Is workplace incivility threatening your small business's health and productivity?
While measures to eliminate high-intensity problems, such as bullying and sexual harassment, are already part of many business cultures, there's a lot of gray area when it comes to a whole spectrum of "smaller," insidious behaviors that can undermine your employees' good efforts.
"Some incivilities have less intensity … they're also harder to get a handle on," says Daniel Griffith, an associate faculty member in the Organizational Leadership department at Purdue School of Engineering and Technology. "They're harder for targets of the incivility to say, 'Hey, I'm being impacted, and I need help.'"
Speaking on the issue at a recent seminar, Griffith outlined what these behaviors can do to a business that lets them fester.
- 48 percent of people who say they've been targets of workplace incivility decrease their work output as a result of the experience.
- 80 percent of workers who deal with an uncivil office say they lose time worrying about the incidents.
- 63 percent of employees who have to deal with an uncivil co-worker spend part of their working time trying to avoid the offender.
So, what can you do about it? How can you identify workplace incivility, and what are the strategies to control and eliminate it from your business?
Know It When You See It
Uncivil behaviors can be subtle and even plausibly denied when called out. The key to fixing the problem is first to accurately identify what constitutes an uncivil behavior. The following list covers a number of examples.
Passive incivilities: As simple as not saying good morning or please, or even neglecting to hold open a door for a fellow employee.
Subtle disrespect: Nonverbal and para-verbal messages such as facial expressions, sighs, groans and eye-rolling during a meeting, for example.
Breaches of etiquette: Coming to a meeting late is a breach of etiquette. So is working on unrelated matters via one's electronic devices while a meeting is underway.
Pet peeves: Messy microwaves, paperless and un-reset copy machines, noisy phone calls and sloppy workstations—all these can be considered uncivil behaviors.
Gossip: Often characterized as water-cooler talk about absent third parties, it's one of the incivilities on the list that can lead to issues of defamation and even legal action.
Verbal abuse: Calling someone lazy or stupid. Using foul language. Even the acts of leveling accusations and using harsh tones can fall under the umbrella of incivility.
Privacy violations: Co-workers can violate an employee's privacy just by dint of access to the kind of HR paperwork that comes with doing business. But there's also the "little" violations that compromise private space, such as asking a worker to tell white lies for the boss, or to take actions that create conflicts of interest.
Culturally insensitive behaviors: Separated by degree, in some cases, from outright discrimination or harassment, these are borderline civility issues where the intent of the employee is not so easily discerned.
Some of these actions are already typically covered by workplace policies and procedures. Some aren't, or they fall into a gray area. What's important, according to Griffith, is that business leadership approaches the task of ending workplace incivility with a certain amount of care. Stopping the problem can take a delicate touch.
Stopping the Problem
A wrong way to deal with the challenge of incivility in the workplace is to reactively write everyone up, or to implement a new pile of policies, according to Griffith.
"Win-lose outcomes aren't satisfying results," he says, when it comes to correcting incivility. "They're not satisfying results to really resolve relationships and to improve things."
Instead, a measured response can have value. The following approaches can help an owner cut off incivility at the pass.
Create team house rules. Team house rules don't have to be written, but they should entail basic expectations of behavior that hold your employees accountable for what they do, and that serve as gentle reminders when something starts to go awry.
Impose social consequences. Employees should give immediate messages of disapproval to an uncivil individual: an awkward silence in response to an off-color joke, or refusal to gossip. Momentary embarrassment, with care to avoid ostracizing the offender, can be a corrective unto itself.
Offer support in correcting behaviors. Pull an employee aside and, rather than reprimanding him or her outright, extend help in correcting uncivil behaviors. With leadership, this can even become a colleague-to-colleague learning-and-teaching system.
Seek assistance: Develop in-house mediators that an employee who's the target of uncivil behavior can turn to. Whether it's you, or your partner in the business, when everyone knows that there's a safety valve in place, the workplace won't become the fiefdom of one bad actor.
Underlying all this is the goal of preventing targets from evolving into victims. Fixing workplace incivility can take time, and the trick is to avoid letting guilt become a burden that blocks success.
"Know that it's not your fault," Griffith says. "These things do not get corrected overnight, although we wish they would. It's frustrating, and it's an endurance test sometimes … the hope is that, within the institution, you can address these things in a productive way."
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