Make city a model of workplace civility

January 08, 2003|By P. M. Forni and Dan Buccino

BALTIMORE HAS been rediscovered, and not just because of the sniper and the Dawson family arson-deaths.

The media have noted the increase in commuters buying homes here because they are relatively cheap and that businesses are relocating to the region because labor and space expenses are lower than in New York, Washington or San Francisco. The unemployment rate in Baltimore is below the national average.

Although many believe Baltimore is becoming more hospitable to businesses, their employees and commuters, the question remains how friendly the area workplace is to its workers.

In any year, about 2 million acts of physical violence are reported in the American workplace. While physical abuse is almost always reported, uncivil behavior usually isn't. Therefore, information on the quality of work life has been more elusive.

Most acts of workplace violence originate with uncivil behavior. Reckless intrusiveness, snubbing, lying to shun responsibility, vicious gossiping, an insensitive comment or a rude gesture can start a chain reaction leading to physical violence. Incivility is both wrong and dangerous.

That incivility is a precursor to violence is a compelling reason to take workplace incivility seriously and think of ways to curb it. There is a direct connection between civility and quality of life.

The more civil the workplace, the better the quality of life enjoyed by its workers. The higher the workers' quality of life, the better the quality of their work, including the service they provide to customers. This ought to be an incentive to all organizations to foster a culture of civility at work. Yet, as the economy flounders, the American workplace has seldom seemed so insecure and uncivil.

A survey designed at the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute, in partnership with local business leaders, offers data on workplace incivility in the Baltimore area. In sampling 400 employees in the spring of 2000 in the bio-sciences, manufacturing, business services and nonprofit sectors, the survey highlights the relevance of civil behavior and the state of civility in workplaces.

Eighty-three percent of area respondents indicated it was "very important" to work in a civil environment. Two-thirds thought society had become less civil in the preceding year, 1999. However, the area workplace fared better: Only one in four thought their offices, factories or labs had become less civil over the same period.

The majority of respondents agreed that "uncivil" workplace behavior included refusing to work hard on a team project, shifting blame for a mistake to a colleague, reading someone else's mail and neglecting to say please and thank you.

The Baltimore Workplace Civility Study, the first of its kind for the region, also confirmed the real economic impact of workplace incivility. Following incivility incidents, two-thirds of victims felt less committed toward their organization, more than one-third curtailed their effort at work and about 10 percent called in sick and used health care and employee assistance benefits. Seven of 10, a much larger figure than in a similar national study, contemplated changing jobs.

The cost of replacing workers is about $10,000 and that of sick leave is about $700 a year per worker. Only about one-third of sick days are used for illness.

Responding to this alarming picture is imperative. Incivility in the workplace adds unnecessarily to the cost of doing business.

As Baltimore grows in jobs and office space and develops a strong residential market, it is time to envision a new model for civility in the workplace in Charm City. This will differentiate our businesses in today's economy to ensure employee satisfaction, inspire customer loyalty and generate more revenue and good will.

Incivility in the workplace carries a very high price in both human and financial terms. Baltimore will become even more attractive to businesses and residents as it continues to treat this problem with the seriousness it deserves.

P. M. Forni, an organizational consultant, and Dan Buccino, a psychotherapist, are members of the Johns Hopkins University faculty. They collaborated on the Baltimore Workplace Civility Study.

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