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A curt comment, a look of contempt, or even resentment about a co-worker who keeps pungent food in the lunch room fridge can be all it takes to turn a workplace into a war zone.

"In surveys we do in workplaces, employees say they are increasingly on edge because of stress, and more likely to snap rather than support. Meanwhile, most feel they are treated with less respect from bosses and co-workers than before the recession," said corporate trainer Lew Bayer, president of CivilityExperts.com in Winnipeg.

"Many have become resentful of managers who expect them to take on more work and of co-workers who are jostling for fewer opportunities to move up," Ms. Bayer said.

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Because most companies have no procedures for employees to talk through and settle their frustrations, "it may become a choice between keeping quietly frustrated or lashing out and screaming," said Ms. Bayer. She said she has seen a doubling of calls in the past year from employers who want her to help restore respect among staff members.

But incivility can be defused quickly by paying attention to it, according to results of a recently completed pilot program at several Canadian hospitals.

"In all the staffs, there were concerns about teasing and sarcastic remarks and about senior personnel who would give a hard time to newbies," said Michael Leiter, a professor of psychology at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., who was co-ordinator of the Civility, Respect and Engagement at Work (CREW) project that included three hospitals in Nova Scotia and two in London, Ont.

At the hospitals before the program "there were a lot of issues of challenging authority and putting down employees for not doing things the way they thought it should be done," said Dr. Leiter, who is director of Acadia's Centre for Organizational Research and Development.

The year-long program started with questionnaires in which all participants rated the civility and support of their managers and co-workers. Key staff were trained to facilitate weekly half hour meetings to discuss the issues that the questionnaires identified.

In each of the five hospitals, employees met weekly to discuss concerns the questionnaires raised and how it was affecting others and their work. "Each meeting set a target: 'Here is the way we want to react around each other; keep that in mind and work on it for the week and report back on your experiences at the next meeting,'" Dr. Leiter explained.

Follow-up surveys over the next two years found that perceived stress dropped by as much as 15 per cent for the groups that did the CREW program - but there was little change for those who did not.

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There were also increases of up to 10 per cent in feelings that employees and administrators behaved with more civility, and that team members treated each other with respect. Instances of co-worker incivility dropped as much as 30 per cent and absences fell by 15 per cent during the program.

By contrast, results of questionnaires of staff who did not participate in the program registered civility and respect scores that remained about the same.

"[The CREW program]changed behaviour long-term because this was not just about having discussions, but applying the principles daily in your work," said Cathy Walls, chief of nursing and study co-ordinator for the IWK Health Centre in Halifax.

"Folks came up with an analogy of CREW as a boat, in which everyone succeeds if they row in the same co-ordinated way. Discussions revolved around whether we actually have procedures and conversations that help people all pull together," Ms. Walls said.

The positive effects have continued since the pilot project ended. "Even on particularly busy days, people say they check in with one another more and they regularly discuss how they are doing in informal gatherings they call 'cuddles,'" she said.

Although there is no direct measure of the program's effect on patient care "We also believe that because we communicate with more respect, it actually influences how effectively we work and has an impact on the outcome for patients," Ms. Walls added. "One thing we realized is that in health care, there often isn't much opportunity for everyone to sit down and come to agreements about how to work together."

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That scenario applies in most workplaces, said Louise Fox, owner of the Etiquette Ladies in Toronto and also a partner in CivilityExperts.com. She, too, said she has recently experienced a sharp increase in calls from employers who say they are seeing a lack of basic civility in their company.

"Paying attention to others acknowledging, listening, being considerate and giving praise are things that people don't do as well these days," she said.

Ms. Fox suggests employers introduce civility as a workshop or group discussion about teamwork, building a more connected work force or handling stress.

"Civility is about thinking before acting, and a conscious awareness of how your actions affect others and realizing it is our responsibility to ease the experience of others by being thoughtful and consistent in your reactions. It has to become conscious behaviour and not just a one-off discussion," she said.

Ms. Fox suggests that management should build in continuing reminders and procedures in their organization, such as a policy about civil behaviour and clear accountability and ways to monitor it with regular employee surveys. "There should be an expectation that comes from the top management that the basic rules of civility apply in the workplace," she stressed.

These, in essence, are the rules of politeness we learn in kindergarten, Ms. Fox noted: "Say hello to people in the morning, nod and smile when you pass them in the hall. Say please and thank you when you need their help and say excuse me if you."

Employers should be keen to champion workplace civility because along with employee happiness, there is a payoff in the bottom line, said Christine Porath, a University of Southern California business professor who is co-author of The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It.

The survey of 800 U.S. professionals found that 80 per cent of employees who said they were victims of insults or bullying in the workplace lost valuable work time worrying about the incident and 78 per cent said their commitment to the organization declined, Prof. Porath said.

The resulting employee time wasted on the job, or spent searching for another position, could cost U.S. companies as much as $300-billion a year, she estimated in the research done with co-author Christine Pearson, a professor of management at Thunderbird School of Global Management.

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STEPS TO A CIVIL WORKPLACE

Get it in the open: Civility should be a topic discussed in meetings throughout the organization.

Put it in writing: A code of conduct for employees and managers should be developed and be publicly posted in workplaces and on the company's internal website.

Set enforcement standards: There should also be clear, written guidelines on steps that will be taken to address uncivil behaviour.

Enforce consistently: Procedures for addressing uncivil behaviour should be enforced fairly for all employees as well as managers.

Provide resources: Counselling, and opportunities for stress reduction and relaxation should be available in the workplace.

Recommendations based on the Civility Scale Assessment, developed by Boise State University and the CREW pilot program.

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IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS

It doesn't take much to make a workplace more civil and improve staff morale:

Acknowledge others. Say good morning. Hold the door. Smile.

Respect your colleagues. Turn off cellphones and avoid texting while in meetings. Be punctual; don't waste the time of others.

Be responsive. Reply promptly to e-mails, phone calls and requests for assistance or information.

Stay professional. Avoid gossip. Keep confidences.

Be supportive. Encourage your colleagues' efforts and ideas.

Wallace Immen

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IMPACT OF BAD BEHAVIOUR

80%

Portion of workers who said they have been insulted or bullied in a workplace.

78%

Portion who said their commitment to the organization declined as a result.

63%

Portion who said they lost time at work to avoid the offender.

48%

Portion who intentionally decreased work effort after uncivil treatment.

47%

Portion who intentionally reduced time at work.

38%

Portion who said they intentionally allowed their work quality to slip

Source: Survey of 800 professionals for the book The Cost of Bad Behavior, by Christine Porath and Christine Pearson.

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About the Author

Wallace Immen is an award-winning staff writer for The Globe and Mail whose stories about workplace trends and career advice, as well as about cruising and travel destinations around the world appear regularly in print and on-line. He has worn many hats in his career with the Globe, including science writer, medical writer and columnist, urban affairs reporter and travel writer. More

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