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Change Management: Fighting Incivility in the Workplace

Joetta L. Wagner

Joetta L. Wagner

incivility in the workplace

change management

Incivility is a virus that can disrupt even the most efficient work spaces. How can change management efforts and corporate culture training defeat incivility before it spreads?

Civility. It’s a simple word. The Oxford Dictionary defines this noun as “Formal politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech.” Its counterpoints? Rudeness, impoliteness, discourtesy and bad manners. There’s another word that incorporates all the negatives to civility: bullying. We encounter examples of bullying everywhere, from school rooms, halls and yards to boardrooms and retail spaces. Many people have cringed when they come upon an angry manager loudly berating an employee in full view of the public at a restaurant or a store. That doesn’t mean that the employee hasn’t committed an error in completing or trying to complete a task or duty. But the manager’s delivery method of criticism is wrong.

The Uncivil Beast

The United States has made some excellent strides in eradicating bullying in schools, but the “Stop Bullying” federal campaign can go much further. The middle school statistics (generally 6-8 grade) are frightening. According to one large study, the following percentages of middle schools students had experienced these various types of bullying: name calling (44.2 %); teasing (43.3 %); spreading rumors or lies (36.3%); pushing or shoving (32.4%); hitting, slapping, or kicking (29.2%); leaving out (28.5%); threatening (27.4%); stealing belongings (27.3%); sexual comments or gestures (23.7%); e-mail or blogging (9.9%).

Many assume that once high school is completed, bullying virtually disappears. That is incorrect. Bullying, a notable lack of civility, and environments that foster incivility continue on… into the workplace.

team compiling report

Since 2010, Weber Shandwick, a globally-based public relations company, in conjunction with Powell Tate and KRC Research, have conducted a Civility in America survey. This year’s results, Civility in America 2018: Civility at Work and in Our Public Squares was made available in January. The statistics, culled from 1,481 U.S. adults, prove that incivility is rampant in America.

Does a lack of civility cause problems in the workplace? Yes. Jeff Jones’ article for Restoration & Remediation notes the costly results of incivility in the workplace and the need for change management to step in:

  • 48% intentionally decreased their work efforts
  • 47% intentionally decreased their time spent at work
  • 80% lost work time worrying about the incidents
  • 78% said their commitment to the organization declined

Some examples of uncivil behavior are subtle, while others are extremely visible, and both negatively affect corporate culture, noted Diane Barenbaum in her 2010 article, Workplace Incivility on the Rise: Four Ways to Stop It for the HR Exchange Network.

First, the blatant examples of unpleasant behavior:

  • losing one’s temper or yelling at someone in public
  • rude or obnoxious behavior in the workplace
  • badgering or back-stabbing in the workplace
  • withholding important customer/client information
  • sabotaging a project or damaging someone’s reputation

Now, the more subtle examples of incivility:

  • arriving late to a meeting
  • checking e-mail or texting during a meeting
  • not answering calls or responding to emails in a timely manner
  • ignoring or interrupting a colleague in the workplace
  • not saying “please” or “thank you”

This is not a heated war, and its presence in America is pervasive. It’s a cold war of attrition that requires the attention of change management agents if left to fester.

Some companies and organizations are so deeply entrenched in supporting uncivil words and actions that it appears that they will remain obdurate and corporately obnoxious until they cease to exist. But there is the possibility, however remote, that these companies will eradicate the bad blood pool drowning them. And human resources people may well hold the key to positive transformations through careful change management.

Change Management: What HR Can Do

The first thing human resources pros can do is to look at the company they’re working for with a keen and unbiased eye. A pro can also research how others perceive the company. While fictional information is rampant on the web, there are quite a number of sites with truthful, accurate materials that can aid HR in determining what needs to happen next. The next steps are very simple. The end goal is to foster a change in how the company perceives itself and its employees.

Good Corporate Culture Versus Bad Culture

One way to gauge the civility of an organization is to assess its corporate culture. There are innumerable studies pointing to the best corporations to work for and the worst with respect to corporate culture. If you look at the worst, incivility and bullying play strong roles, especially in the arena of sexual misconduct. So after assessing the company and determining where it fits in with its culture, what should HR do next?

Four Effective Steps to Take

Christine Porath is one of the two survey conductors for the annual Weber Shandwick civility questionnaire. Together with managing partner Stuart Price of the law firm Bryan Cave, employees were asked what they thought about civility versus incivility in the workplace. The result was a list of 10 civil behaviors displayed for all to see in the firm’s lobby.

Bryan Cave’s Code of Civility

  • We greet and acknowledge each other.
  • We say please and thank you.
  • We treat each other equally and with respect, no matter the conditions.
  • We acknowledge the impact of our behavior on others.
  • We welcome feedback from each other.
  • We are approachable.
  • We are direct, sensitive, and honest.
  • We acknowledge the contributions of others.
  • We respect each other’s time commitments.
  • We address incivility.

It seems simple because it is simple. It’s a code that will improve employee relations, remove toxicity from the corporate environment and create a healthy productive environment for all. Civility. It’s a simple word. Achieving it is simple, too.

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