Where Have Our Manners Gone? Is Workplace Civility a Thing of the Past?

There have been recently been several displays of incivility in the workplace worth a moment of reflection. Three incidents in particular come to mind.

The Conduct

First, there was the outburst by S.C. GOP Rep. Joe Wilson during President Obama’s congressional address last week. On Good Morning America the next day, George Stephanolopous was asked whether he had ever witnessed similar conduct. Stephanolopous immediately responded that no, he had not.

Then, during the women’s finals at the U.S. Open, tennis great Serena Williams threw her racket and, in the same match, cursed and pointed at the line official who penalized Williams for a foot fault. Williams’ opponent, Kim Clijsters, was awarded an extra point when Williams walked away only to turn around and come back at the official, finger pointing and profanities flying. In a press conference, she was positively unapologetic, even trying to justify her behavior, responding to a reporter’s inquiry by saying that everybody treats line people that way. little pig feels bad

Then there was Kanye West’s “performance” at the MTV Video Music Awards when he bombarded 19-year-old Taylor Swift, snatching the microphone out of her hand during an ill-fated acceptance speech. The look on Swift’s face was heart wrenching. She looked like a child who couldn’t process how terrible people could be.

The Apologies

Each of the three offenders issued an apology. Wilson called his apology into the White House the day after his disrespectful display. Williams, after booed off the court and being smacked with a $10,000 fine, has apologized several times via the press. And West was first redeemed by Beyoncé, who won for best video of the year but kindly turned over her time at the microphone to the slighted Swift, giving Swift the chance to finish her acceptance speech. Then West made an appearance Monday night on the premier episode of the new Jay Leno Show. Before performing with Jay-Z and Rihanna, West sat down with Leno and seemed deeply troubled by his behavior.

Each incident occurred in the respective person’s workplace. Yet, despite having some familiarity with their surroundings, each of the three conducted themselves in a manner far too horrible to be described as inconsiderate. The displays were inappropriate and downright mean. They were embarrassing, even shameful, really. But what do they say about our society?

I suppose the answer depends on how you choose to look at it. On one hand, these incidents certainly could be described as an ugly infection, spreading through popular culture. These individuals, willing or not, are public figures who our children look to as role models. From that perspective, the outlook is grim.

But what if we were to look at the incidents from a different perspective? What if we started from the presumption that these individuals play for our team–that we’re on their side. If that’s the case, maybe we wouldn’t be so quick to characterize their conduct as reprehensible. Maybe we would look for possible reasons (but not excuses) to explain (not justify) their behavior.

And then we could look more honestly at the sufficiency, sincerity, and quality of their respective apologies. Although some may be skeptical, I believe that West’s apology was from the heart. In fact, I believe that he may be more scarred than Swift. Feelings of guilt do, after all, cut deeply. He appeared to be ashamed of his behavior and shame is a difficult emotion to erase.

Instead of criticizing, I propose that the better practice is to recognize the error in each individual’s conduct; i.e., why their behavior should not be tolerated, try to understand the reason for the wrong, and then move forward with an even firmer resolution than ever to act with kindness towards others and to reach out to those in need whenever we can.

See other posts about jerks at work:

What Employers Can Learn from the Eagles and Michael Vick

Winning With Civility:  The Delaware Way

Now’s a Great Time for Workplace Civility Initiatives

4 thoughts on “Where Have Our Manners Gone? Is Workplace Civility a Thing of the Past?

  1. Perhaps because I believe that our president is intentionally misleading the public, I didn’t find Rep. Wilson’s statement that offensive. Obama tells one group one thing and then turns around tells another group something else. What is that but a lie?


  2. You were doing so well Molly until you decided to do a 180 and propose tolerance of the behavior. Tolerance of the behavior is exactly what leads Kayne West, Serena and the like to believe that their lack of civility is acceptable. Neither of them stopped themselves from behaving like children. If it wasn’t for the criticism you would not have seen either of them stumble over themselves to apologize. The outcry of the moral public forced them to accept guilt. In the case of Serena, she began to back away from her apology until the criticism once again taught her that her behavior was unacceptable. We do not need to find reasons for their behavior… we need to inform them that this society requires even the rich and priviledged to show respect towards others. Once we start trying to rationalize disrespect, hate and intolerance we become accepting of those characteristics and are diminished as a society.


  3. One in Molly’s article is the importance of holding people to a high standard. For a group or a society to have high standards of civility conveys respect for all members. It’s an important quality of civilized society.


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