Can acts of appreciation influence the bottom line? Yes, say experts. Image: Shutterstock

Thursday 12th February 2015

Civil action

Can a bit of common courtesy really boost productivity?

The boss who barks commands. The supervisor who never says thank you. The co-worker who constantly interrupts others in meetings. Incivility seems to be a fact of professional life.

But it seems lack of courtesy in the workplace has more far-reaching implications than just unpleasantness. A study of 120 bank tellers published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior in 2012 found that incivility from customers and co-workers led to both increased absenteeism and decreased sales performance.

‘Workplace incivility – people being rude or not refilling the coffee cup when it’s empty – may seem like a minor thing,’ said the study’s lead author Michael Sliter, assistant psychology professor at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis. ‘But the fact is that it’s incredibly frequent and can have huge negative impacts on individuals.’

As children, most of us were taught good manners. We learned that it was important to say please and thank you, and to treat others as we wished to be treated ourselves. So why in our professional lives are so many of us downright rude? And given we don’t have the luxury of putting employees in the naughty corner, what can HR do about it?

The small stuff

While it might be tempting to dismiss rudeness in the workplace as a curse of the modern world, it’s more complicated than that, believes Robert Zarywacz. He’s a courtesy consultant and the business spokesperson for the National Campaign for Courtesy, a non-profit organisation committed to improving levels of courtesy in the UK.

‘It’s easy to think back to an imaginary golden age of courtesy, but stress and urgency have always played a part in business and are two of the main reasons why courtesy can suffer,’ says Zarywacz, who offers free courtesy advice to employers on his website

‘Since the recession, many employees have been under even more pressure to complete more tasks, faster and more cheaply, using fewer resources. Under these conditions, people have less time for courtesy.’

Psychologist and consultant Dr Michael Leiter, founder of the Canadian Centre for Organizational Research & Development at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, has implemented civility interventions for both healthcare organisations and government agencies. (See for more information). He believes that courtesy levels in the workplace have improved in recent times – just not enough.

Zarywacz: he’d rather say nothing than be rude. Photo:

‘My view is that social encounters among people at work are more polite than in previous decades, when blatant sexism and racism were prevalent. However, what have changed a lot are the expectations that people bring to work. People expect respect and are seriously disturbed when they encounter incivility.’

According to Leiter, civility can be defined as, ‘the small stuff of day-to-day encounters… the extent to which people attend to one another, express appreciation for small favours, and accommodate one another in their work.’ No one would deny that all sounds lovely, but in the context of getting things done, are bad manners really that big a deal?

Leiter believes so. Firstly, there’s the impact on the self-esteem of the person on the receiving end. ‘Rude, disrespectful behaviour excludes the target from the community of the workplace,’ he says.

Secondly, there’s the impact on the efficiency of the team. ‘Good relationships with colleagues and supervisors are essential to a smooth work-life. For example, in a hospital with which we consulted, a senior nurse called across to a junior nurse, ‘I hope you do a better job with that medication today than you did yesterday!’

‘Instead of mentoring the junior nurse, [the senior nurse] was humiliating her. The junior nurse lost her confidence in her capacity to do her job. She wanted to avoid any contact with the other nurses on the unit to prevent further humiliation.

‘In healthcare, thorough communication and teamwork are essential. Those sorts of interactions – or more subtle behaviours, such as rolling ones eyes when a team member makes a suggestion – destroy team spirit.

Put simply, rudeness at work is bad for everyone, says workplace psychologist Dr Jennifer Newman in The Vancouver Sun. ‘Workers complain of stress, anxiety and depression, while organisations suffer from increases in absenteeism and low morale. Grievances and complaints rise, and sabotage against the organisation is more likely.’

Good manners on the other hand can have the opposite effect. ‘Courtesy is free and takes minimal effort, but the potential improvements in productivity and service are valuable for any business,’ says Zarywacz.

Taking action

While this is fine in theory, the insidious nature of rudeness arguably makes it harder to tackle than more overt acts of aggression or bullying. And persuading people to change long-established patterns of behaviour is never going to be easy.

To succeed, buy-in from both HR and management is essential, says Zarywacz. ‘Start a courtesy initiative by walking through the front doors, smiling and saying good morning,’ he suggests. ‘Walk around the building, visiting areas you don’t usually see. Take notice of what people are doing and comment [while] keeping your phone firmly in your pocket or bag.’

