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Civility at Work

“All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten,” proclaimed Robert Fulghum over two decades ago in his hugely popular book of the same name. Basic principles that Fulghum learned in kindergarten include playing fair, not taking things that aren’t yours, and saying you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. While this behavior is often taught to children, numerous studies reveal that it needs to be taught to adults at work as well.

Indeed, “refusing to work hard on a team effort project” (not playing fair), “taking, without asking, a co-worker’s food from the office refrigerator” (taking things that aren’t yours), and “shifting the blame for your mistake to a co-worker” (not saying you’re sorry) are among the top five behaviors considered to be uncivil in the workplace in the Baltimore Workplace Civility Study conducted by the University of Baltimore and John Hopkins University. Are these behaviors so bad? Survey says – yes. Seventy percent of respondents said they had contemplated changing jobs and sixty-three percent said they felt less commitment to the organization as a result of being victims of or witnessing uncivil behavior at work. Wanting to quit or being less committed because someone stole their sandwich? Actually, incivility can be much harsher and more detrimental than that.

In their book “The Cost of Bad Behavior,” Pearson and Porath said uncivil behavior such as “employees speaking to subordinates in condescending tones, ignoring e-mail or phone messages, claiming excessive credit for (a) team’s accomplishments, browsing on…iPhones or texting during meetings, and leaving malfunctioning office equipment for the next user to fix” results in job stress, disengaged workers, and turnover among other things. The authors, both business school professors, emphasize that, “Far from a minor inconvenience to millions of American workers, workplace incivility is one of today’s most substantial economic drains on American business, a largely preventable ill that begs to be addressed.”

For those employers thinking that the workplace is getting way too soft and civility is the stuff of tea parties, Pearson and Porath say that civility is really about “working hard, working tough, getting the most that you can out of your employees. Add more civility to the mix and you’ll find greater payoffs, including increased loyalty to the company and to you.” And, doing nothing about incivility can cost you. According to the authors, “Job stress…costs US corporations three hundred billion dollars a year, much of which has been shown to stem from workplace incivility.”

What should employers do to increase civility at work? In her article, “Workplace Incivility on the Rise: Four Ways to Stop It,” Diane Berenbaum suggests the following:

1. Increase awareness by defining uncivil behavior and educating employees about its cost and impact.
2. Create workplace standards and value civility. A clear, written standard helps to communicate what is unacceptable behavior and making civility an organizational value helps to communicate your commitment to it.
3. Provide internal training and coaching for employees who engage in inappropriate behavior and take corrective action when necessary.
4. Encourage open communication and feedback. According to Berenbaum, “Organizational leaders need to…create a safe environment so employees are not fearful when sharing concerns or reporting incidents.”

It makes good business sense to insist on civility at work. As P.M. Forni, the co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project put it: “Encouraging civility in the workplace is becoming one of the fundamental corporate goals in our diverse, hurried, stressed, and litigation-prone society. A civil workplace is good for workers, since the workers’ quality of life is improved in such an environment. But a civil workplace is also good for the customers, since the quality of service they receive from happier and more relaxed service providers is improved.” In other words, being nice to each other makes us happy and being happy is good for everyone. Didn’t we learn that in kindergarten?

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Disclaimer: The information and resources provided herein are not a substitute for experienced legal counsel and does not constitute legal advice or attempt to address the numerous factual issues that inevitably arise in any employment-related dispute. Although this information attempts to cover some major recent developments, it is not all-inclusive, and any recommendations are based upon HR best practices and procedures. We recommend you consult an attorney for legal guidance.

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