Non-HR leaders are often unaware of the hours HR professionals spend investigating incidents of incivility such as a rude email or sending the wrong PowerPoint deck. There’s often a dichotomy between how employees are expected to conduct themselves and the reality of how they treat one another. Does HR spend a disproportionate amount of time refereeing petty behaviour? Would employees demonstrate greater civility if some inter-personal conflicts were less under the radar? It might be brazen to ask the question, but I think organizations should consider repurposing the familiar ‘days without accident/injury’ sign to post instances of employee incivility
How Does Civility Impact Safety?
Much like second-hand smoke, incivility, defined by authors Drs. Christine Pearson and Christine Porath, is “the exchange of seemingly inconsequential inconsiderate words and deeds that violate conventional norms of workplace conduct”. It’s a commonly accepted part of life that is actually very harmful. Some professionals seem unflappable but as Christine Porath says “incivility robs you of your cognitive resources, hijacks your performance and creativity, and sidelines you from your work. Even if you want to perform your best, you can’t.” "You never hear anyone saying ‘[workplace] health and safety - we're going to do that for 12 months and then we're going to stop’ as is often the case with mental health initiatives."1
3 Reasons to Consider Launching a ‘Days Without Incivility’ Sign
Civility is everyone’s responsibility. A recent study of employees in global organizations found 43 per cent of senior management expect HR to deal with psychological safety of employees at work. “The lack of ownership suggests businesses are taking the “wait and see” approach to employee mental health….one in five firms admit they would only take action once a psychological safety issue arises, while among senior management, 22 per cent said they would only be motivated to take action if a high profile press incident occurs.”2 Just as a finance department leaves filling out expense forms to each department, it is my belief HR expect all company leaders to take an active role in promoting civility.
Deter petty incivility. Today it would be unthinkable to walk onto a construction site without a hard hat and steel toed boots. Surely, this was not always the case. I think the same can be said of workplace conversations. Rather than repeatedly help employees navigate personal disagreements behind closed doors, HR professionals could raise the bar on the types of personal issues (such as someone stole my lunch) that will no longer be the domain of HR professionals. This would provide an opportunity to make civility a stronger part of an organization's culture. Make a commitment that certain mental safety risks will no longer be tolerated and back-up your support with a corporate initiative that everyone can see. “Signs are the best method to continually remind employees of specific workplace policies or safety precautions that should be taken in their daily job duties. If properly posted and with an effective message, it’s a great tool to utilize as a constant reminder which may prevent workplace injury, employee disputes, and possibly fines in certain situations.”3
High-performance is not a license to be uncivil. Organizations can be reluctant to deal with top achievers who are known to disregard employee values and speak down to others. All the more reason to consider operationalizing civil behaviour as another metric of safety. Many leaders I work with are well versed in how to prevent harassment but they are unfamiliar with the term incivility. Let’s expand the definition of a “high-performer” to include promoting (or at least not hurting) the mental fitness of those you work with.
Are HR leaders likely to post a ‘days without incivility’ sign in their departments? Of course not. But, I hope this bold concept highlights the gap between workplace civility and safety. I hope it leads to discussion on what steps are needed to make conversational incivility unacceptable. Most of all, I hope it encourages HR professionals to challenge their colleagues (yes I’m talking to you finance and marketing) to help police civility as a natural extension of being in management. A policy on incivility is not enough to change behaviour.
Janet Hueglin Hartwick is a conversation coach and trainer. She is the founder of Conversations At Work, an evidence-based training program that helps leaders and converts “cranky communicators” of all ages into self-aware conversationalists.