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CAREERS: MADDER THAN EVER

Here's Your Best Defense Against Office Incivility

Such deviance hurts the bottom line, so managers would be wise to follow these suggestions--from pre-screening employees to awareness programs--to turn around the corporate culture.

November 02, 1998|MARIA L. La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Success had soured for the small music retailer.

Things had started out well enough a decade ago, when the college pals pooled their meager savings and opened up their own shop. They got to listen to CDs all day, create a dress code (no ties, ever) and be in charge.

Business boomed, so they opened up a second store and then a third, expanded version of the flagship. Then disaster struck: They got investment money, added half a dozen new stores--really big stores--to their little empire and stopped being hands-on managers.

Merchandise started disappearing from the shelves. Shouting matches among the sales staff erupted on the floor, right out in the open. Workers mouthed off to management on a regular basis. Rudeness reigned.

And then--busted! A burglary ring--employees selling cases of tapes and CDs to competitors--was uncovered. Something had to change at this toxic workplace.

The first thing the chagrined owners--who had spent the last several years sending e-mail instead of shaking hands--did was call in Loss Prevention Specialists of Orlando, Fla. But the theft was only a small chunk of what Loss Prevention addressed.

"Step One: Look at the culture and the environment," advised Read Hayes, Loss Prevention's senior consultant. "We recommended tools, but the main thing we recommended [to the company's founders] was 'You get out there or get strong representatives out there on a daily basis.' "

Tools--things such as video cameras and recording devices--might help a company slow theft, but employee theft only happens on a regular basis when a workplace is not a good place to be. It is the symptom, but not the problem, say Hayes and other experts in what is known variously as workplace deviance or the angry or uncivil office.

The problem is a corporate culture that either consciously or unconsciously allows bad behavior--from pencil theft through bullying all the way to occasional violence. The way to fix the problem is to change the culture.

For as Christine Pearson, management professor at the University of North Carolina, notes in a recent study, "Incivility at work hurts the bottom line."

How? Pearson surveyed 775 people who identified themselves as targets of incivility in the office--everything from disrespect to insensitivity and rudeness.

All of the targets' response to office anger were behaviors that cost their companies money in one way or another: 28% lost work time avoiding the instigator; 53% lost work time worrying about the incident or future interactions; 37% believed that their commitment to the organization declined; 22% decreased their effort at work; 10% decreased the time that they spent at work; 12% actually changed jobs to avoid the instigator.

One problem for a company is that people who leave because of bad treatment at the office don't usually do it immediately, and they rarely describe their departure as linked to the bad treatment, in part because of retribution.

"They bore it out until they could find another place to go to," Pearson reports. For an employer, "as you're losing these people, you have to worry about the costs of the lost time and turnover."

Here are some suggestions about how you, as a manager or chief executive, can turn your uncivil office around--or keep it from falling into costly emotional disrepair to begin with:

* First, Pearson says, the leadership of an organization has to make a decision about whether employee behavior is an important issue or not and then decide to be a positive role model. "Despite everything they may say, if the actions are still going on by senior folks, the change is never going to happen," Pearson says. Senior executives "need to be able to check themselves and each other on that."

* Hayes' first step is another important early move: Check out the company's culture. See if bad behavior is condoned. If managers regularly dress down employees rudely and in public, this simply teaches other workers that that's the way to be.

"You may have a situation on the more dramatic side, where people are openly hostile to each other, where there is backbiting openly going on in the hall, nasty comments across the cubicle dividers," Pearson says. "It may happen often enough that it becomes a part of the value set of the organization.

"There may be a medal of honor: I survived this workplace," she says.

* Pre-screening of employees is a big preventive step--carefully checking references to make sure that potential workers don't have belligerent behavior in their pasts. "Past behavior is the most powerful predictor of future behavior," Hayes says.

* Hayes also suggests employee awareness programs "instilling a little more discipline."

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