A Case For Workplace Civility

“We never touch people so lightly that we do not leave a trace.” -Peggy Tabor Millin.

I’ll never truly “get” or master social media. For one thing, the silly algorithms load posts a-chronologically. In my Twitter feed a few hours ago, a WSJ story from August appeared. What’s that about? Thing is, it’s a story that is right up my alley. So why haven’t I seen it before and why now? Anyway, it’s an essay about Workplace Rudeness by Jennifer Breheney Wallace. It’s very good. So, let’s blog about it.

One reason I like Ms. Wallace’s piece is also a reason I kinda hate it: it is research based. It posits the idea that rudeness in the workplace not only harms employees’ wellbeing, it also hampers productivity. Just let that sink in. I did. I want to go on the record and say that I’m a little bothered by the suggestion that we need peer-reviewed research to instruct/remind us that jerks-at-work-don’t-work. But sadly, we do. And I could compose an entire post here by mining quotes from her piece.

Like this one:

When rudeness feels like a threat, it occupies cognitive resources and focuses our attention on processing the unpleasant interaction, says Amir Erez, a management professor at the University of Florida. Dr. Erez’s research on the work environment at hospitals found that such cognitive drain could lead to “potentially devastating outcomes” for patients.

When I read this, I was stunned at the idea that reacting to incivility at work taxes our mental stores—that it uses up something valuable that we need elsewhere. And then, I felt sheepish that the idea was so startling to me. Because as it would sink in, I would realize that we all know this already. So I am of two minds. Part of me is grateful beyond words that anyone is studying the psychic costs of impoliteness in the workplace. Another part of me is incredulous that we required a study to justify what Robert Sutton wrote very convincingly about in The No A-Hole Rule in 2007. That was ten years ago.

We know this stuff intuitively. But culturally, it seems that it doesn’t matter until the “bottom line” is affected, until for example patient care is compromised as in the situation suggested by the quotation above. Well, I think that’s crazy. And too often boorish behavior is rewarded. Like Harvey Weinstein. And Bill O’Reilly. Because before the allegations about them surfaced, each was well known for being an overbearing cad (I’m censoring myself) who had become too powerful for his own good and the good of his company. I wonder if you see a pattern here? Or whether we do, as a society. I’ll come back to them later.

I hope and sincerely believe that we have turned a corner in our American workplace. Kevin Spacey’s recent outing (no, not that he is gay) continues a trend that is healthy: no quarter for the powerful who misuse their station to predate on those who are not powerful. It’s really not more complicated than that. When you go to work, you’re there because you have to be. Set aside notions that at-will employees can always quit and find other jobs, the reality is, you show up, work your hours, do your best, because you need a paycheck. And as employers, we need you. We want you to work in a safe environment.

Many years ago, a younger, very talented colleague taught me the concept of “involuntary friends.” She pointed up the fact that when you are at work, the people you are with are friends or friendly, but they are people you must be with and around because you have a job and have to show up. The relationships are not voluntary, or at least not necessarily so. Not unlike the workplace civility concept, the “involuntary friends” concept was both novel and intuitive. Those are powerful ideas aren’t they—things we already know that must be revealed to us? As she and I developed our workplace harassment training we would present to clients, the “involuntary friends” concept was central. We work among those we are obligated to work with. The somewhat coerced context implies many things, including that how we treat one another—whether we work and play well together—matters so much more than it would were we free to disengage when it’s no longer pleasant. Impolite, if you will.

Back to Weinstein and O’Reilly. This is my case for workplace civility. We’re at work. We have to be. And we’re all friends. Sort of. Rude and boorish behavior not connected to actual harassment based on sex, race, disability, etc. is not unlawful, but might it not signal other issues? If you have jerks at work, people who are downright rude and unmannerly, people who ruin others’ days because they can and are in positions of power, these are precisely the same people who don’t care about your well crafted, compliance oriented harassment policy. They’re dangerous. They sat though your training. They signed the policy. They don’t care. Not really.

And so for those of you who manage others, who are owners of companies, or who are HR professionals, pay very close attention to rudeness at work. The rainmaker, the sales guy or gal who rakes it in but treats others without respect and with disdain or rudely and without compunction. The division manager who’s been climbing the corporate ladder since before your job was even a job. Maybe no one is complaining. Yet. But it wouldn’t do any harm to be proactive, ask some questions and be knowledgeable about what could be going on that is uncivil. And yes, perhaps unlawful.

I believe that being decent to others is, well, decent. In the workplace, it’s crucial. Now we have research that proves I’m right. You’re welcome. Kidding. But, let’s do work and play well together. Okay?

The author, Peter Rutledge, is an Employment Lawyer and Partner at Rutledge Law, Greenville, SC. You can contact him via these channels:
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This is my case for workplace civility. We’re at work. We have to be. And we’re all friends. Sort of.

–Peter Rutledge