Etiquette makes our day
Nothing jars the atmosphere at work so much as inappropriate behaviour, writes Julia Stirling
GENERATIONAL conflict is a hot topic in the workplace. Stories abound in baby boomer circles about Gen Y’s inappropriate behaviour, but Tracey Hodgkins, CEO of The Australian Experiential Learning Centre in Perth, and Telstra WA 2005 Business Woman of The Year, says it’s simply a training issue.
Hodgkins runs a program that gives university students work experience via internships, community projects and entrepreneurial venture start-ups. She devised a business etiquette program for them because she found very few had basic knowledge about work environments.
Hodgkins also works with managers on intergenerational issues and says managers see Gen Y as a totally different species. The fact that many baby boomers have Gen Y children makes no difference — they don’t see the correlation.
‘‘ Baby boomers expect a lot from university graduates,’’ says Hodgkins. ‘‘ They expect them to come in, be work ready on the spot and just know stuff. My research shows it takes two years to get fully trained.’’
Hodgkins says what baby boomers and Gen Xers think of as ‘‘ respect’’ can seem very stuffy and out of date to Gen Ys. The awareness of each other’s traits and how to be respectful is very important.
Hodgkins says the sorts of complaints companies have about Gen Ys include emails with bad grammar and SMS shortcuts, arrogance exhibited through Gen Ys asking for what they want before they have done their time, lack of respect for management exhibited through overfamiliar behaviour, lack of report-writing skills, social networking on company time and inappropriate clothing.
Hodgkins tells the anecdote of a young graduate who started in a position with a large engineering firm and was required to go to a section meeting. The graduate rocked up to the meeting and sat in a chair at the head of the table, proceeding to swing on the chair.
‘‘ The boss walked in and just stared at this young man, who had no idea that he was sitting in the wrong seat, and carrying out what was perceived as a disrespectful action by swinging the chair. You can imagine the reaction from the baby boomer boss, who automatically thought he had an arrogant upstart on his hands.’’
Another incident was when a young woman greeted her boss (on the phone) with ‘‘ hey dude’’, just as she did with all her friends. Her boss was not amused.
Hodgkins defines manners as being sensitive to and respectful of others, and says people don’t know the rules of engagement unless they are taught. ‘‘ Most of us just aren’t that sensitive. At work policy is one thing, but it is the politics that determine the culture. You have to know the unwritten rules. What one person sees as friendly another sees as disrespectful. Everyone needs a common platform.’’
In the workplace, bad manners are common across all generations, and research indicates people skills are just as important as job skills. Abusive emails, swearing at the computer, talking loudly, bringing in food with an overpouring odour and wearing too much perfume are just some common mistakes.
Good manners, and therefore good communication, can make a real difference to people’s productivity and ultimately their decision to stay with an organisation. Put simply, manners affect an organisation’s bottom line. When people are victims of bad manners they are less engaged at work and more likely to leave an organisation.
While some organisations are aware of the effects surrounding bad manners, generally, many regard bad manners as a minor issue. The more a person experiences rudeness and undermining behaviour, the less emotionally and intellectually committed they are to their organisation.
The latest analysis of Hewitt’s Best Employer data, which surveyed more than 54,000 employees working in 179 organisations across Australia and New Zealand, has provided some of the first evidence that a high incidence of incivility across an organisation is associated with poor outcomes.
Organisations with high levels of incivility were more likely to have reduced in workforce size over the previous 12 months, and, employees thought that the organisation offered poorer customer service.
The survey shows 90.2 per cent of employees reported experiencing at least one episode of mistreatment from a colleague over the last year, and 37 per cent of people experienced moderate to high levels of incivility (moderate to high means once a month or more). Only 45 per cent of those people who experienced moderate incivility were likely to be engaged at work, whereas 65 per cent of people who hadn’t been the subject of incivility were likely to be engaged.
There are serious consequences for individual targets of mistreatment including low job satisfaction, psychological distress and poor physical health.
Barbara Griffin is an organisational psychologist and senior research fellow at the University of Western Sydney. She collaborated with Hewitt in its Best Employer survey, and has just received a government grant to research the factors that effect our perceptions of what is rude and inappropriate behaviour, and how individuals and organisations can act to reduce such behaviour.
The term being used for bad manners in academic circles is incivility, and Griffin defines incivility as low-intensity discourteous behaviour that is ambiguous in its intent to harm the victim.
Griffin says, ‘‘ People dont necessarily know whether the action was a deliberate intent to make them feel bad, or whether the person just did it and didn’t realise they were being rude and disrespectful’’.
Griffin explains there will be interpretations of what rudeness is.
For instance she mentions the anecdote about a person who liked to have a very orderly desk. As a practical joke, when he left to go home, colleagues would move things around on his
individual desk. While some might find this amusing, others would be highly offended.
Another example is when people leave the kitchen in a mess. Was it intentional or just sloppy? Either way, it is likely to be equally annoying to the person who next uses the kitchen. Griffin says other forms of bad manners include gossiping, questioning someone’s judgment in public, using an angry tone of voice and checking emails on your BlackBerry in the midst of a meeting.
Disrespectful behaviour, can set up a negative cycle of interactions in a tit-for-tat mentality.
American research suggests simple bad manners can lead to other negative behaviours, escalating in intensity and seriousness — ultimately leading to physical violence.
Margaret Thorsborne is the managing director of Margaret Thorsborne and Associates and Transformative Justice Australia (Queensland) and contributing author to TheSevenHeavenly Virtues Of Leadership . She helps public and private organisations manage and overcome problems, including inappropriate behaviour.
Thorsborne explains there will always be an event which creates misunderstandings and hurt, but when she is called into help resolve the issues that event is usually the tip of an iceberg.
‘‘ There are some people who have very poor social skills and in that mix are poor manners. They haven’t been trained properly in their families of origin, or the school they went to, or the sporting club they attended.’’
Thorsborne says one of the worst mistakes people make is trying to resolve conflict via email. ‘‘ It just makes it infinitely worse — they shout at each other in capital letters. And some people send the email to everyone in the office, when essentially the problem is between two people. Its an intentional act of retaliation.’’
Thorsborne says it’s essential people sort things out face-to-face, but people find it incredibly hard.
Thorsborne stresses the importance of managers and senior team leaders in role modelling good behaviour. ‘‘ The whole business about leading is about walking the talk. If that person up the top is bad mannered, everyone else will let their manners slip’’, says Thorsborne.
While the Hewitt research shows supportive management can act as a buffer to the effects of bad manners, rude behaviour from a manager was shown to have a more detrimental effect on employees than rudeness from a colleague.
Manners are expressed differently in our culturally diverse workplace, and Thorsborne says its important to have regular health checks on the emotional wellbeing of people. Organisations need to educate employees on how they do business, but also, they need to find out if there are any misunderstandings.
‘‘ If you need to resolve an issue,’’ Thorsborne says, ‘‘ there should be someone you trust (manager or colleague), whom you could use as a sounding board about how to broach the subject with the offender.
‘‘ This conversation is not for the faint-hearted though. It would be nice if we all had the courage.’’
Knowledge gap: Tracey Hodgkins says manners, or lack of them, is simply a training issue