Workplace Culture

The Degeneration of Decorum

By Susan Hauser

Jan. 16, 2011

Lynette Spicer always considered herself polite and respectful of others—until she got a rude awakening at a seminar on workplace civility several years ago. She was struck by what an uncivil person she could be at times.

Spicer, then a communications specialist at Iowa State University Extension in Ames, realized she sometimes exhibited the inappropriate behaviors pointed out by the trainer. For example, she often failed to greet co-workers when she arrived at work; she frequently failed to lower her voice while on the telephone; she sometimes failed to acknowledge people who sent her information that was useful in her job; and—horror of horrors—she only occasionally sent handwritten thank-you notes.

Although those relatively innocent failures weren’t acceptable, her office eventually went from mildly uncivil to almost unbearable. Spicer decided to bring some of the ideas about civility from the seminar out in the open. She started a blog, Civility in the Workplace, and encouraged co-workers to contribute ideas and resources.

“The office atmosphere was a good stimulus,” recalls Spicer, who stopped posting new blog entries and retired at the end of 2009. “There was bullying by administrators who didn’t want to hear anybody’s opinion. The blog post that everybody thought I’d get fired over was called ‘Don’t Shoot the Messenger.’ The head guy, if you gave him a report that he didn’t like, even if it was accurate, he’d fire you.”

The workplace Spicer retired from—and from which the bullies eventually departed—suffered from the unfortunate effects of verbal and emotional abuse: crying, resentment, loss of interest in work and an unwillingness to perform well on the job. Spicer had moved a long, hard way from her minor lapse of manners in not greeting all of her co-workers every morning to dealing with regular incidents of abuse. The stifling atmosphere of exclusion and hostility that she witnessed is what experts call “workplace incivility.”

Stress and lost productivity related to incivility result in a multibillion-dollar annual hit to the U.S. economy, according to Christine Porath, an assistant professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and co-author of the 2009 book The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It.

Porath knows her topic firsthand. She was driven out of her first career, sports management and marketing, by workplace incivility.

“It drove me to graduate school,” Porath says. “And it gave me a passion to study it and try to document the costs, because that was really the way to drive home that there should be change.”

Porath endured almost two years of rude and demeaning workplace incidents before she switched careers. She recalls that the top leader in the agency she worked at was horrid—barking orders, belittling staff—but junior managers weren’t much better because they modeled their behavior after the leader’s.

When Porath began her research, she set out with the intention of identifying triggers of workplace homicides because she assumed that workplace slayings would be a common consequence of unrelenting incivility. But lethal responses turned out to be rare.

“It can happen, but it often doesn’t spiral that out of control,” Porath explains. “Despite that, workplace incivility is so costly. And you never want to take that risk because it pushes people to be violent, to go postal, and you’re putting your company at risk that way. In the meantime you’re losing out because of the costs of loss of performance, loss of creativity and a lot more turnover.”

In polling thousands of managers and employees about the effects of incivility, Porath and her co-author found that after being the victim of on-the-job rudeness and hostility, two-thirds of employees said their performance declined. Four out of five said they lost work time worrying about the unpleasant incident, while 63 percent wasted time avoiding the offender. More than three-quarters of respondents said that their commitment to their employer had waned, and 12 percent even quit because of the bad treatment.

Research also reveals that incivility’s tentacles are longer than previously thought. Simply witnessing incivility toward others or overhearing angry outbursts causes people to suffer.

“It turns out that people just don’t like to witness others being mistreated,” Porath says. “People don’t concentrate as well, they don’t remember as well, they don’t focus after they see this kind of thing or they hear about it. And when customers witness this, they respond very negatively.”

Porath says several restaurant owners told her they were sure that diners could actually taste discord in the kitchen when food was served from a dysfunctional workplace. If that’s the case, the amuse-bouche that New York Times financial columnist Ron Lieber ate before a chef threw him out must have tasted awful.

Lieber famously wrote in the Times’ Diner’s Journal blog about his response to a chef’s meltdown, which was overheard by all of the restaurant’s customers. His May 11, 2010, post caused a sensation among readers nationwide, most of whom hailed Lieber for his defense of the beleaguered waiter.

Lieber described how he and his three dining companions grew more and more uncomfortable as they heard the chef screaming in the kitchen. The object of the abuse was their waiter. When the waiter made his next appearance at the table, to serve the amuse-bouche (the complimentary appetizer from the chef), he was obviously rattled and completely incoherent. When the waiter returned to the kitchen, the chef picked up the high-volume abuse exactly where he’d left off.

At that point, Lieber entered the kitchen to inform the chef that his disruptive behavior was ruining everyone’s appetite. The chef told Lieber that he had to scream at the staff to ensure that everything was “perfect” for his customers. And that’s when he kicked Lieber and his friends out of the restaurant.

It was bad manners in a restaurant that got Lewena “Lew” Bayer into the civility business. Now the president of the Civility Experts, a Winnipeg, Manitoba-based training company, Bayer previously worked as director of operations of a large hotel chain. With some indigestion, she remembers her last day on the job: “I was taking a corporate client to lunch. He didn’t like the soup so he poured it back into the tureen, he called me ‘Cookie,’ and when the meal was done, he plucked a hair from his scalp and flossed his teeth with it at the table.”

