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7 ways to improve civility at work – on-site and remotely

Civility at work is in danger. Unfortunately, there will be rudeness, no matter where you work.

Even in remote settings, incivility is on the rise, according to University of Michigan and Dalhousie University researchers. What’s worse, minority, LGBTQIA and other marginalized employees experience it even more.

Incivility looks and feels the same whether it happens on-site, remotely or in a hybrid setting. It often comes in the form of subtle slights, outright interruptions, complete disregard or common discourtesy.

And the results are perilous. Employees who fall victim to incivility often end up with lower self-esteem, higher stress and decreased job satisfaction, researchers found.

Remote work makes it more challenging. Employees meet online and leaders have less of a chance to witness – and respond to – negative behaviors.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. HR professionals can take the lead on combatting rudeness and making the workplace more civil.

“It’s important for leaders to keep an open mind and address these feelings. Respecting employee concerns and frustrations are integral for maintaining healthy company culture,” says HR Coach Marsha Akpodiete at Paychex.

Through civility, HR leaders and front-line managers can build a positive, diverse company culture where all employees feel valued.

Here are seven ways to improve civility at work.

Set virtual standards

Virtual incivility – the kind that goes on behind cameras in Zoom meetings, through keyboards in workplace apps and verbally on phone calls – is even worse for minorities, the University of Michigan and Dalhousie University researchers found. In those situations, the bully speaks over others, makes snide remarks and interrupts.

Stay ahead of that by creating a virtual workplace etiquette guide. A good starting point is your existing, on-site behavior guidelines and expectations.

Give employees examples of what’s not acceptable, rather than blanket statements such as, “We won’t tolerate rude behavior.”

Some examples:

  • Raise your hand (real or virtual) before speaking

  • Address colleagues respectfully

  • Do not yell or use profane language

  • Maintain a professional tone, and

  • Listen to the speaker.

Involve the team

You might encourage teams to help create and maintain group expectations for working together. When people are part of creating something positive, they will more likely embrace it.

The idea is to set a clear standard of respect within a team that works together all the time. As one team improves civility at work, their positive behavior will likely impact other people and areas.

So, for instance, they might set expectations like these:

  • “We will not speak over one another in meetings”

  • “We will record team chats so everyone knows what’s going on and who’s responsible for each idea and task,” or

  • “Team meetings will be smartphone-free zones.”

Encourage calling ‘in,’ not ‘out’

Many people tend to call out people when they experience or witness incivility. Defense is a natural instinct, after all.

But the university researchers suggest a counterintuitive approach: Call in people.

Invite instigators into a quiet meeting to talk, understand, learn and hopefully correct negative behaviors. You want to collaborate with people who aren’t civil at work – while supporting their victims, of course.

Some keys to the conversations:

  • Avoid blame and snap judgments

  • Cite exact behaviors that violate codes of conduct

  • Focus on how the behavior affects others, and

  • Guide the person to take responsibility for the behavior and the fix.

Remember the niceties

In today’s weird work world, many niceties have taken a back seat – especially in a remote work environment. People don’t bring in doughnuts for the crew like they used to. Teams don’t chat socially before meetings start. No one takes the time to ask – and care about – colleagues’ hobbies.

But, if we made time for niceties again, we might curb incivility.

Don’t consider “catch up with colleagues” time as unproductive or irrelevant. It builds kinship and potentially staves off disdain within groups.

Leaders who are still concerned that too much socializing and sharing will cause disruptions can facilitate connections. For instance, you might start meetings by giving employees a chance to share one good thing that’s happened to them today. Or you might set up a “brag board” on your internal communication app where employees can post news about themselves, families and accomplishments.

Be ready for the negative

As much as you’d like to avoid incivility, you probably can’t: Some subjects and situations will spark negative reactions and poor behavior.

“It’s important to put a plan in place to address concerns and conflicts that may arise surrounding certain topics, such as vaccines, mask wearing and wishes to continue to work remotely,” says Melissa Gonzalez Boyce, JD, Legal Editor, XpertHR. “It is also important to put a communication plan in place to address concerns and conflicts that may arise surrounding certain topics.”

And don’t just consider COVID-related topics. You might need to address how employees need to handle political and societal topics.

Most importantly, you’ll want to regularly remind employees and front-line managers about your policies and laws regarding harassment and bias. They need to understand the behaviors that violate company and EEOC rules.

Practice, encourage patience

My mother often told me, Patience is a virtue many desire and few have.

Today, this virtue is pivotal to civility at work.

“Everything is changing so fast—and the level of frustration is increasing because of the world around us. But patience doesn’t mean giving up,” said Lauren Shin, vice chairman, Global Consumer Practice and Board & CEO Services at Korn Ferry, in their Special Edition. “Keeping pace takes both urgency and patience on the part of everyone—and at every level.”

We understand that it’s tough to teach patience. But leaders who practice it build the credibility to preach it.

Make reporting ‘a thing’

Only about 5% of employees report incivility to HR or a manager, the university researchers said. And that makes some sense. Reporting someone cut you off in a meeting or sent an abrasive email message seems trivial.

But if it’s a pattern of rude, demeaning or disrespectful behavior, it’s not trivial. And HR should know about it so something is done.

So make it easier for employees to report incivility. Perhaps you can create a form for them to report and log instances to help establish a pattern.

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