Workplace Incivility: Are You Part of the Problem?

Posted on December 30, 2012 by VITAL WorkLife

Weber Shandwick's 2011 Civility in America poll found that 89% of Americans have been victims of incivility—and more than half (59%) admitted to engaging in uncivil behavior. Are you part of the problem? Ask yourself if you've ever:

  • Used the last piece of paper in the copier and not refilled it
  • Taken the last cup of coffee and not made more
  • Answered a cell phone or texted someone else during a conversation
  • Purposely not greeted or acknowledged someone in the office
  • Rolled your eyes in response to someone talking to you
  • Stood over a co-worker who was talking on the phone or typing an email
  • Taken someone else's food from the lounge
  • Sent negative emails or hit "reply all" with negative intentions
  • Talked poorly about another employee with co-workers
  • Made insensitive comments or jokes based on gender, age, religion, race, etc.

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, chances are you've upset or offended one or more of your co-workers—either unknowingly or on purpose.

"Sometimes people are not aware that they are being uncivil—they lack that empathetic understanding that is crucial to working well with others," notes Matt Steinkamp, vice president of EAP Services for VITAL WorkLife. "For example, many people are surprised to find that 'eye-rolling' can be extremely offensive. It's a nonverbal way of saying 'Your opinion isn't very important to me,' or, 'I'm irritated by what you're saying.'"

Civility Versus Incivility: What's the Difference?

Civil behavior begins with an awareness of how your behavior affects others—and a commitment to avoiding doing or saying things likely to hurt feelings, offend sensibilities or have negative consequences.

Civility combines the golden rule of "doing unto others as you would have them do to you" with a recognition that your co-workers might not like all the same things you like.

A true hallmark of civil behavior is that when you see (or someone points out) that you have offended or irritated a co-worker, you apologize and then resolve not to do it again: "I'm sorry. I didn't know that would offend you," or, "I can see that irritated you; I won't do it again."

Incivility starts with putting your own needs and preferences ahead of all others: "It's just the way I am. Take it or leave it." When people refuse to conform to office norms, or deliberately break social rules, the work environment becomes less civil. Incivility can include both things you do and don't do—for example, to ignore a request or not acknowledge someone else's accomplishments is uncivil.

It's the height of incivility to blame or make fun of co-workers for their feelings or reactions, from: "Well, excuuuuuse me!" or, "Can't you take a joke?" to, "Somebody woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning," or, "Loosen up!"

When trying to decide whether what you're about to do or say is both civil and appropriate for the workplace, ask yourself if you'd do it or say it in front of your grandparents/spouse/children. If the answer is, "Yes," it's generally okay to do it or say it at work—but if you're getting signals that it's offensive to others, the civil (and smart) thing to do is stop.

Workplace Incivility: A Hot-Button Issue

The majority (65%) of the participants in the Civility in America poll described incivility as a major problem—and 38% said they expect the workplace to become increasingly disrespectful over the next year.

What's causing the rise in incivility? There's no doubt the economy over the last few years has made life more stressful for many people. At work, there are often fewer employees to accomplish the same amount of work. At home, budgets for stress-reducing hobbies, entertainment and vacation travel have been cut—and many people are doing chores for themselves that used to be handled by cleaning and landscaping services. As stress levels rise, people tend to become less civil.

The rise of technology that allows us to be "constantly connected" to friends and colleagues in cyberspace is often making it more difficult to connect face to face. While you may find taking calls, texting and surfing the web during meetings soothing, it's stressful for people waiting to get your attention—and irritating to those who have to bring you up to speed on what you missed while otherwise distracted.

In addition to societal and technology forces, there are personal and interpersonal reasons why some people engage in uncivil behavior. For some it helps them compensate for feelings of inadequacy, and for others it helps them deflect attention away from their own behaviors and avoid taking responsibility for their actions. If the leadership in your group or organization is uncivil, people who want to succeed will often mimic those attitudes and behaviors.

Perhaps that's why 67% of the participants in the Civility in America poll saw a need for civility training in the workplace. Even if your organization isn't providing such training, there are steps you can take to make your work environment more civil.

Promoting Civility: Inside and Out

The first step is to stop engaging in uncivil behavior yourself. When you catch yourself falling short of your self-imposed standards, apologize and move on. When you encounter uncivil behavior from others, address it. When you don't call someone out for being rude to you—or another co-worker—you appear to condone that behavior.

It's important, though, to try to be as civil as possible when addressing uncivil behavior. Avoid using any sentence that begins with the word "You." For example, rather than saying: "You shouldn't text during meetings," try saying: "I find it distracting when you text during meetings. Could you wait until the meeting is over?"

"There's a theory that broken windows in a vacant building will attract vandals who'll break more windows, then break into that building, the building next door—and soon deterioration spreads throughout the community," explains Steinkamp. "Establishing a zero tolerance for incivility makes it easier to keep negative behaviors from mushrooming into something more destructive."

Members: Access your EAP Resources by calling 800.383.1908 or access resources through your VITAL WorkLife App 

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