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The Lost Art of Civility in the Workplace

Etiquette and Ethics Lacking in the Workplace and Society

By age sixteen, George Washington had copied out by hand, 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior In Company and Conversation.  They are based on a set of rules composed by French Jesuits in 1595.  The first rule is: “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.”

Increasingly, today, writers and bloggers lament the lost art of civility as evidenced by rude behavior, disrespectful comments, and personal attacks. Now comes a new survey from Kessler International that supports the lack of civility in the workplace.

Kessler International is releasing the results of a nationwide survey which outlined the state and fate of workplace manners, etiquette and ethics. Kessler International conducted a survey by polling upper and mid-level management at 40 professional services firms, and found that the respondents indicated by an 84 percent margin that their staff was inconsiderate and rude in the workplace. In addition, the same respondents cited by 65 percent that they felt a majority of their staff lacked a moral compass.

The survey was conducted by asking individuals to anonymously comment on their employees' use of personal electronic devices, dress, manners, ethics and level of respect for other employees. In fact, some respondents expressed disgust of certain individuals on their staff, as well as their own inability to say something and correct the situation. They cited their company's "political correctness," their own inability to have confrontation and constraints instituted by their human resources department as stumbling blocks.

Among the items most mentioned by mangers were:

1- untimely and inappropriate use of cellphones

2- wearing inappropriate clothing to work

3- complete lack of courtesy

4- use of street talk and signs in professional meetings

5- the inability of younger staff to write a letter/email

6- the lack of personal responsibility

7- failure to say please and thank you

8- lying to phone caller

9- hanging up on phone calls when they are confronted and were uncomfortable

10- cheating on time billed to clients and stealing time by arriving late and leaving early

11- cutting corners on work product rather than staying after hours to correct the mistakes they made

12- visiting sex and dating websites on company time

13- sexting on company phones

14- the inability to interact professionally with clients during a business function

15- the lack of manners

16- the lack of integrity

I am not surprised by the results. One problem in our society is the lack of disciplined behavior that starts at the earliest years. Parents prefer to be the best friend to their kids, too be seen as cool, and they don’t provide the moral direction that would teach them right from wrong; civil versus uncivil behavior; responsibility and accountability for one’s actions; and respecting people of authority even though you might not agree with their positions.

Add to the mix the often tasteless comments and criticisms, opinion pieces, videos, and other social media postings and you have a recipe for incivility in our society and in the workplace. It’s not even a matter of knowing the difference between right and wrong. It’s more a matter of not caring about acting ethically – of not even knowing what that means.

Ethics instruction is lacking in our schools and an ethical culture is missing from many of our most important institutions including all phases of government, and in sports, entertainment, and life in general. The role models we have are negative ones. Bad behavior seems to be what draws the most attention of the public and influences our actions. We see it on television, in movies and in You Tube videos -- and this is what sells. Stupid behavior abounds. (Just consider the popularity of Sony’s controversial movie The Interview). The sad part is we have become desensitized to these forms of rudeness and incivility.

We longer know what is ethical and what is not. All too many believe that ethics is whatever they want it to be rather than to acknowledge there are basic standards of ethical behavior that should guide our actions and decisions including honesty, trustworthiness, respect, responsibility and accountability, and integrity that is the whole of ethical behavior. Add to the mix a culture of incivility and we have a picture of today’s society from an ethical perspective.

Can we turn it around? I don’t believe so. The first step in changing one’s behavior is to acknowledge there is a problem. Since most in society don’t see it that way, we are far away from becoming a more ethical, civil society.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 22, 2015. Professor Mintz teaches in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: www.ethicssage.com.

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