Costs and Rewards of Workplace Civility

Costs and Rewards of Workplace Civility
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This article explains how subtle and blatant acts of rudeness and inconsideration in the workplace equate to lesser revenue, higher employee turnover, and millions of funding spent responding to litigation. This article will also present how the opposite is true: that civility in the workplace means greater profits, higher employee engagement, and harassment-free working conditions.

Incivility and the Costs

As mentioned previously, uncivil behavior seems harmless, with its cost limited to probably a petty argument now and then, or the disgruntlement of a boss, peer, or subordinate. But experience and research reveals that the impact of incivility in an organization is more serious that what meets the eye.

Consider the following negative effects of incivility in the workplace:

High Employee Turnover. Fact is: incivility in the workplace is a top reason for employee resignation; 1 in 8 targets of incivility leave their jobs to escape the stressful situation (Pearson, Anderson, and Porath, 2001). Even individuals who enjoy their company’s compensation and are working a job they dreamed about would feel compelled to find another job when harassed, bullied, and disrespected by their co-workers on a regular basis. A high attrition rate in a company is a costly situation for management. Not only will companies have to incur the extra expense of recruiting, screening, and training replacements, but the investment of having trained the staff members who leave never gets recouped.

Poor company productivity. Even if employee turnover rate remains stable, incivility creates roadblocks to the maximization of company resources — including manpower. Rudeness from co-workers creates stress in the workplace, which makes it difficult for employees to concentrate. Creativity suffers — who can come up with great ideas when there’s the anticipation that ideas will just be discounted or ridiculed?

Stress at the workplace due to incivility can even spill over to an employee’s personal life. A study by Keashly and Jagaic (2000) reveals that 16.7 per cent of a random sample of residents experience “severe disruption of their lives from workplace aggression. More alarmingly, incivility can create a chain reaction that will ultimately lead to company loss. Consider the following quote from a study on incivility by Pearson and Porath in 2005:

“Our research shows that when targets believe that someone at work has treated them disrespectfully, half will lose work time worrying about future interactions with the instigator, and half will contemplate changing jobs to avoid a recurrence. One-fourth of research respondents who feel that they have been treated uncivilly will intentionally cut back their work efforts. A few will steal from their instigators or their organizations. Some will sabotage equipment. Most will tell friends, family, and colleagues about how badly they have been treated…in the worst case, some targets of incivility will exit.”

Health Costs. Health-related costs due to workplace stress mean financial losses for companies, and incivility in the workplace is a significant cause of workplace stress. The financial liability of a company for one employee who develops heart problems and/or anxiety disorders due to workplace stress can run into thousands of dollars depending on the gravity of the developed health issue.

Low customer retention. Incivility in the workplace doesn’t occur in a vacuum, as employees don’t just interact with one another, they also interact with customers and clients. The importance of quality customer care has been underscored in many writings — quality  customer care adds to the company brand and ensures that customers don’t just feel engaged in patronizing a company but also eager to come back for repeat business. In today’s age when a consumer has many options to choose from, it may just be civility from company employees that will serve as a business’ competitive advantage.

Lawsuits and settlements. Let us not forget: incivility in the workplace can also result to critical incidents that can progress into a court case. Persons victimized in the jobsite are encouraged by many today to act on their situation and file a lawsuit in defense of their rights, and when proven to be wronged, the resulting pay-off in terms of damages can be quite high. And even if worker disputes don’t get in front of a judge, it can still cost a company. A 2005 Time Magazine article, for example, reported that the average executive of a Fortune 1000 company spends as much as 13% of his or her time mediating worker disputes.

A steady decline in company values and culture. Studies reveal that aggression begets aggression, and that even low intensity acts of aggression in the workplace can spiral into serious problems when left unaddressed. Hence, even mild interpersonal conflicts can progress to actual shouting matches that disrupt work if unattended. And over time, the repeated protection of instigators by management can erode the company culture and communicate that incivility is not just tolerated, but also considered as a way to become “part of the team.”

Civility and Rewards

Incivility in the workplace can cost companies a lot of money. On the flipside though, civility can also save organizations on costs. In fact, civility can help companies earn greater revenue and survive in the cutthroat world of competitive business.

The following are just some of the rewards of civility in the workplace.

Employee Satisfaction and Engagement. A 2003 study of workplace civility examined numerous companies over a 5-year period. The conclusion: workers’ strong positive emotions correlate reliably with corporate financial success, and workers’ positive emotions include a sense of being treated with respect — civility. It is for this reason that many companies, including Costco, IKEA, and the Container Store, advocate positive relationship with employees. They have significant annual profits; pay valued quarterly dividends and monthly sales increases. And because of those workplace packages, their employees are loyal, and the company is less likely to incur the turnover losses mentioned in the previous section.

Increased Customer Return. If incivility can turn a company’s patrons sour, the opposite can guarantee a company a solid and loyal market base. And regardless of what product or service is being sold by a business, return customers are very important, as they generally cost less to court and thus earn the company more.

Improved company branding. Civil behavior among employees can be a plus to a company’s reputation — and in the business world, a good name can be everything. A company known to have a pleasant working atmosphere within it will draw all the best names in the job pool and will even have professionals lining up to be of service. The company’s good name is also an integral part in finding investors, suppliers, and as mentioned previously, loyal customers.