As if in a vision, Bayer saw her future calling as a teacher of table manners. She quit her job the next day. Her new etiquette business quickly mushroomed into a civility training operation with offices on nearly every continent. “People are rude wherever you go,” she says.

“Now I don’t care what fork you use as long as you make an effort to be civil, show up on time, make an effort to dress nicely and be in the room with me. If you eat with your hands, I probably won’t notice if everything else is up to par.”

Bayer says that it’s important to imbed civil language and practices into every level of an organization, including job descriptions, hiring practices, training policy and the day-to-day code of conduct. “It has to be mixed right in there to have a positive impact,” she says. “You can’t just ice the cake with civility. You want it right in the batter.”

Incivility tends to rear its ugly head in organizations that have distinct pecking orders, Bayer says, where people are separated by rank, “like a high school lunch room.” Top-down bullying becomes an issue in such situations.

And, yes, bullying’s the name for it, according to Gary Namie, who, with his wife Ruth, founded the Workplace Bullying Institute, which is based in Bellingham, Washington.

“It flows down,” Namie says, noting that a study by Zogby International for the institute found that 72 percent of bullies are bosses.

And he is not impressed with efforts to combat what is termed incivility. “Incivility is what the corporations want to call it so it sounds like we’re having trouble supping tea this afternoon,” Namie says. “But workplace bullying is a form of abuse that rivals domestic violence. Incivility does not trigger PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder]. Incivility does not cause 64 percent of the people to lose their jobs after they’re targeted.”

Namie knows that for a fact. His wife was subjected to verbal abuse from her supervisor while employed as a clinical psychologist. Her boss was a “buzz saw,” as Namie describes her. He says that the supervisor would often angrily criticize his wife in front of other employees—to the point where she began to doubt her abilities.

A former social psychology professor, Namie helped his wife pick up the pieces after the “buzz saw” broke her down. Then Namie quit his management consulting job to work with his wife, helping people in predicaments similar to her own. Since the late 1990s, they’ve offered counseling to thousands of people, whom they call “Targets”; since 2008 the Namies have been training new counselors through the Workplace Bullying Institute University.

Where is bullying most prevalent? Namie says most of their clients are in education and health care, where the abuse comes from the top down and leads all the way to the school playground or the operating room.

A recent client was a woman who lost her job at a medical school after her boss loaded her down with excessive work, belittled her in front of others and neglected to inform her of important meetings so she would miss them and be faulted for it. That was after she had been transferred out of an equally abusive situation and ended up with a new boss who happened to be a golf buddy of the old boss. In the client’s eyes, she was the victim of a conspiracy. The woman had been terminated from the second job, so she went for counseling to the bullying institute where she was given tips on mastering her situation.

Bullying and incivility in health care situations are especially dangerous, points out Pier M. Forni, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, and they can be a matter of life and death.

“ICUs in hospitals that are known for a culture of incivility have a higher mortality rate,” Forni says. “That is because the physicians don’t talk with the nurses, the nurses don’t talk with the rest of the personnel, and therefore the patients do not receive the best treatment and the therapeutic outcome suffers.”

Forni, after teaching Italian literature at Johns Hopkins for 20 years, founded the Civility Project in 1997 as a clearinghouse for information on proper behavior. He has since written two books, Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct and The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude, and has helped launch civility projects in communities across the country.

Forni boils down the basic elements of civility into what he calls the “Three R’s”: respect, restraint and responsibility. This is part of what Joan Wangler, a master certified executive coach, shares with workers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Wangler created the Civility Collaborative as a means to teach employees better communication and interpersonal relation skills. She says the results are obvious in terms of heightened productivity and creativity.

“Civility is part of the foundation for bringing out people’s brilliance,” Wangler says. “If you want to touch people’s smartness and bring out their brilliance, then you need to be able to create a space where people feel safe enough to speak, to listen to one another, to be heard, to offer support, to coach one another.”

The onus for creating such a workplace lies with the organization’s leader, Forni says. The leader’s attitude has a trickle-down effect in the workplace and on customer service.

“The attitude of the leader is going to be the attitude of the manager or the superior officer in any given situation,” Forni says. “It has an enormous impact on the overall climate of that workplace and therefore on the quality of life of those working in that workplace and therefore on the quality of service they are going to provide.”

Forni applauds programs such as Civility, Respect and Engagement in the Workplace, or CREW, developed for the Veterans Health Administration, the hospital arm of the Veterans Affairs Department. Linda Belton, who administers the program and is director of organizational health for the VHA, says that in five years CREW has been presented to more than 900 work groups averaging 20 to 30 people each. The positive changes appear to work virally, “infecting” other work groups who come into contact with those practicing newfound civility skills.

Over a six-month period, members of various work groups travel to Cincinnati, where CREW is based, for three 1½-day meetings. They learn about the benefits of civility training, such as cost savings from polite communication and problem solving in lieu of filing formal complaints, increased productivity and greater patient satisfaction. Then participants buckle down and learn some basic communication skills. The goal is to help them work together in a more productive, trustworthy fashion.

