Facing incivility on the job

Leaders can help workplaces better cope with the burden

Many have noticed an unpleasant change in recent years when doing our jobs, especially for those who perform customer-facing work. This deterioration comes in the form of an increase in incivility among the general public. Discourtesy, rudeness and disrespect directed at front-line service providers by customers, clients, patients, student parents, airline passengers and many other service recipients have made working to assist and benefit the public unnecessarily difficult and disheartening.

This observation is not just anecdotal.

Christine Porath is an author, consultant and management professor at Georgetown University specializing in optimal workplace conditions. Earlier this year, Dr. Porath surveyed 2,000 workers and people who had witnessed workers on the job. Twenty-five industries were represented in the study. Here are some of her findings from respondents:

• 76 percent deal with incivility at least once per month on the job

• 70 percent see and hear incivility two to three times per month on the job

• 78 percent claim customer bad behavior is more frequent than five years ago

Dr. Porath has been conducting surveys of this sort for some time. In 2005, approximately 50 percent of employees reported they were treated poorly at work at least once a month. In 2011 this number rose to 55 percent, and in 2016 it jumped again to 62 percent.

Our careers cannot flourish amid a barrage of atrocious behavior delivered from the very individuals we are trying to help. Most jobs present plenty of inherent challenges with which to contend as it is. Work is rarely an easy and carefree endeavor even under the best of circumstances. Piling on impertinent and ill-mannered behavior risks making our jobs unpleasant and unsustainable.

Given this situation, two basic questions come to mind: What is causing the increase in incivility? What can we do about it?

I will go out on a limb here and make the claim that very few people, if any, are natural-born jerks. Further, I think people are basically social, want to be nice to others and want to be treated kindly in return. Fundamentally, we all understand that to make it in this world we need the help of others, and the best way to receive assistance is to be agreeable with one another.

What goes awry in a word is stress.

Too many of us are mentally frazzled.

There are countless reasons for our stress from unmanageable pressures at work and home, to uncertainty about the future, to the unceasing flood of bad news from media, to our politics, to coping with pandemics — the list goes on and on.

Stress is bad for our personal health and the health of our society. It deprives us all of living fruitful lives. Getting a collective grip and learning how to manage our stress levels and their injurious consequences is critical. Life is too short to be consumed with the amount of anger we are experiencing.

Leadership is needed at times like these. We may not be able to dictate how the public should behave at all times, but we can have leaders help our workplaces better cope with the burden of incivility facing front-line employees. Prepare workers for when incivility happens, not if it may happen. We need leaders to coach, train and lead by example how their workforces can best handle the repercussions of stress from among the very customers the business or organization relies upon.

Best practices can be identified from those industries that deal with stress all of the time. Police officers, healthcare workers, teachers and many others have had to learn over time how to manage the unmanageable. There are techniques, attitudes and lessons we can learn from them. Such interventions are no longer an accessory. They need to become an essential part of any job that deals with the public.

Instead of the workplace reeling from bad behavior, maybe it can be the place from which more acceptable social interactions are derived. Alleviating incivility on the job is a great place to start.

Bill Ryan writes about career, employment and economic topics from his home in North Sutton.

Categories: Workplace Advice