Four Causes of Incivility

There are many possible causes of incivility. P.M. Forni, the co-founder of Johns Hopkins University Civility Project, describes four causes of incivility. These four are:

1. Lack of self-restraint. Incivility, in any context, can be easily avoided, or at least controlled, if individuals will actively practice self-restraint. For instance, annoying conduct by a co-worker need not be recognized — if you’re dealing with an attention-seeker, the move may actually be counter-productive. And even in situations when anger and frustration are warranted, self-restraint can spell the difference between assertive and aggressive communication.

Emotional Intelligence demands that one must be able to express one’s feelings in such a way that is always cognizant of constructive goals. If you desire to fix problem behaviors in your co-worker, then stooping to his or her level will not to get the job done.

2. Anonymity. Studies have shown — and even casual observation will verify — that people have less inhibition when they know that they can’t be made accountable for their actions. You’re more likely to rudely address a waiter that you will never see again, than your office’s Girl Friday who can still spike your coffee. People are more likely to say insulting things against a boss or a peer on an online community forum, where one’s identity can be hidden. In fact, it’s questionable if a ranter on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and various blogs and personal sites would have the nerve to say the things they write about straight to the face of the object of their vitriol.

3. Stress. A considerable amount of incivility in the workplace can be traced to both personal and work-related stress.The workplace, after all, can be a pressure cooker. In this day and age, many workers endure the minimum standard of working conditions for compensation disproportionate to work that they put it. In light of the on-going economic crisis, there’s always threat of getting demoted, fired or laid off. Having to survive on a daily basis means lesser time for rest, recreation, and self-care. It’s not impossible then for workers to channel their fatigue, frustration, and even depression on the individuals that they interact with on a daily basis. The ability to react to a provoking event may also be diminished by the experience of stress.

4. The Pursuit of Individualism in the Society of Equals. Forni also suggest a more philosophical root of incivility today: the attitude that it has to be “each man for his own” and that expressing one’s self in the most authentic way possible is a “right” and an “entitlement.”

For instance, there are people who feel entitled to talk as loudly as they can in a restaurant because they’re paying for the meal and the crew’s service anyways. Some people believe that they have as much right as the other person to use the lavatory for as long as they can. There is also the attitude in some quarters that the workplace is survival of the fittest — if you can’t deal with the pressure, and fight back tooth and nail, and then you should just get out or else be eaten by the system. Many reality TV shows today the plotlines of which revolve around contestants trying to gain the favor of an acerbic boss or judge reinforces this way of thinking.

How to Overcome It

Overcoming civility in the workplace can be a big challenge, especially in companies where blatant tolerance for explicit and implicit acts of rudeness is already the norm. But this doesn’t mean it’s impossible to create a civil workplace.

The following are just some of the recommended interventions for creating greater civility in your company:

Create, communicate, and enforce policies regarding civil behavior in the workplace. Organizations have the power to create the kind of culture they desire by making the practice of civil behavior part of company policy. The key is in being explicit from the very onset what is desired and expected behavior from managers and staff members alike. These policies should be included in the training program of each incoming employee. Pre-determined consequences of uncivil behavior in the workplace must also be consistently enforced to ensure that civility ideals don’t remain just words on paper. The creation of a company civility policy will be discussed in later modules.

Screen job applicants for tendency towards uncivil behavior. Companies can create pleasant and ethical working environments by carefully choosing personalities who will make up the organization. It can only take one bully to create much distress in an organization, which is why it’s important that persons with tendencies towards inconsideration, aggression, and disrespect are filtered out from as early as the job interview.

This may sound like common sense, but in reality, companies are willing to overlook personality traits that point to potential uncivil behavior when faced with an employee with impressive credentials and experience. Most instigators of incivility in the workplace are those in management, and competent managers are hard to find. It wouldn’t be surprising if business owners and stockholders turn a blind eye on incivility just to keep top brass.

Provide continuous education and training on civility. Civil behavior is a skill, and many cases of incivility are simply the result of lack of knowledge and/or practice of skills needed to navigate the workplace in a respectful and considerate fashion. Companies are encouraged to regularly raise awareness on the costs of incivility, as well as keep employees trained in civility-related concepts such as gender sensitivity, harassment in the workplace, stress management, conflict management, and workplace etiquette. Assigning advocates among management and staff members is also an excellent way to keep the momentum of civility training programs going.

Practice regular self-assessment. If you want to create an environment that values civility, then you have to look no further than yourself. Make sure that you always look at your own behavior and identify the ways you contribute to workplace incivility. All people are guilty of uncivil behavior, some regularly, others on occasion, but this doesn’t make it ok. Modeling civil behavior in your workplace can be the beginning of organizational change.

Increase accountability and transparency in the company. Incivility in the workplace may persist because company set-up makes it easy for acts of incivility to go unnoticed. If there is nothing keeping an employee from posting derogatory emails to co-workers anonymously, then the company is providing instigators with opportunity. If performance review is based only on the opinion of the immediate supervisor, then it gives supervisors leverage to treat subordinates as they wish. But if there is a system for accountability and transparency in a company, then there is a deterrent against instigators of incivility.


More About Civility in The Workplace

Introduction to Workplace Civility
Effective Work Etiquette
Conflict Resolution at The Workplace
Getting to the Cause of Incivility
Negotiation and Workplace Incivility
Writing a Workplace Civility Policy
Implementing the Workplace Civility Policy