Civility in the workplace should be a no-brainer. But if work environments are a microcosm of the wider society, it’s no wonder some organizations are laying down the law when it comes to how workers should communicate with one another.
Google is the latest large company to formalize its approach to civil interaction among employees. The tech giant last month released internal guidance for how employees should speak to one another, especially through the company’s vast network of internal forums and mailing lists.
Among its provisions, the guide prohibits “doxxing” (revealing someone else’s personal information), “trolling” and name calling, and discourages employees from using “blanket statements” about certain groups of people, encouraging workers to “understand more, not be right.”
While that approach seems common sense for those who want a peaceful work environment, formal policies to support that aim may be necessary, given the tenor of today’s world, says John Taylor, the practice development manager at career- and outplacement-solutions company RiseSmart.
“In today’s world, there may exist a ‘we versus them’ or ‘I versus others’ mentality,” Taylor says. “The world we live in is very polarized and, unless you’re hiding under a rock, you see it in the business world just as we see it outside.”
Dr. Michael Smith, chair of the communication department at La Salle University in Philadelphia, notes that companies have long grappled with the concept of civility in the workplace, but formal rules were mostly relegated to “how to do business, as opposed to how to respect a person and their political views.” Plus, he adds, as more organizations create internal social networks and bulletin boards for employees to communicate with one another, the need for new policies on communication has grown.
That concept was front and center at Google, which has come under fire in recent months for the tone of the dialogue on its internal communication channels. Last year, the company fired an engineer who had used one of the platforms to widely criticize Google’s approach to diversity, which he contended marginalized white males; he further claimed that the lack of women in tech is connected to biological differences and not discrimination. The fired employee, James Damore, later sued Google.
Mindi Cox, senior vice president of HR at O.C. Tanner, notes that many companies likely struggle with unforeseen impacts of their embracing diversity initiatives.
“Inclusivity has to be very, very broad,” she says. “I don’t know that employers do their best job at talking about the value proposition of diversity for everyone, not just persons of diverse populations. Diversity enhances the workplace for everyone; it raises the employee experience.”
Opening the conversation to include workers of all background appears to be central to Google’s new guidelines, which some have criticized for being overly broad. For instance, does the push for employees to understand all sides of a debate then sanction viewpoints that can be seen as racist or homophobic?
Taylor says organizations have to do a “balancing act” when it comes to encouraging open communication while still ensuring the company’s values are upheld.
“Trying to thread that needle is not easy but, in some cases, things have swung more in the direction of adversarial relationships, actions and behaviors that are put under this argument of ‘I thought I had an opportunity to speak freely,’ ” Taylor says. “Yes, we all do, but that doesn’t mean you get a get-out-of-jail card if you say or do things that don’t support the organization’s culture or policies.”
Formal guidelines can set a baseline for employee interactions, Taylor says, but a policy that can’t be seen in practice isn’t going to go very far. Storytelling that models the behaviors that uphold (or don’t uphold) company values in communication can be an effective way to deepen employee understanding.
Strategic storytelling can even help companies that are looking to reshape their culture.
“The way some companies are going about this is particularly intriguing and just plain smart, and that is looking at this need from the framework of how to weave [storytelling] into the culture that we want to have,” Taylor says. “When it’s done effectively, stories make their way through an organization and, before too long, things begin to shift in a direction of, ‘OK, now I understand the types of behavior linked with that quest for greater civility and inclusion.’ ”
Cutting incivility off at the knees is also necessary, Cox adds.
Recently, her company saw a number of instances in which employees threw around the term “single mama drama” at staff meetings. The incidents were reported to HR, which organized a management meeting.
“We said, ‘This language isn’t OK. Those slang terms are derogatory and stereotyping a big part of our valuable employee population. And we’re looking to every leader to not wait for an employee to be offended in a meeting,’ ” Cox recalls. She says managers were advised to not let such comments slide or address them privately later, but rather to directly call out incivility in the moment.
The concept of civility in the workplace ties into the broader context of harassment, Cox adds.
Cox says she thinks “many employers are holding their breath, hoping controversy doesn’t come to their front door,” but her firm sought to be more proactive in addressing issues such as #MeToo and sexual harassment in the workplace.
This spring, the company gathered its 1,400 employees for a “community meeting,” and had all global locations dialed in for the event.
“It was a serious moment of talking about how we have a zero-tolerance policy for any type of harassment or discrimination,” she says. “Everyone heard the message at the same time, which I think is important and impactful, and it gave an assurance that we were taking a stand on this issue.”
Since giants like Google, which often set the pace for HR trends, are taking a stand through civility guidelines, will we be seeing more of this in the coming months?
In addition to rules that outline proper interactions, Smith says, more companies may establish policies for online forums that prohibit all non-business communication.
“Historically, companies have neither been democracies nor free-speech zones,” he says. “So it wouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibility that a company might say, ‘Anything that goes over these social networks has to be strictly business-related,’ and essentially shut down conversations altogether. I’m not sure that’s the most productive thing to do, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some companies went in that direction.”
Apart from written guidelines, Cox says, she would like to see more active approaches as well.
“I hope we’re engaging more in conversation rather than writing more policies about being human in the workplace, and that we’ve got leaders modeling that,” she says. “I think [this challenge] is a reflection of the larger incivility of American social life in general, which is just hard to take. We’d all like to go somewhere where people are treating each other well and sharing viewpoints civilly. That ought to be basic.”