Ep. 234: Amanda Marcy and Doug Parker - Building a Civil Workplace

September 18, 2023 | 27 Minutes

In today's episode, host Adam Larson is joined by the esteemed authors of the 2023 Curt Verschoor Ethics Feature of the Year titled "The Value of Civility" - Amanda Marcy and Doug Parker. Get ready as they delve deep into the importance of civility in the workplace and its connection to professional ethics and ethical standards.

Did you know that even seemingly inconsequential or inconsiderate words can violate workplace norms? In this fascinating conversation, Amanda and Doug shed light on various aspects of civility, including its impact on workplace morale, productivity, and employee commitment. They also explore the role of leaders in promoting a culture of civility and providing guidelines for employee conduct.

Through insightful discussions and real-world examples, you'll gain a profound understanding of how civility not only enhances workplace harmony but also influences ethical decision-making. So whether you're a leader aiming to foster a respectful environment or an employee dealing with an uncivil boss, this episode will equip you with the tools to navigate challenging situations. Tune in today!

Full Episode Transcript:
Adam:            Welcome to Count Me In. Today, I'm thrilled to have Doug Parker, Assistant Professor of Accounting at Western Carolina University. And Amanda Marcy, Assistant Professor of Accounting at the University of Scranton on today's show. They are authors of the award winning article, The Value of Civility. Which examines the important relationships between ethics, professional standards, and civil behavior in the workplace.
Doug and Amanda will share insightful perspectives from their research, on how a culture of incivility can negatively impact organizations. What leaders can do to promote civility, and advice for handling uncivil bosses or co-workers. Their expertise provides a crucial framework for maintaining ethical principles, while nurturing a respectful and productive work environment. 
Doug and Amanda's thought-provoking article underscores why self-awareness, open communication, and thoughtful leadership are vital for organizations seeking to uphold integrity. I'm excited to dive into these critical issues with them. Please join me in welcoming Doug and Amanda to the show.
Adam:            Well, Amanda and Doug, I'm really excited to have you on the podcast today. You, guys, are the authors of an article called The Value of Civility, which is the Curt Verschoor, Article of the Year. And we're really excited to talk about that. And, so, maybe we can start off by explaining how civility in the workplace is related to professional ethics, and the ethical principles and standards. And we're going to be talking a lot about ethics and standards, today. But maybe we can start a little bit about maybe how civility works and maybe what is civility. Because it's not a word we hear every day in every workplace.
Doug:              Well, it's definitely not something you hear every day, but it's something you witness every day. Especially when you watch media or any news outlets, you'll see incivility at its best. But the basic concept there is it's, basically, an exchange of seemingly inconsequential or inconsiderate words, that violate the conventional norms of workplace conduct.
In other words, it's not, necessarily, direct attacks. It's more of texting on your cell phone while someone's trying to convey a point or real low intensity behavior meant to harm others, without maybe even recognizing that you're doing it. Sometimes it can be words that we say that can harm others. Derogatory comments, ignoring their opinions, belittling their opinions, I think, is a big part of incivility. And we do witness it quite a bit in everyday society.
Hopefully not in everyday workplace society, but you see it a lot in terms of society. Go to the counter and just watch people do their orders. Where something's done wrong or not as quick as they think, and you'll see those uncivil acts begin to take place in there. Any additional thoughts on that, Amanda?
Amanda:        I would say one thing to remember is that ethics contributes to how, like Doug said, we treat each other on a daily basis. So civility, at its heart, focuses on honesty, fairness, self-control, and prudence. Therefore, if we don't have civility, then we can never truly act ethically.
Doug:              It definitely requires to be mindful of a place, time, and how you speak. I think we must concentrate on what we say and how we say it. So I found this neat, little, article by Joan Dubinsky, from Clemson University, and she stated that, "Civility and ethics are cousins, they're not twins." In other words, they're not the identical same thing. In other words, you can be civil and still act unethically. So you can take an unethical course, but do it very civil.
So in the South we say, "Bless your heart" that's uncivil words. It's meant as a derogatory term, but it's done in a very civil manner. So you can act in an unethical manner and still act civilly. However, you can't be uncivil and be ethical, at the same time. So it doesn't work both ways. So if you're uncivil, then, you're definitely not acting civil or ethically toward others. Treating other with respect and care is really foundational to ethical leadership. Leading in a manner that respects the rights and dignities of others.
Adam:            Mh-hmm, yes, it sounds like everybody should be listening to this conversation. Especially if we look at just how people treat each other in the streets, in Twitter, to each other, and how they talk to each other anywhere. This is a wider conversation, than just the workplace. But if we look at the workplace, how can that lack of a civility affect a professional workplace. If we don't have those things? I think you've kind of covered that. But if we look at just a workplace, how can it affect if we don't have those things?
