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How to Create a Culture of Civility

The raw emotions of a polarized electorate are taking a toll on employee relations. How can HR professionals promote peace, love and understanding?

​Earlier this year, Jaime Freedman noticed heightened tension among employees at the small health care company where she works in suburban Chicago. As HR director, she is proud of her employer’s diverse workforce, which includes people of different races, ethnicities, religions and sexual orientations. It’s a microcosm of America.

Yet the once-cordial atmosphere had changed. Offhand remarks made in the lunchroom or hallways were causing workers to seek her counsel.

“I had an employee who said she was being harassed because someone was making pro-Trump statements,” Freedman recalls. Assuming the offending individual could be aligned with white supremacy groups, the worker—who is a minority—felt frightened for her safety.

​Another worker confided, “I’m a legal green-card holder, but I don’t feel safe anymore.”

Freedman is aware of similar incidents elsewhere as well. At an organization where a friend works, a manager was disciplined for joking that “we better start building a wall”—a remark that disturbed a Mexican immigrant on the staff.  

“I think we’re at that point where civil conversation has gone out the window because it’s so personal now,” Freedman says. 

Such is the new world in which we live—and work. While neighbors and relatives are busy unfriending each other on Facebook, employees are carrying their fear and frustration to their jobs. Workplace incivility is at an all-time high, researchers say.

While one-quarter of the people surveyed in 1998 reported being treated rudely at work at least once a week, that figure rose to 55 percent in 2011 and 62 percent in 2016, according to Christine Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace (Grand Central Publishing, 2017).

Another survey, Civility in America 2016, found that 74 percent of the 1,005 U.S. adults questioned believe civility has declined in the past few years and 70 percent say incivility has risen to “crisis” levels. 

All that rude behavior can be costly for businesses. Workplace stress costs the U.S. economy billions a year, according to the American Psychological Association. And when employee incivility goes unaddressed, organizations experience higher turnover, more absenteeism and lower productivity. It can also lead to workplace harassment and potentially expensive lawsuits.

On the flip side, research shows that civility pays. 

“If you promote a more positive workplace culture, you stand to gain from that,” Porath says. HR professionals, who are responsible for establishing procedures for hiring, training and evaluating employees, are uniquely situated to shift their organizations’ cultures.

“HR has a huge role in bringing to light incivility in the workplace,” says Pamela Green, founder and president of The HR Coaching and Career Institute in Washington, D.C. 

When employees are having job performance problems, it may not be that they don’t have the skill set or the know-how. “It could be they feel marginalized, attacked … and there’s no one there to help them deal with it,” she says. “That’s just a huge opportunity for HR to help.” 

Tensions Flare

​Many blame last year’s contentious U.S. presidential race for strained employee relations, with some people unable to shake their anger and anxiety over Election Day results. President Donald Trump’s executive orders banning immigrants and refugees from Muslim-majority countries reignited the flame.

“The watercooler talk has changed from pleasantries and greetings to ‘Can you believe this person did this?’ and ‘I don’t agree with you. How can you think that?’ ” says Sergio Cisneros, SHRM-CP, who until recently was an HR generalist at a janitorial service in West Chester, Pa. 

In some cases, employees’ conflicting political views have led to name-calling and overt hostility, which not only affects productivity but also poisons the atmosphere for co-workers.

When one employee makes another the target of animosity on the basis of protected factors such as race, color, national origin, sex and religion, the behavior can cross the line from inappropriate to illegal. For instance, a Greenwich, Conn., politician was charged with sexual assault in December for pinching a female town employee in “the groin area” after telling her, “I love this new world. I no longer have to be politically correct,” according to the Hartford Courant.

In another instance, an employee was targeted by a customer. A Massachusetts man was charged with hate crimes for kicking an airline worker wearing a hijab at John F. Kennedy International Airport, yelling “Trump is here now” and “He will get rid of all of you,” The New York Times reported.

Not all cases involve pro-Trump rhetoric. In December 2016, the crew of a JetBlue flight removed a man from a plane for verbally berating Ivanka Trump, who was traveling with her husband and children.  

Eighteen percent of the 867 hate incidents reported in the 10 days after the election occurred in workplace environments (not including schools, which were the most frequently reported setting), according to a Southern Poverty Law Center report.

Behind the Anger

Yet as divisive as national politics may be, there is more to the story. After all, incivility was on the rise before the election. 

When Porath surveyed workers two years ago to find out why they behave uncivilly, more than half said they were overloaded at work and 40 percent claimed they had “no time to be nice.” About 25 percent reported being rude because their bosses acted that way. 

According to a study released in August 2016, experiencing rude behavior reduces employees’ self-control and leads them to act in a similar manner, causing a vicious cycle of incivility. And bad behavior really spirals in workplaces that are perceived as political—that is, where co-workers act out of self-interest rather than what is best for the organization, according to study author Russell Johnson, an associate professor of management at Michigan State University’s Eli Broad College of Business.

Other possible factors behind the rise of rudeness include fewer people working in the office, cultural clashes due to globalization and misunderstandings caused by a growing reliance on technology. Research also shows a growing narcissism among younger adults.

‘The watercooler talk has changed from pleasantries and greetings to “Can you believe this person did this?” and “I don’t agree with you. How can you think that?” ’
—Sergio Cisneros, SHRM-CP

In many cases, rude behavior stems from a lack of self-awareness, Porath theorizes, so providing coaching or conducting 360-degree reviews can help.

