Ethics and civility

4434656921_5f74e0057f.jpgEthics and civility go hand in hand. In fact, civility is a foundation for ethical behavior. But we live in a world where incivility is becoming the norm. Look at the “comment” section of any Internet news site, and you won’t disagree. That needs to change.

But what can higher education do? Can they teach us to be more civil? More ethical? And what is the real cost? Will higher education instigate this societal change if they practice it, cherish it and model it? This spring JMU adopted a Quality Enhancement Plan, The Madison Collaborative: Ethical Reasoning in Action, that will begin to alter the perspective for students, honing their ethical aptitudes. When they graduate, they will be better equipped to implement positive change in the offices, organizations and institutions where they land. They will be, we hope, ethical and civil.

This morning, in a post on his blog, Shaeffer’s ForaysJMU Associate Vice Provost for Outreach and Engagement Jim Shaeffer discussed civility — and the lack thereof. Jim makes some excellent points, chief among them is that civility starts with “me.”

The Price of Incivility

By Jim Shaeffer, Associate Vice Provost for Outreach and Engagement 
Jim Shaeffer

Jim Shaeffer

I’ve been trying to catch up on my reading lately, and being on a train for five hours is a great place to do it.  An article out of the Jan-Feb 2013 Harvard Business Review caught my eye, because I believe the content is extremely timely.  The article, “The price of incivility: Lack of respect hurts morale and the bottom line,” by Christine Porath and Christine Pearson, not only shows that incivility is rampant in the work place, but also that it negatively impacts the bottom line.

I imagine we’ve all witnessed incivility, or been on the receiving side of it, or — worse yet –been guilty of it. I’ll come clean on this one, I recently learned that an off-handed response I made sent the wrong signal, but luckily I had the chance to mend fences.

Porath & Pearson report the depressing statistic that over the past 14 years, 98% of workers surveyed reported experiencing uncivil behavior. Even more shocking is that half of them indicated that they experience incivility at least once a week.

I found that incivility can come in many forms; sometimes it’s even in ways that are unintended but still rude behavior. One of my great pet peeves is when you enter an office and no one looks up and asks, “Can I help you?” Yes, it’s a best practice in customer service to greet people who are visiting your place of business and offer your help. But for heaven’s sake, it’s simply good manners to greet people! (You may have noticed that I feel strongly about this one.)  I know sometimes this can be difficult because we are already multitasking, possibly on the phone but still a quick gesture of “I will be with you shortly” goes a long way.

Another place I see incivility are in meetings where people talk over others. They don’t let others finish their thoughts, points, or ideas.  If this happens often enough, someone would understandably just stop trying to contribute to the conversation and thus possibly impacting productivity.  This is one area where as a leader we can intercede and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to contribute, which may require asking others to hold their thought until the other person has finished.

Porath & Pearson also reminded me that “incivility can take much more subtle forms, and it is often prompted by thoughtlessness rather than actual malice. Think of the manager who sends e-mails during a presentation, or the boss who ‘teases’ direct reports in ways that sting, or the team leader who takes credit for good news but points a finger at team members when some-thing goes wrong.”

Oh man, I can be guilty of checking my email in meetings. Even worse, I’ve responded to them while in the meeting. Looking back, this is just rude behavior.  As I think about it, reading and responding to email while in meetings is the same as taking a phone call during the meeting.  We just wouldn’t do that.  One of MY worst offenses in this area was when I was having lunch with colleagues and I spent more time checking email instead of being part of the conversation.  So I gave myself a lecture and reminded myself of the importance of active listening.

Rude behavior can be very expensive.  Porath & Pearson report that employees who are exposed to rude behavior become less creative, may produce lower quality work, feel a loss of commitment to the organization, and (most damaging) take out their frustrations on customers.  And let’s face it: it only takes one bad experience and we could lose a customer forever.  From a customer’s point of view, another pet peeve of mine is when employees spend their time complaining about their jobs when they are serving me. The worst offense is when I see a supervisor reprimand an employee in front of customers.

So what can a leader do to minimize and hopefully end incivility in their organization? The authors suggest a number of things, the first being that as leaders we need to model civil behavior.  This obviously includes not being rude to your team, and it includes respecting the team by being engaged in meetings as compared to checking emails.  It means honoring the ideas of others and it means giving credit where credit is due.

One of the ways of checking up on yourself the authors suggest (and I strongly support) is asking for feedback.  Not everyone on your team will feel comfortable giving feedback to the boss but hopefully there is someone in your organization that has your trust and will provide feedback.

There are also a number of things that leaders can do assist the organization in minimizing incivility.  One of them mentioned by the authors is create norms for behavior.  One of the things I learned and borrowed from one of my mentors is that in each organization I’ve been involved with, not only do we establish a mission and vision, but also shared values.  Our values for Outreach & Engagement include things like honoring the ideas of others, treating everyone with dignity and respect, creating an enjoyable work atmosphere, and recognizing the value that every employee brings to our unit.  It is not only important to establish these values but it is important to revisit them periodically. One thing that I do is review them with new employees, and I challenge them to hold me accountable for living up to these values.

There is little doubt that there are examples of incivility all around us — simply turn on the television and watch the news.  My goal first and foremost is to monitor my own behavior and model civil interactions.  And second, work with others in our organization to create a civil safe zone for our offices and for our customers.

Let’s face it, the bumper sticker has it right: “I Hate Mean People.”

To read more of Jim’s blog, you’ll find Shaeffer’s Forays at the embedded link. We appreciate Jim letting us share it.


About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

3 Responses to Ethics and civility

  1. grahammb says:

    Glad you liked it! I thought so too. It’s a good reminder for all of us, me included!


  2. Lynda Ramsey says:

    Thank you Martha and Jim for the friendly reminder to keep civility in the forfront of our lives. Kindness and fairness is key to enjoying work and play. Again, thank you.


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