Human Resources -- A Call For Civility

Dec. 21, 2004
It's time to restore dignity and respect in the workplace.

No one in manufacturing wants to talk about it for attribution. But many human resource managers say -- confidentially -- that respect in the workplace is at an all-time low and creating hellish morale and productivity problems. They see it every day, and not just when it manifests itself in tragedies such as the workplace shootings that become national news. HR managers cite incidents that reflect this increasingly hostile atmosphere. Two workers have a heated exchange during lunch at a restaurant seven miles away from the office, and the employee who drove returns to the office alone -- leaving his co-worker stranded. Or a worker, in full view of other employees and members of management, treats a visibly embarrassed worker like a child -- without any repercussions. Some suggest that such incidents are a reflection of the levels of stress in both society and the workplace. But Jerome Jewell, formerly a human resources executive at IBM Corp. and now president of Jewell Consulting Group, Denver, argues otherwise. If you compare stress today with that faced during the Great Depression, it might make "today's workplace stress look like child's play," he says. "Besides, increased stress . . . is not an excuse for increased workplace violence." Instead, he suggests that an erosion of dignity and respect in the workplace, fueled by years of downsizing, has made employees feel that management views them as an easily replaceable commodity. Jewell adds that he runs into a lot of people "who are afraid to be themselves at work . . . who feel that their every word and every step is being monitored . . . ." It's that fear, combined with a perceived lack of respect for their work contributions, that leads to the emotional outbursts so prevalent today, says Jewell. "We are afraid to talk to each other, and electronic communication has served as a buffer so people don't have to" -- until the outbursts. "We need to redefine dignity and respect and create an environment where people are comfortable looking their co-workers in the eye and talking to them." Unfortunately, except for a handful of enlightened companies, comfortable environments aren't the norm in today's manufacturing world. In a study conducted by Christine Pearson, research professor of management at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School, 100% of the people surveyed said that they felt they had been treated rudely, disrespectfully, or insensitively by a co-worker. They said they had been sent nasty and demeaning notes, been called names, had their credibility undermined or their expertise questioned, been excluded from meetings relevant to their work, and been shouted and yelled at. What's more, the study -- released in 1999 -- reveals that 78% of the respondents felt that such incivility has increased in the last 10 years. "Management has contributed to that rise . . . by not acting when there is improper behavior," asserts Jewell. "If I'm immature and ill-behaved, that's my problem. But if a company looks the other way, it's their problem" -- and one that affects the bottom line. Indeed, in Pearson's study, 53% of those surveyed said that they had lost work time worrying about a past or future confrontation with a fellow employee. Some 37% said such an incident caused them to reduce their commitment to the organization, while 28% said that they lost work time because they avoided the person involved in the confrontation. Also, 22% said they decreased their effort at work as a result. "Companies have to stand up and do two things," says Jewell. "They have to recreate an atmosphere that demonstrates that they give a damn about workers, and they have to make it O.K. for employees to give a damn about each other, because it has become unfashionable, unpopular, and unhip to care about the person next to you." If they don't? "People will just come to work more frightened, more hesitant, and less creative," says one HR executive, "and the problem will worsen." Senior Editor Michael A. Verespej covers human resources issues for IW.

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