Amanda:        One thing to consider is it will, obviously, break down workplace harmony. Because you could have employees attacking each other, I don't want to say physically attacking each other. But attacking each other, maybe they're physically attacking each other, I don't know. Either subtly or intentionally which, again, can result in low employee morale, decreased productivity, stuff of that nature.
It could also result, in the end of the day, of employees having less organizational commitment. So they may be more apt to leave the firm just because they're not comfortable being there anymore, in that type of environment.
Doug:              Yes, and if you really read the paper and look at some of the comments, so I'll go to that, it says that, "The impact of incivility, it makes you less motivated to do a good job or get a job done as fast as possible." Well, in that are you acting in the most ethical manner? I mean, if your motivation to do a good job, that's not really ethical, especially, for your clients or for your employer in that.
We also noticed that supervisor incivility had a much greater impact on job satisfaction, than does co-worker incivility. So when you go from the top down, it seemed to impact our workplace morale and our willingness to do a good job for the firm or for your clients in that. Because if you're rushing through, you're definitely not doing a good job, which is part of professionalism there.
Adam:            So maybe this next question, we can look at it from two different perspectives. We can look at things, maybe, you guys can address how can leaders promote a culture of civility in a workplace? And then as a follow up, what if you're somebody who is underneath a leader who is not acting in a civil manner? What if somebody is not acting in that way?
So, first, how can you promote it as a leader? But then as an employee, what if you're under that person who is acting in that manner; how can you address that?
Doug:              Amanda, you want to go first or you want me to take it?
Amanda:        Sure, I can take it. So, obviously, tone at the top is huge in organizations. So leaders need to set a tone that establishes employee expectations, as it relates to civility. And, then, they also need to demonstrate what civility means within their organization. So more of like a monkey see, monkey do type of situation.
So one way that they can establish employee expectations is they can do it as part of the hiring stage. So they should be spelling out, in job descriptions, what's expected from a conduct perspective. And then when they're going through hiring, they should be asking the types of questions that gauge if there's any triggers, within this individual, that could make them more apt to engage in incivil acts, in the workplace. Because that could negatively impact, like we already said, the work culture, the work environment. 
Another thing, like I said, that leaders should be focusing on is modeling civil behavior. So making sure they're portraying to their employees, around them, what's expected of them. They should be defining civility for the organization. So they could, actually, put into company policies what civility is, and what the expectations are for employees. So, essentially, when employees sign on, sign their employment contracts, they're signing on to agree to whatever those policies are.
Another thing that leaders could do, firms could do, is to set up some type of a program. Where there are rewards and consequences for civil versus uncivil engagement from employees. So they could be rewarding civil behaviors in some way. They could have certain consequences, or punishments for any uncivil behaviors, that employees could be taking part in.
Additionally, as part of firm trainings, or even webinars, or providing other tools that could help individuals within the firm bolster their engagement. As it relates to civility, and have them act less incivil against the co-workers around them.
Doug:              And, as leaders, we have to check ourselves as well, I think, that's very important. We can do training to others, but, sort of, reflect, "Have I acted in a manner..." Because, sometimes, we may not realize how our actions are. So survey your employees. Ask your employees, "Have I said anything that you felt demeaned you or didn't take your opinion into account?" Because if we do that 360 view, of ourselves, we may think we're acting civilly, if that's a word, I don't know, we'll go with it. But, in essence, we may be saying things or doing things that are perceived as uncivil.
For example, maybe, during a meeting, you're texting while your employee is trying to give their opinion. While you may not think anything of it, or you may not even care if somebody else does it to you, it may impact them negatively. So having that open communication, would really help establish that as well. I mean, we do annual fire safety training, for example. Why can't we have an annual reminder of civil actions and how we should treat others, in the workplace?
Amanda:        Feeding off of Doug's communication comment there. Another thought that came up through a lot of the research that I was reading through, as we were putting together this paper was that firms and organizations should consider including civility, as part of their feedback loop process. So when they are doing their coaching of employees or doing performance evaluations at year end or even, periodically, throughout the year, civility should be built into that.
So they should be assessing whether or not the employee is meeting the expectations that the firm has set out. And if they're not, they should be coaching them through how they can improve themselves, as an employee.
Make an effort to make it part of your corporate culture or your firm culture. In accounting, we have firms, a lot of times. So work to build that in and just make it part of your everyday culture. Where are we at with that respect to others?
