The office is getting meaner

Soon after the presidential election last year, human resources consultant Catherine Mattice Zundel received a pleading call from a Los Angeles law firm: Three paralegals were turning on each other, and it was getting ugly.

Two had voted for Hillary Clinton and the other had voted for Donald Trump. They were shouting over cubicle walls, disrupting the entire office, and regularly meeting with human resources to file grievances about each other. The tension between the longtime colleagues was growing more intense. Like much of the country at the time, they couldn’t get beyond their political differences. And it was becoming a problem for everyone at work.

Zundel had a solution. As founder of Civility Partners, an HR consulting firm that’s helped employers deal with negative and abusive employees since 2008, she’s experienced in helping coworkers overcome the most challenging personal and professional differences. So, she drafted a proposal to coach the women back to a civil relationship. But in the end, the firm’s management decided against implementing the plan.

That’s pretty typical, says Zundel. “HR will present my proposal to the leaders, and the leaders say, ‘It’s not that big of a deal. Can’t they all just get along? Why do I have to pay someone to regulate their behavior?’”

But managers and executives may soon be forced to confront an issue that’s becoming a bigger problem nationwide — and costing them a lot of money. Nearly 1 in 5 people report that their work environment is hostile or threatening, according to an analysis about workplace conditions published by the RAND Corporation in August 2017. Toxic offices have higher turnover rates and increased sick leave, and workers in those kinds of environments show less enthusiasm, reduced creativity, and lower productivity.

For those who work in an uncivil environment, the insults, yelling, and fights are easy to spot. But incivility is not always that obvious. According to Workplace Civility Matters, a consulting firm that helps companies deal with negative behavior, subtle habits such as leaving work early, long breaks, sabotaging equipment, lying, stealing from the company, showing favoritism, or gossiping about coworkers all constitute uncivil behavior. The victims of such abuse often seek legal retribution against the companies where it takes place, says Workplace Civility Matters.

The workplace study from the RAND Corporation revealed a few patterns. For example, it found that young men are more likely to be on the receiving end of verbal abuse, while women — not surprisingly — are more likely to be the victims of unwanted sexual attention. But in light of the recent allegations made by numerous women against prominent men at their companies, Zundel says it’s critical to maintain a clear distinction between sexual harassment and incivility.

“Sexual harassment is illegal and HR is required by law to conduct an investigation if they hear even one hint that someone is engaging in this behavior,” she says.

That behavior includes unwelcome sexual advances, comments, catcalling, whistling, or requests for sexual favors. It can also include remarks that insinuate that women are inferior to men, that they should be at home making dinner or taking care of the kids, for example, or that they’re not qualified for a job or a promotion because of their gender.

Incivility, on the other hand, isn’t illegal, says Zundel. Subtle micro-aggressions or hints of unprofessionalism are difficult to regulate. Those on the receiving end can be left feeling demoralized and undervalued and experience depression, she says. In fact, the effects can be felt more broadly: Other studies show that uncivil behavior at work negatively impacts employees who witness it, too.

For many workers, especially younger ones, putting up with a hostile work environment just isn’t worth it. A quarter of the people who participated in the Civility in America survey from Weber Shandwick, Powell Tate, and KRC Research said they’d quit because of incivility. Millennials are especially intolerant of bullies and feel comfortable pushing back on authority, says Zundel, the human resources consultant. “If they don’t like their job, they’ll just leave,” she says.

And it matters what millennials are thinking — and feeling — because they represent the largest share of American workers. In 2015, according to the Pew Research Center, Americans born between 1981 and 1997 surpassed Generation X workers born between 1965 and 1980 in the workforce and make up about one-third of the U.S. labor pool. According to a Brookings Institution report, millennials will make up about 75 percent of the workforce by 2025.

Businesses are just beginning to really focus on civility at work more seriously, according to experts. “I see it as a beginning trend, much along the lines of what the corporate world went through when trying to define sexual harassment years ago. Now they’re trying to get a handle on what this thing called ‘civility’ is,” says Cassandra Dahnke, a cofounder of the nonprofit Institute for Civility in Government.

Her organization is one of several that, while traditionally focused on fostering more civil dialogue in the social and political arenas, have been receiving more requests for corporate training. But so far, few businesses are willing to commit funds to it. “They don’t have the budget for that yet, quite frankly,” she says.

Similarly, the National Institute for Civil Discourse, which launched the Initiative to Revive Civility last year, is on the cusp of launching a pilot project to test two new corporate modules — one for the healthcare industry and one for the workplace.

The focus on civility is also playing out at the local level. In Howard County, Maryland, the Howard County Library System launched the Choose Civilityinitiative in 2007 to position Howard County as a model of civility. The library is now working with the Howard County Chamber of Commerce to develop workplace trainings and make them available in the spring of 2018. Leonardo McClarty, the chamber’s president and CEO, puts some of the blame for incivility on social media and the 24/7 news cycle. “People will say things online that they might not to someone in front of them,” he says. “As such, people harbor anger and hostility much longer.”

That said, the rise in incivility at work may not simply be a byproduct of social media or the current U.S. political environment.

Dahnke, of the Institute for Civility in Government, points out that institutions that once nurtured civility — churches, civic organizations, and community groups — no longer have the kind of influence or relevance they once enjoyed. “How do you replace that? Where do you lodge that responsibility?” she says. “As a society, we’re trying to figure that out and businesses are caught in their part of it.”