Civility & Diversity

ci•vil•i•ty  n  1 archaic : training in the humanities  2  courtesy, politeness; a polite act or expression

So what’s the relationship between civility and diversity?  If we really think about the goals of diversity, we are seeking a workplace where different perspectives and experiences can be mutually respected and fostered for the betterment of the organization.  If we can create a civil environment, we will be better able to cultivate a diverse environment.  And if we fail to cultivate a civil environment, all of our diversity efforts will be for naught.  To put it simply, a polite, courteous and welcoming work environment furthers diversity efforts by creating a workplace where people—all kinds of people—want to contribute to their fullest potential.

We’ve all experienced incivility in the workplace.  A flippant remark from a co-worker.  An accusatory e-mail copied to everyone in the library.  A co-worker who never cleans up their mess.  A meeting interrupted by late arrivals, early departures, or inattentive participants.  Incivility often goes unnoticed, unless you are the recipient of the incivility.  The byproducts of incivility can be significant, including lowered productivity through reduced hours worked or reduced effort, intent on revenge or retribution, or even departure from the workplace. 

What does a more civil environment produce?

  • Collaborations—staff members work together effectively and achieve objectives more efficiently
  • Ideas—without fear of being dismissed or ridiculed, staff members will suggest new ideas for improving the organization
  • Customer Satisfaction—when co-workers work together, they work better, enriching our users’ experiences
  • Retention—if yours is a workplace where people treat each other well and are truly happy, then staff will be less likely to leave the comfortable work environment you have created

Building a More Civil Workplace

When it comes to finding information and instruction for how to become more civil, there is probably no better source—and likely its easily available in your ready reference section—than Emily Post’s Etiquette.  Here, we provide some adapted instruction to address some of the most regular opportunities to increase civility in the workplace.  

In-Person

  • Just say hello (or good morning, good afternoon, or how are you).  It’s easy—just saying hello will demonstrate the respect and the concern you have for those you work with.
  • Learn names.  Yes, names are important.  If you’ve forgotten a name, politely ask for help or a reminder.  Respect proper uses (Michael vs. Mike) and pronunciations. 
  • Practice good conversation.  Engage in conversation that is relevant to both parties.  Don’t just wait for your next opportunity to talk—listen to what other people say and consider it.
  • Avoid interruption.  Interruption can have varying degrees of impact depending on who you are speaking with.  Interrupting a subordinate or someone from an underrepresented group can be seen as an assertion of dominance or a diminishment of their value as a person.
  • Remember what your parents said. Please, thank you, you’re welcome, excuse me, and I’m sorry—these are the essentials for demonstrating respect for your colleagues.

In Meetings

  • Respect time.  If you are conducting a meeting, be aware of the value of attendees’ time and use it efficiently and effectively.  If you are attending a meeting, respect the beginning and end times.
  • Make invites inclusive.  One of the most important meeting responsibilities is to invite the right people.  Failing to invite legitimate stakeholders or intentionally excluding individuals can can seed mistrust and anger in your workplace.
  • Some things are best suited for one-on-one.  Instead of discussing items in front of everyone, save it for a later time when it can be addressed privately.  Airing grievances or criticisms in front of everyone only increases the potential for disrespect.
  • Be Informative and participative.  Whether you are a convener or a participant, make the most of the participative opportunities of meetings.  Avoid dominating the conversation, contribute constructive comments and questions, know when to listen and avoid the distractions of mobile phones or laptops unless they are used for the meeting.

In E-Mail

  • The medium sometimes isn’t right for the message.  Not every message is suitable for e-mail—sensitive communications with supervisors or subordinates, criticisms, etc are probably best left for in-person conversations where emotional nuances can be better conveyed.
  • Check and double-check.  While it is a quick and effective means of communication, taking an extra moment to make sure the e-mail is addressed correctly and to reread the content to ensure that its tone and content are accurate and appropriate is worthwhile.
  • Forward for information.  Many messages are worth forwarding if your intent is to share the information.  Adding commentary, especially criticism or sarcasm, is dangerous (the forward can get back to the original sender) and detrimental (perpetuating your negativity onto other staff members who may not need it). 
  • Proceed with caution.  E-mails quickly become public documents and your employer has the right to read e-mail on company servers.  If you wouldn’t want your employer to see you message or to have your message made publicly available, reconsider or revise what you are sending.

ALA's Office for Diversity is pleased to provide an ever-growing collection of resources to help you plan for diversity. If you have materials and resources you feel should appear on this page, please email your suggestions to diversity@ala.org!