Don’t Let Employees Reach Their Boiling Point

Yelling, abuse and disrespect — these behaviors are becoming more commonplace in the work environment, contributing to a culture of incivility, which may lead to decreased engagement and high turnover rates.

Thirty-eight percent of American workers say the workplace has become more uncivil and disrespectful compared to a few years ago, according to a June 2011 study by KRC Research titled “Civility in America.”

“There’s a real psychological depression out there that is impacting how people are responding to each other,” said Jeff Cohen, executive coaching expert and founder of J M Cohen Associates. Discouragement and desperation that emerged as a byproduct of the unstable business environment combined with new trends in social interaction appear to be taking a toll on corporate communication.

Stress and unhappiness — much of it pertaining to the economy — are uncommonly high amongst workers today, and it is beginning to affect employee culture. “People are becoming more fearful for their jobs, even panicky, and when things go awry they do one of two things: They pull into their shell or they start lashing out at other folks,” Cohen said.

Technology may also be partly to blame for the deteriorating state of communication today. Meg Clara, director of recruiting and human resources at Caiman Consulting, criticized the disruptiveness of electronic communication such as texts and emails in forming personal and professional relationships. By conducting conversations through devices, workers lose out on person-to-person interaction and the etiquette that goes with it.

As a society we are forgetting the importance of looking each other in the eye when we speak, and old-fashioned courtesy has all but become a thing of the past. This trend is resulting not just in more frequent occurrences of disrespect, yelling, underhandedness and abuse in the workplace, but also decreased productivity and higher turnover.

In January, Harvard Business Review reported that half of employees who encountered instances of incivility at work intentionally decreased their efforts. The article also showed more than a third of them decreased the quality of their work.

Competent workers who have suffered abuse or disrespect in the workplace don’t feel the need to stick around, Cohen said.

Since employee engagement, performance and retention are at stake, talent managers ought to consider the following tips to defuse the situation lest things get out of hand.

1. Introduce consequences. Disrespect amongst employees and even employers is often overlooked and typically goes unpunished. Treating incivility with aggressive discipline similar to the way sexual harassment is addressed will help workers realize that it is unacceptable, Cohen said.

2. Use training to change behavior. “People need to realize that they are acting in an offensive way … they feel very disconnected from their jobs; they feel anonymous, they become passive, and when things go off kilter they respond without thinking,” Cohen said. When workers encounter high-tension situations, they may act in ways they’ve never acted before. Training, including workshops and one-on-one counseling sessions with executives, can go a long way toward creating behavioral change.

3. Preventing is better than curing. Clara said Caiman Consulting deals with incivility by rooting it out from the start. The company’s core value of courtesy plays a big role in deciding who gets a place in its ranks. In the same way, employers should consider their culture and values as early as the hiring stage.

The revival of courtesy in the workplace is still in its early stages, but it may go a long way to building a more engaged and productive workforce.

Mohini Kundu is an editorial intern at Talent Management magazine. She can be reached at