Courtesy – or the Lack of It – in the Workplace


Technology has increased business effectiveness and efficiency, but in the area of human interaction, its influence has not been all good.

Because technology has led to a decline in face-to-face interaction, there also has been a concurrent decline in polite behavior as well as civility and courtesy in dealing with others. Because this decline can have an effect on employee engagement and productivity, it is something human resources can address in terms of encouraging courtesy in the workplace.

In the past, business interaction was primarily face to face. People talked with each other in person or in meetings. People got to know each other. And naturally, when dealing with someone in person, there is a basic degree of courtesy and politeness involved.

But today, much of that has disappeared. With email, voicemail, videoconferencing, and the like, people do not interact in person, and often they interact with each other at different times. With globalization, many business people are traveling more. There is a lot less personal contact, and this in turn has – to a certain extent –  also affected the obligation felt to be courteous and polite, says business consultant Ron Ashkenas.

He points to some recent studies that appear to support this. One found that college students are less empathetic than past generations. The researchers believe this is because of their technology saturated lives. Another study found that Americans have fewer friends than people did about 20 years ago.
Managers also report that courtesy and empathy in the workplace have declined, with more demands being made without regard to circumstances, and less feedback or recognition.

Ashkenas has suggestions for how to improve the situation.

The first is to gather employees together and talk about these issues frankly. Leaders need to emphasize the importance of respect and courtesy and its importance to employee engagement and productivity. People need to talk about what is and is not courteous behavior and how it can be improved.

Another thing to do is for managers to point out when someone is not behaving in a courteous manner. When someone is behaving disrespectfully – which is usually the result of stress or a feeling of urgency – it needs to be rebuked and dealt with, rather than pushed under the rug.

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