Teaching Civility to Dampen Volatility

Lessons in civility seem to be in high demand this election season. Are they necessary to keep the peace in the workplace too?

By Susan R. Meisinger

I admit it: I'm a political junkie. Maybe it's because I spent so many years in Washington, including time as a political appointee at the U.S. Department of Labor and time as a registered lobbyist for the Society for Human Resource Management. But for most of my career, staying abreast of the latest political news was part of my job. The ebb and flow of political parties and politicians impacted the development and implementation of public policy. And that public policy often impacted the HR profession.

Being a political junkie during this political season, however, has been a painful experience. The level and tone of political discourse during the presidential primary campaigns (so far) have been like no other in my memory. Lots of name calling, episodes of disruption at campaign events and assertions that are keeping newsroom fact-checkers busy because so many are flat-out wrong or misleading.  

So I was curious to hear the results of a SHRM survey on policies on politics in the workplace, released at its annual conference and exposition last month.

While two-thirds (70 percent) of the HR professionals surveyed perceived the same amount of political volatility in the workplace during this presidential election compared to previous elections, about a quarter (26 percent) said that employees are more vocal about their political opinions this year. And although almost three quarters (72 percent) of HR professionals indicated that their organizations discouraged political activities in the workplace, only a quarter (24 percent) of them had a written (i.e., formal) policy on political activities.

What are the implications if this year's political volatility is oozing into the workplace?

Well, I don't think the political volatility and the absence of written policies mean that HR professionals should drop everything and draft policies on political speech in the office. While it would be nice to have a policy in place, it's probably more important to ensure that managers are trained and understand how to handle any political volatility that may migrate into the workplace.

It also may be a good time to consider training employees on the importance of workplace civility.

According to a new report issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, "civility training" might also help stamp out other inappropriate workplace behaviors as well.

At the SHRM conference, EEOC Commissioners Chai Feldblum and Victoria Lipnic -- who co-chaired and co-wrote the bipartisan report on the findings of the EEOC's select task force on the study of harassment in the workplace -- spoke about their findings.

Somewhat depressingly, they found that workplace harassment remains a persistent problem, and that it too often goes unreported. Not surprisingly to most HR executives, they also found that there's a compelling business case for stopping and preventing harassment. They also highlighted the roles that leadership and accountability play in its prevention.

But I thought one of the most interesting findings was that harassment training needs to change, and that much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool because it's been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability.

The commissioners suggested that employers should explore new and different approaches to training, and highlighted workplace "civility training"  -- training that doesn't focus just on eliminating illegal harassment (unwelcome or offensive behavior based on characteristics protected under employment non-discrimination laws) but instead focuses on promoting respect and civility in the workplace generally.

During the session, both commissioners reported that "bystander intervention training" used to combat sexual violence on school campuses might also show promise for harassment prevention. The training could empower co-workers and give them tools to intervene when they witness harassing behavior.

The final report recommends that employers consider including workplace-civility training and bystander-intervention training "as part of a holistic harassment prevention program." The report reasons that promoting civility and respect in a workplace may be a means of preventing conduct from rising to the level of unlawful harassment.

Whether it's part of a holistic approach to eliminating workplace harassment, provided as part of onboarding new employees, or provided as part of the performance expectations for employees, civility training may make sense during this volatile political season.

In fact, would someone please suggest it to the presidential campaigns?

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.


Jul 5, 2016
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