By the time George Washington WAS 16, he had copied down 110 rules for “civil and decent behavior” that he learned from a Jesuit textbook. Some of the rules included always showing respect to others, standing when others stand, and not speaking when others are speaking. One particular rule, rule 58, was to “let your conversation be without malice or envy.”
If Washington were alive today, he’d probably be amazed at how incivility seems to have taken over so much of American life. Particularly at work, standards for behavior seem to be in decline. Surveys taken over the last two decades suggest that employees believe behaviors such as disregarding e-mails, showing up late to meetings, playing favorites while ignoring others, gossiping, and shouting are more common than ever.
Research also suggests that uncivil behavior at work can have important bottom line consequences. When workers feel they aren’t being treated with respect by their boss or coworkers, they decrease their efforts, increase their absenteeism, and, in many cases, start looking for new jobs. In fast food restaurants, abusive supervisors lead to more wasted and stolen food. In hospitals, uncivil behavior at the top often becomes the standard throughout the hospital, leading to more errors and even unnecessary patient deaths. In 2008, University of Florida researchers surveyed 180 employees in a variety of industries and found that workers with abusive supervisors were more likely to make errors on purpose.
Incivility at work can be expensive in other ways too. After a physician verbally abused and threatened a hospital worker, the Indiana Supreme Court awarded the worker damages of $325,000. In the past 10 years, 30 state legislatures— including Florida’s—have introduced or passed bills outlawing abusive behavior at work and have awarded damages to victims of workplace bullying. In terms of health, a Swedish study published in 2009 that followed 3,000 workers for ten years found employees with abusive bosses had significantly more heart attacks than those with good bosses.
Some companies have recognized that incivility in the workplace doesn’t have to be the norm. Organizational leadership and HR departments at companies such as Southwest Airlines, Men’s Wearhouse, and Cisco have created formal civility programs to ensure their workplaces remain respectful and productive.
Some guidelines for addressing issues of incivility include:
1. Approach uncivil behavior as a business problem. Among people who have been the target of rude behavior at work, 46 percent think about quitting and approximately 25 percent actually do quit.
But it’s not only the targets of this uncivil behavior who leave. In fact, 20 percent of employees who witness bullying behavior without actually experiencing it also leave their jobs for other opportunities. In other words, incivility costs money. Employers need specific plans for addressing uncivil behavior whenever it occurs.
2. Don’t tolerate uncivil behavior from any employee. Some bosses consider their “tough” behavior as the reason for their career success. In fact, bosses like these usually succeed despite how they treat others. Employees who are victims of harsh treatment often decrease their effort, miss work more often, waste time avoiding the abusive person, and feel less committed to organizational goals.
Company leadership should make certain all employees know there will be consequences for uncivil behavior. Top managers, along with everyone else, will be held accountable for maintaining a respectful workplace.
3. Create a formal civility policy. In most cases, incivility flows downward from management to subordinates, so the established chain-of-command often makes it difficult for employees to confront an uncivil person directly. Companies should have a civility policy that is disseminated to all current employees and provided to new hires. Civility and the treatment of coworkers should also be formally considered at performance appraisal time.
A good civility policy has at least four elements that should help discourage the turnover, theft, and lawsuits caused by the bad behavior of others. First, the policy should make clear that the employer values respectful behavior and will not tolerate rude behavior. Second, the policy should provide some examples of both civil and uncivil acts such as “undermining the credibility of colleagues” as a negative example and “respecting meeting starting and ending times” as a positive one.
Third, the policy needs clear instructions on where to report instances of uncivil behavior. Finally, all employees should be made aware of possible consequences of uncivil behavior.
4. Check your own behavior. Probably everyone is guilty of less than optimal behavior at work at some point. But people who direct the work of others need to monitor their own behavior carefully. What a boss considers tough-but-fair treatment toward subordinates might be seen by the subordinates as mean and oppressive.
The best way to find out about your behavior is to ask. Many companies with civility policies use surveys and 360-degree feedback to help managers understand how they’re coming across to the people they work with. That way questions of civil behavior at work can be addressed before they lead to low morale, turnover, and other problems.
Having a formal civility policy and occasionally reflecting on one’s own behavior are good ways to promote a civil workplace. It is also keeping with Washington’s Rule 110: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.” When workplaces are respectful, workers are happier and more productive. Everyone— including the bottom line—benefits.
Robert Smither, Ph.D. teaches in the Master of Human Resources program and is Dean Emeritus at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. He is a co-author of Organization Development: Strategies for Changing Environments (Routledge, 2016) and the president of Athanor Consulting (athanorconsulting.com)