Adam:            So what if you are an employee who has a boss, or you see the whole head of your organization. You're, like, "These people are not treating us in a civil manner." And everything we've been discussing. How can you address that as an employee? Sometimes it's hard to approach people who are acting in that manner. What would you guys suggest in a workplace, especially, if you're in a situation like, "I can't get fired, but I can't also work in this environment. What do I do?"
Doug:              Well, first, definitely, try not to take it personally. I think, a lot of times, personal actions have nothing to do with the individual. So take a step back and say, "Okay, what caused this?" Especially, if it's out of the norm for an individual.
If, all of a sudden, an individual is acting a way that's just not the norm. I think, we have to take a step back and, definitely, not take it personal. I know we've all heard the term "It's business, not personal". That's true, in many respects. So take a step back and just say, "Okay, was this directed at me? Did they intend it toward me? What impacts in their life, are they having that may have caused that action?"
Because when we're in increased stress situations, or financial issues, or fatigue. Working 80 hours a week, can make us say and do things that maybe are out of our norm. So what's the situation that's taking in? Don't take it personally in that respect. Sometimes it is personal, but try not to, at first, until you understand the causing, the source of it.
Amanda:        Another thing that an individual could, potentially, do is, kind of, feeding off of not taking it personally, is taking a step back. Maybe you're overreacting a bit, and maybe you need to calm down before you react in a way that could be taken as incivil. Because it creates a circular effect, if you have that type of a reaction.
Another thing, if this is an individual that, maybe, you have to work with, all the time and they are always acting in this way. Maybe you need to set up some personal boundaries, and maybe you have to talk to a superior and be like, "Oh, maybe, I shouldn't work with this person, we just don't seem to get along." Or something of that nature. So that you put yourself in more of a safe and comfortable position. And, at the end of the day, if it escalates too much, then you have to reach out for help.
Either reaching out to HR, reaching out to somebody else, within the leadership team to discuss that situation. So they can help you to diffuse any retaliation that could occur as a result of this experience.
Adam:            Do you think that in today's environment, there are so many different movements happening, that have been happening, over the years, that have come to the rise like Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and those types of things. And when we were talking about civility, do you think that people have become afraid to share their opinions because, "Oh, no, will it offend this people?"
"Will it offend these people?"
"Am I afraid to say this thing?" Do you think it has created a culture where people are afraid to share because they're afraid that they're going to offend too many people?
Amanda:        I personally, definitely, think that's true. Even from an academic perspective, standing in front of a classroom. I feel like I have to filter pretty much every sentence that comes out of my mouth because I'm afraid I might, unintentionally, offend somebody. Especially because I tend to be more of an outspoken individual. So that's been, definitely, the last year or two a learning point for me. And it's just, like I said, trying to filter so I don't, unintentionally, because it's never intentional, unintentionally, say something that somebody just might take the wrong direction.
Doug:              And I think we need to work on our ability, if someone does say something that's off. To go and speak to that person because maybe they don't realize. You got to remember, you're working in a multigenerational setting. Academia is a multigenerational. Corporations are multigenerational. And terms that may be perfectly fine, are no longer perfectly fine to some people.
So instead of getting upset, or yelling, or screaming or calling them names, as a response. Maybe we need to step back and say, "Let's have a conversation on what that means today, and how we interpret that, and what did you mean by it?" And have those conversations, where we can actually speak to each other and disagree and, maybe, agree to disagree.
Without getting to the point that our response is uncivil to the person that we think has offended us in that manner. So that's something, as a society, we probably do need to work on a little bit. The ability to communicate differing thoughts without resulting to uncivil behavior in that.
Adam:            Because, I think, unfortunately, as a result, we've become too quick to, quote-unquote, "Cancel people" as opposed to having just conversations with them. And I don't think anybody wants to be remembered by the worst thing they've ever said because we are humans and we all can grow. And, I think, if we become too quick to cancel and forget about conversations.
We forget that humans are ever-changing creatures and we grow, over time. And this whole idea of canceling somebody just because of one thing they've said, as opposed to allowing people opportunities to grow, is a problem in our society, unfortunately.
Doug:              It can be. And if you look back, I think, we also have to be careful about pushing our social norms, today, on people 30 years ago or 40 years ago because they were different acceptable behaviors then. And to say that you did that one time makes you this person is not, necessarily, true. And I'm just thankful that we didn't have cell phones when I was a kid. When I was 16, there was no such thing as instant recording. They had the big box on their arm, so you knew you were being recorded. So a lot of those things wouldn't come out. So we have to be careful with social norms. What's acceptable now, may have been acceptable back then or not. But we can't push today's norms on people in the past, so to speak.