Because polite behaviour means different things to different people, any attempt to create a culture of civility within an organisation must also involve communication. ‘A group of builders could be more boisterous than a team of mature secretaries, although it’s dangerous to stereotype,’ says Zarywacz. ‘In a courteous organisation, effective leaders will ensure that there is a common standard which everyone understands, appreciates and supports.

Leiter agrees that ‘most groups can improve their game with a bit of encouragement and leadership,’ but for those where a culture of incivility is deeply ingrained, there is also a strong argument for more structured interventions, he says.

One such intervention employed by Leiter is the Civility, Respect and Engagement at Work (CREW) programme. CREW consists of a series of facilitated conversations, exercises and role-plays aimed at helping groups to identify and tackle issues in workplace relationships.

In a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 2011, Leiter and his co-authors found that after a six-month CREW intervention in Canadian hospitals, participating groups saw significant improvements in numerous areas – particularly co-worker civility, supervisor incivility, respect, cynicism, job satisfaction, management trust and absences – when compared to control groups.

Someone should tell him it’s rude to point. Photo: Shutterstock

What’s more, a one-year follow-up study published in the Journal of Occupational Psychology in 2012 found that 12 months following the programme, levels of civility and supervisor incivility had continued to improve, while improvements in most other areas had been sustained (the only exception was absences, which had returned to pre-intervention levels).

The results, says Leiter, speak for themselves. ‘Civil, respectful work groups more readily share information and express appreciation to one another. Higher levels of civility are associated with fewer absences and less turnover [of staff], reducing unnecessary costs for units. More civil groups also report fewer errors, and errors can be costly and serious in healthcare.’

Emotional climate

According to Leiter, any attempt to improve civility in the workplace must be based on a collegiate approach and steer clear of one-size-fits-all solutions. ‘Each work group has its history, its values and its usual level of banter or quiet regard,’ says Leiter.

‘The important issue is that the group have explicit conservations about their assumptions regarding civility. This is especially important when the group composition changes. A female firefighter joining an all-male crew would benefit from a facilitated conservation on civility [as] she may not care for the existing sense of humour in the crew.’

Crucially, employees must also feel empowered to challenge rude behaviour when they experience it, without this compromising their work. In the Canadian hospitals that went through CREW, for example, emergency room staff agreed to tap a pin on their lapel to signal they felt offended and wanted to talk things through later. Other units posted ‘emotional climate’ reports to prompt discussion, with rainy days indicating a prevailing lack of courtesy.

There are some notoriously impolite professions, however, where cultivating civility is inevitably going to be more challenging. After all, it’s hard to imagine Gordon Ramsay asking his kitchen staff to kindly pick up the pace, or an army officer saying please and thank you to his troops for following orders. In certain high-pressure environments, does rudeness in fact have a role?

Zarywacz is not convinced. ‘You can be sharp but polite, monosyllabic when concentrating and still show appreciation of your fellow workers,’ he says. ‘A thank you does not have to spoken, but can be a look, a smile, a gesture, a joke.’

And while he acknowledges that the usual social niceties might not be appropriate in the armed forces – ‘You can’t have a sergeant-major politely asking someone to do something’ – he argues that there is always a line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. ‘[Members of the armed forces] have a bond and understanding; there is a code that everyone recognises, and it’s OK as long as you stick to the code,’ he says.

‘With any group, you’ve got to understand what the relationships are, what the culture is and the language people use. And you’ve got to make sure everyone is included in that. If people don’t understand it, that’s when they can feel left out or insulted.’

When it comes to getting management on board, however, it’s the business case rather than the hurt feelings of staff that is likely to hold most sway. ‘When I tell people I’m involved with the National Campaign for Courtesy, they just assume this is a nice, fluffy thing about people being polite and not being angry, [but] there is a genuine business advantage to this,’ says Zarywacz.

‘You’ve got to be serious about it [but when an organisation is] under pressure and looking to cut costs, it’s actually a way of maintaining or even improving performance.’

For more information about the National Campaign for Courtesy, visit

About the author

Rhianon Howells

The former editor of a leading trade magazine, Rhianon Howells has extensive experience of writing for both business and consumer titles, including The Guardian. In addition to writing about HR, she specialises in health, fitness, leisure and hospitality.