By Dr. Stefano Borzillo, Dr. Lohyd Terrier, Nicolas Quoëx

An ongoing study based on qualitative interviews with 25 EHL students in their final year of bachelor’s studies (i.e., Gen Z) – each with at least one year of practical experience in the hospitality industry – reveals a perceived culture of workplace incivility within the hotel industry. Workplace incivility refers to “low-intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm the target, in violation of workplace norms for mutual respect.” “Uncivil behaviors are characteristically rude and discourteous, displaying a lack of regard for others” (Anderson & Pearson, 1999).

The key to people starts with psychological safety

As the hospitality industry struggles to recruit and retain talent, particularly from Generation Z, leaders in this sector must redouble their efforts to create a positive workplace culture that is conducive to developing and sustaining positive and productive interactions with and among employees. This implies building an organizational culture that is people-centered and conducive to developing the psychological safety that is necessary for each employee to unleash their full potential and thrive in the workplace. This is what we call a culture of mental serenity in the workplace.

However, just as Rome was not built in a day, mental serenity takes time to build and spread within an organization. It’s a long-term project that must be initiated and sponsored by top management. Sometimes even a very small circle of C-level executives who rally around the cause of caring and well-being at work – the “well-being sponsors,” as we like to call them – is enough to start making things happen.

A culture of mental serenity in the workplace doesn’t happen by serendipity; it needs to be rolled out as a process that involves different stakeholders. To get the ball rolling, the well-being sponsors must engage in a tightly-knit collaboration with HR specialists within the organization and a group of volunteered employees – that we will call “the serenity champions”. Together, these stakeholders will develop a code of kind conduct aimed at protecting employees against all forms of uncivil and deviant behavior in the workplace.

This code of kind behaviors in the workplace must place employee mental serenity (sometimes referred to as “mental well-being”) at the center of managerial concerns and must be explicitly codified in what we call a “Booklet of Kind Behaviors.” This code of kind behaviors should be kept short and written in a style that can be understood by employees at all levels of the organization and to which everyone will be able to refer in cases of incivility-related suffering and struggles in the workplace.

Before we describe the different steps to be followed in order to elaborate and implement a Booklet of Kind Behaviors, it is important to remember that without a tightly-knit and authentic collaboration between executive-level well-being sponsors, HR specialists, and an engaged group of volunteered employees (i.e., the serenity champions) to start off with, such a project is bound to fail.

Step 1. Formalize a general partnership agreement between top management and HR

In order to get the design and implementation of a booklet of kind behaviors in the workplace off to a viable start, the executive well-being sponsors and HR specialists must first formalize their intention to collaborate on the creation of such a project. Once this intention has been formalized, this agreement should be communicated to the rest of the top management in order to obtain maximum buy-in from the organization’s top decision-makers.

This prior agreement must explicitly state that the purpose of the project is to protect the organization from all types of uncivil behavior, i.e., negative, aggressive, morally deviant, harassing, and intimidating behaviors. Finally, to top off this preambular agreement, the HR department must formally commit to top management that once the Booklet of Kind Behaviors has been implemented, any complaints of uncivil behavior will be taken very seriously and duly addressed until the issue is resolved, regardless of who is involved.

Step 2. Keep employees informed and involved

At this stage, a communication campaign should be conducted to let employees at all levels of the organization know that a code of kind behaviors project is going to be conducted internally, that it has received the approval of top management, and that it will be sponsored by top-executive well-being sponsors and HR specialists. Here, it is crucial to involve your employees in order to make them feel accountable and provide them with a sense of ownership of this project. This will prove essential for getting their early buy-into the project.

The best way to involve your employees is by sending off an open call for volunteers to participate in the first series of workshops. You can explain to your staff that the purpose of these workshops is to start agreeing together on what values best represent a culture of kindness and what behaviors are the most conducive to cultivating healthy relationships between colleagues and enabling mental serenity in the workplace. What you’re hoping here for is to recruit your volunteered serenity champions.

It will also be important to mention that this code of conduct will govern the relationship between managers and their subordinates, and between managers (and employees) of the same rank. It will also be important to inform the organization’s staff that these rules of conduct will apply both in the physical workplace and during remote online meetings.

The purpose of this first communication to the members of the organization is not to emphasize the sanctions to be applied in cases of incivility but to present this project as a corporate mission to instil kindness and mental serenity in the workplace—two fundamental pillars of human-centricity.

Step 3: Define “kind” and “uncivil” behaviors

At this point, successive workshops between executive well-being sponsors, HR experts, and a dozen volunteered employees should be conducted to explicitly describe what is meant by kind and uncivil behaviors. Involving volunteers (i.e. the serenity champions) is essential because it demonstrates a willingness on the part of management and HR to be transparent with the rest of the organization. Also, thanks to these volunteers it is possible to have a better understanding of what kind and uncivil or deviant behaviors are on a daily basis in the workplace.

We suggest you enrol an external facilitator (e.g. a consultant, a coach, an experienced academic) to help you structure/conduct a first series of workshops with these serenity champions. You will need to split these dozen serenity champions into small groups of 4-5 and ask them to reflect on what are the key values that they associate with a workplace culture of kindness. Ask them as well what connotations they associate with a culture of incivility, unkindness and deviance in the workplace. Repeat this exercise twice by reshuffling the groups each time (to make sure everyone gets to work with everyone and that you end up with a diversity of values and connotations).

