The Demise of Courtesy at Work

Why it’s lacking in our workplaces and what can we do about it?

By David Cox, SHRM-SCP | January 30, 2018


Respect towards others should be standard behavior in the workplace, regardless of role, rank, or reputation. However, as companies have become more virtual, global, and fast-paced, this common-sense standard seems to have become somewhat obscured.

A Lack of Personal Interactions

There was a time, not so long ago, when much of our work was conducted either face-to-face or through real-time conversations in the offices, on factory floors, at meetings, or through visits with customers. These personal interactions allowed people to get to know each other and create connections.

Today, much of our communication is neither face-to-face nor in real time. Email, voicemail, teleconferences, and videoconferences have replaced other opportunities for face-to-face interactions. The result is that more of our work today is conducted impersonally, which means that there is less pressure to observe basic courtesies and good manners.

Supportive Studies

A University of Michigan study found that today’s college students are less empathetic than those of past generations. The researchers speculate that this is because they have grown up with more reliance on digital communications and less direct interaction with others.

Another study at Duke University found that Americans had one-third fewer friends and confidants than they had two decades earlier, possibly because digital interactions were replacing personal connections.

Impact on the Work Environment

In the absence of personal connections, many managers are reporting “breakdowns” in courtesy and respect. Undoubtedly, some of these situations are exacerbated by the demands and stresses of the workplace. Some common examples I’ve heard recently include:

  • A last-minute request for “urgent” information without regard for the time and effort it will take to satisfy the request.
  • A manager ignoring emails and voice mails which delayed resolution of a customer service problem.
  • A team that worked all night to meet a budget deadline and then received neither feedback nor thanks for their work.
  • A manager in Asia who was required to attend regular teleconferences with a North American team that kept her up through the middle of the night, with no acknowledgement of her effort.

What’s worse is that the continuation of these behaviors will eventually create a toxic environment that will reduce employee engagement and management motivation, which is something we’re already seeing in too many organizations.

Proposed Suggestions

In an effort to prevent further “breakdowns” in courtesy and respect, Ron Ashkenas a Partner Emeritus at Schaffer Consulting and author of the book, “Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexity in Your Organization and Get Things Done,” offers two suggestions to avoid further erosion of courtesy and respect in the workplace.

  1. Convene a meeting with your team, including virtual members, and talk openly about the kind of workplace behaviors you expect from each other.
  2. What does it mean to act courteously and respectfully?
  3. Have there been incidents where that didn’t happen?
  4. Assuming that people aren’t intentionally trying to be difficult, what provokes these kinds of unproductive behaviors, and what are their consequences?
  5. Having an open dialogue on this subject can “reset” your team, making them more aware of workplace courtesy and when it’s lacking.

Encourage your team and co-workers to courteously push back on bad behaviors when they occur. The reality is that most people don’t plan to be mean or insensitive; it just happens in the heat of the moment without them realizing the impact on others. So, if you can find the right ways of calling out these behaviors, it may be possible to reduce their impact and prevent them in the future.

Most of us want to work in an environment of mutual respect and courtesy. However, we may have to put in some extra effort to make that happen.

Up next: What Drives Employees to Become More Successful?

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David Cox


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