Choosing civility

Denton Hartman

Don’t we all crave respect in our relationships? Though we want civility to shape our workplace cultures, it’s often difficult to achieve and sustain.

I spent part of my career as an administrator in the health-care field, where relationships among co-workers were often less than positive and nurturing. Ask a new nurse about the treatment received from “seasoned” colleagues; the poor treatment of new nurses is so widespread that this hazing process is captured in the phrase “nurses eat their young.”

It seems that those in the professions of giving care to patients, clients or customers often run their respect reservoirs so dry that they have little left to share with colleagues. To an objective observer, workplace harassment in our current service- and experience-driven economy may seem to be getting worse. But is it really?

Research by Porath and Pearson published in the Harvard Business Review indicates that workplaces are a reflection of society at large, and that incivility is a serious problem that is getting worse in 21st century American culture.

Their research found that 80% of those polled identified lack of respect as a serious problem, and 60% believed that the problem is getting worse. Seventy-eight percent of those who experience uncivil behavior from their co-workers become less committed to the organization. Sixty-six percent suffer decline in their overall performance; 47% deliberately spend less time at work; and 25% take their frustrations out on customers.

Another study found that nine out of 10 Americans think that incivility increases opportunities for violence. The findings from Porath and Pearson further suggest that disrespectful and uncivil behaviors decrease morale, drain productivity, increase turnover and negatively impact an organization’s bottom line, as well as the overall economy.

Of those who reported having experienced incivility or disrespect at work, 66% reduced their effort at work, 80% lost time from work, and 12% quit their job because they could no longer tolerate the disrespect they perceived there. Some employees report their grievances to the authorities.

Workplace harassment is illegal and a violation of civil rights. Each year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission levies fines and penalties in approximately 90,000 cases. The costs to employers found in violation are cumulatively in the millions of dollars. It does not matter if a worker has experienced incivility due to age, gender, religion, race or disability. Hostile work environments can drain a company’s resources. So, what can we do?

Civility is a collection of positive behaviors that produce feelings of respect, dignity and trust. To create the respect we crave, we must commit to cultivating a civil environment in our corner of the organization. It starts with you and me.

We begin by focusing on others’ needs and considering how our words and actions will impact them. We approach each interaction with respect, whether or not we believe that the other person’s behaviors deserve that respect. We guard against acting impulsively based on negative assumptions about another’s intent, as that can lead to irreparable damage to relationships. We avoid tendencies to become caught up in gossip, complaining, or other forms of negativity in day-to-day interactions.

We aim to be tough with standards and tender-hearted with people. We notice the needs of others without needing to be noticed. We remember that little actions can make a big difference.

In our work relationships, most of us desire co-workers who thank people, share credit, listen attentively, humbly ask questions, acknowledge others and most of all, remain focused on respect. We can be those co-workers. Choosing civility depends on us.

Denton C. Hartman is an adjunct instructor at Hagerstown Community College.