Why civility at work is good—and good for business

April 29, 2024

Why civility at work is good—and good for business

Industry experts share techniques for cultivating a positive work experience

BY FastCo Works

Incivility is on the rise, fueled by factors such as widening political divides and less-than-social behavior on social media platforms. While uncivil behavior takes an emotional toll on people, it’s also bad for business. Recent data shows that nearly two-thirds of workers have experienced incivility in the past month and that such conduct between employees hinders productivity and ultimately hurts a company’s bottom line.

SHRM is an organization whose mission is to create better workplaces where people and business thrive together. It believes that civility is a cornerstone of workplace culture and is essential to fostering inclusion and innovation. But promoting civility requires intentional action. Fast Company, in partnership with SHRM, teamed up during SXSW for a panel discussion on how leaders can create an environment where employees feel valued, respected, and empowered to be their authentic selves and deliver their best work. Here are four takeaways from that conversation. (Scroll to the bottom to watch the entire panel discussion.)

1. Practice active listening.
Promoting civility in the workplace starts with a willingness to communicate openly with each other, said Jim Link, chief human resources officer at SHRM. Active listening—the practice of listening to a person’s words while tuning into their body language to understand the emotion behind their words—can help make workplace communications more effective and meaningful.

An active listener considers another person’s point of view, as well as their emotional state, before responding and taking thoughtful action. This will help them to feel understood and valued. “If you are actively engaged in dialogue with other people—regardless of whether or not you agree—you’re giving them the capability to be heard,” Link said. “And all of us, at some point in our lives, just want to be heard.”

2. Foster connection, trust, and psychological safety.
People are more likely to react in annoyance or anger when they don’t feel seen or heard. Managers can mitigate this problem by fostering safe places for employees to voice concerns and speak about topics that are important to them.

For example, workplaces can offer employees a dedicated channel on a messaging app or digital platform to share their thoughts on controversial issues or polarizing topics. Mentorship programs can also help forge positive relationships between managers and employees, giving workers an outlet to discuss challenges and develop tools to address them.

But connection is just the first step. Trust among colleagues is a key component of a healthy workplace culture, as well. “When you don’t trust that someone has your best interest at heart, you don’t feel psychologically safe,” said Beric Alleyne, global head of diversity, equity, and inclusion at eBay. “So, you’re more likely to hide behind digital media or do the insensitive actions that potentially lead you down a wrong path.”

Build trust by offering programs such as cross-cultural learning, which enhances sensitivity and communication, and immersive educational opportunities that allow employees to practice having hard conversations.

3. Learn to press pause.
In difficult situations, it’s common for people to react before fully considering the best way of handling the situation. “Sometimes we just jump in, full steam ahead, because we are uncomfortable,” said Jenn Saavedra, chief human resources officer at Dell Technologies. Pressing pause can help people take a deep breath, collect themselves, and avoid reactive responses.

Taking a beat can also help temper other people’s reactions. When faced with an uncomfortable confrontation or conversation, try letting the other person finish speaking before reacting. This simple act can help diffuse tension right off the bat. Sometimes people just need to let off steam, and listening to their concerns can help diffuse the situation. “Just by listening, you begin to see the temperature go down,” Link said. From there, both parties can respond from a calmer place.

Why civility at work is good—and good for business

4. Own your mistakes.
No one is perfect, and it’s especially important for leaders to acknowledge when they make mistakes. “Sometimes people get scared and they want to hide from mistakes,” Saavedra said. “But the key here is to own it. Be authentic and genuine and say, ‘I was not at my best today; I don’t feel good about our conversation; I was wrong.’”

Taking responsibility for your own mistakes helps demonstrate which behaviors leadership finds unacceptable. By modeling how to resolve conflict with respect, leaders foster a culture of compassion where mistakes can be met with empathy. “There’s a give-and-take to respect, and we know respect is a big part of civility,” Alleyne said. “If you make a mistake, own it. If somebody else makes a mistake, be forgiving.”

The panel conversation concluded, aptly, by Link reminding those in attendance of the importance of prioritizing civility at work, noting how SHRM’s “1 Million Civil Conversations” initiative begins with each of us. “The people in this room and the other million civil conversations that we’re going to have will make a difference in the world of work, for workers, and in that workplace.”


To learn more and find resources about how you can turn discord into dialogue, visit shrm.org/civility.


FastCo Works is Fast Company’s branded content studio. Advertisers commission us to consult on projects, as well as to create content and video on their behalf. 

Fast Company