Adam:            So have either of you ever witnessed a situation where a lack of civility compromised ethical principles, in a workplace? And if you did witness it, how was it handled? How did you address it? How did it happen?
Amanda:        I'll pass this one over to Doug because I know, personally, that he's dealt with this, previously, in a past employment. That's what sparked his interest in this topic, for this article.
Doug:              It did. The topic really came about, one, you start to see it a lot in society and, especially, with politics, I hate to say that, but you see it a lot in politics and governance of our country. And, so, as a young accountant, and by young, I mean fresh out of school, first accounting career. I don't want to say too much because if someone does hear this, that may have been there back in those days, they don't relate it. So I really didn't understand maybe corporate norms or how people should act.
So I worked for a smaller company, and the manager that they hired in had a tendency to be what we would label as uncivil today. Back then I don't know that we would have said it's uncivil. But it happened, I think, a lot more than what you would consider today. But just the terms, derogatory. Would say negative remarks, very negative in the personality. And once that began happening, I noticed the culture really started to change. Employees were less happy.
Our productivity did go down so much so that the product that we were selling, at the time, we started to see decrease. And I don't want to say the industry I was in, and they would say, "Oh, I'm just joking." But even at that, saying you're just joking doesn't, necessarily, make everything fine, especially, in a workplace setting. It's not like you're sitting around the table with your buds, so to speak.
So the way that we reacted, our work activities became more about how the manager was acting. So if we went out to dinner, as a group, instead of team building, we were sitting there complaining about management, and how they were speaking and acting. So you did see that drastic decline. The production went down so much so that we ended up with only four employees left, and we had 27. So production, went down so much, we had to lay off everyone.
As a 22-year-old, I didn't really know what was going on in that. Luckily, I was one of the four remained or unluckily, I don't know which one you would prefer to say there. I wasn't let go and lost my job because I needed income. But there was four left when I quit, about two months later because I was just done.
My stress levels were so high from that instance. I was in the hospital, at 22, thinking I was having a heart attack. Because I didn't know what stress attacks were or panic attacks. So it really had not only an impact on just the organization, but even my personal health and wellbeing, and the day I quit, I felt 100% better. So it was like a weight was lifted.
So I think those situations can have consequences, especially, if they're extreme. Where it's happening a lot, can not only have consequences to the company, but also to the individual's just wellbeing, in that respect.
Adam:            Because it promotes just this toxic atmosphere that just festers and festers, and grows and grows, and we know what toxicity does. It doesn't kill you right away, but it kills over time. And, so, a toxic workout environment can do that and your example, Doug, shows that.
And I've been in work experiences where a lot of people disliked one person, and then instead of addressing the behavior or addressing it, we all just sat around talking about that person, and it doesn't help, it never helps. And until you're outside of the situation, you realize, wait, "That was not a good situation. I shouldn't have been doing that."
Doug:              And as a 22-year-old, you don't really know, necessarily, what you should do. So I think a lot of times the younger generation may take that in a way that causes more harm to them. I mean, if you've been around it for a while, you sort of, I don't know, become hard hearted. I guess you'd take it as it comes. But being a younger individual, not having experienced that in life, it made it a tough situation to be in. And you notice you act differently than what you should, necessarily. And I think it's harder for us when it's management than it is a co-worker.
You can distance yourself from a coworker pretty much. But when it comes to your day-to-day management, where you have to deal with them constantly. And they're your superior and you may not know, well, they have experience, maybe this is just how it's supposed to be as a young professional first coming out. So it's very important that we understand what proper behavior should be and then how to react to it.
Adam:            Mh-hmm, I know some organizations have ethics hotlines. That you can call in and address ethical behaviors like that. I mean, it's important to know your organization's HR management and all those things, and see if there's a way to address it, in a way. Especially, if you're afraid of retaliation.
Doug:              Yes, that's a big thing, worrying that management may end up taking it out. Or how well does each layer of management know each other? I mean, if they're really good buddies, or they go golfing, or to fashion events, or whatever they do on their free time. If you then turn around and go above, employees may be fear retaliation even further up, than just their direct management in that.
Adam:            So I think we've pretty much shown what it means to have how a civil workplace or incivil workplace can negatively affect an organization's culture. So, obviously, if you're having a civil workplace, it can very positively affect the culture. But how can organizations ensure that their employees are adhering to ethical principles and standards? Because I know that it's not an easy thing. But how can you do that, to not create the atmosphere that you were in, Doug?
Doug:              Well, one is definitely we were talking earlier self-observe. Just make sure that we're not part of the problem, that we're part of the solution. But they can monitor and observe, a lot happens. I know it's a little bit more difficult in today's world, when we have the remote workplace, so you don't see as much. But, definitely, monitor and observe.
