The Importance of Being Civil

By Stephen M. Paskoff Jan 5, 2011

Question: Why is workplace civility so important, and what can we do to increase it?

Answer:A number of white papers, books and studies in health care, government, manufacturing, professional services and other industrial sectors show the harm that can result when people are rude. The challenge for human resource professionals is to get leaders to understand that workplace civility is a strategic and operational imperative requiring little cost but generating huge bottom line and operational business results. Unfortunately, to many it sounds like a politically correct nightmare, or the latest fad, rather than a simple business issue that can be managed. A few simple steps can get leaders to think of civility in a new way:

First, resist the urge to turn the quest for civility into a human resource initiative or a risk management process driven by legal counsel or compliance officers. It must be initiated and directed by senior leaders responsible for the overall direction of the enterprise in order to take root, even though the entire organization will be involved.

Second, provide executives with proof that existing behaviors are problematic, and work to prevent those behaviors that cause the greatest harm, such as:

  • Racial, sexual, religious, age and ethnic jokes, comments and banter, regardless of how they are communicated.
  • Screaming, yelling and calling other people names, whether in public or private settings.
  • Body language, gestures and tone of voice that communicate disdain, such as sneers, sarcastic inflection and dismissive gestures.
  • Lying or fabricating information in any context.
  • Refusing to listen to or punishing those who attempt to raise concerns or complaints about business practices.

Third, get executives together and ask them to identify their biggest operational concerns, such as retention, safety, quality, productivity, brand image, talent management and financial results.

Fourth, show executives how uncivil behavior can impact their results and create serious harm. To do this, create a brief case study in which leaders and others exhibit the kinds of problem behaviors that have occurred in the workplace. Ask leaders to identify positive and negative behaviors displayed by the subjects of the case, and then identify the impact of those behaviors on their operations. If this is done properly, executives will see how uncivil behaviors impact the business and violate organizational values.

Finally, work with executives to develop a short list of behavioral standards tied to desired business outcomes. These behavioral expectations become the organization’s principles of civility. The list needs to be simple, clear and short.

Over the long term, leaders will need to talk about the organization’s principles, linking them to business and organizational values when they do so, and to make sure that others in the organization do the same. Everyone has to be involved. Managers and employees should be educated and reminded of these standards regularly.

In less time than an organization can build a new plant or facility, develop and launch products or buy and integrate enterprises, it can implement principles of operational civility.

Stephen M. Paskoff is president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI Inc., a company that helps organizations transform complex laws and ethical codes of conduct into simple behavioral rules that improve performance, reduce legal risk, and create productive workplace cultures. Mr. Paskoff is the former co-chair of the American Bar Association’s Compliance Law Training and Communication Subcommittee. He can be contacted at

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