Can workplace civility reduce harassment claims? Yes, but expect discomfort.

Employees Talk – Managing Workplace Gossip
October 17, 2018

Can workplace civility reduce harassment claims? Yes, but expect discomfort.


Accountemps found in a 2017 study that CFO executives felt sidetracked on average about 15% of their time negotiating peace among staff member versus the time they could better spend on negotiating business deals.  Additional studies reveal similar results across industries and sectors.  Envision a week in which leaders and HR professionals spend less time as mediators.

As an EEO complaint investigator and mediator, I can tell you, much of the disruptive conflict is attributed to feelings of disrespect and how people treat each other.  Are we to the point where doing nothing to curb uncivil behavior is worse than the discomfort of doing something?  I think so, –and employer leaders and HR professionals are getting the message.

Civility training is popping up all over in public and private sector workplaces.  EEOC endorsed civility training following the findings of the 2016 “Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace.” In the study, co-chaired by former EEOC Acting commissioner Victoria Lipnic and former commission member Chai Feldblum, it was concluded that companies were focusing more of their time on staying out of trouble versus infiltrating skills that prioritized a more civil and respectful workplace.   Christine Porath, a leader in workplace civility research, contends employees are increasingly feeling the wrath of uncivil behaviors where they spend a large portion of their week. Employers are increasingly feeling the need to do something to reverse that trend.

Let’s face it, the real discomfort in creating the civil and respectful workplace is confronting the rude and disrespectful jerk/s.  It’s uncomfortable, and it makes our hearts race at increasing speeds. We all know who this person is, or at least, who it is to us.  People often take the survival option and retreat by ignoring and avoiding.  This option can be particularly when the perpetrator is a top producer or top executive, referred to as “the superstar harasser,” in a 2018 Harvard Business Review article, authored by Lipnic and Chai.  The problem with the retreat decision is the behavior does not go away and soon becomes woven into the fabric of the organization.

With newfound engaging workplace skills for addressing uncivil behavior, another problem is emerging that we can’t ignore.  The person with the rude and disrespectful behavior that we now feel compelled to approach, after we’ve ignored and avoided for so long, is suddenly feeling they are harassed.  I know because my colleagues and I have seen the increase in harassment charges coming forward when they file EEO discrimination complaints.  I get it.  They haven’t changed.  The same behavior they are now more directly scrutinized is the same behavior that worked for them in the past, –when many chose to ignore or avoid.  It was the survivalist choice, so you thought, –particularly when the perpetrator was a “superstar.”

Where you might start

Understand, this blog is not about pouncing on the “jerk” and/or the “superstar.”  It is about understanding there are two sides to the coin, and the perpetrator can come with many great characteristics and traits with flaws and challenges.  Understand, since none of us are perfect, we may be the perpetrator in the mind of someone else.  Our diverse backgrounds and experiences define civil and respectful behavior for us.  It might be different for the next person.  As difficult as conversations may be, frequent, timely, and candid discussions are paramount for creating the civil and respectful culture, we all desire.

If you’ve had civility training and feel empowered to move forward with the serious discussion you know is long past due, I say consider a few things before you act.

  1. Start with the self-assessment and organizational assessment. Make no mistake.  Creating a civil workplace must start with support from the top executive level, followed by every level in between on down to entry level.  A civil workplace doesn’t just happen.  It must be defined and demonstrated.  Start with an assessment by asking a few questions to envision what civility looks like for the organization and to you as an individual.  Do you see gaps and/or inconsistent practices?

If the assessment reveals organizational gaps, compare the patterns and practices that define where you currently are to the practices and organizational held beliefs you desire.  The information gathered is a useful tool for leadership and HR professionals to set and re-emphasize the cultural tone.   Start a formal communication campaign to ensure everyone is on the same page.  The gathered data is the leadership opportunity to:

    • affirmatively appreciate the desirable organizational practices and beliefs currently in practice,
    • identify current undesirable practices,
    • and introduce new desired behavior practices that may be necessary to address due to the onset of modern technology, social media, and “coarse social discourse outside the workplace.”

Addressing subtle and undercover unwanted behaviors may not be easy.  The behaviors may not be as clear cut as those described and outlined in HR policies, yet they can be the exact thing, when left untouched, to unravel a team.  It is great when organizations have HR policies in place to guide behavior and even better when they have written a mission, vision, and value statement.  What seems to be missing is consistent practice and accountability to the desired behaviors.

  1. Examine your organizational culture of accountability. Accountability to practice what is preached is where some organizations fall short.  Not everyone is held to the same accountability to the ascribed culture of civility and morality.  People notice and the hypocrisy underhandedly stalls the organization’s efforts to move forward.

