Whatever Happened to Courtesy at Work

Why is it lacking and what we can do about it

By David Cox, SPHR, SHRM-SCP | July 13, 2017

You would think that demonstrating respect towards others would be standard behavior in the workplace, but that simply isn’t true.   As companies have become more virtual, global, and fast-paced, this common-sense standard seems to have become a casualty that we seem all to ready to accept.

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 offices, on factory floors, at meetings, or through visits with customers.  These conversations 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 video conferences 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.

A couple of recent studies support these observations.  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.

In the absence of personal connections, many managers are reporting “breakdowns” in courtesy and respectful behaviors.  Undoubtedly, some of these situations are exacerbated by the stresses of the workplace.  Some common examples I’ve heard 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; and a team that worked all night to meet a budget deadline and then received neither feedback nor thanks for their work.

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 erosions of courtesy and respect in the workplace.

First, convene a meeting with your team, including virtual members, and have an open discussion about the kind of behaviors you expect from each other at work.  Having an open dialogue on this subject can help “reset” your staff, and make them more aware of workplace courtesy and when it’s lacking.

Second, 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 with people who treat us with respect and courtesy.  However, we may have to set some boundaries and hold one another accountable in an effort to make this happen.

David Cox

David is the Principal Writer for ThirdPartyBlogger.com, a blogging service for professionals who realize the importance of publishing blog articles on a regular basis, but don’t have the time to write quality content in addition to their other responsibilities.

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