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Let’s talk workplace incivility

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Last week, I traveled to York University to give a lecture on workplace incivility to students in the Human Resources Management program. Other than marveling at some of the new buildings on my old university campus, I was also surprised by the discussion that was occurring in the classroom about incivility.

The solutions that these students were coming up with to deal with workplace incivility were both innovative, and encouraging.  Despite the diversity of the solutions, the common thread was prevention. In other words, what are some of the root causes of incivility, and how can HR and business leaders prevent incivility before it turns into harassment, bullying, violence, and conduct requiring discipline?

As with many other employment law issues, there is no one formulaic answer, and each case and workplace has its own unique circumstances. However, here are the top steps that HR and management can take in addressing workplace incivility:

  • Take a position on incivility and make sure your employees knows about it: This “position” is often embedded in the policy on workplace harassment and violence, wherein the employer guarantees a workplace free of harassment and violence, outlines its definitions of both, and sets out how harassment and violence complaints will be addressed. When I asked the students, all of whom were also employed elsewhere, if they had such a policy in their workplaces, the dominant response was “I don’t know.” Creating the policy (or taking a position) is just the first step, but the necessary (and perhaps more critical) second step is informing your employees of your position, the avenues that exist when they need to make a complaint, or the consequences for a breach.  A policy, and instruction on that policy, is also required under what is commonly referred to as Bill 168 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
  • Be consistent: The students at the lecture honed in on one of the common pitfalls when it comes to addressing any form of misconduct – including workplace incivility: lack of consistency. One student shared a story whereby the manager would disregard the complaints of his employees as they related to an employee with whom he was friends. Due to the lack of consistency, the bullying employee was allowed to breach the workplace harassment policies, leading some complainants to respond with overt retaliation. As the student noted, had the manager enforced the policy against all employees, the retaliations could have been prevented.
  • Build in coaching and confidence into the workplace: A rather refreshing response from the students was their insistence on the role of coaching in addressing workplace incivility. A recent study found that the lack of support and coaching often makes victims of incivility feel more isolated, has severe emotional effects, and can prompt further incivility through retaliation. While a manager, HR or dedicated workplace coach can provide this coaching, what matters is that there is an outlet to employees when they are troubled by incivility.

The costs of incivility have been addressed by previous posts, and confirmed by various studies. What made the lecture last week innovative was that the students did not need to be convinced that this was a problem. Instead, they were looking forward in search of solutions.

Parisa Nikfarjam