We may not always agree, but we can agree to be civil
Monday, October 15, 2012

Many of us were raised with “The Golden Rule”: treat others as you want to be treated. However, to sustain a respectful workplace, and even a respectful society, we must evolve to “The Platinum Rule”: treat others as they want to be treated.

This takes into account that people are different and have different perspectives about what is respectful behavior. Before we can understand how to meet others’ expectations, we must be willing to engage in conversations—respectful ones—about just what those expectations are.

portrait of Cynthia Joyce
Cynthia Joyce

In the Office of the Ombudsperson, we have tracked disrespectful behavior reported by our visitors since 1991, and, except for a slight dip last year, the numbers have risen steadily since 2006-07. My colleague, Susan Johnson, and I often hear about derogatory comments about performance or personal characteristics made in public settings, colleagues not speaking to one another, yelling in meetings, doors being slammed, and other troubling behaviors.

I’m frustrated when I hear that poor behavior is accepted on campus. I believe that part of the problem is that people don’t have a shared understanding about what is disrespectful. Here’s our definition:

Behavior and language that is rude, inappropriate, and unprofessional and that disturbs, distresses, and/or offends others.

There are two parts to this definition: the behaviors themselves (we provide a continuum with examples of behavior ranging from low intensity—eye-rolling—to high intensity—violence); and their effect on the recipient. If the recipient is upset, there’s a problem.

As the elections approach, political discourse is getting more heated, even vitriolic, with criticism and attacks coming from all sides. Such public examples of uncivil behavior reinforce the perception many people have that yelling and name-calling are acceptable methods of airing frustrations or disagreements.

In fact, politics and the media are among the often-cited causes of increased incivility. Other possible causes include more stressful home and work lives, the economy, generational changes, a more fragmented society leading to a drop in a perceived need for civility, and the increased use of technology resulting in less practice in face-to-face, civil interactions—not to mention the use of technology (email, cell phones, and social media) in disrespectful ways.

Disrespectful behavior makes life more unpleasant. In addition, it has tangible costs in an organization. An experience of disrespectful behavior leads the recipient to spend time thinking about the incident, complaining to others about it, avoiding the person who was disrespectful, and being less productive. Repeated incidents can lead to absenteeism, health issues, people leaving the institution, and damage to an organization’s reputation. (“Don’t take that job/go to that school—people aren’t treated well there.”)

I believe that no disrespectful behaviors are acceptable at the University of Iowa. I don’t think that asking for respectful behavior violates academic freedom or First Amendment rights. The issue is how we say something, not the content of what we say.

If you and the people you spend time with at work or school have never had a conversation about what each of you considers respectful behavior, I encourage you to do so. The first step in creating a civil environment is to agree on what that means to each individual.

If we want to create a community that values diversity of opinions and perspectives, where people feel comfortable being open about their thoughts and beliefs and can learn from one another and develop new ways of looking at the world, we need to communicate respectfully, especially when we disagree. Isn’t this what a university is all about?

Cynthia Joyce has been the University of Iowa’s professional ombudsperson since August 2005.