Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Miss manners? Workplace civility is on the wane

Employees committing all kinds of cubicle crimes

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Move over, Casual Fridays. Make way for Rude Mondays, Inconsiderate Tuesdays, Clueless Wednesdays and Gross-out Thursdays.

Apparently it's not just workplace dress codes that have gotten a little loosey-goosey in recent years. There's mounting evidence that good manners are also going the way of the fax machine.

In fact, the results of a recent survey by the world's largest specialized staffing firm where employees were asked to recount the "worst or wackiest" etiquette blunders they've witnessed in the workplace suggest cubicle farms are living up to their name.

Colleagues clipping fingernails at their desks, walking around barefoot, stealing each other's lunches, throwing tantrums, cussing within customers' earshot, forwarding inappropriate emails and photos, using their cellphones in the bathroom, purposely sneezing into the boss's coffee cup...

The anecdotes shared by survey respondents prompted Robert Half International, which has more than 400 locations worldwide, to produce a series of light-hearted cautionary videos titled Don't Let This Happen To You about the career-limiting (or -ending) potential of unprofessional, and just downright bad, behaviour.

The videos show office workers napping at their desk, laughing out loud while messaging on Facebook, stealing a clearly marked cupcake out of the communal fridge, making fun of clients and committing other faux pas that experts say can chip away at an employee's reputation.

"You always want to put your best foot forward, and if you're repeatedly committing these etiquette offences, it may show that you lack professionalism and common courtesy," says Tammy Boyko, branch manager for Robert Half International's Winnipeg operations.

The digital age has plenty of danger zones. Many of the most common etiquette breaches involve technology, says Boyko, such as spending too much time on Facebook at work or texting or taking calls on your Blackberry or iPhone in the middle of a meeting -- which is inappropriate whether it's work-related or not.

"In this day and age of Twitter and Facebook, you need to keep your work and your personal life very separate, and especially do not put anything negative about co-workers or customers out there."

As for matters of hygiene and grooming, Boyko says some people need to remember it's called "personal" care for a reason.

Never mind clipping your nails, even filing them in public can be considered rude. Just because you spend eight hours (at least) a day with your co-workers does not mean the relationship is an intimate one. Bodily functions should not be public events.

Grossing out your colleagues by making yourself a little too much at home at work is a far cry from workplace harassment or bullying, but some say a lack of consideration and basic manners is the thin edge of the wedge, and that workplace incivility is an under-reported problem that is only increasing in these tough economic times.

Many of us have become so accustomed to it, in fact, that boorish behaviour in the workplace goes by unnoticed, or doesn't even seem that rude anymore, says Lew Bayer, president and CEO of Winnipeg-based Civility Experts Worldwide.

"Our research shows that people are so tired and busy and stressed that they're picking their battles when it comes to rudeness," she says. "They might not say anything about sloppy dress or bad breath, but take a stand about rudeness that shows disrespect for time or for property -- wasting paper, keeping people waiting, spending 40 minutes in a meeting that should've taken 15, borrowing things without asking, returning items in a state of disrepair, using someone else's intellectual property."

There seems to be a shift toward holding people accountable when their rudeness impacts others long-term, Bayer says.

"It's like, I can walk away from your body odour, but I can't get back the nine minutes of my life that you wasted keeping me on hold."

In their 2009 book The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What To Do About It, authors Christine Pearson and Christine Porath, both American business professors, say the problem of incivility in the workplace has been compounded by our increasing tolerance of nasty behaviour as a culture.

Based on a decade of research about workplace incivility, they concluded that petty incidences of workplace rudeness are exacting a "staggering economic toll," but that few business leaders know how to tackle the problem. In the book, they cite a 2005 Gallup poll where an astonishing 95 per cent of workers reported experiencing incivility from their co-workers.

People who experienced incivility were "affected deeply," they write, and "intentionally lowered their productivity, cut back work hours, lost respect for their bosses, put in minimal acceptable effort, and sometimes even left their jobs -- all because of disrespectful words or deeds."

The authors admit they initially wondered whether a "me-first" attitude on the part of some American workers might have skewered their perspectives, so they also gathered data north of the border. What they found, in fact, was that workplace experiences reported by Canadians were even worse -- fully 99 per cent of white-collar employees surveyed said they had witnessed incivility at work. One in four reported seeing it occur between colleagues on a daily basis.

When people are consistently rude, it's important to call them on it, says Bayer. If the issue is common courtesy, co-workers can usually address it themselves, she says, but if it involves actions potentially perceived as bullying or harassment, it's a good idea to get a third party, maybe someone from human resources, involved.

Management, meanwhile, should regularly review and update codes of conduct to ensure guidelines conform with current social, business and cultural trends, Bayer says.

"Although it takes a bit of time and money, it's usually far less expensive to train people how to be respectful, exercise best practices for civility at work and build effective communication than it is to pay -- for lawyers, low retention and poor service -- after the fact."

carolin.vesely@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 29, 2011 D1

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