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The Last Word: Social Disgraces

January 21, 2011
Williams-Sonoma seems to epitomize gracious entertaining, but the scene I witnessed at one of its stores just before Christmas was hardly gracious. The manager of the gourmet cookware store lost her cool on a hectic day and gave an employee a harsh dressing down in front of customers. The outburst so startled shoppers that they looked away in discomfort.
The incident was particularly striking to me because I had just edited our cover story, “Civil Wars.” As contributing writer Susan Hauser shows in her article, such ugly workplace scenarios are playing out with disturbing frequency. Blame such incivility on greater stress and overburdened workers if you will, but it's still unacceptable behavior that can prove costly to companies in terms of employee morale, productivity and turnover.
A survey of human resources professionals and senior executives last year found that nearly two-thirds believe that employees are struggling to stay focused because of criticism, gossip and lack of teamwork. Right Management, Manpower's talent development business, said its study clearly touched a nerve and generated an unusually strong response from survey respondents.
There is also a less damaging, more subtle form of rudeness that has pervaded the work world. How many times have people disregarded your e-mail or replied in a condescending or hostile manner? Do you seethe when colleagues repeatedly check texts and e-mails or, worse, play games on their mobile devices during meetings? Such rudeness is typically attributed to our time-pressured, technology-driven world. But isn't that just an excuse for bad manners? Professors at the National University of Singapore surveyed employees in the financial services industry and found that workers who experienced “cyberincivility” were less satisfied and more likely to quit or engage in negative behavior themselves.
Most researchers focus on the negative effects of bullying and insensitivity but neglect to assess the potential business value of treating fellow workers with courtesy and respect. Not only is morale better, but employees also feel more motivated and committed to the company. In short, being nice is good for business. Larry Fish, the former CEO of Citizens Financial Group, was a firm believer in the power of civility in the workplace. I met Fish a few years ago when I was writing a book about corporate reputation, and he impressed me with his philosophy that if he showed appreciation for his employees, they would, in turn, provide exemplary customer service. In fact, he began every day at the bank by sending a handwritten note commending an employee for outstanding performance. “I have to nourish our employees,” he told me. “You can't have a successful business without happy employees.”
Fish was right. I always remember feeling especially pleased when a boss or colleague sent me a handwritten compliment. Of course, it's highly unlikely that very many people are going to compose handwritten notes in the age of tweets. In fact, tweets appear to be a guilt-free way to ignore people. At an education conference I attended, Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, told the audience that one of the beauties of tweeting is that you needn't worry about responding to a tweet. Because a reply isn't expected, he said, tweeters won't get ticked off the way they do when their e-mails go unanswered.
I don't think the future looks especially bright for workplace decorum. Boorish behavior cuts across all generations, but the millennials entering the workforce are accelerating this unfortunate trend. When I wrote my book The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaking Up the Workplace, virtually every manager and college professor I interviewed related anecdotes about young people who sent curt, sometimes disrespectful texts and e-mails and often failed to show up on time for work or school.
The workplace could even be in danger of becoming rather barbaric. Last fall, blogs were buzzing with news that the investment banking club at Columbia University's business school advised MBA students to brush their teeth, use deodorant and avoid elbowing out their classmates when meeting corporate recruiters.
I continue to wonder how today's überinvolved helicopter parents could have failed to teach their millennial generation children simple rules of etiquette. I guess they've been so busy writing their kids' college applications and ferrying their children to sporting events and music lessons that they forgot about instilling polite behavior and social niceties. Or perhaps those folks simply behave inconsiderately themselves at work.
Workforce Management, January 2011, p. 34 -- Subscribe Now!