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Choosing Civility

October 2018

By Apryl Motley

Addressing—and ultimately eliminating—incivility in the workplace is key in reducing financial and reputational risks that institutions face.

“We’re all adults, so let’s act like it.” Many of us have heard this expression or maybe even said it ourselves a time or two. Yet, maintaining a civil workplace is considerably more complex than this. Based on polls conducted with thousands of workers during a 14-year period, researchers Christine Porath and Christine Pearson of Washington, D.C.-based Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and Thunderbird School of Global Management, Glendale, Ariz., respectively, found that 98 percent reported experiencing uncivil behavior. 

Further, Porath and Pearson’s research indicated that when employees feel disrespected, about half deliberately decrease their effort or lower the quality of their work (Harvard Business Review, January/February 2013). That’s costly for any organization, including those in higher education. In fact, much of the dialogue about civility in the workplace originated within the context of higher education.

A Code of Decency

In the foreword to his best-selling book Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct (St. Martin’s Press, 2002), P.M. Forni, a professor of Italian literature at Johns Hopkins University since 1985, suggests that it is “essential to know about civility not as a philosophical abstraction but as a code of decency to be applied in everyday life.” In 1997, Forni co-founded and currently directs the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, an aggregation of academic and community outreach activities aimed at assessing the significance of civility, manners, and politeness in contemporary society. 

Why all the interest in civility? Perhaps, the answer lies in Forni’s twelfth rule of considerate conduct: Be agreeable. He writes, “In ordinary circumstances—at home, at work, at school, in traffic, at the grocery store, in a restaurant, at the mall, at the library, in church, on a bus, in a doctor’s office, or inside a crowded elevator—we can make a positive difference in the life of others (and in our own) by just being pleasant to them. One essential way of being pleasant is being agreeable.” 

Making a positive difference is the focus of many human resources professionals in higher education as they help their institutions foster civil workplace environments where “people feel like they can come to work as whole human beings and contribute,” says Katrina Di Gravio, director of organizational and human development (OHD) at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Almost 10 years ago, her department led the effort in developing the university’s Principles of Inclusivity (see sidebar, “Preparing Principles”) as well as a series of seven half-day workshops focusing on the topic. 

“As our campus became more international in terms of faculty, staff, and students, it became apparent that we didn’t have enough awareness of other cultures,” Di Gravio observes. And, unchecked, this lack of awareness could lead to conflict. “When people lack understanding, they tend to label people as ‘difficult’ when they’re just different,” Di Gravio notes. “We create these pictures in our minds, and we’re not always aware of our unconscious biases.”

 Annette Denny, who works with Di Gravio as a coordinator for OHD, adds, “If you begin to explore differences and become aware of biases, that opens the door to understanding other peoples’ perspectives.”

The philosophy behind one of Babson College’s core values (see sidebar, “At the Core”) is similar. The value of integrity reads in part, “Trust, respect, and civility bring out the best in people.” Theresa Holland, manager of talent acquisition at the Wellesley, Massachusetts-based college, confirms this is the case. At the same time, Holland acknowledges that whether it’s due to conflicting deadlines and priorities at the college or pressures from their home environments, “our employees are under stress.” To mitigate this, managers at Babson receive training in fostering a culture of appreciation and trust. “We want to be proactive in creating a work environment full of trust where people form caring relationships with their colleagues and problems don’t escalate,” Holland says. “Whether it’s a large-scale campus event or one person not aligned with our values, it causes problems.”

And when those problems arise, it’s essential to be prepared as K. Anja Wynne, chief human resources officer at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs (UCCS), knows from experience. “In the end, he came, he spoke, and he left,” is how Wynne sums up then candidate Donald Trump’s visit to her campus in July 2016, the day after accepting the Republican Party’s nomination. “His visit started a lot of dialogue around freedom of expression on campus,” she recalls. “We were hearing arguments on both sides of the issue, and we started to think about ways that we could respect all opinions in a safe environment. How could we handle a challenging, controversial situation in a civil manner?” 

According to her, UCCS decided to approach the situation as hosting a guest for the day. Volunteers set up parking and distributed water. “And we provided space for those who didn’t have tickets to the event, so that they could express their opposing opinions,” Wynne says. Her expectation is that given the right resources, UCCS employees will handle differences of opinion in the workplace just as civilly. “We’re giving people the tools to have a dialogue rather than a debate,” she explains. “We’re trying to make sure that we all know how to have tough conversations in a civil manner.”  

