Fostering Civility in the Workplace During a Time of Political Divisions


Aside from ushering in a new administration in January 2017, the election of President-Elect Trump has prompted discussions about the value and role of civility and respect as a vital aspect of how we treat each other as citizens and colleagues. Teachers have reported increased bullying in schools and there's an ever increasing number of viral videos highlighting acts of hatred toward "the other" that were often unseen or not as prevalent. As this increases it stands to reason that similar shifts may occur in the workplace. Not to such an extreme degree, but the tone and tenor of work relations remains a vital cog in the machinery of productivity, but also fostering a healthy culture of camaraderie and trust. At times our hold on trust in the workplace is tenuous at best, thus any disruption to that can place that fragile balance in jeopardy. That said, consider this article a preemptive attempt to navigate the changing landscape and tone of our country. Consider it a defensive maneuver to ensure that the vitriol that is on the horizon remains at arms length and that your workplace and your role in it serves as a model of civility and a place of support for you and those you work with. 

Been There, Done That - And My Integrity Got Me Through

D & S Contributor: Kenneth Cole, Psy.D.
Licensed Psychologist

As a psychologist and administrator there have been countless times I’ve encountered the dilemma of whether or not I bite my tongue in the face of divisive or vitriolic comments in the workplace. These ranged from coworkers or supervisors making homophobic remarks, to a litany of comments that were demeaning of other cultures, misogynistic and on more than one occasion racist. Over the past 30 years my reactions to each were varied ranging from shocked and muted to uncomfortable laughter, and over time vocal, challenging and encouraging of open and constructive dialogue. My own evolution took time and unfortunately was delayed more by perceived power dynamics and fear of retribution, than my own principles and integrity. While my career has been varied and my roles diverse, my integrity has remained constant throughout. This integrity is one that strives to work in a culture not only of inclusivity and acceptance but also equity as it relates to respect, dialogue and consistent embrace of a company’s mission and vision. As integrity and personality remain relatively constant throughout one’s adult life having a better understanding of your workplace integrity helps ensure you're on solid footing in the months and years ahead. It will also help prepare you for those occasions when divisive language and disrespectful behaviors become more commonplace and accepted across our country. Keep in mind they may be accepted in large swaths of our country, but that does not make them acceptable. 

Playing the Long Game:

The meteoric and unexpected rise of President-Elect Trump has been marked by a commensurate increase in racist, misogynistic and demeaning dialogue across many aspects of our society. Schools have reported an uptick in bullying, communities have seen a rise in hate crimes, and many are fearful that such divisions, while not as intense may present themselves in the workplace. That fear appears to stem from the litany of comments made prior to and during the campaign by a range of influential figures. Comments that fuel a divide and pits one against “the other”. Should this play itself out and evolve into “trickle down tensions” in the workplace, then comments that were once taboo may now become more commonplace. It’s imperative of us as leaders and contributors to a healthy work culture to prepare ourselves and our team to remain steadfast and true to our workplace integrity and commitment to creating and sustaining a culture of professionalism and respect. While it appears that there are a wealth of changes on the horizon, one constant and ideally remains unchanged is our integrity. Here are some ways to make this the firm ground upon which you will stand going forward. 

Double Down on Your Integrity:

In the coming weeks carve out time to document what makes you a person of integrity both in and out of the workplace. What makes you a person of integrity as a leader and how does that integrity embody the mission and vision of the company you are associated with. It remains important to document your standard as other standards including, legal, social and cultural may change around you. If you’re not clear on where you stand, then it’s all the more important that you determine what this is, rather than being influenced by others to set your integrity for you. 

For starters consider writing down following:

  • What are your markers of workplace integrity?
  • What do actively do that embodies this?
  • What would you never do that contradicts this?
  • Document your most recent example that exemplifies your workplace integrity
  • Document the closest you’ve come to compromising your workplace integrity
  • Examine the forces that compelled you to approach such a point
  • Create a plan of action to respond with more integrity next time
  • Create an Integrity Cheat Sheet
  • Provide Ten “I will” statements that you strive to engage in on a daily basis that embody your workplace integrity.
  • Keep this Integrity Cheat Sheet at the ready as a reminder or an opportunity to ground or "reset' yourself as needed. 

Understanding your workplace and personal integrity will help you better recognize when the workplace environment begins to conflict with this. We’re not talking about tone of voice, or sarcasm, or the co-worker who thinks their funny, but clearly isn’t. Rather the focus is on those interactions that clearly contradict your integrity and more than likely are a violation of company policy. These would include comments or actions that subtly or overtly suggest racism, sexism and the host of other ism’s that have risen back to the surface as of late.

As you come to better understand how your morals and integrity influence your work you’ll gain insight into why you’ve reacted viscerally when the many ism’s of our society have invaded the workplace. And with this awareness you’re better able to manage it professionally and in accordance not only with your own standards, but also those laid out by your company. 

Divert with Dialogue:

Now that your workplace integrity is clearly defined you may find that you no longer want to bite your tongue should hurtful and offensive words make their presence known at the office. First off, notice the difference between healthy discussion and those comments or interactions that are clearly inappropriate. 

As a start, consider healthy workplace dialogue. Often times people engaged in appropriate conversation in the workplace are able to do so without fear of retribution, as well as display a sense of comfort knowing that what they are discussing is appropriate and likely not offensive to others. Some examples of this are innocuous reference to the weather, the game or possibly plans for the weekend. Also, work related discussions, planning or debriefing projects can also flow rather smoothly if all members of the team feel invested in the task at hand. 

