Seeking civility at the workplace during uncivil times

In nearly every arena of our society, there is a measurable increase in “bad behavior.” From abusive relationships and marriages, bullying at every age in schools, rude and insulting co-workers, raging motorists, contentious politicians, ranting newscasters, and snarky comedians to abounding racists and supremacists, each are becoming all too commonplace in America.

For all our rhetoric of wanting world peace, we seem to struggle with the golden rule ever few of us were taught as children — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I am reminded of a rebuke my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Brown, would give our class quite regularly: “Act like you have some sense and stop behaving like ill-mannered pieces of humanity.”

Who knew I would live in a time when some of the world’s most prominent leaders in government, business, education, and the arts behave as ill-mannered and it is brushed off as okay, “passionate,” or ignored altogether?

Lest we think this behavior is more prominent in large metropolitan areas or at companies with thousands of employees, think again. It happens in mid-sized cities and rural towns, non-profit and faith-based organizations, and public and private companies of every size and industry.

Disrespect in the workplace can take disheartening forms of occasional public or private yelling, belittling, offensive language, and blatant sarcasm. It can also be relatively frequent, low-intensity negative behavior that has a substantial impact on employees. It can be as simple as a sarcastic response to a co-worker's comment during a meeting, or a rude or poorly worded email reply.

Research from 2016 reveals that incivility at work has doubled over the past 20 years. A survey by KRC Research also shows Americans feel incivility has consequences and tends to be directed at certain groups. In fact, most see a direct link between incivility in society and violent behavior (93%), online bullying/cyberbullying (90%), discrimination/unfair treatment (88%), humiliation and harassment (92%), and intimidation and threats (93%). 

According to author and executive coach Ray Williams, the groups thought to experience incivility most often include:

  • Homeless people (55%),
  • Muslims (51%),
  • Immigrants (50%),
  • Refugees (47%),
  • Transgender people (50%),
  • Lesbian and gay people (46%),
  • Lower income people (46%),
  • African-Americans (41%),
  • Hispanics/Latinos (35%),
  • People living with a mental disability (38%),
  • People living with a physical disability (31%),
  • Police officers (35%), and
  • Women (28%)

Professors Christine Porath of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and Christine Pearson of Thunderbird School of Global Business surveyed 800 managers and employees in 17 industries and found that of those on the receiving end of incivility:

  • 48% intentionally decreased their work effort;
  • 47% intentionally decreased the time spent at work;
  • 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work;
  • 66% said that their performance declined; and
  • 78% said that their commitment to the organization declined.

In Porath’s research, she found that leadership is essential to eliminating incivility. She noted, “the number-one attribute that garnered commitment and engagement from employees was respect from their leaders. No other leadership behavior had a bigger effect on employees across the outcomes measured. Being treated with respect was more important to employees than recognition and appreciation, communicating an inspiring vision, providing useful feedback, or even providing opportunities for learning, growth, and development.”



Individuals who received respect from their leaders reported much higher health and wellbeing; experienced greater enjoyment, satisfaction, and meaning from their jobs; and had better focus and a greater ability to prioritize. They were much more likely to engage with work tasks and more likely to stay with their organizations.

So, what can be done to reduce incivility and improve workplace behavior?

  1. Management must set a strong example by modeling courteous behavior and helping create a culture of civility and respect. Managers are always “on,” and should be especially careful when interacting with employees, whether these interactions are in person or by email.
  2. Managers should further set the tone by being on time, discreet, kind, and concerned about others, not just themselves; dressing appropriately; and using proper written and spoken language.
  3. Leaders should meet with their teams to draft a written code of respect (or civility code) for the entire team to follow that sets the standard that everyone in the organization will live up to. 
  4. Management must maintain a zero-tolerance policy toward incivility and rudeness by creating and maintaining a culture that emphasizes respect among employees.
  5. Leaders and teams should develop civility metrics to make sure that change is sustained. 
  6. Leaders should make it clear to every employee that they must to hold their managers and colleagues accountable maintaining the organization’s civility code.
  7. Leaders should provide individual coaching and entire organization training on giving and receiving feedback (positive and corrective), unconscious bias, cultural competency, conflict resolution, working collaboratively across cultural differences, and dealing with difficult people, crucial conversations, negotiations, mindfulness, courtesy, active listening, and stress management.
  8. Leaders must ensure norms for courtesy and respect are evident to employees from the recruitment stage. Weed out potentially toxic employees before you hire them by looking for evidence of past rude behavior. Select on personality traits related to civil behavior, like conscientiousness and thoughtfulness. 
  9. Managers should hold structured interviews that include behavioral questions. Check provided references comprehensively, looking at all additional information.
  10. Leaders should institute onboarding programs that make civility expectations clear, emphasizing that employees should never be too busy to be kind.
  11. Leaders must make every effort to ensure each employee understands and is vested in maintaining a culture of respect.
  12. Managers at every level must hold employees accountable for any transgressions or civility code infractions, paying careful attention to what is going on around them and immediately responding when incivility occurs.

If we neglect civility and respect, bad behavior will continue to escalate in the years to come. 

When I think about how my father always insisted we address my grandmother, “yes, ma’am’ and “no ma’am,” and how my mother directed us to say “please” and “thank you,” I am grateful. I appreciate having learned my manners and respect for my elders. I am blessed to have learned about the finer points of social and business etiquette and to have the “good sense” to apply them when needed.

Even though Mr. Brown’s remarks made me snicker to myself back then, I’ve grown to understand why he gave that admonition so often. He had lived long enough to know where school rooms, public places, and work environments would be if civility eroded and bad manners were allowed to breed unchecked. He knew if we didn’t manage it then, we would today live in these uncivil times of ever-rising disrespect and contempt.

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