A Ray of Hope

by Susan McAninch

Given that 93 percent of Americans consider incivility to be a severe problem in our society, we could sure use a ray of hope! 

Well, there is one, and it’s found in the workplace. You may be happy to learn that a similar proportion of people – more than nine out of 10 Americans who work with others – describe their place of employment as very or somewhat civil. In addition, 27 percent of this cohort report that this level of civility has improved compared to just a few years ago. Overall, Americans’ experience of incivility in their workplace has declined from 43 percent in 2011 to 29 percent in 2018.

All of the statistics in this article come from a 2018 survey called Civility at Work and in Our Public Spaces (, which is part of a 10-year set of annual reports designed to gauge Americans’ attitudes toward civility in various areas affecting society and daily life.

How do employers in civil workplaces overcome what seems to be so intractable in other parts of our society? Comparing civil and uncivil workplaces, the main difference is that in civil workplaces, civility is an organizational value that starts at the top. Employees perceive leadership as civil; they feel safe in reporting uncivil behavior; and they trust that management will handle complaints of incivility. This is in keeping with the results of many studies that confirm that what employees want most from their employers and work life – more than salary, benefits or a short commute time – is r-e-s-p-e-c-t.

Incivility at work has consequences, too: the well-documented hard and soft costs to the bottom line when employees feel put down rather than lifted up. Production, customer satisfaction, reputation, employee retention, creativity, loyalty and more all suffer. Clearly, it’s in the best interest of any employer to create a civil workplace culture. If you’ve ever worked for “the boss from hell” or in a culture that condones gossip, bullying, sexism or racism, you know that such a toxic environment can be soul-crushing.

Another answer to why civil behavior is more prevalent in the workplace than in some other parts of everyday life lies in what people do not do at work. Employees tend to steer away from controversial topics, with 31 percent reporting that they avoid discussing contentious issues for fear of the conversation turning contentious. Non-work-related topics may also be perceived as inappropriate for the workplace, or there may be employer- or self-imposed limits on what employees may discuss. As a result, the workplace may have a civility advantage over the rest of society. 

Results of the above-referenced survey show that Americans favor civility training in the workplace and favor employers who encourage employees to report incivility. Approximately half of the employees in both civil and uncivil workplaces believe that leadership has a responsibility to enforce civility, and when leadership succeeds in being civil, all civility measures improve. 

The workplace may be the starting place – and a safe haven – in restoring a civil culture that benefits all of us.