Bad Behavior Is Bad Business

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Organizations are sending a stronger message to bullying bosses and hostile employees: Bad behavior won't be tolerated on the job.

"It's a perfect time to have a conversation on workplace civility," said Chris Long, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis. "The Don Imus situation, in particular, has rekindled discourse on respect and accountability."

Long specializes in issues related to trust, fairness and control in organizations. He adds, "Perceived and unchecked power can be a catalyst for nasty behavior." Although Imus' comments often were cruel, his ratings were strong. Politicians and journalists were eager to be on his show. "But when he insulted the Rutgers' players, critical forces marshaled against him and began to check his power. MSNBC, CBS and society as a whole reached the breaking point. It was determined collectively that Imus was out of bounds and had to be held accountable for his words."

Long's research finds that managers who are held accountable for their behavior "tend to more actively promote fairness in their organizations. The perception that they are being held accountable for creating a positive culture leads them to exert more effort toward building fairness and trust in their workplaces. When organizations make managers accountable for promoting fairness, they stop enabling individuals who confuse power with effectiveness or pursue financial ends at any and all costs."

Organizational structure plays a large role. "Despite good intentions, unfairness can emerge in traditional, hierarchical organizations where managers maintain large amounts of power over their subordinates' work lives. It's less of a problem in flat, decentralized or entrepreneurial organizations, where managers possess less obvious power and, as a result, are motivated to build coalitions with their employees."

Long added, "Under these conditions, managers understand being civil is low cost — and the dividends are huge. It all boils down to the Golden Rule: treat others the way you'd like to be treated."

The benefits of workplace civility include increased levels of job satisfaction, lower turnover and greater trust in company leaders. Dedicated employees frequently are willing to work for less pay. On the other hand, Long said, "There's an emotional and dollar cost attached to uncivilized workplaces — environments where employees belittle, undermine or sabotage fellow employees. In these instances, employees don't see the organization as legitimate. Managers have to exert more control and spend more money to keep employees in the game."

In addition, Long said that studies indicate "workplaces viewed as 'unfair' by employees have a higher tendency of being victimized by employee thefts."

The exact definition of a civilized workplace depends on a company's culture. Certain attributes always are important: equitable allocations of rewards and resources, effective due-process procedures and managers who treat their employees with dignity. Long distinguishes workplace civility from politeness, manners or conflict aversion.

In fact, he suggests fair organizations facilitate lively discussions and debates about issues that are "essential to an organization's survival and success. This dialogue is a critical component of creative processes and is healthy for every organization."

Toughness shouldn't be equated with incivility. "Think about the Marine drill sergeant," Long said. "Most recruits know his actions have a larger purpose: that they're designed for Marines' survival. If (unpleasant) behavior has a logical explanation, and it's communicated clearly, employees won't view it as abusive."

Some uncivilized workers are top company performers, Long added. "The question is how much bad behavior can an organization tolerate until that behavior begins to negate positive results?"

Increasingly, companies are demonstrating that the answer is, "very little." Southwest Airlines, for example, has made it a policy to hire and fire employees based on their tendency to consistently exhibit positive attitudes.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

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