To emphasize the university’s commitment to civility, the University of Colorado’s leadership issued a statement on maintaining a safe, welcoming campus environment (see sidebar, “Making a Statement”), which reads in part: “We are committed to ensuring that CU remains a place where people of every race, gender, ethnicity, and political view are welcomed in the spirit of civility and treated with respect.”

Counting Consequences and Costs

Well-meaning values and principles aside, higher ed leaders are coming to the realization that allowing uncivil behavior on their campuses has the potential to be costly. According to a 2007 study published in the Academy of Management Journal, workplace incivility costs organizations $14,000 per employee because of lost productivity and work time. This negative financial impact is particularly evident to an institution’s human resources professionals.

“If incivility persists, it may have an impact on the institution’s reputation, which may cause difficulty in recruiting and retaining employees,” Di Gravio says. “There are also the costs associated with absenteeism and lack of engagement.”

From an HR perspective, the main cost associated with incivility is turnover. “When employees don’t stay, it costs us time and money,” Wynne says. “For example, as part of the hiring process, we build committees from across campus to evaluate job candidates, so it’s a resource-intensive undertaking.” 

Dealing with conflicts in the workplace is equally taxing on resources, especially if, as Denny notes, multiple staff people are involved in trying to resolve the situation. In their much cited Harvard Business Review article, “The Price of Incivility,” which draws from their book The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It (Portfolio Hardcover, 2009), Porath and Pearson reference a 2011 Accountemps study, which found that managers and executives at Fortune 1000 firms spend the equivalent of seven weeks per year “mending employee relationships and otherwise dealing with the aftermath of incivility.” At its most costly, incivility could result in legal action because attorneys are retained to bring resolution to a workplace conflict. 

Signing On for Solutions

Given its significant impact on financial and human resources, Porath and Pearson make a case for organizations taking action to monitor and manage incivility. Specifically, they suggest six strategies: (1) hire for civility, (2) teach civility, (3) create group norms, (4) reward good behavior, (5) penalize bad behavior, and (6) conduct post-departure interviews. 

Here’s a closer look at how the first three strategies in this framework are reflected in ongoing efforts to create civil workplaces on the campuses of UCCS, University of Waterloo, and Babson College. 

Hiring for the long haul. “Avoid bringing incivility into the workplace to begin with,” advise Porath and Pearson. UCCS’s Wynne echoes this sentiment. “To change your culture, you have to take a deep breath and focus on hiring correctly,” she says. “At a university, employees stay for years, so it’s a long-term commitment.”

As such, according to Wynne, the university is very intentional about recruiting diverse candidates based on a variety of criteria, including types of education or military background and documented disabilities. Assessment tools that test fit for culture may also be used during the hiring process. For instance, one of the cornerstones of UCCS’s culture is collaboration as evidenced by the pairing of faculty and staff to teach freshmen seminars. 

“The focus of the seminar is becoming a successful college student,” Wynne describes. “It gets both faculty and staff in the classroom with our students and shows them our diversity and how we interact with one another. The seminar sets a good tone for the incoming class of freshmen.”

In addition, there’s already built-in diversity in that the university’s workforce of a little over 3,000, inclusive of 1,800 faculty and staff and approximately 1,500 student workers, consists of three kinds of employees: faculty, staff, and staff employed by the state of Colorado. 

“We try to make sure that all their voices are heard,” Wynne says. “We don’t just let people behind desks make all the decisions. We make sure our shift and student workers have representation as well.”

“We’re getting better at practicing and modeling civil behavior,” she adds. “Overall, I am optimistic, but it’s hard work.”

Training toward inclusivity. “People can learn civility on the job,” assert Porath and Pearson. It’s in this spirit of teachability that the University of Waterloo developed its inclusivity training. “The committee that developed our Principles of Inclusivity decided that we needed to organize training,” Denny says, “so OHD was tasked with developing that training in consultation with staff and faculty experts.” The result was the Principles of Inclusivity certificate program: seven, half-day workshops that can be taken in any order except for the first (Principles of Inclusivity Introduction) and last (Inclusivity Capstone). The other five workshops address the meaning of inclusivity, inclusive communication, generational inclusivity, sexual orientation and gender identity, and accessible communities.

“Attendance is strongly recommended, but not mandatory,” Di Gravio says. “We didn’t want to create an I-have-to-go attitude versus I want to go.” However, the first workshop is part of the core training recommended for new employees, and completion of the series does serve as a competitive advantage internally. “We look for completion of the series as we consider staff for our leadership program,” Di Gravio notes, “and it’s becoming a preferred qualification for internal job openings.” As of March 2018, almost 50 percent of the university’s workforce had completed one or more workshops, 320 employees had completed the program and earned their certificates, and 91 percent of participants stated that they gained a new or different perspective after taking the workshops.

