Workplace Culture

Legality, Civility, Productivity

By Staff Report

May. 2, 2012

I spoke with a distinguished executive who has a key role in leading fair employment initiatives for a major federal agency. She told me her organization is dealing with a range of disturbing leadership and workplace issues affecting morale and productivity.

Generally, they involve supervisors who scream, yell, slam books, ignore and demean others. Employees come to her wanting to know if this treatment somehow amounts to civil rights violations.  

I listened carefully. Nothing of what she told me is expressly illegal so potential lawsuits are not likely. But what also caught my ear is that this agency is setting up a separate civility initiative to address these behaviors.

Civility is critical. However, for several reasons, it is a mistake if we isolate civility, viewing it as being wholly separate and distinct, from mandated initiatives dealing with equal employment opportunity issues.

Last summer, President Obama issued an executive order that urged the consolidation of workplace conduct initiatives and processes. Similarly, in his State of the Union address this year, the president pressed the importance of eliminating redundancy and waste in the government.

What these statements share is the goal of developing consistent themes and conserving resources. The president recognizes that failing to do so is not only costly, but also that having too many different undertakings dilutes the impact of them all and makes it hard for people to see the connections. Eventually, they stop paying attention. This diminishes benefits of all the initiatives.

The civility initiative the executive from the federal agency described to me was not consistent with these goals. Instead, she, and we, should think of civility as an umbrella of behaviors that generate a wide range of benefits when linked to common, overarching organizational values.

As an example, let’s look at two versions of the same scenario. Imagine a leader who makes raging and demeaning racial comments. Facing a charge of discrimination and significant settlement and defense costs is just one potential impact.

Even if a charge is not filed, such conduct will distract others, interfere with productivity, affect morale, diminish people’s willingness to speak up, and, overall, negatively affect team work and how people work together.

Now imagine exactly the same scenario only without the inappropriate racial language – just raging, demeaning comments. Even if you don’t face a discrimination complaint and legal fees, all of the other business costs just listed remain intact.

The point is that we need to view incivility as a continuum of behavior ranging from daily behaviors that are disruptive to the most extreme behaviors that also raise the likelihood of legal risk. There are many legal claims founded on situations that may have involved some uncivil behavior and perhaps one or two inappropriate comments, which, when taken together, paint a picture of illegality.

Fortunately, raw, blatant, illegal conduct is much rarer than it used to be. Recent figures in the federal government, as an example, show that only 3 percent of charges of discrimination lead to reasonable cause findings.

As I’ve previously written, of the other 97 percent, the rest are either settled, withdrawn or dismissed. Many of the 97 percent include episodes of disruptive behavior that, while not enough to support a legal finding, still lead to all of the bad risks and distractions that the government, or any employer, can ill afford.

Further, human resources professionals end up spending many hours trying to deal with instances of uncivil, dismissive conduct with, perhaps, some questionable legal issues. And that’s not the only cost: issues that lead to internal claims consume huge amounts of time to resolve and even more hours of frustration and productivity, before they are brought to the attention of human resource professionals.

“Avoiding claims” is not the primary purpose here. You can reduce lawsuits if people choose to suffer instead of bringing complaints forward to HR, to EEO professionals or to outside counsel no matter how disruptive and offensive the conduct is. But that suffering exacts business costs that affect productivity and the way work is done. These are hard costs.

The prescription for our federal colleagues, and other businesses, is not to create separate initiatives but to recognize that professional conduct has a range of benefits all related to bottom-line considerations. Establishing a civil workplace improves daily workplace conduct while reducing legal risk of the rarer, more publicly volatile attention-grabbing lawsuits.

If we want to conserve government resources, let’s reduce the number of initiatives that are distracting, confusing and in their own way, counterproductive. Let’s focus instead on key behavioral standards that will diminish all these potential costs to the organization.

The French changed their nation with the liberté, egalité, fraternité. Let’s revolutionize our workplaces with a commitment to legality, civility and productivity.

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