Will civility destroy all the fun? (Guest Commentary)

On the contrary – it should mean more laughter, solidarity and participation

“This is one of those emails that you type to blow off steam and then erase as a ‘Boy, I better not say this’ moment.” 

So began a spirited message I received from an indvidual who recently participated in one of my workplace incivility training sessions.

He continued: “I am giving serious thought to writing my own book called The Case for Incivility. I fear that in our efforts to achieve civility in the workplace, we will remove common sense. Our halls will run silent. Our conversations will be contrite and disturbingly stale. Far worse, people will live in fear that what they say or do will make someone complain about them. Is this the civil workplace you envision?”

I was not surprised by this email — my guess is that HR professionals also may have at times encountered a visceral reaction to the notion of a civil and respectful workplace. 

Some folks are concerned about the death of fun, spontaneity and camaraderie. 

They are worried political correctness will sanitize the workplace and bring all these to their fatal demise, leaving behind robotic (and utterly boring) semi-human clones. Or that minor mortal mistakes will turn everyone into what one workshop participant once called “a walking HR bomb.”

Those juicy swear words 
The habitual use of foul language in the workplace is a related issue that also tends to elicit strong reactions at certain organizations. I encounter this at organizations where such language is commonplace. 

Here are some of the reasons people may give to explain this habit:

• “Our work is stressful — it’s a natural outlet.”

• “We act professionally with our clients but can let loose with one another.”

• “It’s an authentic expression of feelings. Those who don’t like it should get thicker skins.”

• “It’s just how we do things around here — it’s embedded in our workplace culture.”

• “I do it only with people whom I know are OK with it.”

• “After a frustrating interaction with a customer where I was patient and kind, I have to release steam.”

• “I know which lines not to cross. For example, I would never swear at someone.”

• “It’s always been like this in our industry.”

• “Management does it too.”

The real scoop
Here’s my take: Civility does not and should not mean corridors fall silent. On the contrary — it means there should be more laughter, solidarity and participation by all (rather than just, say, those who possess more social power or are crusty and sarcastic such that their colleagues are afraid to ever say anything that could spark their wrath). 

Surely we can have a fun and lively workplace that is still civil. Humour does not have to be at someone’s expense, friendships can thrive without excluding others, dissenting opinions can be shared without belittling or dismissing, and frustration can be expressed constructively without resorting to eye-rolling.

The civility and respect message is more about adhering to a set of basic dos and less about don’ts: Treat others as you would like to be treated. Play nice in the sandbox. Show regard. Be considerate in words and actions. Be open to feedback. 

Explore your blind spots to learn how you can do better. Apologize when you screw up. Develop a Teflon shield. Have a generous spirit and give people the benefit of the doubt. 

The civil workplace is not and will never be entirely void of incivility — after all, how could it be if it is filled with living human beings who, like you and me, inadvertently say or do the wrong thing from time to time? 

Rather, it is an environment in which everyone strives to be a decent and conscientious corporate citizen, a space where people do their best to be respectful, take responsibility for their mishaps and are open to feedback, and where they feel comfortable calling out others on their behaviour (constructively). 

Above all, it is a place where everyone strives to be a Real Human Being — someone who steps up, lifts up, speaks up and, yes, shuts up too.

As to the use of foul language: Indeed, organizations can vary, customers can be utterly frustrating, some jobs can be highly stressful and in some industries swearing is practically a rite of passage. And, let’s face it, using swear words can feel really good. They’re juicy, colourful and provide a satisfying outlet. Even the best of us will occasionally blurt out the wrong word at the wrong time. 

But let’s call a spade a spade: Using swear words is uncivil. It is considered bad manners in cultures and religions worldwide. 

My recommendation: Cut it out. Chances are that if your clients (customers, patients, stakeholders, funders — you name it) were to see what really goes on behind closed doors, they would lose faith in your brand. 

And chances are these behaviours contradict or at least erode each and every one of your organizational values. 

Extricating profanities from the workplace culture can be exceedingly difficult — you are working against deep-seated beliefs shared by a critical number of employees and managers. It may take time, gumption and lots of effort, but it’s worth it.

The case for a civil workplace is both strong and compelling. True, we have to be careful that the pendulum does not swing into the realm of paralyzing political correctness. 

But, from what I see, we have a far way to go before there’s a real danger of that happening. For now, let’s focus on stepping up civility and inclusion so everyone in the work environment can perform at their best because they feel safe and respected.

Sharone Bar-David is the Toronto-based author of  Trust Your Canary: Every Leader’s Guide to Taming Workplace Incivility and president of Bar-David Consulting, a firm specializing in creating civil work environments. She can be reached at [email protected].

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