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Business Officer Magazine
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The Business Case for Being Kind

A little respect goes a long way in ensuring employee wellness and productivity.

An interview with P.M. Forni

The Peaceable WorkplaceP. M. Forni teaches civility and Italian literature at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. As an outgrowth of his own interest in workplace civility, in 1997 Forni spearheaded the start-up of what has become the Civility Initiative at JHU, a center for the study and advocacy of civil behavior and civility-based competency. He is author of several books on this topic, including Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003), and The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude (St. Martin’s Press, 2008).

Why is civility in the workplace important?

There are at least three major arguments for making civility part of our individual cognitive and emotional being. The first is the connection between civility and ethics. On one end of the spectrum, this is exemplified by walking along a river and encountering a drowning child whom you jump in to save. Few of us find ourselves in such situations where life is imperiled and heroics are required, but in our everyday schedules of work and life, civility may mean letting someone flow into traffic, or refraining from taking someone else’s parking spot.

In the workplace, this may mean giving credit where credit is due, welcoming a new coworker to the organization, or abstaining from gossiping against a colleague. Whenever we engage in these acts of civility, in small but significant ways we are acting as ethical agents and exhibiting the kind of ethical behavior that strengthens relationships and society in general.

A second argument is the connection between incivility and violence. Rudeness too often escalates into physical violence. In the American workplace, approximately 1.8 million acts of physical violence are reported each year, and in fact there may be many more cases, including acts of rudeness that may not be physical in nature. So, an argument can certainly be made that modeling and encouraging civil behavior is of great benefit to society because it can help reduce the level of rudeness that leads to violence.

Finally, an argument can be made for the connection between civility and human health and well-being. We know that to survive and thrive we need social support and to be part of circles of acquaintance and care, whether that comes from a nurturing family, an accepting workplace, or involvement in a religious community, a book club, or a softball team. All these associations require relational skills that promote civility.

Conversely, incivility is a conveyor of stress. We know, for instance, that employees who perceive that their boss is treating them unfairly or who are on the receiving end of acts of rudeness have a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease. In fact, a primary reason employers should be concerned about civility is because civil behavior is known to be a major determinant of quality of life and health, and quality of service in any organization depends on the quality of life of those providing service.

From your perspective, has the level of civility present within the workplace risen or declined in recent years?

Until several years ago, when American workers were asked about the No. 1 cause of stress at work, they noted workload as their top concern. Now in about one third of cases, the No. 1 cause of stress at work is other people. This recent development would seem to indicate that there is a worsening of behavior in the workplace. Workload is still a significant concern, especially due to layoffs that are imposing more work on those who remain. Perhaps because of the stress of heavy workloads, people are becoming more irritable and less tolerant of the mistakes of others. They may be preoccupied with thinking they might be the next to be dismissed from work, or perhaps they are insecure in performing new tasks. Whatever it is that makes them lash out or behave poorly, this “kick the dog” syndrome of transferring their hostility to their coworkers really poisons the workplace and makes it difficult for others to show compassion and kindness.

What specific aspects of uncivil behavior are most prevalent within the workplace?

Incivility in the workplace involves anything that lacks respect for a coworker’s time and space. This may include speaking in a loud voice on the phone when you share a cubicle, or entering an office without knocking, or sitting on someone’s desk and glancing at his or her computer screen. In addition to the harm that may come from negative behavior such as gossiping about someone or spreading rumors, incivility can encompass a failure to observe the simplest rules of elementary good manners—for instance, not saying good morning or good night, or not treating those with whom you work on a daily basis with the same level of cordiality that you greet others from another department when they show up in your workspace.

Anything that leaves an employee feeling left out could also be deemed an act of incivility. In this regard, not inviting someone to an important meeting that impacts his or her job, or not sharing critical data with team members who could use the information to enhance their own success or work performance is a lost opportunity to promote a culture of civility in the workplace.

In practical terms, what is required of an employer?

Looking at this issue in a holistic way, we should intervene at the hiring process and the exit process of an employee’s journey. One thing we can do in the hiring process is to assess the relationship skills of the candidate. Likewise, in an employee’s exit process, we should find out if the person is leaving at least in part because he or she perceives the work environment as a hostile one. In about 12 percent of cases where employees leave a job it is due to a perceived hostile work environment. This comes with substantial cost to replace a talented worker.

We now have enough data to demonstrate how uncivil behaviors hurt the bottom line.

Some enlightened corporations and organizations are taking steps to enhance workplace civility. In one example, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies has an active civility collaborative, which is essentially a group of NASA employees who organize talks, workshops, and activities with the goal of strengthening the civil bonds among employees. More workplaces around the country are instituting civility days or weeks, so I do think this is beginning to have more of a focus on the national agenda.

In what ways does civil behavior contribute to employee performance, workplace productivity, and the organization’s bottom line?

We now have enough data to demonstrate how uncivil behaviors hurt the bottom line. For instance, the work of Christine Pearson and Christine Porath (The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It, Portfolio Hardcover, 2009)—management professors at Thunderbird School of Global Management, Glendale, Arizona, and the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, respectively—document how disruptive employees negatively affect an organization through their disengagement or by spreading a defeatist attitude or speaking against the organization.

All this can have a toxic effect on the morale of those around them and result in higher levels of stress for all. And the cost of stress to the American economy accounts for about $300 billion annually when factoring in sick days, medical costs, intervention initiatives, and legal fees. That doesn’t even account for the far greater costs associated with replacing employees who leave due to a hostile―or a perceived hostile―work environment.

In what ways can leaders help embed a culture of kindness within the workplace?

First, it’s important to recognize where we are in terms of leadership style. When a system of managing based on authority breaks down, one based on communication must take its place. We are at that juncture in history today. We can no longer lead and manage by autocratic decree through tyrannical bosses, because the principles of authority and hierarchy are not as strong or as linear today.

In days past, employees brought one identity to work: that of worker. Today, employees bring multiple identities to the workplace—sexual, racial, ethnic, and religious—and they expect all their identities to be equally respected. All of this is to say that today’s work environment is a more complex place to manage and requires a new set of soft relational skills and awareness to fairness, work-life balance, and inclusivity. Because the quality of the work environment depends on the quality of relationships within the workplace, it is up to leaders to possess the relational competence to practice and promote harmonious encounters rather than rude exchanges that tend to erode relationships.

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