Listen to the conversations that are going on, to make sure that people are appropriate in that. Open lines of communication. Make sure your employees know if something is bothering them, that they can come to you and speak to you about that. Amanda, do you have anything to add there?
Amanda:        I'd say this is an area where ethical leadership really comes into play. Especially, from your top-level management personnel. There's, actually, a whole stream of research that's looked at what impact does ethical leaders have on employees partaking or engaging in unethical or deviant behaviors. And a lot of the main findings, from there, have shown that if there is an ethical leader, they can actually influence how the employees act in the workplace. And they can do that by holding them accountable to the ethical standards.
By putting in place, like I said before, rewards and some type of a punishment system. So there's, actually, research that has shown, that followers learn that ethical conduct is rewarded and that incivility is punished. And through doing that, they're more apt to not act unethically, and to follow the standards or the expectations that the firm has put into place.
Another thing that came from this research is that the employees, at a company, will also learn from what they're seeing happen to the co-workers around them. So just by witnessing one of their co-workers being rewarded for being civil or being punished for being uncivil, will also drive them to act a certain way. So to, again, follow the standards or the expectations that have been set up by firm leadership.
Doug:              And watch for turnover trends as well. When you see turnover happening, do those exit interviews. Don't just say, "Hey, goodbye, have a great life." But actually take the time to speak with your employee. Find out why that turnover is taking place. Is it due to those types of actions?
They may have absolutely nothing to do with it. Turnover happens for all sorts of reasons. Better opportunity, just stagnant career, want something new, things like that. But in those exit interviews, speak with them, see why they're leaving. If it does have something to do with the others' behavior, either through management or coworkers. What was the behavior? What led you to this point? Why did you not speak up? Did you not feel comfortable speaking up?
Because that's a big indicator, too, as managers, that, "Hey, our employees aren't willing to come to us and speak to that." And then if you do witness it, talk to the employee, what's causing it? Maybe there's some underlying stressors that are causing that behavior. Either financial, ill parents that they're caring for, and then look at ways the firm can maybe support those individuals, that are having struggles outside.
Adam:            So this has been a great conversation. And as we wrap things up, I just wanted to see is there any advice or any final thoughts, you guys, wanted to give to our audience, before we wrap it up, today?
Doug:              I think one thing, go ahead Amanda.
Amanda:        I was waiting for you this whole time.
Doug:              You, go ahead, I'll let you go first.
Amanda:        I'm usually the follower to Doug's leader, by default. I would say my biggest advice is just being self-aware. Know where you're playing into this workplace relationship. If this instability is occurring, whether you're the person that's creating the instability or you're the person that's falling victim to that instability. Because there's different and appropriate responses to which player you are.
Doug:              I definitely agree with that. Before we respond, take a step back and think about your response. So, especially, if you're angry or upset, email is our worst enemy, I think, in that respect. Because it's easier to type a response that's negative. So type it up, and then an hour later read it because I think you'll be shocked.
So I think it's great to express yourself when you are angry. Because it does lift that burden when you can express it, just don't hit Send. But if you do have that response and you're angry, type it up, let it sit, and then read it back to yourself. And I think you'll be shocked at how you come across in many respects, in your response. You're like, "Oh, my goodness, I would never say that to a person face to face."
So I think a lot of our incivility does stem from email or electronic communications, where they're not as personal as face to face in that. So just double check. Never respond out of anger, take a step back, and just review how you're going to respond and is it appropriate response.
Adam:            Mm, and, sometimes, we're angry about something completely different and we're just taking our anger out on whoever just chatted with us. So that whole self-reflection thing that you guys have been talking about, is a huge thing. Because a lot of times we're frustrated about things, but it has nothing to do with our job or it has something to do with something else that happened. And we have to take that moment to self-reflect, and what you guys have just said is a huge impact. Take a minute, take a step back, take a step, or count to five before you respond.
Sometimes just taking that moment before you respond means the world of difference. Especially, when you're responding to co-workers, to people on the street. If somebody bumps into you, maybe, they were in a rush because their friend is dying. Or they bumped into you because they are just a jerk and that's just who they are. But that doesn't mean we need to respond in anger back to them. It's all about how we respond to people and taking that moment to take a minute, and those are all great things.
Thank you guys so much for responding, for writing your great article. Please, check the show notes, everybody. We'll put a link to the article and thank you guys. Thank you, Amanda, Doug, thank you so much for coming on today.
Doug:              Thank you for having us.
Amanda:        Thanks for having us.
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