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The Leader's Guide to Workplace Civility and a Respectful Workplace

Oct 05, 2020

Unposed group of creative business people in an open concept office brainstorming their next project.-4

Do you work in a respectful workplace or one that's merely civil? No judgment if your workplace is neither one—there's a fair amount of stress and workplace incivility going around right now.

But as a leader, you can change this.

No matter how you would characterize your workplace now, you can make it more (or even more) civil and more respectful. Hint: A respectful workplace is happier, more productive, and much harder to compete with.

Here's how workplace civility is different from respect in the workplace, why both matter, and practical ways to increase both.

What is workplace incivility? Why does it matter?

To understand the importance of workplace civility, it helps to look at common examples of the opposite. What else would you add to this list? Be sure to share in the comments section below. 

10 Examples of Workplace Incivility

  1. Barking orders to staff or co-workers
  2. Badmouthing someone else in the office (especially if it's within earshot of customers)
  3. Yelling for any reason, other than to prevent disaster
  4. Neglecting to say "I'm sorry" when it's clearly warranted
  5. Criticizing someone publicly
  6. Stealing credit for someone else's idea
  7. Name-calling
  8. Ignoring a legitimate request
  9. Using coarse language
  10. Telling off-color jokes

You get the picture. These seemingly small slights add up, draining morale, productivity and employee engagement. To put it more bluntly, workplace incivility erodes trust. Who wants to risk sharing an idea, for example, if it's likely to scoffed, shot down, or otherwise dismissed?

Workplace Incivility: More Reasons It Matters

  • Workplace incivility is contagious. For example, employees often treat clients/customers how they themselves are treated. The individual contributor who disliked being bossed around by a manager absorbs those behaviors and acts out on them when promoted to management.
  • Left unchecked, workplace incivility breeds negativity—often with a sense entitlement. The abundance of brash comments on social media confirms this. Hint: You don't have to respond. Often it's better if you don't. 
  • Workplace incivility may be disguising deeper conflicts that aren't being addressed. Why not find out (politely) what those deeper issues are and deal with them head on? For example, if someone is constantly being disruptive during meetings, maybe there's a fear of not being heard—or not being taken seriously.

For more about the financial and emotional costs of rudeness, please see Harvard Business Review's article The Price of Incivility. Though written in 2013, which now seems quaint, it still applies today. 

21 simple rules for workplace civility  

When I wrote Thriving at Work, I included a list called "21 Ways to Be an Agent of Hope." Here is a slightly modified version of that list, to offer practical tips for bringing more civility into the workplace:

  1. Show up early.
  2. Show up prepared.
  3. Show up in a good mood.
  4. Pitch in when you’re expected to and when you’re not.
  5. Be the first to offer a smile.
  6. Hold doors, including elevator doors.
  7. Tone it down. No matter how much your co-workers love you, they don’t want to hear you sing. Not even softly.
  8. See the person in front of you as the most important person in the world.
  9. Listen without interrupting.
  10. Take hints the first time.
  11. Pay meaningful compliments.
  12. Don’t hit people when they’re down. Or up.
  13. Celebrate others’ successes. A few kind words and a high five go a long way.
  14. When someone’s telling a story, let them have the limelight.
  15. Be quick to praise and slow to criticize. Most of us are doing the best we can.
  16. Return what you’ve borrowed, without being asked.
  17. Send a sincere, handwritten thank-you to one of your co-workers. Or your boss.
  18. Let someone else cut in front of you at the copy machine or office microwave.
  19. Clean up after yourself. Especially in the lunchroom.
  20. Say please and thank you—even if someone is "just doing their job." 
  21. End meetings on time or early.

At first, some of these suggestions may seem mechanical or superficial—that's okay. Many things worthwhile start out feeling awkward or contrived. It is only with practice that they start to feel natural. Look at what happens to trust and morale when these simple kindnesses are ignored.

Building workplace civility into your culture   

It doesn't have to be complicated—if your commitment to workplace civility is sincere, it will show up in countless ways. A few tips to help you get started: 
  • Give your team an example worth following. And as I've said for years, "When you mess up, fess up." You will gain credibility and send the message that offering a sincere apology is a sign of strength.
  • Give your team a common framework for understanding the what, why and the how: what workplace civility is, why it matters, and how it plays out; i.e., what it looks like through everyday behavior. You can start by sharing the above list. 
  • Come up with a creative way to encourage employee buy-in. For example, years ago I worked for a company that had a simple, yet memorable "Employee of the Week" program. The winner was chosen by the previous week's winner, and announced on Monday morning via interoffice email, along with the reasons why. I venture to say it inspired better behavior in all of us; it also reminded us to look for and celebrate workplace civility. 
  • Let your team know the consequences; i.e., what will happen if they undermine workplace civility; for example, by talking down to a customer or fellow employee, answering email during a staff meeting, or taking credit for other people's ideas. 
  • Recruit and hire for civility. For example, when posting job ads, a marketing company I know states that they look for people who are "hungry and humble." What words can your company use to describe and attract the employees you are looking for? What question or set of questions could you ask during the interview process to gain greater insight into the candidate's views on workplace civility? These could easily include questions you and your team ask yourselves; for example,
    • Did the candidate show up on time or early?
    • Did he or she seem prepared and genuinely interested in joining our team?
    • Did the candidate inspire confidence?
    • Is this someone we would want working for us and with us during a crisis? 

Workplace civility doesn't develop overnight—but with a few simple steps, you and your team can start to see progress almost immediately.

Why respect in the workplace is even better

Respect in the workplace doesn't undermine civility but goes far beyond it.

While workplace civility may seem contrived (and can be practiced effectively whether someone believes in it or not), respect is a disposition: respect for self, respect for others, generally in that order. 

It doesn't mean there will never be conflict, or that you as a leader will never say or do the wrong thing. However, it does mean that conflicts and disagreements will be handled with an underlying regard for the other person's humanity and contributions. 

Respect in the workplace is even better than civility, because it raises the standard. It moves the conversation from "What's the bare minimum?" to "How can we act in one another's best interests?" 

The best person to answer that question is the person in front of you, even if they're not physically in front of you but on the other end of a text, email, phone or Zoom call. As an example, I have had co-workers who routinely behaved in ways that others found objectionable but they themselves did not. 

That's not respect. It's not even the bare minimum.

Why not get together with your team and talk about respect in the workplace; i.e., what it looks like and  what it doesn't look like? 

Workplace civility and respect training: I can help (and I can make it fun)

If workplace civility and respect are your goals, I can help. I'll work with you to help your entire company adopt a set of workplace standards that are uniquely yours.

The very term "workplace civility" almost has a Mrs. McGillicuddy vibe. But the more you make the training fun and interactive, the more buy-in there will be. Again, I know how to make this happen.

I can also say things to your team that you might rather not. The result: Your entire team develops a standard you can all adhere to, resulting in more trust, teamwork, productivity and engagement. And you end up the hero. Interested? Click the form below to set up a brief, no-obligation discovery call.


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