Civil Behavior in the Workplace Starts with You

BY C. Lee Smith
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Most Americans would agree that we’re living in an increasingly uncivil society. Our incivility is now invading the workplace, and bad behavior is demoralizing managers and employees. If you want to do something about this negative trend, listen to what Christine Porath has to say. We recently interviewed Dr. Porath, an associate professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University and the author of Mastering Civility, a Manifesto for the Workplace, on a ManageSmarter podcast.


Porath suggests that managers increase awareness of their own civility. Managers often don’t realize that simply checking their phones during a one-​on-​one can be seen as rude. Porath urges managers “to ask people they work with about how they could improve their effectiveness. They should also ask which of their habits rub employees the wrong way.”

While they’re at it, managers should solicit feedback across the organization. Once you hear about how your habits and behaviors impact others, reflect on what was said. If people say you have a sharp tone in your email, think about how to change. For example, maybe you’ve been firing back responses to emails when you’ve been stressed. Are you always a bit stressed in the afternoons? If so, don’t respond to email until the morning, when you’re feeling energetic and positive.

Remember that uncivil behavior on the part of a manager can result in a big hit to the bottom line. Porath’s research shows that when managers act like their computers or phones are more important than anything else, employees react negatively. They:

  • Cut back on work effort: 66%
  • Worry about the incident: 80%
  • Leave the organization: 12%


Besides demonstrating their own commitment to civil behavior, managers should be on the lookout for employees who are rude and condescending. Some employees may act that way directly to their managers, while others are only rude to co-​workers. If you want to curtail this kind of behavior, pull the offending person aside for a private chat. Explain how their behavior is hurting company culture and their personal reputations.

Another path toward a civil workplace is to establish a formal policy. Your policy could address topics that frustrate team members. For example, employees should show up on time for work. They should behave courteously to everyone in meetings. And they should nip their other rude tendencies in the bud.

Managers must showcase their commitment to civil behavior if they want to see change in their workplace.