Career Coach: How to cultivate civility in the workplace


(Mike Shapiro/For Capital Business)
June 17, 2012

A few weeks ago I wrote an article about bullies in the workplace. Many people wrote me about this column, saying not only have they seen bullies at work, but they’ve also seen a lack of civility and manners among colleagues.

What are people doing that is so uncivil? I’m sure you can think of examples of rude behavior in the workplace, including colleagues making petty comments, communicating in an abrasive manner, screaming at one another, backbiting, or simply expecting that people will do things for them at a whim without asking them nicely or thanking them.

It’s the attitude that “I am the center of the universe and the rest of the world is here to take care of my needs” that seems to be pervasive in the workplace today. Many people seem to think because they are so busy and stressed, they are allowed to be unpleasant to their colleagues, or show up late to things without apologizing.

Some see incivility as a lack of manners. Others have even told me they think civility is a sign of weakness. Whatever the reason, there is no excuse for treating people with a lack of respect and professionalism or showing just plain bad manners.

Why is civility on the job such an important issue? Incivility reflects poorly on the workplace. It sends a message to customers about the firm and is related to increased consumer complaints. It also affects employee loyalty — why would your talented people want to stay when rudeness is the norm? A lack of civility also drains productivity because employees are spending emotional time stressed out about one another.

Christine Pearson and Christine Porath provide plenty of examples of incivility and its consequences in organizations, particularly financial costs, in their book “The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It” (Portfolio).

To be successful, an organization will need to manage its interpersonal relationships so there are positive and respectful interactions among employees, customers and managers. Thus, some tips for enhancing civility include:

Have good role models for good manners. If the boss is abrasive, then everyone else has an excuse for also being abrasive. If the boss is polite and encouraging, everyone else will likely follow in the boss’ footsteps.

Teach civility to everyone in the workplace. Offer training on good manners and ways to show respect to colleagues. Have the leaders at the firm kick off the training to illustrate their commitment to it.

Have zero-tolerance expectations for abrasive behaviors in the workplace. Make sure you take action otherwise you are condoning it.

Teach employees how to self-monitor their own behavior. Employees need to know what their triggers are and how to control their impulses and responses.

A certain level of conflict is important in companies, and yet employees and managers often don’t know how to express conflict in a healthy way. Make sure to examine the conflict management styles of employees and managers and teach the value of openly discussing issues.

Provide anger or stress management training in the company. Even offering tips every week can be useful for employees.

Encourage employees to consider the impact of their words and actions on others before they act. Too often, e-mails or text messages are sent out in rapid fire, which only serve to escalate a situation.

Encourage a business casual or professional dress code. Some have argued that a more casual or sloppy dress code is related to colleagues treating each other in an overly familiar and less professional manner.

Be on time. If you are late to meetings or to getting work done, at least apologize. This is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of good manners.

Help employees accept responsibility for their actions and the consequences of those actions.

Ask for feedback to learn how you are coming across to others. Listen to that feedback, and take action to improve.

You may think the issue of civility in the workplace is too big to tackle; yet like anything else, change comes from one person at a time. If today each of us shows respect and good manners to our colleagues, which can make a difference.

Joyce E. A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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