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Everything I Learned in Kindergarten:
Be Nice, Especially at Work

by Laura Churchill Duke


“You don’t have to like everyone, but at least be civil.” These wise words from my mother are often easier said than done.  We’ve all worked with them: the person who knowingly (or unknowingly) makes offensive or disparaging remarks, the ringleader of the rumour mill, or the one who just won’t listen. The workplace is not always a civil or respectful environment.

“It is important to recognize that employees generally do not display poor work ethic or undesirable behaviour simply because they feel like it,” explains Dr. Michael Leiter, a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair at Acadia’s Centre for Organizational Research and Development (COR&D). Leiter was recently awarded funding from the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) to conduct a three-year action project looking at how to use civility to build healthier workplaces. “Often there are issues occurring in the workplace that elicit this behaviour. Reasons can include anything from problems at home, to bullying in the workplace, to a conflict with the management style in your area of work.” It is therefore important to determine and identify the problems, as well as address them quickly and efficiently to create a healthy workplace.

In most cases, incivility in the workplaces comes down to three main excuses that people use.

  1. Pressure: I was so stressed I snapped at you;
  2. Toughness: You gotta kick butt to get anyone to work around here; and,
  3. Sensitivity: I wasn’t really rude; people here just are too precious and lack a sense of humour.

Results showed that using these excuses is associated with increased rude behaviour at work. In fact, a paper on this subject authored by Leiter and associates entitled “Rudeness rationales: Whatever were they thinking?” won the best paper in Healthcare Management, for the Journal of Academy of Management.

In collaboration with other researchers and decision makers, Leiter and Dr. Heather Laschinger, of The University of Western Ontario implemented a program called Civility, Respect & Engagement @ Work (CREW) in various healthcare settings across Nova Scotia and Ontario. There are always several interventions needed to make a change in a workplace, and CREW is one of those. According to one participant, “the positive outcomes experienced by teams and individuals related to CREW are phenomenal.”

CREW is a program that focuses on courtesy, politeness and consideration knowing that respect leads to an environment of honesty and mutual trust. It is a process that includes leaders, managers, and employees and creates positive changes for the top line (people) and the bottom line (productivity and profits) of an organization. “Most places have organizational policies for workplace bullies,” explains Leiter, “but they don’t have policies on eye rolling. This is where CREW comes in.”

So just what is CREW and how can you make it work for you?

CREW is a series of meetings where groups of staff from a team meet to discuss issues that effect their daily work. The first several sessions set the ground rules and make a "safe" environment. Working together, the group defines: “What is civil behaviour in our work environment?” and “What are norms of behaviour in the group?” Definitions may vary, but the important thing is that there is agreement among the group. Once the basic ground rules are set, the group can identify the issues on which to focus, set goals for improving teamwork, and strive to achieve these goals. “Once there is a safe, strong group, individuals in the groups will start to speak up,” says Leiter. “They will enforce the ground rules because they are supported.” Civil behaviours will become ingrained into the work culture as there is no longer tolerance or an atmosphere that accepts aggressive or negative behaviour. Each group is supported and guided by a facilitator who is provided with a CREW toolkit to assist them in their efforts to guide discussions.

And, the research shows that it works.

Take for example a situation in a Hematology unit of a large acute care teaching hospital. The manager explains the situation: "Working on one of the most challenging units in the hospital, our staff team was in desperate need of some unity. All of us has such a hard time working here on a day-to-day basis because we experience a lot of sadness and a lot of death on the unit. That kind of thing drives you apart. Most days are bad days, so that leads to us being snappier and ruder to each other than other units. We decided to try CREW and what a difference it made! Over time, we gradually became a unit who would stop and ask each other if they needed help, or say, "Hey, I noticed you’re a bit behind today. What can I help you with?" We started identifying the problems we had and building a team, not just a group of employees. It has made a world of difference on the floor."

Coming up with solutions to civility can be as easy as having ready-made thank you cards that staff members can fill out and give to colleagues; creating a code word to say, such as “ouch” every time a colleague unknowingly says something hurtful; or rewarding staff with coupons or stars for displaying respectful and civil behaviours. It doesn’t matter as long as everyone agrees that it will work for the team.

Not only does the CREW process create a more positive work environment, it is great for an organization’s bottom line. Results from surveys administered throughout the process show that the CREW program helped to decrease missed days by 30 per cent, and significantly increased engagement with work. These increased feelings of energy, involvement, confidence and dedication with work translated into receiving $240,000 more value from employees in units with 100 employees. In the end, this also means better service for clients. Not to mention the time and aggravation saved for managers and employees caught up in negative work situations. These positive scores last even a year after CREW had been implemented.

Research findings and personal stories about CREW and other effective interventions as well as and civility in the workplace will be presented at a two-day conference at Acadia University in Wolfville on November 3rd and 4th.  Participants will be given opportunities to share their experiences and to work with others to help improve worklife. They will become acquainted with state of the art research on improving teamwork and support at work. The key note speaker will be Dr. Christina Maslach, professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. She is best known as one of the pioneering researchers on job burnout. The conference is appropriate for anyone with an interest in civility in the workplace from the frontline employee to directors, human resource professionals and leaders.

For more information about the conference or the CREW program, visit, email or phone 902-585-1671.

Placing awareness and creating the time and space for people to explore civility, respect and engagement in the workplace can have a positive impact on shifting people’s behaviour. It is time for us to stop tolerating uncivil behaviour in the workplace and start looking at how teams can support one another and to increase the bar as to what behaviours are acceptable and what are not! Working together as a crew, anything is possible.


The Author

Laura Churchill Duke

Laura Churchill Duke works for the Centre for Organizational Research and Development, Acadia University. Contact COR&D at

For additional information please view Dr. Michael Leiter's profile - and visit the Centre for Organizational Research & Development, Acadia University -

Many more articles in The HR Refresher in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2010 by Laura Churchill Duke. All rights reserved.

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