The morning after the US election, I drove – admittedly on auto-pilot – to the first of several sessions I recently delivered on workplace respect and civility. I wondered to myself how I was going to “show up” as my usual “positive and practical” self when I felt anything but.
After giving myself some time to reflect on what I was witnessing (in terms of the emboldened and/or aggressive “reactions” to the outcome), I did what I often encourage others to do when faced with chaos or crises in their personal and professional relationships – I turned to first principles of what respect and civility mean to me. I reflected not only on what I expected from others but also what I must expect in myself. I focused on what I could do to make the world around me a little bit more palatable for those around me as we all try to move forward in the most constructive way possible.
I share these with you today.
- Let’s show up for each other. Many times, when something happens with which we disagree, we react and retreat. We refuse to participate in making the situation better (or as “workable” as it can be in the particular circumstances). “Shutting down” in protest (to an individual leader, a particular initiative or a specific decision) gets us – and our colleagues – nowhere. Despite our level of personal displeasure or professional discontent with a particular situation, the most constructive “first step” is to address it. Avoidance, stonewalling, willful blindness or persistent denial of existing concerns – at home or in the workplace – is “disengagement at its finest” and guarantees that the issues will continue (and likely worsen).
- When we “show up”, we need to do so with basic civility and respect (in terms of what we say and how we say it). Regardless of the “topic” of discussion (or our “passion” surrounding it), we must respect the diversity of individuals and opinions in our environment. We need to be aware that not everyone agrees or needs to agree with our particular world views. More significantly, we must respect and accept that not everyone wants or needs to hear us talk about those views, particularly at the workplace.
- In contrast to our personal lives, those at our workplace do not have a “choice” to spend time with us. Unlike social situations, those at work are not able to retreat or leave if they (often justifiably) feel uncomfortable, marginalized or actively disrespected as a result of a particular topic being discussed. In order to work, they are “captive to” their workplace environment.
- This important fact distinguishes workplace relationships and communication from those in our homes and communities. The workplace does not belong to any specific individual – it belongs to all of us. Accordingly, no one should be pressured, compelled or forced to engage in dialogue or discussion that is unrelated to the workplace or their duties, particularly when such commentary – by today’s standards – is considered unreasonable in its content or delivery.
- What is this “standard of reasonableness”? This is the most commonly asked question in the work that I do. It is a standard that incorporates our governing laws and legislation (including current human rights/anti-discrimination, labour standards, and occupational health and safety legislation). It is a standard that applies to any communication in the workplace, regardless of our personal views regarding that communication. It is a standard that balances the right to express our personal views, whatever they may be, with the obligation to ensure that others remain able to work in a harassment-free, safe and respectful environment. Nothing that is said by specific individuals – during political debates, in musical lyrics, newspaper articles or otherwise – changes the fact that each person in our workplace must adhere to this legal standard.
- A non-“inflammatory” example of this might be of assistance (I apologize, in advance, for the play on words). If a high profile and influential leader suddenly and vocally proclaims that the use of protective gear for firefighters is “ridiculous” because he personally doesn’t think it’s useful/necessary, do we suddenly stop taking care of our firefighters? Do we stop invoking safety legislation that mandates protective gear to keep our firefighters healthy and safe because “someone says so”? Of course not.
- For the very same reason, the mere fact that a high profile and influential leader proclaims that it is OK to demean women or devalue members of minority groups, does not make it acceptable or defensible. It is no more lawful today –than it was a week ago – to verbally or physically harass or discriminate against individuals in the workplace on the basis of sex, race, religion or otherwise. This is not my “opinion” – it is the governing law. And any person’s opinion on the law – regardless of who that person is – does not change this fact.
- No one needs to “agree” with current workplace expectations of respect and civility – they simply must follow them. Like them or not, they are – and need to be understood and reinforced as – conditions of employment in the modern workplace.
- With this in mind, how do we move forward?
- In this period of “unsettling uncertainty”, leaders need to lead. Staff are vigilantly watching how leaders act (that is, how they are treating their teams) and how leaders react (that is, how they address disrespectful treatment happening on their teams). Now more than ever, leaders need to show – through decisive words and consistent action – that nothing has changed regarding the ongoing need for respectful workplace communication and conduct. Reaffirm these expectations. Lead in accordance with these expectations. And finally? Hold individuals accountable when these expectations are not being met.
- Each of us – regardless of our personal or political views or professional responsibilities – needs to take responsibility for our own words and actions. The fact that particular leaders within or outside our organization invite or encourage incivility or disrespect is not a licence to follow their lead. Others’ actions and opinions do not constitute a legal defence to or ethical immunity for our own. We, alone, are responsible for the consequences of what we say and do.
- In this time of volatility, confusion and uncertainty, let’s keep it simple. Let’s show up – with civility and respect – for ourselves and for those around us. And as I have said many times before, we can get through anything – one respectful conversation at a time.
– Marli Rusen
Learn more about cultivating workplace civility and respect in Marli’s book “The MIRROR Method: How to build productive teams by ending workplace dysfunction.”