We know that maintaining civility in the workplace is important for employee engagement and productivity, and that many employees won’t abide feeling disrespected at work. In an effort to foster a civil atmosphere, some organizations include in their codes of conduct a rule that employees “assume good intent” on the part of their colleagues in any interpersonal conflicts, but Annalee Flower Horne, co-editor of the Bias, argues that these rules actually undermine diversity and inclusion by making victims of uncivil behavior into perpetrators:
The harm is that telling people to “assume good intent” is a sign that if they come to you with a concern, you will minimize their feelings, police their reactions, and question their perceptions. It tells marginalized people that you don’t see codes of conduct as tools to address systemic discrimination, but as tools to manage personal conflicts without taking power differences into account. Telling people to “assume good intent” sends a message about whose feelings you plan to center when an issue arises in your community.
To illustrate her point, Horne uses the classic example of an employee who has her foot stepped on by her co-worker as an analogy for the microaggressions women and minorities experience regularly in white- and male-dominated workplaces. In Horne’s example, “Alicia” has her foot stepped on by “Fred” and reacts by cursing at him. Fred goes to their manager and complains that because he didn’t mean to step on her foot, Alicia violated the code of conduct in not assuming good intent on his part and owes him an apology.
A code of conduct that treats Fred’s actions and Alicia’s as equally transgressive, or even holds Alicia to be more at fault, is badly misguided, Horne argues:
Writing at Quartz, Christine Porath, a professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, points to a lack of civility and respect as the silent killer of workplace productivity today:
What are the costs of employees feeling disrespected? Over the past 20 years, I have researched this question. I’ve polled tens of thousands of workers worldwide about how they’re treated at work. Nearly half of those surveyed in 1998 reported they were treated rudely at least once a month, which rose to 55% in 2011 and 62% in 2016. Though the toll is sometimes hidden, the costs of incivility are tremendous.
Of the nearly 800 managers and employees across 17 industries Christine Pearson of the Thunderbird School of Global Management and I polled, those who didn’t feel respected performed worse. Forty-seven percent of those who were treated poorly intentionally decreased the time spent at work, and 38% said they deliberately decreased the quality of their work. Sixty-six percent reported their performance declined and 78% said their commitment to the organization had declined.
Incivility and disrespect affect performance in various ways, Porath elaborates, increasing stress and harming employees’ mental and even physical health. Even employees who are not themselves the victims of disrespectful behavior, they can lose time and energy to worrying about how to respond or whether they will become targets. Many of these employees leave their jobs, often without telling their managers why. Finally, an uncivil environment is toxic to collaboration.
Porath’s argument about the importance of respect is consistent with the findings of the latest Global Talent Monitor from CEB, now Gartner. This quarterly report provides workforce insights on global and country-level changes about what attracts, engages, and retains employees, based on data from more than 22,000 employees in over 40 countries. (CEB Corporate Leadership Council members can peruse the full set of insights from Global Talent Monitor.)
As part of our survey, we asked employees for the most important elements of the Employee Value Proposition (EVP) that influenced their decision to accept their most recent job.
It happens abundantly in sports, entertainment, and politics, but what about in the office? According to a recent study, the business world is also rife with trash talk and it has some interesting implications.
Jeremy Yip, a professor at Georgetown, and Wharton professor Maurice Schweitzer are the authors of the study, titled “Trash-Talking: Competitive Incivility Motivates Rivalry, Performance and Unethical Behavior.” Yip shared some highlights from their findings in an interview with Knowledge@Wharton this week, noting that the CEOs of Virgin, GM, and T-Mobile have publicly jabbed at their industry opponents.
“It’s this style of aggressive communication in competition that we explore in our paper,” Yip said.
After surveying full-time office workers at Fortune 500 companies, Yip and Schwitzer found that 57 percent had experienced monthly occurrences of trash-talking. When studying the consequences of this surprisingly prominent form of incivility, they discovered that trash talk (or more specifically, being the target of trash talk) can actually have a positive effect on productivity.
“When people are the targets of these kind of messages,” Yip explained, “What we find is that they become much more motivated. They increase their effort and the performance goes up. Indeed, one key finding of our work is that targets of trash-talking become very motivated.”
This observation held even when controlling for the financial stakes:
How important is civil behavior in the workplace? Very, according to Georgetown professor Christine Porath. At McKinsey Quarterly, Porath, who has studied this question extensively, lays out some of what she has found in her years of research about how incivility at work not only harms morale, but also decreases productivity:
Nearly everybody who experiences workplace incivility somehow settles the score—with their offender and the organization. Of the nearly 800 managers and employees across 17 industries that I polled with Christine Pearson, a professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, those who didn’t feel respected performed worse. Forty-seven percent of those who were treated poorly deliberately decreased the time spent at work, and 38 percent said they intentionally decreased the quality of their work. Not surprisingly, 66 percent admitted their performance declined and 78 percent said their commitment to the organization had declined. Part of the performance penalty is related to how employees internalize stress levels. Eighty percent lost work time worrying about the incident, and 63 percent lost work time in their effort to avoid the offender.
So what can employers do to maintain a civil atmosphere at work? “Make it clear to employees that they need to hold their managers and colleagues accountable for living up to your norms of civility,” Porath recommends: