Dealing With Workplace Incivility

You can pursue some strategies as a manager to prevent issues ahead of time and to address them when they happen, advises Ellen de Graffenreid.

March 6, 2018
Stock illustration of a large foot seeming to step on a group of smaller people.

Given the overall climate, we shouldn’t be surprised when incivility happens in the academic workplace. In the moment, it can be a different story. Sometimes the flow of conversation carries away the questionable or outright offensive remark, and it can seem insurmountably awkward to go back and address it. Managers are caught off guard and don’t address incivility right at the time and, given competing demands, are reluctant to call a staff member in to deal with it later.

In addition, incivility is sometimes wrapped up in other issues, like class or cultural assumptions, making administrators reluctant to address it for fear of being seen as less than culturally competent. Finally, many academic institutions have conflict-averse cultures.

While it’s not a bad thing to work somewhere that “doesn’t reward sharp elbows” (to quote one of my mentors), fear of conflict can lead to low performance, poor morale or -- in extreme cases -- a hostile workplace if issues are never resolved.

As a manager negotiating the slippery slopes of incivility, hurt feelings, personal attacks, cultural competency and the need to function as an organization, there are some things you can do to prevent issues ahead of time and to address them when they happen. In my experience, incivility isn’t usually the result of an ongoing performance issue with a particular employee or group that would rise to the level of progressive discipline or corrective action. Instead, it comes from thoughtlessness, anger, poor morale or interpersonal friction.

First, academic administrators must be familiar with institutional policies on bias, harassment, retaliation, and -- yes -- civility and collegiality. If policies aren’t clear -- and sometimes written policies are difficult to interpret -- talk to your human resources administrators or your bias response team to get a general idea of how various issues are usually handled. Know the policies on progressive discipline at your institution, because sometimes behavior will escalate when confronted. It’s best to be thinking a few steps ahead, even if the issue doesn’t currently warrant a formal process.

Second, set expectations for your team before something happens. If you have been with those staff members a long time, you can start the discussion with “I have noticed that there’s more discussion of divisive subjects or the overall political climate, which is only natural. But let’s talk about what kind of conversation is appropriate in the workplace, how we might be unintentionally excluding people, and how our team can avoid conflict and maintain our professional relationships.” That works well during a retreat and can become a statement of team norms -- including expectations for inclusive language, preferred methods of conflict resolution and other techniques for ensuring that staff members don’t find themselves in situations that lead to workplace incivility.

Next, check yourself. If you are passionate about an issue, think about the level of personal disclosure that is (or isn’t) appropriate in the workplace. Managers should model the kind of behavior that they want to see. It has been said that self-awareness is the most undervalued leadership trait, so if you are in no fit state to deal with people, remove yourself from the situation and make space for your team members to do so.

For example, student affairs staff members who have been up all night dealing with an issue shouldn’t be tasked with leading a sensitive conversation the next day. My mental checklist includes: “How am I feeling about this issue? Do I know what I am going to say in different scenarios? Am I too tired, angry or otherwise unable to deal with this issue and remain on an even keel?

Finally, make sure you have your team’s back. If you manage people who work with internal or external customers, they will at times be on the receiving end of incivility. I instruct my staff members to immediately refer those issues to me. The receptionist or administrative assistant who answers the phones is not an appropriate target for abuse, and nobody should have to be on the receiving end of incivility. But I operate on the principle that I have the title and experience to deal with it and the standing to make it clear that front-line staff members are not expected to handle incivility. Too many times I have heard colleagues say, “It’s not personal; they are like that with everyone.” Condoning poor behavior from higher-status members of the community, especially those who “kiss up and kick down,” is not good organizational management.

Whether you are dealing with colleagues, customers or your team, there is nothing wrong with saying, “I see we are all really emotional about this issue. Let’s table it for the moment and get back to it after we have all had a chance to gather our thoughts for a productive discussion.” As a leader you can always say, “This is really complicated, and I am not sure I can understand everyone’s point of view when the discussion is heated. Can we get back to it tomorrow?” Or, “I want to be sure that you all know that I take this issue (or what was said) very seriously, and in order to give it proper attention, I need some time to think about it.”

Incivility in the Moment

Those are all prevention strategies, but what do you do in the moment when someone says something inappropriate? I am that person who always thinks of the perfect thing to say -- four hours later. I envy people who are able to come up with the right comment at the right time, so I have developed a set of “scripts” to manage situations when I know I need to say something in the moment. This is not a complete list, but it can be a starting place for stopping incivility when it happens.

When someone is raising their voice, being caustic or targeting another staff member with their anger, consider: “Let’s stop this conversation and come back to it when we can behave professionally.” Or: “You are obviously angry (or upset). Please go get a drink of water (or take a walk around the block or do whatever you need to calm down), and we will discuss it when everyone is calmer.” Or: “Wow, that was a really hurtful thing to say. Let’s take a time-out and talk about this later after everyone has had a chance to think about it.”

You show a set of photos to a colleague, and they say, “Don’t use that one. It looks too [uses slur]!” I have responded, “I don’t know what you mean by that. Can you explain?” Or: “That term is considered a slur. Please don’t use it. Now can you tell me what you don’t like about this photo?” Or: “That’s a really inappropriate thing to say. Can you rephrase that?” Or: “Did you know that term is a slur and shouldn’t be used?” Or simply: “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that. What did you say?” The latter statement gives people a moment to think about what they just said and why they shouldn’t have said it, and they will often apologize or back off, giving you a chance to make it clear that their behavior or language wasn’t acceptable in the workplace.

You ask an international student why they decided to attend your university, and they answer, “Because this university/city/region has a lot of [minority group], and they are really good at [stereotype].” I have responded with, “I am not sure if you realize this, but on our campus, it is considered insulting to say that. Could we schedule a time to sit down and talk about why that is, and how it might be different from what you say at home?”

If you can address incivility in the moment, you are not creating conflict -- you are defusing it before it becomes too big or too hot to handle. We are programmed to be polite, but sometimes being direct, neutral and firm can help keep conversations open, honest and civil.


Ellen de Graffenreid is director of communications at Duke University’s Margolis Center for Health Policy.


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