Conversely, notice the content, pace and tone of those comments made by co-workers that directly conflict with your workplace and personal integrity. They are often "one liners", offensive quips or sidebar comments, in essence no different than an offensive conversational version of a tweet. While offensive remarks are often less than 140 characters their impact can have a chilling effect on one’s level of comfort in the workplace, trust in their co-workers and ultimately their career as a whole. 

Which in many ways may be the purpose of such remarks. Consider them as a way for people to “mark their territory”. It leaves a lasting impression and lets you know where not only they stand, but implies where you stand as well. The decision is do you turn your back on this, or face it proactively with calm and confidence. Clearly the latter approach is the one to take. You do this by channeling your integrity and asking that person for clarification of what they mean. Doing so conveys a level of professionalism on your part, as well as an attempt to engage in constructive dialogue. The secondary gain from this however is it shifts the power back to you. Attempts to justify demeaning or degrading comments of another person typically result in a verbal flailing and in essence, the person either backtracks or digs a deeper hole for themselves. As a member of a team, harnessing your workplace integrity in such a way communicates to others that you will not endorse such language. Doing so also has a positive effect in communicating your professionalism and may reduce such language from coming up on in the future. 

Use the Tools HR Gave You:

Human resources of any legitimate company is there to ensure that your work experience is a fair and pleasant one. But even though they often serve as gatekeepers or overseers of violations of company policy it’s rare that staff will go to them. Should it be the case that you’re not comfortable speaking to your supervisor or peers, HR may remains a resource. I’ve seen HR used to varying degrees of success, but more times than not they have proven to be an objective point of contact if violations of company policy or discriminatory or demeaning actions occur. I’ve witnessed what happens when the hushed tones of “If my supervisor can say that, then so can I” are allowed to fester. The result is an expansion of behaviors and comments that are detrimental to not only members of the team, but ultimately the customers, clients or patients they serve. Some examples are continued use of demeaning or dismissive attitude toward subordinates, or as referenced earlier overtly sexist language. It's possible that we may be witness to more of the "If he can do it, so can I" approach to diminished civility. However, the need for pockets of civility and respect remain, and the workplace is one of them. Engage with your HR department in a poised and professional way if you see such demeaning comments on the rise.

Without testing the waters by making HR do their job, there is no way to find out if the support needed to bring about constructive change is there. 

The "Win-Win" of Manifesting Your Workplace Integrity:

It’s amazing what can happen when we don’t bite our tongue in the face of discriminatory or divisive language. When we speak up to any “ism’s” in the workplace or engage our co-workers when such inappropriate language or interactions are present it gives you a “win-win” of sorts. I can speak from experience that even when I felt my concerns about racist language were not dealt with promptly and efficiently, there was not a commensurate level of disappointment in myself. At the time my colleagues and I discussed how such actions were unjust and wrong and this served as a point of dialogue and connection as a team. More importantly however, as a psychologist it was imperative that other trainees or interns came to see those in the trenches as not endorsing such behaviors or comments. While this did not override the lack of action by other departments, it did convey that moral and workplace integrity remained a constant even in the absence of appropriate response by others. By playing the long game, it also highlighted to trainees or new employees that there is value in standing for a just and fair workplace and that while accepted, such comments remain unacceptable. In the long run such a stance came to cause a positive shift in culture and dialogue as a team. With that came more candid dialogue, a greater sense of trust and an ability to focus more on our task at hand.

Things May Change But Your Integrity Remains a Constant:

Lastly, should our nation's current uptick in divisive rhetoric begin to influence our working relationships it’s important to recognize that “this too shall pass”. Whether four years or more, the one thing that will remain constant is YOU. Resist the impulse to adapt to this "new normal" and play along with inappropriate dialogue. Go back to your definition of your workplace integrity cheat sheet and check in to see if you continue to treat your co-workers, leaders, subordinates and the populations you serve with respect and dignity. Even if you feel your company does not live out its mission and vision, can you comfortably say that you do? 

By clearly delineating where you stand you’ll know that your career path will not become derailed. To the contrary, if needed you’ll find another set of tracks that will lead you to the type of workplace that is ready for someone with your vision and commitment to doing what’s right and doing it the right way.

Stop Biting Your Tongue and Speak Your Workplace Truth!

That said, relax and stop biting your tongue. Honor and manifest your integrity through your engagement with others in the workplace from the time you clock in to the time you clock out. When you hear comments that conflict with your integrity and the vision and mission of the workplace respond not from a place of anger, but one of understanding. You are a witness to every interaction you engage in that embodies your integrity and these actions are witnessed by those on your team. 

As our country and culture begins a new chapter now is the time to take a step back and ask yourself where you stand as it relates to creating a healthy and nurturing workplace, one where to you can speak openly and freely in a way that is consistent with who you are as a person of morals, standards and integrity. Go back to the employee handbook you received at orientation and review the agency’s mission and vision and see how such language or culture fits with that mission. At the end of the day understand that mission and see how it merges with your morals and integrity. 

There is change on the horizon, but now is not the time to blindly adopt a lower standard of civility because others have. Your workplace can become a model community of civility and if your workplace integrity is in place people from the front desk to the C-Suite can play equally influential roles. Each doing their part to ensure that as a collective you have a place that remains an important source of support and a beacon of strength for you and every member of your team. 

Know your workplace integrity and live it to its fullest!