Writing a Workplace Civility Policy

Writing a Workplace Civility Policy
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Company management can talk about the importance of civility in their organization, and then assume that everyone will take the hint. Or, management can include civility as part of company policy. When an organization is serious in creating a culture deeply rooted in civil behavior, the latter is the better option to take. When expected behavior from staff members is explicitly stated in the company manual, there is little room for second-guessing.

In this article, you will be introduced to the civility policy as a tool in institutionalizing civil behavior in the workplace.

Designating the Core Group

When creating a policy on civility, a recommended first step is organizing a core group.

A core group is a team of people who will take charge of conceptualizing, writing, refining and sometimes implementing the company’s policy on civility. Ideally, core group members represent the characteristics of the population; it’s recommended to persons from the different rungs of the company ladder, of all ages and gender, in the core group. Doing so can guarantee that the opinions of the different sectors in the company will be represented.

There’s no standard number of core group members. Core groups can start very small, but can grow over time. Ideally, the group should be small enough to facilitate a productive discussion, but big enough to serve a critical mass geared at organizational change.  Core group members can be volunteers, elected by their peers or assigned by a company supervisor.

The task of the core group goes beyond merely preparing a document. Core group members are envisioned to be advocates and change agents — which is why they must strongly believe in the importance of civility in the workplace, and are known to be models of civil behavior. They usually serve as trainers, who also train other trainers.  Aside from participating in campaigns to increase the awareness of all about the new civility policy, core group members must be able to influence people by example.

Defining What is Unacceptable Behavior

To be effective, a civility policy must contain what it considers to be unacceptable behavior in the workplace.

While a generic, motherhood statement on the value of civility can be satisfactory, having incivility defined will make the policy easier for management to implement and for employees to follow. Stating outright that the company has a zero tolerance policy on incivility will emphasize that civility is being taken seriously, and company members are required to toe the line.

When defining incivility in company policy, it’s important to describe the unacceptable behavior in specific, measurable, and observable terms.

Civility policies must describe the unwanted behavior in explicit and particular terms. For example, it’s not just enough to say that the company will not tolerate rude behavior. What constitute rude behavior? Does it include not answering a customer’s question? How about the use of someone else’s working area with permission? Getting these behaviors in paper can help in making sure that a civility policy does not get misinterpreted.

Civility policy must be able to say how much of an uncivil behavior is unacceptable. For instance, there are company policies who explicitly state that a single instance of racist remarks is ground for disciplinary action.

Lastly, a civility policy must present incivility in behaviorally terms — that is, can be seen by people instead of merely inferred. “Thinking hostile thoughts” is not recommended to be part of a civility policy, as you can’t observe what goes on in a person’s mind.

How can the core group define what is unacceptable behavior in the workplace? There are many ways of going about it:

The core group starts by creating basic principles they want followed, and from these principles come up with unwanted behaviors in violation of the principle. For example, core group members can agree that they want to promote the respect of a co-worker’s property in their organization. The next step then is to identify particular behaviors that violate another employee’s property.

The core group can begin by listing down all the uncivil behavior that they don’t want to see in their organization, include the behaviors that they feel must be added to the policy, and weed out those that represent grayer areas of assessment. Note that culture plays a role in what may be considered as civil or uncivil behavior, and the core group must exert effort to create a policy that is culture-fair.

Defining the Consequence

In order to give teeth to your civility policy, it’s important to provide consequences for uncivil behavior. After all, with repercussions, there is incentive to obey the policy. More importantly, consequences communicate that you mean business, that incivility is something that the company will not tolerate under any circumstances.

When defining consequences for incivility in company policy, there are three main things that you must consider:

The consequence must be fit the offense. Core group members tasked with writing a civility policy must always remember that civility exists in a spectrum; there are, of course, softer offenses and offenses that demand a strong response. Offenses that belong more to the latter category include those that relate to verbal, physical or sexual harassment and discrimination.

There must be a ladder of escalation. Like consequences for other work-related violations, it’s very important that consequences for acts of incivility follow a ladder of escalation — that is, policy makers must consider the possibility that there are mitigating circumstances that make first offenses more understandable than second or third or even fourth ones. Perhaps the first instance of, say, using expletives when speaking to a co-worker would warrant a verbal warning, while the second instance a written warning explaining that similar behavior in the future could result in possible termination. This way, companies don’t just give their employees an opportunity to change, but it also provides room to study a situation before any irreversible action is taken.

Consequences must conform to national and state law. Lastly, when crafting consequences for incivility in the workplace, it’s important to remember that every consequence must conform to national and state law. It’s important, for example, to consider labor laws so that the right of employees against wrongful termination will be respected. The same goes with the employees union’s Collective Bargaining Agreement with the company. Similarly, since acts of harassment and discrimination are covered by state legislation, it’s important that there are mechanisms that would support the immediate action of a company when these acts are found in their workplace.

Writing the Policy

The following are additional tips to consider when writing a civility policy in the workplace:

When writing a civility policy, begin by stating how important civility is to the organization. A civility policy can begin with a statement of value, e.g. “Civility is valued here at Company ABC.” The value statement can be considered as part of the company’s mission and vision, and can serve as an easy-to-recall battle cry when promoting the advocacy within the organization.

Use language that is easy-to-understand, while still maintaining a firm and serious tone. The language of a company policy must be layperson-friendly enough that it can be readily understood by both management and staff members regardless of rank and educational background.

For instance, there is nothing wrong with stating simply that the company “will not tolerate vulgar words and gestures”, than coming up with a fancier statement that mean that same thing. What’s important is that the unacceptable behavior is defined clearly: following our guideline of being presented in a specific, measurable, and observable form, and that there is no doubt that the company has a very firm stance against said unacceptable behaviors.

Remember that company policy is basis for legal action. Company policy is like a contract that not just prescribes behavior, but also serves as reference when action is needed, so do take writing the civility policy of your company seriously. Carefully discern the appropriateness of every word, and justness of every regulation and corresponding effect, as well as the feasibility of the consequence that you outline on the text.

For example, ask: does your list of “unacceptable behavior” discriminate against particular people? For example, some conservative Muslim sectors do not allow men and women to shake hands — it’s not a matter of civility it’s a matter of religious belief. Is mandatory counseling a legal course of action for individuals who practice uncivil behavior? More importantly, can your company consistently implement the consequences you promised? If your company policy promised to protect an individual against unwanted sexual advances by immediate arbitration, failing to provide arbitration when it’s called for can be a cause for legal action against a company.

For best results, always have your draft reviewed by lawyers and organizational development consultants. Make sure as well that it is approved by management and employee alike before being marked as official.

More About Civility in The Workplace

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