Workplace Civility: Five Ways to Encourage A Respectful Workplace

Tensions continue to run high in the country and the workplace despite the presidential election having been decided. There is racial tension, political tension, union tension, and tension due to uncertainty over what to expect post-pandemic. Your leaders are tasked with maintaining civility among workers.

It is genuinely challenging to maintain employee engagement when so many people are passionate about their perspectives on politics and social justice. So many people fear the future because there are so many unknowns. Any time tensions run high, you can anticipate conflicts amongst employees and between employees and management. It's a situation ripe for labor unions because they offer solace to employees and make promises to bring solutions to the workplace.

Further complicating the situation, so many companies now have a hybrid workforce (mix of in-facility and remote workers) and a diverse workforce. There is a mix of people of different generations, races, backgrounds, cultures, sexual preferences, and political perspectives. Bullying, a form of disrespect, is particularly rampant in organizations. The Workplace Bullying Institute reports in its 2021 survey results that 30 percent of employees have direct experience being bullied, 52 percent of non-management employees are bullied, and 43.2 percent of remote workers are bullied. People are bullied over a variety of things, including their personal characteristics, religion, political beliefs, and even their social and environmental perspectives.

Create the Safe Workplace

Ensuring civility and respect are both essential to maintaining positive employee relations and a positive culture. Neither is possible if employees are rude, inconsiderate, biased, or unwilling to accept a diversity of perspectives. An important issue surrounding incivility in the workplace is that employees should believe they work in a safe place. Bullying, harassment, bias, and conflicts with coworkers create an emotionally unsafe workplace.

Though you can issue policies promoting civility, the reality is employees will talk in the breakroom and express their opinions in texts and posts on a variety of social media sites. Tempers are likely to flair due to high tension. Encouraging employees to remain respectful is a leadership issue because your managers and supervisors must manage conflict and maintain a positive culture in the "new normal" that has yet to become apparent.

Managers also need to know what they can allow and prohibit within the context of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This is where it can get incredibly challenging because employees can discuss work conditions and unionization. Unions are heavily involved in politics (especially today as Democrats promote the PRO Act and actively support unions).

Following are five ways your leaders can encourage a respectful and civil workplace:

  1. Identify and publish specific core values employees should focus on.

Everyone needs reminders. When there is a lot of tension in the workplace, it's helpful to keep core values in front of employees and frequently remind them there is zero-tolerance for bullying and bias. There are many ways to do this. You can pin a list on a bulletin board. Senior managers can prepare podcasts and videos explaining the importance of maintaining good relations with coworkers and emphasizing how employees should always treat each other with respect. Managers can make regular use of social media to engage employees. Add a link on your organization's app that takes the employee to the core values site.

  1. Train employees on electronic communication.

Social media delivers significant value to organizations as a communication tool. It can also become a weapon of disrespect when employees misuse it. Employees should know what is considered acceptable and unacceptable posts or comments.

  1. Ensure leaders demonstrate the proper attitudes and behaviors as role models.

Your leaders need to be role models and bridge builders. Employees who see managers and supervisors arguing or treating their staff members with disrespect are sent a message that it's okay to act that way. Leaders should always act ethically and in a way that supports the values of the organizational culture and reflects how they want employees to act. They should demonstrate good listening skills and how to agree to disagree respectfully.

  1. Leaders should always take action when inappropriate employee conduct takes place.

One way to reinforce an uncivil workplace is when managers and supervisors fail to witness or learn of poor employee behaviors. It's crucial to address bias, heated discussions, rude behavior, and employee complaints. Ignoring inappropriate conduct will reinforce it. At the same time, it's just as important to avoid coming to hasty conclusions and turning a minor incident into a major issue. Only operate on facts.

  1. Train employees on civility in the workplace.

Providing employee training on the respectful workplace is critical to continue developing positive behaviors. Customized videos and online training programs can depict situations relevant to your organizational setting. They can provide examples of unacceptable behaviors and appropriate responses when conversations get heated over work and non-work topics.

Many people have no idea how to gracefully end a conversation headed in the wrong direction, especially when the topic is one they are passionate about, i.e., politics. It's important to use resources like these, that we can provide to you, to ensure the content is high-quality, legal, and doesn't violate employee rights under the NLRA.

Of course, these five suggestions are part of a greater effort. For example, your organization practices diversity and inclusion in Human Resources policies and procedures to ensure bias doesn't impede developing a workplace where employees feel belonging in the workplace. Your managers should publicly recognize employees who experience success, like a project successfully completed or an innovation suggested to streamline operations. Management recognition sends a message that managers are observant and value employee contributions.

Zero Tolerance for Abusive Employee Speech

There have been years of discussion and numerous NLRB cases addressing the balance of protecting employee speech in the workplace and enforcing workplace conduct rules.

The NLRA’s Section 7 allows employees to "use intemperate, abusive, or insulting language without fear of restraint or penalty if [they] believe[d] such rhetoric to be an effective means to make [their] point." This statement, along with a series of NLRB decisions supporting an employees' right to use insulting language, placed employers in a difficult situation, especially considering federal laws prohibiting abusive workplace speech.

In July 2020, the NLRB issued a decision in General Motors LLC (14-CA-197985, 369 NLRB No.127) that restored the balance between Section 7 protected concerted activities and the federal laws that once existed in a case called Wright Line (251 NLRB 1083 (1980)). Employers can take action against abusive employee behavior, as long as the employer was not taking action out of hostility against Section 7 protected activity. In other words, the discipline must be the same discipline that would have been applied, even if Section 7 activity is not involved. Now employers can act on racist, obscene, and sexually harassing employee speech.

Leader and Employee Training Rules!

It's vital to address disrespect, rudeness, harassment, bullying, and bias because they can destroy workforce morale and cause employees enormous psychological harm. It's a perfect set of conditions for creating union vulnerability. People are experiencing many pressures, and they can boil over into conflict.

Your managers and supervisors must have the communication skills needed to disrupt tense situations and conversations likely to occur as employees cope with the pandemic, politics, financial stress, and uncertainty. Employees need to understand and adhere to management's expectations for workplace respect. Employee training at all organizational levels is the key to success.

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