To gauge the effectiveness of the training, workshop participants are asked to complete a standard form and evaluate their level of understanding of inclusivity before and after the workshop. OHD also conducts one-day, one-week, and one-month follow-ups with them to continue the conversation about workplace inclusivity. In some instances, cohorts of employees have taken together the series of workshops and worked on special projects. “Each of them completes an online inclusivity feedback and reflection form,” Denny explains. “They set goals for themselves, and we follow up after 100 days to see how they’ve progressed toward their goals.”  

But, according to her, it’s the one-on-one conversations with employees that are the best reflection of the training’s effectiveness: “Through the stories that people share with us personally, we know that we are driving change, and departments are becoming more inclusive.”

Examining your expectations. “Start a dialogue with your team about expectations,” recommend Porath and Pearson. This conversation is well underway at Babson College. “If you know someone’s character and values and know him or her personally, it’s much easier to understand when he or she is having a bad day,” Holland says. “We’re always trying to encourage dialogue and the sharing of different perspectives in a healthy, productive setting.”

One example would be the Diversity Matters luncheon series, monthly brown-bag lunches where attendance is voluntary, and faculty and staff explore topics and share expertise with the aim of ensuring an inclusive campus for all. “When people go because they want to rather than being mandated to attend, they go in with a different perspective,” Holland observes, which is important to the overarching goal of facilitating opportunities for people to practice having difficult conversations. “If you teach people how to have the conversation, then it’s not a difficult one,” Holland says. “You remove the defensiveness and anger. And you might change people’s minds if they feel heard and valued.”

In a similar vein, Holland knows that senior leaders at the college value efforts toward fostering a civil workplace. Her department has set expectations of civility by establishing a partnership with senior leaders. “If we notice a pattern of high turnover in a certain area, we have the comfort of being able to approach the leader of that area and have a discussion based on facts, such as quotes from exit interviews,” she says. “Once leaders are made aware of the problem, they are very willing to take steps toward resolving it, such as when a dean let HR facilitate his departmental staff meeting and provide training on cultural competence.” 

Cultivating Conversations

In addition to the initiatives outlined thus far, providing structured and easily accessible avenues for employees to have conversations with one another and campus leaders has been crucial to maintaining civil workplaces on all three campuses (see sidebar, “Agreeing to Disagree”). “Your leaders need to walk the talk,” Di Gravio asserts. “They lead by example every time people see or hear them on campus. Their behavior has a trickle-down effect on the expectations that are set for everyone else.”

To provide a model for positive, civil interaction around contemporary topics, UCCS hosts the Just Talk series, monthly brown-bag lunches that students, staff, and faculty can attend together. Recent topics of discussion have included the #MeToo movement, prison arts, and firearm violence. In addition, this past semester, UCCS introduced “Giving Voice to Values,” a framework for promoting a higher level of integrity in education and the workplace pioneered by former Harvard Business School faculty member Mary C. Gentile, to facilitate the kinds of conversations necessary for maintaining a civil workplace. Launched by the Aspen Institute and the Yale School of Management, “Giving Voice to Values” is now housed and funded by Babson College where Gentile is a senior research scholar. 

In addition to formal programs such as this one, Babson also provides a means for employees to engage in more informal conversations through its employee resource groups (ERGs), which have been in place for more than five years. “They are totally employee-initiated,” Holland says. “Employees approach HR about hosting a group, and once a group is approved, there is an annual touchpoint to ensure the group adds value to our employee experience.” Recognized ERGs need to have one or all of the following as their focus: supporting diversity and inclusiveness at Babson, strengthening the college community, and/or supporting professional development and interactions. 

Of the eight groups currently in place, some are more active than others and generally focus on connecting employees with similar circumstances or life situations, such as caring for elderly parents, parenting special needs children, or balancing work and home life while pursuing an advanced degree. “The feeling of not being alone goes a long way,” Holland says. “Colleagues are a great resource for each other. The groups build empathy and provide an outlet for comfort, support, and advice. They set their own norms.” With the exception of funding quarterly luncheons for groups and checking in with them a few times a year, HR lets ERGs operate independently, which falls in line with Holland’s overall perspective on civility in the workplace: “The more champions that you have doing the work, the better. It’s not the job of HR to make sure that the community is civil. It’s everyone’s job on campus.” 

APRYL MOTLEY, Columbia, Md., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.


Related Topics
Diversity and InclusionHuman ResourcesLeadership

“It’s not the job of HR to make sure that the community is civil. It’s everyone’s job on campus.”

Theresa Holland, Babson College