Rude people often “don’t understand how they’re perceived,” she says, “so the main thing is to get them information about what they are doing that they can improve on.” 

The Impact

When people don’t feel respected, productivity suffers. “People stop sharing information. They stop communicating. They stop seeking information,” Porath says. When that happens, “you’re going to lose out on their performance, their creativity, their helpfulness,” she says.

One study by Porath and Amir Erez, a management professor at the University of Florida, showed that people lose the ability to concentrate after being treated rudely. Cognitive skills dropped 30 percent in experiments they conducted. 

Abusive conduct can cause physical or mental health problems, and there’s a ripple effect when stress from work is unleashed on family members, who then may carry it to their own jobs.

In the health care field, the results can be fatal. In a study of 4,500 doctors and nurses, 71 percent tied insulting or abusive behavior to medical errors and 27 percent linked such behavior to patient deaths.

In a separate investigation of 800 people, 12 percent said they left a job because of the way they were treated during one interaction, Porath says.

Creating a Civil Culture

​Civility requires positive gestures of respect, courtesy or kindness that lift people up, Porath says, which increases performance and creativity. Teams function better, and employees are healthier and more engaged in such environments, she says.

To foster civility, Green suggests taking the following actions:

  • Hire people who conduct themselves with civility.
  • Embody and reward the behavior you want to see.
  • Interview those who have left the organization to find out why.
  • Coach business leaders, managers and employees on how to be civil and respectful of others. Help them to see it as an investment in themselves. 
  • Hold people accountable, regardless of their level in the organization.  

​Building a civil culture can’t be accomplished overnight. Moreover, it must begin at the top, says Betty Mullen, SHRM-CP, HR director and assistant vice president at Summit State Bank in Santa Rosa, Calif. 

“It has to start with the executives and senior management, a part of their vision for how they want the company to look,” she says. 

The bank outlines how it expects its 75 employees to behave in a one-page document titled “The Summit Way.” One of the 10 key tenets is to treat co-workers with the same high level of respect given to customers. 

“It’s great to set out those guidelines, but you have to enforce them as well,” Mullen says. “You have to reward the positive behavior.”

Employees are introduced to the guidelines during the onboarding process. The expectations are posted in every cubicle or office, and employees’ adherence to them is considered in performance reviews.

“We do a training per se on The Summit Way annually. Because we’re in California, we are required to do training on sexual harassment and anti-bullying. State law requires it only for managers, but we do it at all levels,” Mullen says. “We usually do an in-person training every other year and supplement that with online training in the off-years.”  

Employees who don’t follow the guidelines are given a warning; if the behavior continues, they are written up according to the disciplinary process.

Avoid Legal Problems

A report from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) last June recommended civility training as a way to prevent workplace harassment. Almost one-third of the 90,000 charges of discrimination filed with the agency last year included allegations of harassment. The report noted that incivility is often an antecedent to workplace harassment and can create a climate of “general derision and disrespect.” 

“My advice is to really set in stone an expectation that employees will be treated with respect and dignity,” says San Francisco-based attorney Kevin P. O’Neill, senior director at Littler Learning Group, the law firm’s training division.

Individuals may not even be aware that they are offending others because they’ve gotten away with the bad behavior for so long. Employees should be encouraged to speak up, telling the offender “I’m uncomfortable with that” or “I’d appreciate it if you would speak to me in a more professional tone in the future,” O’Neill says.

‘It’s great to set out those guidelines, but you have to enforce them as well. You have to reward the positive behavior.’ 
—Betty Mullen, SHRM-CP, Summit State Bank

​The EEOC report also recommended bystander training, in which employees are taught to speak up when they witness others being treated inappropriately. Civility standards can be included in the organization’s code of conduct, whether in a descriptive paragraph, a provision or an opening message from the CEO, O’Neill says.

However, be careful not to run afoul of free-speech protections granted by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to workers seeking to improve their wages or working conditions, warns Jonathan A. Segal, an attorney with Duane Morris LLP in Philadelphia and New York City. Seemingly innocuous phrases such as “Be respectful to the company and other employees” have been struck down by the board. Stick to phrases that have been approved by the NLRB, such as “Each employee is expected to work in a cooperative manner with management/supervisors, co-workers, customers and vendors,” Segal advises.

Finally, make sure supervisors recognize that it is their responsibility to respond to reports of harassment or incivility—not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because in doing so, they minimize the organization’s liability, he says.

Encourage Tolerance

​A culture of civility and acceptance is a priority at Swarovski Optik NA Ltd. in Cranston, R.I., where the 100 manufacturing and office employees originally hail from 12 countries.

“As employers, we need to foster a tolerant environment so all employees come to work ready to be engaged and work to their full potential,” says Sheila Felice, HR and risk manager at Swarovski. 

“We all have a duty to keep an open mind and allow ourselves to be exposed to another viewpoint or policy or practice and to make a genuine effort to find what’s beneficial about it,” she says. “It goes beyond listening to actually thinking about it and formulating your own thoughts, allowing yourself to step outside your comfort zone and consider another viewpoint.”

HR professionals are more powerful in effecting cultural change than some realize, Felice says.

“You don’t need an enormous budget to have a very lasting and positive impact on a culture of acceptance,” she says. “It’s not about giving everybody an enormous raise. It’s about acceptance, tolerance [and] practicing what you preach.”