“It’s a simplistic formula,” Belton says. “It’s just: How do we want to treat each other? How can we have honest but difficult conversations with each other to resolve issues and situations when they arise?”

Belton says that through CREW the traditionally contentious relationship between nurses and lab workers has been all but erased at the VHA. Even more satisfying to her is the effect on support personnel.

“They come to me and say, ‘I’ve worked here for 30 years and this is the first time anyone’s ever asked me what I think,’ ” Belton says. “I talked to a housekeeper who said he mopped the floors. After CREW, he said, ‘I help to keep an infection-free environment.’ This person now knows what his contribution is to the organization. He understands his personal connection to the mission of patient care.”

Some companies have developed programs to encourage mutual support among their employees. Ed Mathews, marketing coordinator and human resources assistant at Englewood (Florida) Bank, says that, from his office’s vantage point, he has witnessed numerous episodes of tellers getting berated by grumpy bank customers and immediately receiving support from their co-workers.

“What I see is other employees step in to be loving and caring to their co-worker,” Mathews says. “They’ll agree that, ‘Boy, wasn’t he rude?’ It’s not something like, ‘Well, I’m glad he was her customer!’ We’re a small community bank and we care about one another.”

Englewood Bank is one of more than 55 businesses that subscribe to the simple tenets of Because It Matters, a communitywide civility initiative that was launched in Sarasota County, Florida, in 2007. Thanks to the Internet, some participating businesses are as far away as California, Montana and even the island of Palau, in the South Pacific.

Mathews is his bank’s civility cheerleader, using materials provided free by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice, Florida, to make the 10 “keys to civility” part of Englewood Bank’s values and culture. Mathews highlights one of the keys each month, such as paying attention or speaking kindly, featuring them in the company newsletter and displaying them as a screen saver on all corporate computers.

He encourages employees to “catch” each other being polite, respectful and civil by handing out cards of recognition. Duplicate cards identifying the recognized employee go to Mathews. Before each quarterly employee meeting, he shows the succession of cards in a slide show and singles out one of the recipients as the Core Value Winner.

In a spring 2009 survey of employers participating in Because It Matters, more than 63 percent said customer service had improved. Additionally, almost 77 percent said communication was better; 70 percent said meetings were more effective; nearly 52 percent said employees were more productive; and 37 percent said employee retention was better.

Because It Matters grew out of a close 2006 U.S. House of Representatives race in Florida that seemed to bring out the worst in people, whether discussions were in the workplace or on street corners.

“It was a rather rancorous campaign and a symptom of a level of political discourse that was devolving to a point where people were talking at each other not with each other,” says Greg Luberecki, director of marketing and communications at Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

Better communication often is the key to improved civility, and common sense is a major factor as well. Some people just don’t seem to have it, says Bayer, head of the Civility Experts training company. They will show up for work dressed in outfits that shouldn’t see the light of day or engage in behavior that’s meant to please just one person—themselves—no matter how others respond.

“I have lots of issues now with people who bring their pets to work or to an interview, a little dog in a purse,” Bayer says. “And then they’re upset when the interviewer says the dog has to wait outside. One girl actually said to me, ‘Well, what if it was my 3-year-old? What difference is it? This is my baby.’ ”

Bayer’s objection to the dressed-down look of casual Friday, or casual any day, is echoed by Jill Bremer, an executive coach in Chicago, who performs civility and professional image training.

“This whole thing with business casual dressing really caused a shift,” Bremer says. “I think casual dressing begot casual behavior and that begot casual communication. I think it’s just been a kind of slippery slope.”

Bremer, who is a fan of Mad Men and the TV series’ fashions and manners from the 1960s, says casual dress and conversation have a tendency to lower standards of behavior in the workplace. That, in turn, makes it easier for boundaries to be crossed and offenses to be committed.

“I’m all for a world where people have good manners,” she says. “Get the honorifics back when you address someone, until you’re invited to do otherwise. Now everybody assumes we’re all buddies.”

Kassie Rempel, who oversees nine employees in her Washington-based online shoe shop, SimplySoles, says she won’t hire anybody who doesn’t exhibit the same good manners to colleagues and customers that she developed from her Southern upbringing. For one thing, employees are expected to enclose handwritten thank you notes with every order. Customers actually write thank you notes in response. Such a strong customer relationship has helped Rempel build her business into a solid, million-dollar enterprise over the past six years.

Handwritten notes always rate high in the manners books, but electronic communications are not exempt from rules of civility. Answering e-mails promptly and politely should be a given, as should realizing that the use of electronic devices at inappropriate times is just plain rude. But as Bremer points out, people also need to consider the content of their texts, e-mails, blogs, tweets and Facebook posts.

“Technology has outpaced the etiquette books,” Bremer says. “In the meantime, people’s lives have been destroyed because people use it without thinking. It’s never really private and it’s never gone. I always tell students, ‘Clean up your Facebook page!’ ”

Workforce Management, January 2011, pgs. 16-18, 20-21Subscribe Now!

Susan Hauser is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon.

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