When team members are accountable to a clearly defined and demonstrated culture of civility, the difficult conversation we talked about earlier becomes less daunting and possibly less frequent.  In fact, you may start to see people self-correct themselves and even peer pressure stepping in to assist.   Imagine a culture in which civility is the mindset used when addressing conflict and differences!

Take it a step further

  1. Be part of the solution by demonstrating your commitment to a civil organization through your behavior when having difficult discussions. Be mindful to leave a person with dignity at the end of the conversation.

To advantage yourself towards a successful outcome, try practicing in front of a mirror or recording yourself to examine how your choice of words and expressions may come across.  Ask yourself the following question?

    • Am I genuine? – Do I truly care, and am I focusing on the behavior while not attacking the character of the person?
    • Is my timing, right? – Are you selecting the best time of day for the discussion? It seems we hear that most people have difficult discussions in the afternoon or end of the workday.  The afternoons may not be the best timing for difficult discussions, particularly between the hours of 2 pm – 4 pm according to Daniel Pink in his latest book, “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.” The timing could also include how close the discussion is to a specific unacceptable behavior that needs addressing.  Did I just observe this behavior, or is this a behavior I observed six months ago, and it has taken me this long to say something?  The approach should be different depending on the circumstance.  If it is a recent behavioral issue, it will be fresh on both minds when conversing and easier to use discussion skills to move forward.  If this is an issue that happened months ago, there needs to be some accountability as to what took so long to bring it to the person’s attention.If the conversation is immediately following the unacceptable behavior, the question becomes, should you address the perpetrator on the spot in front of others or privately behind closed doors?  It depends.  My advice is if the unacceptable behavior happens in public, it should be addressed in public, but with civility and respect that leaves the person with dignity.   The challenge with leaders not addressing the behavior publicly is it can leave witnesses with the impression that the behavior is acceptable.  Witnesses who later go on to share their story with others, thus the beginning of creating an undesirable culture.If the behavior is egregious and clearly against HR defined acceptable conduct, address the behavior according to policy guidelines.On the other side, if the unacceptable behavior is not public and more subtle, it might be best to address in private.  But again, as soon as possible to when the behavior is observed or brought to the attention of HR and/or leadership.
    • Am I accountable? – If you know, this is an overdue conversation because you ignored the behavior previously, be vulnerable and admit your apprehension, if that is the case. Policy and red tape could be another reason for the delay.  Acknowledge you tolerated the behavior in the past, but from this point forward, you expect the behavior to stop.  Be mindful that you may run into problems if the unacceptable behavior you are addressing is a behavior that seems readily acceptable among others who are “favored.”
    • Will the person be left with dignity? – The conversation should not disrespect or humiliate a person whom you believe has been disrespectful and humiliating to others. You are not there to give a person “a dose of their own medicine.”  Stick to the issues and effects of the behavior and move forward.   Keep in mind, the “praise sandwich” is not always the answer.  According to researchers discussed in Pink’s book, mentioned earlier, roughly four out of five people prefer you get to the point with the “bad” news first.  However, we tend to do the reverse. When leading a difficult discussion, the “praise sandwich” is most comfortable.
  1. Promote universal courtesies like greetings when you encounter a team member, and frequently please and thank you. They go a long way.  Chick-fil-A recently hit the headlines with “CHICK-FIL-A IS BEATING EVERY COMPETITOR BY TRAINING WORKERS TO SAY ‘PLEASE’ AND ‘THANK YOU.”  These common courtesies are as old as anyone can remember.  It might be the magic for creating a respectful workplace, and Chick-Fil-A seems to connect the courtesy to increased business revenue.  In a 2016 blog by Kristen Oganowski entitled “7 Skills Kids Should Master by College (and Even Preschool),” she listed saying please and thank you as # 1 on the list.  Due to my experience in working with organizational conflict, I adapted the list title to say, “7 Skills Adults Should Master Before Entering the Workplace!”  Several of my clients agreed and created a poster of the seven skills that they visibly placed in the employee break room.

The verdict is not out just yet on whether creating more civil organizations in the workplace will change things, and EEOC will see a decrease in harassment complaints, but it is certainly worth a try.  You have to decide if it is worth the discomfort in getting there.

Sharon Harrington.  She assists organizations in navigating conflict by helping to build skills that embrace prevention measures and create empowering environments that support self-mediation.  She is a learning professional who has spent over 25 years, tackling tough issues surrounding charges of unfair treatment in the workplace that reach the attention EEOC.

Sharon E. Harrington, MA, CPLP
Amediate, LLC

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