The Incivilities Insurrection
When you hear the word “etiquette,” you might think of finger sandwiches and garden parties. But don’t let that fool you. In today’s workplace, incivilities not only drain employee morale, but also reach deep into employer pockets. And as the following situations illustrate, employers are finding out the hard — and legal — way that “manners” are fast becoming a critical part of everyday workplace life.
Indirect insults: After a workplace misunderstanding, an employee claimed her co-worker shot hostile facial expressions her way and made certain she overheard his offensive stories. Plus, when speaking with her, he used lewd obscenities to refer to other women.
One year and a few formal grievances later, the employee’s request for reassignment was granted. However, her new position still required her to come in contact with the co-worker. Eventually, she sued her employer for sexual harassment.
The company contended that the employee did not have the necessary evidence to prove that she was subjected to a hostile working environment — a staple in sexual harassment claims — and asked for the case to be dismissed. A trial court obliged.
But an appeals court disagreed and sent the case back to a lower court. It held that a reasonable jury could find that the co-worker’s behavior was pervasive enough to “create an objectively hostile” working environment, and that the employee “subjectively
perceived her treatment to be abusive.” (Jessen v. Bureau of Land Management, 10th Cir., No. 98-8069, 1999)
Bottom line: You cannot ignore rude behavior just because there is nothing outwardly “sexual” about it. General rudeness can in fact be used to support a claim of hostile environment sexual harassment.
Monkey see, monkey do: A 20-year employee claimed that she was terminated because of her age and was subjected to a sexually hostile work environment. She contended that her supervisor used offensive language when speaking about women, instigated arguments among saleswomen, and repeatedly told the employee that he wanted “young and sexy” workers on the sales floor.
The company didn’t deny that the supervisor had engaged in such behavior. Instead, it held that the comments weren’t pervasive enough to affect the employee’s performance. As for her termination, the company said that it was her own rude behavior, including bigoted remarks, which cost her her job.
In light of this evidence, a jury found that the employee had in fact been fired for performance-related issues, not her age. It also concluded that the employee failed to present sufficient evidence that a hostile work environment existed.
Not true, said an appeals court, which sent the sexual harassment claim back for a new trial. The court reasoned that the evidence presented “did not preclude” a finding that the supervisor’s comments did indeed create a hostile work environment. (Leopold v. Baccarat, Inc., 2nd Cir., No. 98-7474, 1999)
Bottom line: If supervisors and managers are rude, employees could see this as a green light for similar behavior.
Schoolyard sarcasm: An employee was injured on the job and was out on Workers’ Compensation for eight weeks. When she returned, she claimed her manager called her a “baby” and was mean to her, culminating with him telling her he could no longer
stand to work in the same place as her and he wasn’t the one who would be leaving. Soon after this incident, the employee resigned.
A few months later, the employee filed a lawsuit, claiming that she was forced to resign in retaliation for filing a Workers’ Compensation claim. A trial judge dismissed the case before it went to trial.
An appeals court agreed, reasoning that although the manager’s comments might have been offensive, they weren’t severe enough to make a reasonable person resign. The court added that the employee had not been singled out for retaliation, because he
treated all employees in the same surly manner. (Risch v. Friendly’s Ice Cream, Hamilton Cty. Ct. App., No. C-990037, 1999)
Bottom line: Just because it’s not patently illegal for managers to be rude doesn’t mean that disgruntled employees will not file lawsuits, which inevitably cost the accused company considerable time and money.
Does Etiquette Really Matter?
Besides the legal problems, check out these stats. A recent survey of 775 employees, who were the victims of rudeness, revealed that 53% lost work time worrying about the rudeness, 46% contemplated changing jobs to avoid the instigator, and 37% felt that their commitment to their employer declined.
Amid today’s fierce retention battle, numbers like these are why many companies are enlisting the help of “etiquette professionals” like Marjorie Brody, Certified Speaking Professional and Certified Management Consultant.
As owner of Jenkintown, PA-based Brody Communications, a business training and consulting firm, Brody believes that business etiquette is so important because manners are not only a reflection on an individual, but also on an entire company.
According to Brody, people make assumptions about a person and the company they represent based on their etiquette skills. Therefore, knowing business etiquette can potentially make or break a business/client relationship. Not to mention, proper etiquette skills have a positive impact on retaining employees and increasing productivity.
Although rude incidents may not seem to add up to much on their own, when looked at collectively, workplace incivilities can create an atmosphere of rising tension that can take a toll on productivity and morale. Not only that, they can leave a lasting — and negative — impression on a potential customer or client.
Bear in mind, however, that business etiquette encompasses much more than appropriate words or behavior. With businesses relying so heavily on modern technologies, knowing etiquette when it comes to using e-mail, telephones, and voice mail, has become increasingly important. With that in mind, here are some Brody tips you can pass on to your managers and employees for honing their business etiquette skills.
Words can often be misconstrued, so be concise and to the point. This will eliminate the need for phone calls to follow up on e-mails that need further clarification.
- Avoid sending negative or antagonistic comments. Resolve problems in person, not through e-mail.
- If you need to send unsolicited messages, make certain they are of value to recipients; otherwise they’ll be considered junk mail. Whenever possible, get the recipient’s permission or at least ensure that they know the e-mail is coming.
- Avoid sending personal or confidential e-mails. There is no such thing as private e-mail. Before you send the e-mail, consider what may happen if the message is intercepted and read by someone else.
- Minimize attachments. The larger the attachment, the longer it takes to download and the more memory space it takes up on the recipient’s computer. If a lengthy attachment is necessary, it can be faxed or “snail mailed.”
- You may be familiar with Internet lingo, abbreviations, and various emoticons [like the popular smiley face :-)], but don’t assume your recipient is.
When leaving a message:
- Avoid saying your message is urgent unless it is.
- Be specific and brief when leaving a message.
- Leave your name and number at both the beginning and the end of your message.
- Do not leave messages that contain confidential or sensitive information. You don’t know who may have access to the person’s voice mail.
- If possible, always listen to your message before sending it.
When relying on voice mail to receive calls:
Change your outgoing message regularly so people know when you are available. Be as specific as possible regarding the time or day you will be returning.
- Keep your outgoing message brief.
- If possible, leave an alternative name for the person to contact — especially if you will be out of the office for an extended period of time.
- Don’t use voice mail as a way of avoiding people if you are available.
- Don’t put voice mail on speaker phone when you are checking your messages, unless you are alone in a private office.
When making a call:
- Organize what you want to say before dialing.
- If you dial a wrong number, don’t hang up. Thanks to “Caller ID,” you might be offending a potential customer.
- Immediately identify yourself and your company to whoever answers. Don’t assume that this information will be relayed if your call is transferred.
- Always end a call with a positive statement, like “I look forward to doing business with you.”
When answering a call:
- Pick up within three rings. Good telephone etiquette begins before you even say hello.
- Immediately identify yourself by your full name. Including a verb helps you sound less harsh. For example, “This is Jane Doe speaking” sounds a lot better than “Jane Doe.”
- Always return calls within 24 hours.
- Focus on the caller by giving the person your complete attention.
- A well-placed “I see” or “Yes” reassures the caller that you’re still listening and are interested in what he/she is saying.
- Only put a caller on hold when it’s absolutely necessary, and always ask for permission first and be sure to wait for a response.