Mourning the Loss of Civility in the Workplace
Mourning the Loss of Civility in the Workplace

It’s hard to put my finger on a specific time that basic civility started to decline. I suppose we could blame the changes in the use of courtesy on many things. Technology replacing the personal touch has been one excuse, but it seems to be more than that. Is it apathy or something else? In general, people appear to be overloaded, overwhelmed and overstimulated. If that is the case, are we really living in an age where we give everyone a pass when they don’t behave with courtesy, respect and generally accepted civility? I hope not.

Freedom of speech is important and something we can all be grateful for. But disrespecting people and being blind to how our behavior or lack of action impacts others just isn’t OK. If it seems acceptable to anyone that the president of the United States sends rants via Twitter that contain blatant untruths/misrepresentations and attacks on people or groups that appear to be written by an 8-year-old, then I suppose not responding to email is a pretty minor offense. The issue with any bad behavior, when it is demonstrated over and over without any direct consequence, is that it becomes the norm.

Unresponsiveness leads to communication breakdowns and damages relationships.

It seems pretty obvious that anyone who walks through a doorway and allows a door to slam in the next person’s face either is unaware or simply lacks basic courtesy. Although technology snubs may not seem as obvious, it is as disrespectful to ignore requests for information from others or respond late when deadlines have been set to ensure a process is completed in a timely way as it is to let a door slam in someone’s face. Unresponsiveness leads to communication breakdowns and damages relationships. Communication breakdowns bring different problems when all involved parties are left guessing and interpreting instead of discussing a situation and coming to an understanding. It may not seem like much at the time when a call, text or email is ignored, but when this behavior continues, it can create hard feelings, disenfranchisement and estrangement and lead to a total shutdown of critical processes.

It is even more important to master communication skills in an era that involves so many mediums for relaying information. In casual circumstances, some courtesies can be replaced by emojis. In many other cases, especially in the workplace, it is still necessary to have productive conversations and meetings. Social media is one way of sharing information, but it isn’t a complete means for expressing ideas or concerns that would be better discussed face to face, or at least, voice to voice. Not all details should be related in a public forum. Politely asking to discuss a situation privately may lead to a better remedy than ranting via a tweet or Facebook post. If you have had difficulty getting what you need or have found that your workplace has lost a sense of civility, the following tips may help.

Acknowledge communications. It’s unreasonable to completely ignore someone without providing some information. It could be a simple “Got it. I’ll respond tomorrow.” Or you may need to let them know that you “will have the information by Friday” or that you “can talk in an hour.” It’s important to let the initiator know when you will be available or will have the information that is needed. In the past, I found that someone who had ignored repeated requests for information about a project we were working on did so because he was afraid to say he didn’t have the answer. I only found that out by asking if there was a reason he had ignored my repeated requests. The takeaway on that is that it is quite OK to let someone know you don’t have an answer and to let them know what you or they can do to find it and by when. Simply not responding doesn’t help anyone.

Act like your mama taught you to. Abbreviated communications still require courtesy, if only a simple “please” or “thank you.” It seems like both have fallen by the wayside. Omitting “please” turns a request into a demand, and there are probably few people who respond well to a demand. Omitting “thank you” implies so many things: you don’t respect someone’s time, you don’t appreciate having what they provided or, as is often the case, it’s assumed you never got the information, and the person ends up resending it. Simple courtesy can prevent a multitude of miscommunications. 

Ask for someone’s time. Interrupting people while they are engrossed in something else is simply bad manners. Assuming anyone you want to speak with should be at your beck and call is unreasonable. Unless your butt is on fire and you need an extinguisher, most things can wait a few minutes, hours or even days. Ask when it would be convenient to discuss what you need and set a time that works.

Prepare for meetings. Plan what you need to share or get out of a discussion. Prepare an agenda so others are aware of what is to be covered. Plan to meet at an agreed-upon time to ensure you have the best shot at getting a desirable outcome. Cramming in meetings because someone’s schedule appears to be open is not necessarily the best time to get what you need if it is a complicated discussion. Prepare any materials that may help you express your point or assist others in making a decision and have them ready before the meeting. 

Stop acting like you are the only busy person on the planet. I have worked with candidates and employers for more than 25 years. Of my own interactions, or through my clients’ reported experiences, recruiters and HR probably rank the highest on my list for consistently behaving in a discourteous way. It’s more likely that recruiters and HR (internal or external) will not return a call or email unless they have something to gain. What they don’t see is that they are the face of the company. They could make every experience a win-win by simply responding. What they have to gain is a good/loyal employee or customer just from the person having a positive experience. It’s a lose-lose experience when they are discourteous to current employees or potential employees.

The reality many people face is that candidates take literally hours out of their days to prepare, then take unpaid time off to interview. They have invested as much, if not more, time than the recruiter who started the process. It’s unreasonable that employers don’t even send a perfunctory “we’ve decided to pursue candidates whose skills more closely match our needs.” Many times there is simply no response. Zip. Nada. Zero. In the instance of existing employees who contact HR, I’ve seen calls/emails go completely unanswered or returned weeks later. I think we can bet that if someone has an issue that is serious enough to prompt a call or email to HR, an acknowledgement is the least they expect to get.

Everyone’s busy. Ignoring communications or letting your voicemail fill up until it can’t retain another message is simply unacceptable. If you are out of the office, then leave that information so someone knows why you are not responding. Provide an alternative contact if possible. If you continue to ignore people, don’t expect them to say nice things about you or your company down the road.

Overall, each of us can help revive civility. We can take a close look at how many ways we have fallen short of what we learned as children. We can become more aware of how our actions/inactions impact others and how much we can gain by simply using “please” and “thank you.” We can stop acting like we are the most important person on the planet and the only one who matters.