Viewpoint -- Mailbag Holds The Pleas Of The Downtrodden

Dec. 21, 2004
Reader response proves that civility is the exception not the rule in most workplaces.

When I wrote about the growing amount of incivility in the workplace in my human resources column last month (A Call For Civility, Feb. 12, 2001) I expected no one to prove me wrong and take me to task for espousing such a negative view. What I didn't expect was detailed responses of the lack of respect so many readers have experienced or witnessed in their work environments. One manager, for example, says that her attempts to create respect in the workplace are negated by a plant manager that yells, throws parts, and curses at employees. Another tells me that it's a constant struggle to get employees even to play nicely together. Others write how there are weekly, if not daily confrontations between employees that are ignored by management. "How can morale be lifted when the group leader does whatever she pleases [and can] make my life pure hell in the workplace," writes another reader. "I have told [the] second-in-command numerous times, but nothing has been done." Another individual, a human-resources professional with over 30 years of experience in the global workplace, spoke of how she has witnessed over the years an "ever-decreasing quality of behavior . . . at every level of HR activity. A dangerously high percentage . . . behave rudely and often with deliberate malice or unkindness toward job seekers, vendors, lower level employees, temps, and others they perceived as second-class or whose feelings they felt safe in ignoring. The worst of them . . . at least set the stage for anger and sometimes theft or even physical violence." It would be easy to dismiss such stories as grousing from disgruntled employees -- except for one thing. Nearly everyone wanted advice on how to change the situation. "How do I approach this problem and get it resolved?" asks one reader. "Can you recommend any books that would help cope?" inquires another. I'm not a consultant, nor an expert on human behavior. But it seems to me that the incivility surfacing in the workplace, as one of our readers writes, is "an overflow of sometimes deep and/or unsolved emotional issues" as well as a reflection of a society "on a downward spiral as far as our standards and values are concerned." So, in my view, a return to civility in the workplace can only begin if each of us, as one corporate vice president writes, "resolves to do everything in our power to humanize" the forces -- including the "general coarsening of American society" -- that affect us everyday. "We must rise above all of these forces and recognize that virtue is its own reward. We must do this as individuals one at a time. Perhaps civility will return to our society at some time, but I'm not prepared to wait that long." Neither am I. So let's start with the little things: common courtesies. Let's treat others the way we ourselves would want to be treated. Ask yourself how you'd react if a camera broadcast your workplace behavior to the world, or if it was described in detail in a newspaper or magazine. Remember that all of us can -- and will -- make mistakes. So let's help our co-workers who have work or home-related problems instead of leaving them to flounder on their own. All of us are pressed for time. With 5 million more double-income households today than 12 years ago, a lot of things are falling through the cracks. It's up to us to make incivility the exception in the workplace, rather than letting it ruin our society and run our workplaces. Cleveland-based Senior Editor Michael A. Verespej covers human-resources issues for IndustryWeek.

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