassion contribute to a positive workplace culture. Science also shows that acting with these four values enhances our personal sense of well-being. Common decency is a win-win for individual employees and team success.

Colleen Doyle Bryant
Colleen Doyle Bryant is the author of Rooted in Decency, which explores why common decency has declined and how we can move forward to a place of more trust and cooperation. She’s the author of 5 books and more than 50 teaching resources on values and character that are used in curriculums around the world.