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Civility at Work: Should We Just Do It?

The costs of incivility in the workplace are easily felt, though perhaps harder to quantify. Calls for civility then, a common refrain lately in and out of the workplace, seem like common sense. But is that definitely the case?

Incivility hurts, and I suspect our own individual experiences of it are one reason that the concept of civility in the workplace feels so unquestionably right. There’s also plenty of data and research to back the many downsides of incivility.

And yet, the HR profession is littered with the twisted remains of ideas that were assumed to be unambiguously beneficial and without downside. So, I hope you’ll forgive me for suggesting that we take a slightly more skeptical approach this time, and ask ourselves some good questions before we embrace civility as the clear-cut and self-evident answer to all of our workplace problems

Here’s a few to get you started:

Where does civility fit with the rest of our values as an organization?

It’s inevitable that our values will come into conflict from time to time, as individuals or organizations. Personally, I value honesty a great deal, but I also value my privacy. There are times these values oppose one another, like when someone I don’t know very well asks me a personal question I’m not inclined to answer. Whenever this happens, I have a choice to make. This is a common human experience.

In organizations, where we ostensibly expect multiple people to use a common set of values to guide their day-to-day actions, we can either be more explicit about how we expect employees to prioritize these values when they come into conflict (an inflexible and imperfect solution), or we leave it to employees to make those decisions themselves (also imperfect, as we may simply prioritize the value which best justifies our desired course of action in the circumstances).

In the case of civility, it’s worth asking ourselves what is more important than being civil in our organization.

It’s quite possible it’s safety. If an accident was imminent and I was in harm’s way, would it be okay for my colleague to yell at me to move? Or if my psychological or physical safety was being threatened could my civility understandably be deprioritized in that moment?

Is incivility ever acceptable in the course of pursuing a more civil workplace overall?

We should understand that these won’t always be clear cut assessments. Nuance and a desire to understand must be utilized in the pursuit of a more civilized workplace.

Who does workplace civility protect, in practice?

It’s instructive to ask ourselves who workplace civility protects in practice, not just in principle. That is, while we almost certainly intend commitments to workplace civility to apply to everyone equally, is that actually the case in practice?

Or do those in positions of authority frequently make exceptions for themselves, while continuing to hold those with less power to the standard of civility? Is the definition of civility consistent? Or is it ambiguous enough that those opposed to another person’s viewpoint or style can claim they lack civility as a means to ignore or attack them?

If it’s the latter, this risks reinforcing uneven power dynamics and creates an environment in which it’s easy to abuse one’s power.

Recently, I attended a session from a civility researcher and expert at SHRM’s annual conference. She made a compelling case for the harm that incivility can cause individuals and organizations. One of the suggestions she made was for organizations to describe their expectations for civility in a ‘civility code’, like a code of conduct.

One of the examples she shared was the civility code from Nike. I was a little surprised.

As you may know, Nike was recently in the news after a group of female employees undertook an anonymous internal survey and shared the results with their CEO, allegedly showing that female employees were subject to widespread demeaning behavior, including harassment. In the aftermath two senior executive departed the organization. Prior to undertaking their ‘guerilla survey’, employees have alleged that Human Resource managers ignored complaints from female employees for years. One has to assume that their civility code didn’t apply to this behavior…

What, or who, might civility silence?

If we always require civility as a prerequisite to engage with others, we risk not hearing important but less-than-civil voices that may have critical information and perspectives to share with us.

If we consider how we feel when we have been treated unfairly, victimized, harmed, discriminated against, or silenced, we each have our own breaking point at which civility is set aside or forgotten. In these circumstances, being required to conform to an everyday standard of civility to be heard or have our situation addressed will likely feel like re-victimization.

This can take the form of tone-policing, dismissing employees who are emotional when they voice concerns (characterizing them as overreacting or ‘hysterical’), acting in accordance with an implicit belief that there is a “right way” to complain, and treating employees who don’t conform to this implicit standard as potentially malicious, or as the problem themselves.

I am reminded of Sara Ahmed’s work on complaint:

“…a complaint is heard as destructive even if those who make complaints understand themselves to be contributing to a conversation or to be involved in a shared process of culture change. We learn so much from this: any attempt to modify something is judged as trying to destroy something.

A complaint can then be treated as self-referential, as being about the complainer. A complaint becomes the expression of a failure to be properly integrated into the culture of an institution.”

And James Elfer’s post on anger and inequality in the workplace is an excellent reminder that the risks of displaying emotion at work are not evenly distributed:

“Demographic groups who are underrepresented in corporate institutions face a heightened threat of stereotyping when displaying anger. Women and black men, for example, suffer a greater risk of social penalty when realising its benefits, or when expressing a common and natural reaction to discrimination, sexual harassment and unethical behaviour.”

The Risks of Uncritically Revering Civility

Civility is definitely a worthy aspiration for our workplaces, but if we insist on civility without properly exploring whether there are larger issues underneath, or how our commitment to civility may produce unintended outcomes, we may be putting a coat of paint over a rotting foundation.

If we only hear  ‘civil’ voices, then like the manager that only wants solutions not problems, we may remain oblivious to the most serious issues in our organizations until it’s too late.

Recommended reading:

Authenticity and Value Alignment – Joe Gerstandt, Talent Anarchy

I was really grateful to see Joe Gerstandt speak at SHRM. He has a long history of committed work in the diversity and inclusion space, and is an exceptional speaker. This short post is a fluff-free reflection on why and how we should think about aligning individual and (actual) organizational values.

“I believe that there is a whole bunch of dysfunction and inefficiency in the workplace that exists because individual and organizational values are not aligned. Organizations tend to have an espoused set of values that varies considerably from their actual values, so employees do not really know the organization they are going to work for until after they have been there some time, and many individual employees have not set aside the time, the energy, the attention to get crystal clear on what matters most to them. All of which makes value alignment a very hard target to hit.”

Rashida Jones and Donald Glover Team Up for Sexual Harassment PSA – Adweek

Times Up, a legal defense fund established in the wake of #MeToo, provides subsidized legal support to those who have experienced sexual harassment, assault, or abuse in the workplace.

This recent project is a short, matter of fact animate video directed by Rashida Jones with voice over from Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino). It’s a major step up from most of the sexual harassment resources out there. Check it out.

Photo by Mitch Lensink on Unsplash

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I agree and disagree with you on this one (and it may hinge on transatlantic definitions of “civility”). I get the point about not treating someone who moans or complains as a problem, but politeness and respect ought to be a given in every workplace. There is a way of raising a concern without being rude or aggressive; but it is also down to HR/Managers to ensure that such concerns are not politely brushed under the carpet.

    Emotional ‘overreactions’ do occur in work and it’s either a symptom of a concern that has been bottled up or a learnt behaviour that ‘this is the way to get results’. Our role is to help create a culture where the first situation shouldn’t happen and that the second is unacceptable.

    July 2, 2018

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