Whistle-Blowing and Accountants’ Ethical Obligations
Ethics in the Workplace

Workplace Incivility: The New Normal

Ethics in the Workplace demands Civil Behavior and treating others with Respect

This is nothing new. You would have to be an ostrich not to know that civility in America has been declining for years. The blame can be attributed to many factors including the anonymous use of social media to post disparaging thoughts, outright meanness, and worse, bullying on the Internet. But it goes much further than that to include a lack of respect for people in supervisory positions, or teachers, or any other authority figures.

Civility in America continues to disintegrate and rude behavior is becoming the "new normal," according to a new national survey. Reports of personal infringements are on the rise, driving 70 percent of Americans to believe that incivility has reached crisis proportions. With Americans encountering incivility more than twice a day, on average, and 43 percent expecting to experience incivility in the next 24 hours, dealing with incivility has become a way of life for many. In reality, incivility merely mirrors changing (and not for the better) societal ethics.

My concern in this blog is the growing incidents of incivility in the workplace. The 2013 edition of Civility in America: A Nationwide Survey by the global public relations firm Weber Shandwick used the research conducted by KRC Research to measure incivility in America. The 2013 online survey was conducted in May among 1,000 American adults to assess attitudes towards civility in politics and in other aspects of American life.  The margin of error is +/-2.6 percentage points.

The survey found that 71 percent believe civility has declined in recent years and 54 percent expect the decline to continue. Politicians, America's youth, the media and the Internet are assigned most responsibility for the problem.

It seems to me incivility is becoming the new normal in our society. Unethical behavior underlies the incivility. Basic ethical values such as respect, fairness, honesty, responsibility and accountability have given way to hedonistic behavior that sometimes borders on narcissism.

One of the more worrisome workplace trends is the rise in Americans leaving their jobs because of incivility. From 2011 to 2013, there has been an increase in Americans reporting they quit a job because it was an uncivil workplace (20 percent vs. 26 percent). This willingness to quit a job creates a threat to company reputation and imposes extra costs for replacing a workforce.

"Incivility can be the enemy of a collaborative culture," said Andy Polansky, CEO of Weber Shandwick. "We know that the key to a positive, productive, engaging culture is listening, understanding and responding to concerns about behavior quickly and ensuring that leadership sets the tone for meaningful, respectful interaction."

The survey found that more than one third of all Americans have personally experienced incivility at work, which undoubtedly has a negative impact on productivity and engagement. The survey also found:

  • 26% quit their job because of incivility at work;
  • 33% believe the tone of their workplace is uncivil;
  • 81% believe incivility is leading to more violence;
  • 95% believe we have a civility problem in this country.

Americans are working longer hours as wages stay stagnate and the job market remains weak, so it’s not surprising that tensions in the workplace are running high. The problem is these tensions can often result in frustration and interpersonal conflict leading to toxic work environments including workplace bullying. 

The time has come to treat workplace bullying the same as sexual harassment or racial discrimination, to identify the perpetrators, establish rules of conduct and penalties, and even pass laws prohibiting and penalizing bullying. Violence in the workplace begins long before fists fly or lethal weapons extinguish lives. Where resentment and aggression routinely displace cooperation and communication, violence has occurred.

Bullying in the workplace is growing in epidemic proportions. But bullying is different from harmless incivility, rudeness, boorishness, teasing and other well-known forms of interpersonal torment. Bullying is a form of violence, but only rarely involves fighting, battery or homicide. It is mostly sub-lethal, non-physical violence. Bullying crosses boundaries of gender, race and organizational rank.

What can be done to stem the rising tide of workplace violence? It all starts with creating an ethical workplace culture. As is the case with all ethical business practices, a culture of respect begins with the tone at the top. Top management must set clear standards that incivility, bullying, sexual harassment, and other forms of offensive behavior have no place in the organization. The ethics code should include a provision to support these standards. Violators must be punished immediately. Performance evaluation should take into consideration whether an employee has been a good workplace citizen.

The problem with workplace incivility is it is difficult to keep it out of the workplace when it has run rampant in our society. It has to be a collective effort for an organization to have a chance to become incivility free. It must be seen by top management as a strategic goal, no different from creating the best product possible to encourage consumers to buy the product and keep coming back. In the workplace, it should be seen as a way of attracting high character employees who strive to make the company better not only from a profit perspective but as a welcoming environment to work and stay as a committed employee for years to come.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 27, 2013