Once you have this list of values and connotations, repeat the exercise of splitting people into groups of 4-5 (do it three times) and for each value/connotation, ask them to provide behaviors that best illustrate these values/connotations. You will end up with an extensive list of kind and uncivil behaviors.

The next step is to include all these kind and uncivil behaviors in a survey that will be sent out to all the employees in the organization, in order for them to rate the behaviors they would like to see happening (and avoid) in their everyday workplace. You also may want to leave room for open suggestions in your survey, so as to maximize your chances of getting as much feedback and ideas as possible from your employees.

There are two things that are interesting to note at this stage. First, what we usually see happening is that amongst these volunteers the vast majority are eager to change the culture to a kinder one (these are  “early adopters”). For the record, it is also interesting to note that sometimes people who are resistant to this cultural change project also volunteer, so as to keep an eye on its progress – you will notice them quite quickly through the questions and proposals they make. Second, the rate of response or the survey gives you information on the level of employee well-being in your organization.

Step 4: What to include in the Booklet

By now, all the surveys will have been collected (usually by RH, under the close supervision of the executive well-being sponsors) in order to rigorously analyze the answers obtained from employees. Using the appropriate techniques of data analysis, the most salient behaviors will appear. Typically, these behaviors are the ones that will be included in your booklet – after having gone through a round of discussions and mutual agreement between the executive well-being sponsors, the HR specialists, and the group of volunteered employees.

Behaviors obviously vary according to organizations, but experience shows us that it is more a question of semantics rather than anything else. Basically, the principles of what is considered “being kind in the workplace” (as this is conducive to mental serenity in the workplace) are the same. The same can be said for “showing incivility in the workplace”.

Below is a list of descriptions of behaviors that you may decide to include in the Booklet of Kind Behaviors in your own organization. We start by putting the emphasis on the kind behaviors (before moving into the uncivil ones). These descriptions stem from what we have seen in different organizations:

Kind behaviors are primarily intended to create a respectful and collaborative work environment within the organization. Typical behaviors on the kindness spectrum include the use of appropriate language, active listening to colleagues and being open to their new ideas, courteous (but candid) and respectful ways of disagreeing and resolving work-related conflict with a colleague, the use of constructive and solution-oriented feedback, and positive reinforcement for work well done and on time.

As for uncivil and deviant behaviors, here is a list of examples that you may decide to include in the booklet so that your employees can get a clear picture of the behaviors that go against the culture of mental serenity that you are trying to instil in your organization:

Uncivil and deviant behavior typically manifests itself through acts that:

  • insidiously manipulate the nature of the work that is required of a subordinate (e.g., inducing workloads that are impossible to complete on time, withholding information necessary to complete work that is due (i.e., bottlenecking information) ;
  • unduly degrades an employee in the performance of his or her duties (e.g., removing responsibilities from a subordinate and modifying his or her job description without informing him or her in advance, spreading rumors about an employee to damage/sabotaging the latter’s image);
  • use hierarchical authority over a subordinate to cause harm to that subordinate (e.g., blame the subordinate for actions and tasks that are outside that subordinate’s sphere of control, repeated use of intimidation tactics against the subordinate, systematically micro-managing the subordinate);
  • humiliate an employee (e.g., denigration and purposefully embarrassing a colleague in front of others, public criticism).

In essence, these are all acts or behaviors that, when repeated systematically, can significantly degrade the psychological well-being of the victim.

Step 5: Management and employee responsibilities

Once you have defined and exemplified the kind and uncivil behaviors (c.f. Step 4), the next part of your Booklet of Kind Behaviors should include a section in which you list the responsibilities of management and employees for the proper application and use of this code of conduct.

For the part that concerns your organization’s management team, you should formalize that the management team is committed to:

  • promote the correct application of this code of conduct within the organization;
  • be available to explain together with HR specialists the procedure to follow if an employee (the alleged victim) wishes to report an act of incivility committed against him or her;
  • that the alleged victim is secured and not penalized for reporting an act of incivility committed against them.

For the part concerning your employees, it is good practice to explicitly state that employees are within their rights to:

  • not tolerate uncivil behavior by any employee regardless of their level in the organization;
  • report to HR what they consider to be uncivil/deviant behavior that they have allegedly experienced.

Step 6: Employee testimonials

Your Booklet of Kind Behaviors is now almost ready to be distributed to all your collaborators within the organization. The good news is that it will come as no surprise to them, as you will have taken care to keep them continuously informed of the several stages of the project’s advancement and hopefully managed to collect their feedback.

But before sending out the booklet to all employees, we recommend that the well-being sponsors, HR specialists, and serenity champions organize one (or several) town hall meetings to present the structure and remind themselves of the purpose of the booklet. During these town hall meetings, employees should be encouraged to ask questions and share their thoughts. These questions and feedback often prove to be useful to refine the booklet before HR sends it off to the employees in its final version.

Good follow-up practices

Now, imagine that several months have passed since all your managers and employees have received your booklet of kind behaviors. Hopefully, they are implementing these behaviors in their workplace. But you want to make sure to monitor this in the best possible way. We recommend several good practices to use at this stage:

  • Make sure your managers are trained to give feedback to their subordinates in a kind way. But keep in mind that giving feedback in a kind way is not synonymous with “super-benevolence” or “naive kindness” which can become counter-productive. Employees need managers who coach them candidly and assertively;
  • