Many Americans believe incivility in the country has risen to crisis levels. Companies today have the capacity to be a haven from the incivility that individuals confront every day, on the road, online, in the media, and in politics. The workplace is where employees with diverse backgrounds and opinions can come together to pursue shared objectives unencumbered by the divides and tensions that exist elsewhere. How should companies go about creating a work environment that makes employees feel safe? For starters, they must lead by example, open up opportunities for discussion and communicate policies and rules around civility at work.
After the heated rhetoric of last November’s U.S. presidential election, Interpublic (IPG), my company’s parent corporation, held its first open call for employees to talk about concerns related to respect in the workplace. IPG wanted to reinforce its commitment to inclusion. People called in anonymously from five continents. What struck me most was how many people talked about feeling unsafe as a result of the political atmosphere. One employee in Omaha, Nebraska, described commuting on the bus while being buffeted by political disagreements. All she could think was: “I can’t wait to get to work.”
Companies today have the capacity to be a haven from the incivility that individuals confront every day, on the road, online, in the media, and in politics. It is where employees with diverse backgrounds and opinions can work together to pursue shared objectives, unencumbered by the divides and tensions that exist elsewhere. And for society and democracy at large, the workplace might just be the one institution that incubates a more constructive way of bringing people together. A recent survey on easing racial tensions at work by the Center for Talent Innovation found that “The workplace is one of few settings where we commonly interact across racial and ethnic lines.”
Although the workplace is not perfect — one-quarter of the 1,126 American respondents in our latest Civility in America survey have quit a job because of its uncivil environment — 86% of our employed respondents described their workplaces as civil and respectful. Sixty-three percent also reported that people are more civil at work than outside of it.
Since 2010 Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, in partnership with KRC Research, have tracked Americans’ perceptions of civility in various aspects of life, including work. The results show a severe and growing civility deficit. Three-quarters of respondents to our survey now believe incivility in America has risen to crisis levels. Nearly all of them reported that the greatest repercussions of incivility are intimidation and harassment (89% each) and violence and discrimination (88% each). Such incivility threatens the very roots of democracy.
Companies are perfectly positioned to promote themselves as havens for civility and respect. However, they must understand civility in the broadest possible sense: as encompassing diversity and inclusion and respecting rather than inflaming difference. Much of the evidence indicates that employees want this. Another survey we conducted found that nearly half of our employed Millennial respondents evaluated potential employers on their reputations for diversity and inclusion.
How should companies go about creating a work environment that makes employees feel safe from the uncivil edges of so much of contemporary life? Here are some suggestions:
Lead by example. The refuge company does not avoid controversy. Rather, it takes a stand even on contentious issues if they are consistent with company principles. Today’s employees seek work not only to make a living but also to achieve meaningful social goals. And a growing number of CEOs and chairs are taking positions on political and social issues. The best, like Tim Cook of Apple and Howard Schultz of Starbucks, do so not as political freelancers but in a manner that is consistent with their company’s core values. Employees are able to internalize these values more deeply as a result. Additionally, nearly 175 executives recently launched CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, the first CEO-led, and largest ever, commitment to cultivate a trusting and safe environment where all ideas and dialogue are welcomed and where employees feel comfortable discussing race and inclusion amid a flood of escalating tensions.
Make work safe for discussion and conflict. Good corporate leaders know the importance of embracing diverging viewpoints and making the workplace safe for raising concerns and even disagreement. Pharmaceutical company Lilly has said, “Many tragic world events have shaken our employees, making it difficult for them to bring their full selves to work. We want people to feel safe talking about these incidents at work, focusing on how we can support and understand each other.” Prompted in 2015 by fatal police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities, the company now holds “Can We Talk?” sessions, which are discussions where employees from different levels and backgrounds can engage honestly on controversial topics. For example, employees of Middle Eastern descent recently talked about their feelings in a panel discussion on the current political environment in the U.S. and worldwide.
Employees also need to feel comfortable voicing their opinions when they disagree on work-related issues. When Ursula Burns became CEO of Xerox, in 2009, she described how the Fortune 500 company suffered from “terminal niceness.” Burns said that “When we’re in the [Xerox] family, you don’t have to be as nice as when you’re outside of the family. I want us to stay civil and kind, but we have to be frank.” Managers should set the tone by encouraging people to speak up, teaching people how to have difficult conversations, and managing any disagreements on their teams.
Do not tolerate incivility. Approximately 40% of those who responded to our Civility in America survey said that they support employers who encourage employees to report incivility and who take responsibility for eliminating workplace incivility. Companies need to consistently and clearly communicate their principles, rules, and policies so that people know what behavior is expected and everyone can be held accountable. For instance, civility and respect is a core tenet of Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore. Based on the early learnings from the Hopkins Civility Initiative, launched in 1998 by P.M. Forni, the Center gives every new employee a laminated card with 10 tips on maintaining civil discourse and behavior at work. The Center says that civility in its workplace builds stronger, more productive teams that deliver the highest-quality health care to patients.
Take ownership of civility. Our survey findings revealed that politicians (75%), the internet and social media (69%), and the news media (59%) were viewed as the top perpetrators of incivility in America, while corporate America (31%) was at the bottom. Businesses should work hard to maintain this reputation. They should provide civility training along with existing programs that highlight the company’s ethics or teach workers how to prevent sexual harassment.
The benefits of being a refuge from incivility are myriad. These companies will attract better employees and loyal customers. They will offer the kind of workplace where people will breathe a sigh of relief upon arrival and be able to do their best work. And perhaps by ingraining the values and habits of decency and difference, these companies can help promote a more genuinely civil society.
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