Why You Need to Install Civility as a Workplace Business Process

By Stephen M. Paskoff

Tell business leaders there’s a new operational process that has the potential to transform their organization. Then notice their reactions when you list what it can do for them:

  • increase safety
  • surface problems
  • reduce errors
  • improve quality and teamwork
  • encourage innovations
  • safeguard their brands
  • reduce regulatory risks
  • boost profits

Many executives will reply that they’re in the business of reality – not magical thinking – though perhaps in saltier language.

Incivility harms an organization’s health

Tell them it won’t cost as much as a fraction of an upper executive level’s severance package, and they’ll likely think about getting one ready for you. If they’re amused or just curious, get ready to explain why civility – defined as a simple set of clear workplace behaviors – will do just that.

Numerous studies in health care, government, manufacturing and professional services show that routine incivility, a seemingly minor detail in the overall scheme of things, actually causes significant harm to an organization’s health. It affects all factors of an organization’s success: clients, staff, and financial returns.

The behaviors causing harm occur routinely. They are transmitted culturally as people absorb behavior patterns by modeling others. The good news is that we can change these patterns and curb their damaging impact. In fact, studies such as Atul Gawande’s “The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right” repeatedly demonstrate that even simple checklists can change behavior and its outcome.

A strategic imperative

Surgeons perform operations using a specific set of processes; companies produce products according to clear manufacturing steps; courts manage lawsuits by rules and deadlines; airplanes take off and land according to established protocol. We should manage on-the-job behaviors with the same attention to detail.

The challenge for human resource professionals is to teach leaders that civil behavior is a strategic imperative requiring little cost but generating huge operational and bottom-line results. Unfortunately, to many it sounds like a politically correct nightmare and the latest HR fad rather than a simple business approach that can be defined and applied.

Here are the steps human resource leaders can apply to introduce civility into their workplaces and, in the process, earn their long-awaited, proper seat at the business table.

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First, here’s what won’t work. Civility can’t be a human resource initiative or a risk management process driven by legal counsel or compliance officers. It must be initiated and directed by senior leaders responsible for the overall direction of the enterprise. Multiple organizational areas will be involved: human resources, legal, compliance, operations, learning and development, for example. But without executive leadership, civility won’t be taken seriously.

Second, executives need proof. Flooding them with reports and legal cases from other organizations will not get commitment. Many leaders won’t recognize they have the same broken behavioral practices as those that have publicly hobbled other organizations. Finally, unless leaders can see that civility is a clearly defined set of behavioral principles, they are likely to view it as too vague to warrant their attention. They need clear standards that can be communicated and readily managed.

Identifying inappropriate behaviors

Third, leaders themselves must identify concrete examples of inappropriate behaviors and then link them to business success. From my experience, this exercise will accomplish both steps.

  • Identify and work to prevent behaviors that cause the greatest harm, including the following:
    • Racial, sexual, religious, age, and ethnic comments – spoken, emailed or however communicated
    • Screaming, yelling, calling other people names in public or private settings
    • Body language, gestures and tones of voice that communicate the same level of disdain as the first two points. Think about how a sneer, a dismissive gesture, or a sarcastic inflection affects how we receive messages.
    • Lying or fabricating information in any context
  • Ask executives to identify their biggest operational concerns. They will likely identify retention, safety, quality, productivity, brand image, financial results and similar concerns. These are the issues they worry about and the ones they must understand can be positively affected by civil behavior.
  • Show them how uncivil behavior leads to serious harm in their own organizations. To do this, create a brief case and ask for volunteers to exhibit problem behaviors that might occur in the case. Afterwards, ask leaders to identify notable behaviors, positive or negative, and then to identify the business detriments or benefits they cause. If done properly, they will link the negative behaviors to harmful business results.
  • Work with them to produce a short list of behavioral standards that become their organization’s principles of civility. Remember, this list needs to be simple and short.

Leaders should then talk about these behavioral standards with managers and employees. This is a long-term commitment, not a single set of emails or web-based videos. Everyone has to be involved.

In less time than your organization can build a new facility, develop and launch new products or buy and integrate enterprises, it can implement principles of operational civility. The good news is that it can be done with minimal cost and risk, yet generate superior results.

This excerpt from Simplicity Rules: 12 Thoughts For the 2012 Workplace is published by TLNT with the express permission of Employment Learning Innovations, Inc. [ELI, Inc.]. Simplicity Rules is the copyrighted material of ELI, Inc. All rights reserved. No portions may be extracted, copied or duplicated without the express written permission of an officer of ELI, Inc.

Stephen M. Paskoff, Esq., is the founder, president and CEO of ELI® eliinc.com, an Atlanta-based training company that teaches professional workplace conduct, helping clients translate their values into behaviors, increase employee contribution, build respectful and inclusive cultures, and reduce legal and ethical risk. Contact him at info@eliinc.com.


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