Americans believe that incivility is reaching crisis proportions, a trend presenting considerable challenges to today’s businesses both small and large. This is the conclusion from research released earlier this week, following an annual "Civility in America" survey by my company, Weber Shandwick, and Powell Tate. Roughly two-thirds of respondents to the national survey of 1,000 adults said they believe the country has a major civility problem and 7 in 10 think that civility has eroded.
With Americans encountering incivility on average seven times in a week, dealing with rude behavior has become a regular part of life. Many of those surveyed said they had personally experienced bad behavior while shopping (49 percent) or at work (38 percent), and the percentage of respondents encountering incivility online rose from 9 percent in 2011 to 24 percent this year.
What's the business damage inflicted by incivility or poor business etiquette? When consumers encounter rudeness from a company, they react negatively and in ways that hurt sales and reputation. Nearly half of all Americans surveyed said they decided to not buy from a company again. Nearly 4 in 10 of respondents advised others to not purchase products or services from a business that they deemed uncivil.
Business leaders have to not only worry about consumer perceptions but also what's happening inside their own walls. A troubling workplace trend is a rise in people leaving their jobs because of incivility. From 2011 to this year, there was a 20 percent spike in Americans reporting that they quit a job because of an uncivil workplace.
At a time when businesses are trying to engage customers who are watching their spending and are striving for to sustain the engagement of their employees as well, the civility reputation of companies becomes a competitive differentiator. When consumers are besieged by incivility on a daily basis, businesses with a positive reputation stand out. Based on my company's research, I recommend the following five strategies:
1. Model good behavior.
Bosses should personally demonstrate the behavior they wish their employees to project. Entrepreneurs should not only walk the walk, but talk the talk. Discuss with employees the importance of civility for the company's brand. Work collaboratively with team members to determine how the company can help reverse the disturbing incivility trend and stand out for its efforts.
2. Be accountable.
Stay vigilant and nip workplace incivility in the bud. Weber Shandwick's research suggests that civility is violated in situations of duress: And 8 in 10 of the survey respondents agreed that people who are stressed are more likely to act uncivilly. Business leaders should keep their ears to the ground, conducting periodic employee surveys and informal conversations to gauge the tenor of their workplace and resolve stress-inducing situations.
3. Do civility training.
While politicians and the growing popularity of social media are frequently blamed for erosion in civility, 58 percent of those surveyed believe corporate America itself is uncivil. Although large companies are more likely to be perceived as uncivil, local retailers and small businesses have not been beyond reproach. One-quarter of respondents believe the general tone of smaller establishments is uncivil. All employees should periodically participate in training about how to treat customers and colleagues with courtesy and respect. Celebrate and reward those who act graciously and correct those who don't.
4. Protect online properties.
The fact that people are perceiving a rise in incivility on social media is critical to businesses with an online presence. Customers need to know that they are safe and respected when online engaging with a company via social media. Today, a social media profile requires monitoring. Establish a policy of zero tolerance for anything but very civil postings and promptly remedy any violation.
5. Pay it forward.
Facilitate small ways to encourage civility. Eighty percent of the survey respondents had heard of the term, “pay it forward.” Consider using small acts of encouraging civility among your customers to reinforce your company’s values and enhance its reputation among employees, customers and the community at large.
Since reputation is a company’s most competitive asset, civility cannot be taken for granted. Ultimately, civil behavior leads to a positive return on investment.