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Using Body Language to Enhance Workplace Civility

Two men speaking at a table. They are leaning toward each other and demonstrating interest, exemplifying positive body language.

Civility in the workplace isn’t just about politeness—it’s about creating a respectful, inclusive, and productive environment where everyone feels valued. More than 3 in 5 U.S. workers (61%) have experienced or witnessed acts of incivility in their everyday lives over the past month, according to SHRM research. Two-thirds of U.S. workers (66%) attribute reduced productivity to incivility, while 59% say it saps employee morale.

HR leaders can be instrumental in promoting civility in the workplace—starting before they even say a word. Body language can set the tone for civil conversations and help people feel valued and understood. Here’s how HR leaders can model civil body language in their organizations and use it to spark a transformation in the workplace.

Understanding Positive Body Language in Communication

Making the other person feel heard is a cornerstone of any civil conversation. Body language is a powerful tool for conveying respect and openness. Positive body language uses nonverbal cues to demonstrate engagement and respect in interactions, fostering a culture of mutual respect.

  • Maintain Eye Contact: Doing so shows attentiveness and respect. If it’s comfortable for you, make eye contact with the person you’re addressing. This conveys that they have your full attention and that their thoughts are important.
  • Adopt an Open Body Posture: Crossing your arms or otherwise appearing closed off can signal defensiveness or disinterest. It’s important to maintain an open and relaxed stance to convey a sense of approachability and receptiveness.
  • Use Purposeful Gestures: Movements and gestures should be intentional and supportive of the conversation at hand. Avoid fidgeting or unnecessary distractions where possible. Purposeful gestures, such as a slight lean forward, can indicate interest and investment in what the other person is saying. This demonstrates a commitment to the dialogue and reinforces a culture of genuine engagement and respect.

How Handshakes and Other Greetings Can Enhance Civility

Greetings are the first impression in any interaction. In many cultures, a firm handshake symbolizes respect and professionalism. When appropriately used, physical touch plays a significant role in establishing connections and enhancing civility in the workplace. This principle can go beyond the handshake, encompassing gestures such as a reassuring pat on the back or a congratulatory high-five. Such gestures break down barriers, fostering a sense of trust and camaraderie among team members. Touch has been proven to release oxytocin, a hormone linked to bonding and emotional well-being, which can promote a positive, inclusive, and respectful work environment.

However, it is crucial to emphasize that obtaining consent and respecting people’s boundaries are fundamental to establishing true civility. In the workplace, every individual has different comfort levels with physical interactions and personal space. HR leaders must ensure that all gestures and physical touch are consensual and welcome. By prioritizing consent, organizations can foster a culture of respect and consideration that makes all employees feel safe and valued. Respect for personal boundaries is essential to nurturing a genuinely civil and inclusive workplace environment.

Additionally, being mindful of cultural differences, religious customs, and personal preferences is crucial. Other greetings, such as a warm smile or a slight bow, can also communicate respect and civility, particularly in situations where one party hasn’t consented to a more tactile greeting. They can also be useful in virtual environments where a handshake just isn’t possible.

Body Language Habits to Avoid

While positive body language fosters a respectful and inclusive workplace, negative habits can undermine these efforts. HR leaders must be vigilant and aware of nonverbal cues that can unintentionally convey the wrong message. Here are some common body language habits to avoid:

  • Avoid Eye Rolling: This gesture is often perceived as showing contempt or disdain. Even a subtle eye roll can disrupt the flow of conversation and make the other party feel undervalued or dismissed.
  • Refrain from Fidgeting: Constantly tapping a pen or looking away may suggest impatience or lack of interest. Try limiting repetitive motions to the extent possible.
  • Limit Multitasking: Checking your phone, glancing at the clock, or working on another task during conversations can indicate disrespect. Giving full attention to the person you are engaging with is paramount to show that their time and input are valued.

By recognizing and avoiding these negative body language habits, HR leaders and employees alike can contribute to a more civil and harmonious workplace environment. Cultivating awareness and intentionality in nonverbal communication underscores an organization’s commitment to respect, inclusivity, and professional integrity.

Practical Tips for HR Executives and Business Leaders to Instill Civility

Implementing strategies to enhance civility requires a proactive approach. Conduct training sessions focused on communication skills, encourage feedback, and model the behavior you wish to see. Establish clear policies that promote respect and collaboration.

  • Training Programs: Hold regular workshops on communication and respect. Encourage team members to share perspectives and provide constructive feedback. Use role-playing exercises to model positive body language and greetings.
  • Leadership Modeling: The behaviors of leaders set the tone for the entire organization. As an HR leader, be mindful of your own body language and interactions with others, both in person and virtually.
  • Clear Policies: Establish policies that promote a culture of respect and civility. Clearly outline expectations for behavior. Communicate these policies regularly and enforce them consistently.

Join the Conversation on Civility in the Workplace

Creating a culture of civility requires ongoing effort and commitment. HR executives and business leaders can set the tone for a respectful and inclusive workplace by utilizing positive body language, appropriate greetings, and active listening. Learn more about workplace civility as you join SHRM in promoting a culture of respect and collaboration in your organization. 


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