Like many of you, I have been thinking a lot about our social contract and what is needed for a flourishing civil society. So many examples come to mind that break that social contract: mass shootings, bomb threats at HBCUs, hate crimes, hateful chants at sporting events, and ongoing toxic work behaviors.

Civility itself might be like legal obscenity; we know it when we see it, but it can be hard to define. Incivility is contextually based and can be weaponized. It can be used for biased tone policing. We must also note that civility is not unity. Disagreements provide productive friction. But the ways in which we argue matter, in that they can invite conversation and participation, or shut it down.

It seems as if the pandemic has unearthed more and more of the ugly; presenting us with videos of parents yelling at school board members in parking lots, and of employees being harassed as they tried to enforce store mask mandates. 

We are not just imagining the increase in incivility. In the Harvard Business Review, Christine Porath, a professor at Georgetown, detailed findings from her recent survey, which also found that workplace incivility is on the rise,  particularly for frontline workers. To track trends in workplace incivility, which Porath defines as "rudeness, disrespect, or insensitive behavior," she surveyed more than 2,000 workers across 25 industries worldwide. About three-fourths  experienced incivility once a month or more and slightly more witnessed it. A staggering 78% said this is more common now than 5 years ago. As a comparison, that figure in 2012 was 35% who believed bad behavior between customers was more common than it was five years earlier.

As communication professionals, there is a lot to consider in terms of the complexities of responding to these challenging incidents. Some of these incidents of incivility have the potential to be quite high profile, which means tapping into our crisis management skills. 

A group of Page members who work at academic institutions came together to talk about this issue, and out of that conversation came a few things to keep in mind when thinking about ways to respond to acts of incivility:

  • Be clear in your support for colleagues or constituents who have been targets of rude or disruptive behavior.
  • Focus on core values of ensuring safety, fostering belonging, supporting free expression and sustaining learning and development.  
  • Create expectations around respectful interaction and engagement in your speeches, writing, and daily interactions. Make those expectations clear in hiring and onboarding.
  • Shape your culture as one where people learn to engage in difficult conversations and learn how to facilitate disagreements and work to help people listen and understand each other.