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Calling "Miss Manners" ... Workplace Civility and Respect Lessens Chances of Litigation

September 7, 2011
Related Topics: Miscellaneous Legal Issues, Featured Article
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Issue: As you walk into work one day, you notice that smokers have congregated at the entry way to the building, despite a workplace no-smoking prohibition. On the way to your office, you see a conversation between men wearing casual clothing. As you approach them you hear talk of strategic issues, but the next thing you hear is "Go to hell." You remember that yesterday you heard complaints about one employee who was "snapping" at her coworkers for no apparent reason. What's happening here?

Answer: These types of behavior in the workplace show a lack of civility and respect for others. Employees in charge of entertaining clients who lack knowledge of the "social graces" may put the employer at a considerable business disadvantage. Even worse, employees who do not know the boundaries of appropriate workplace conduct can put the employer at risk for litigation by, for example, posting offensive cartoons on a cubicle wall or becoming intoxicated at a company function and driving home.

Many employees do not understand that their behavior is improper or offensive or do not understand the potential ramifications of their behavior. If an employer fails to provide clear guidance to employees, the employer may well be liable for unauthorized conduct that has been tolerated.

What should HR do?

Take proactive steps. Depending upon the need and the context, employers should give some consideration to communicating appropriate manners and conduct to their employees:

  • Offer respectful behavior classes. George A. Mollere, HR Director of Energy Developments, Houston, Texas, believes that perpetual casual dress is eroding workplace behavior, creating an atmosphere of social, not business, interactions. He has developed an eight-hour course to teach employees how a casual, less structured workplace changes discourse among employees. His training concentrates on general respectful interchanges and, with role-playing exercises, shows how conversations are different when people wear suits and when they do not.
  • Include a conduct statement with examples in the employee handbook.
  • Discuss appropriate workplace conduct in orientation. Provide examples of acceptable and unacceptable behavior and dress.
  • Implement a policy of "zero tolerance" for offensive behavior (improper remarks, pictures, jokes and other forms of harassment indicating lack of respect, for example) and strictly enforce it.
  • Highlight the company's position in newsletters and company periodicals.
  • Add etiquette classes to your training offerings.

Source: CCH Incorporated is a leading provider of information and software for human resources, legal, accounting, health care and small business professionals. CCH offers human resource management, payroll, employment, benefits, and worker safety products and publications in print, CD, online and via the Internet. For more information and other updates on the latest HR news, check our Web site at http://hr.cch.com.

The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion.

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