Civility in the Workplace

By Rebecca Bruch

I recently read an article about civility in the workplace and a situation that occurred in… wait for it… a lawyer’s office. It went something like this: An associate working at a law firm [we’ll call her Greta] returned to work after maternity leave. Seems like a happy and joyous moment, and as the author of the article pointed out, maybe even an occasion calling for donuts. But alas, that was not what happened. A few days after Greta returned, she informed her boss that she was leaving to go to work at a different firm. In response, a senior member of the firm texted her the following:

“What you did – collecting salary from the firm while sitting on your ass, except to find time to interview for another job – says everything one needs to know about your character. Karma’s a bitch.  Rest assured, regarding anyone who inquires, they will hear the truth from me about what a soulless and morally bankrupt person you are.”

Right about now you are channeling my favorite retort to you when we are Monday-morning-quarterbacking a benevolent decision you made – you know the one – “No good deed goes unpunished.” I know I don’t always walk the walk. I recognize that more than a time or two, we (including me) make decisions to go the extra mile for an employee, advance some pay, allow extra time off, look the other way when someone comes in late, or continue to pay someone who has long run out of leave, only to have the person file an EEOC complaint, or run down to the Labor Commissioner’s Office and tell them you owe them thousands of dollars in overtime. Human nature causes us to perhaps think to ourselves *$#!(*&^. But for most of us, that’s where it ends, unlike Greta’s coworker who decided to share his opinion with her. It reminds me of another of my favorite sayings, I think from Eleanor Roosevelt, who said, “Your opinion of me is none of my business.”

In my 22+ years of defending employers, I have made some observations. One of the most glaring is that a majority of EEOC, NERC, union grievances, and lawsuits, start with an employee who feels disrespected, ignored, slighted or marginalized. I hear on a daily basis about employees who say they were ignored at a staff meeting, or their boss stole their idea and passed it on as his own. Some complain that they are dismissed when they present ideas for ways to improve the workplace. Some employees complain they are incessantly teased. Some complain that they are not invited to go to lunch with the group, or head out after work to have a beer. Countless folks tell the EEOC they were retaliated against by their boss not saying good morning to Employee A when the boss comes in, but the boss says good morning to other employees. Courts have long held they do not want to be in the personnel business; and they declare they are “not the civility police.” I repeat that language in most motions to dismiss that I write. There is no legal obligation to be nice to anyone at work, assuming the acrimony is not based on protected activity. But not being nice only causes negative feelings, grudges, and formulating some story in an employee’s head about why her boss does not like her. The cost of incivility includes high employee turnover, stress at the workplace and home, health costs, lawsuits and settlements, and a decline in values and culture.

Greta’s story caused me to think about the cost of a lack of civility in the workplace.  There is no escaping people. Research has shown that in an ecosystem where civility is a priority, there is less absenteeism, increased productivity, better morale, and healthier employees. Those of you who have heard me teach classes will remember me pointing out that oftentimes we spend more waking hours with our coworkers than we do with our family. I for one know that to be true. No one wants to dread going to work or have your stomach clinch when you drive into the parking lot and see that certain someone’s car.

We have all experienced the drastic changes in workplace culture and the challenges of recruitment and retention, especially since COVID. Applicants regularly don’t show up for an interview they scheduled, or they abandon their job within days of being onboarded. I am amazed by this phenomenon almost daily. Whatever the reason, as I pondered the value of civility in the workplace, I recognize that it is no different than civility at the grocery store or the sandwich shop or the doctor’s office, where they too are experiencing the same cultural changes we all are experiencing. So, whether it’s at work, at the pharmacy, the dry cleaner’s or on the phone with the bank, the lessons are the same. Today I remind myself that civility can improve all areas considered relevant in the running of a successful organization and in our day-to-day lives. At work, a culture of civility will inevitably be rewarded with employee satisfaction, and strong positive emotions,  including a sense of being treated with respect. It’s the right thing to do, and what can it hurt.

If you have any questions, you are invited to contact any of the employment lawyers at Lemons, Grundy & Eisenberg.