Workplace Civility: Leaders Can Make a Difference

workplace civilityIt’s been a tough road to hoe in the civility business.  Surveys and anecdotes about the caustic uncivil interactions in America—particularly in politics—abound. But there is a bright spot on the horizon.  A recent survey shows that in workplaces where leaders model and value inclusion, civility also exists.  Digging deeper, I wonder if this workplace civility is because the “tough topics” are not discussed in those workplaces.

Incivility in Politics

Any period of history where there has been intense political conflict, you find severe breeches in the prevailing civility code.  One of the most notable images of political incivility occurred in 1856 when pro-slavery congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina went into the senate and beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, an ardent abolitionist, with his cane nearly killing him.

And although Martin Luther King is now credited with promoting peaceful protests, at the time, civil disobedience and protest was not considered civil.  In fact, many across America experienced that action as gross incivility.

Similarly, the intense political conflict during and since the 2016 election cycle exemplifies new breeches in the civility of our society. We have a President who exemplifies a manner of expression far different than the measured reserved style of his predecessors.  It seems we also have new types of behaviors expressed by everyday citizens confronting political figures in the public square, restaurants and the halls of Congress. Survey results support our feelings that political discourse has become more uncivil.

Every year since 2010, Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, in partnership with KRC Research, have conducted Civility in America: A Nationwide Survey.  The surveys track high levels of incivility each year. In addition, the surveys confirm what we all have experienced: that the election cycle of 2016 exacerbated incivility.  In December of 2016, 75% of Americans agreed that incivility had reached crisis levels, a significant rise of 5% more than the 70% reported in January of 2016. In 2018’s survey, Americans continued to report a severe civility deficit in our nation, with a vast majority – 93% – identifying a civility problem in society, and most classifying it as a major problem (69%). Half of Americans expected civility to get worse, but nearly all (92%) believe that civility is important to our democracy. Those 50% of respondents who expected incivility to worsen blame incivility mostly on politicians, internet/social media, and news media.

The political discourse of 2016 continues to influence.  In a recent program sponsored by the National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD), a panel discussed the fact that not only was the campaign of 2016 divisively uncivil, the aftermath since the 2016 election has been uniquely uncivil.  The post-election experience has been markedly different than other elections, particularly the similar election of 2000. In both the election of 2000 and the election of 2016, the winning presidential candidate was determined by electoral college and the popular vote would have installed the candidate of the opposite party.  Once the prolonged, emotional process of Bush v. Gore was over, however, the population accepted the result and went back to their daily lives. They were not publicly excoriated or shunned for voting for the candidate of their choice.  In contrast, during and since the election of 2016, everyday voters have been criticized and ostracized for their vote.  Family relationships have been fractured and the foundation of our democratic republic has been threatened by, for example, the #NotMyPresident recurring message. This is damaging to our society and to the legal, political and judicial systems that are foundational to our society.

Incivility in the Workplace

Consistently since 2012, the Civility in America survey has found that approximately one-third of Americans have, at one time or another, experienced incivility at work. The December 2016 survey responses showed that 3 in 10 American managers or executives have fired or threatened to fire someone because of incivility in the workplace.

These levels of incivility at work were high considering that our jobs consume so much of our lives. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employed Americans work an average of 7.6 hours on the days they work.

On the bright side, perhaps surprisingly, in the 2018 Civility in America survey, the overwhelming majority of Americans (92%) with coworkers describe their workplace as civil.  In addition, about a third report this level of workplace civility has increased compared to a few years ago.  (In December of 2016 42% characterized their workplace as very civil whereas in 2018, 48% did.)  Similarly, those who report personally experiencing incivility in a past or present job dropped from 34% in December 2016 to 29% in 2018.

Lest we think that the workplace has become an idyllic haven of free and respectful expression, it appears that the results can be explained at least in part by the fact that people are not discussing highly controversial topics at work.  About one-third of respondents reported that they shy away from discussing controversial topics at work.  71% of Americans with co-workers report that at least one of the following topics is difficult to discuss with civility at work:

Further to the issue of banning topics at work, only 15% say they feel more comfortable than they used to expressing opinions about controversial societal and political issues at work.  Further, nearly one-quarter of employees say they avoid discussing topics of diversity in the workplace for fear the conversation will turn uncivil.  This level is similar for African Americans (26%), Hispanics (24%), and Whites (23%), but higher for Asians (34%).

Incivility Undermines Diversity

The 2018 Civility in America survey results showed a connection between incivility and a lack of diversity in the workplace.   Those who characterized their workplace as being diverse and inclusive to a much greater extent also reported their workplace as civil. In contrast, respondents in uncivil workplaces were twice as likely to describe their employers as weak on diversity and inclusion. Incivility seems to fester and foster in less diverse environments.

Many anecdotally speculate that incivility discourages women and minority lawyers from staying in the legal profession. I personally can attest to how distasteful and draining I found the gladiator approach to litigation.  Was it because I am a woman? There is evidence that supports this viewpoint.

In Commission’s surveys of Illinois lawyers, 51% of Illinois lawyers reported that a consequence of incivility is that it discourages diversity in the profession.  This belief is mirrored by evidence that incivility disproportionately affects women and other under-represented minorities in the general population.

This chart from the 2017 Civility in America survey shows that the groups of people most likely to experience incivility are blacks, with 77% reporting they experience incivility often or sometimes, immigrants at 73%, and women at 72%.

Similarly, the Workplace Bullying Institute conducted research in 2017 asking respondents for their personal experience in the workplace with abusive conduct that is threatening, intimidating, humiliating, work sabotage or verbal abuse and to identify the perpetrator and the target.  The results showed that 70% of the bullies were male and 65% of their targets were female.  The 30% female bullies targeted women by 67%.  The races most affected by the bullying were Hispanic, African American, and Asian.

Leaders Can Make a Difference

Leaders should pay attention.  Research shows that working in uncivil environments has an adverse impact on an organization’s bottom line and the personal lives of employees.

And Americans are looking for their employers to exercise leadership in the area of civility.  When they were asked in the 2018 Civility in America Survey to respond to a list of actions that would improve the level of civility in the country, 42% responded that they were in favor of civility training in the workplace and 40% reported being in favor of employers encouraging employees to report incivility in the workplace.

The Workplace Bullying Institute also provides research supporting firm action by leaders. The 2017 survey asked about culpability for bullying in the workplace among the target, perpetrator, employer or society.  African Americans, Hispanics and Asians saw the employer as responsible whereas Whites blamed the perpetrator the most.  In other words, the leader of the organization is responsible for creating the organizational culture.

This chart from the Civility in America 2018 survey shows that when leaders of an organization are civil and create processes to promulgate civility, workers respond positively:


It is hopeful that people are feeling that civility exists in their workplaces.  And leaders should take heed that people also are expecting them to create and reinforce a civil and inclusive environment.  Civility is on shaky grounds if it exists only because certain topics are off-limits to be discussed.  This is not a long-term fix.  It is much better to conduct training that will encourage and reinforce a civil and inclusive workplace.  That will be the subject of future posts.

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