Back in the 1940s, American politician Wendell L. Willkie wrote: “The test of good manners is to be able to put up pleasantly with bad ones.” It is a test that many of us will fail during the annual round of loutish behaviour at the staff Christmas party. But the festive season is not the only time that bad manners overcome good will.
According to the recent Business Behaving Badly report, published by workplace communications consultancy CHA, discourtesy between colleagues, humiliating public reprimands and an overall culture of low-level bullying and swearing is fast becoming the norm in many organisations.
The report suggests that a lack of courtesy has become a serious motivational problem, with many staff complaining that their managers either fail to criticise constructively when things go wrong, or offer no praise when they go well. And this then spills over into rude, boorish behaviour towards customers.
CHA identifies problems such as deliberately keeping visitors waiting, cancelling meetings without notice or delays in return calls.
For John Price, chairman of the Contact Centre Council at the Direct Marketing Association, it is “telephone rage” that prompts the biggest rise in blood pressure.
Price believes that the run-up to Christmas is a hot spot for phone rage. Whether they are dealing with personal calls or anxious customers wanting their deals to be confirmed before Christmas, an increasing number of employees use the phone as an aggressive verbal weapon. “You may be phoning your child’s school, talking to a colleague about sales figures or arranging a surprise leaving party, but there is now an enormous investment in anger behind the most innocent of phone calls,” he says.
Business coach Judi James says she often encounters a ‘them and us’ attitude, with staff treating each other with genuine civility, but treating all outsiders – including customers – as the enemy.
But CHA chief executive Colette Hill disagrees. Organisations where bad manners are entrenched, she believes, don’t discriminate about who they mistreat.
“When I come across rudeness in an organisation, it is often borne out of inefficiency or chaos, rather than because the staff are genuinely ill-mannered, and it is usually practised across the board,” she says. “Bad manners come at a real cost to your reputation.”
But we’re not all bad. In its research, CHA came across a number of organisations where corporate courtesy was all part of the culture.
Among the organisations highlighted as examples of good practice were Tesco, which takes pains to ensure that everyone who attends internal meetings gets a chance to make their point and service provider Serco, which deploys a ‘decency regime’ in the prisons it operates.
Top tips on harbouring good manners
Lead from the top. Make the fact that your organisation values good manners explicit to staff.
Assess your recruitment practices and examine how you treat job applicants and new staff.
How do you treat your suppliers? Do you always pay them late, for example?
Encourage staff to challenge bullying or rude behaviour.
Celebrate good manners with prizes and praise.
Discriminate positively in favour of hiring ‘nice’ staff.
Include good manners in your list of performance indicators.
Include all staff in internal communications.
By Virginia Matthews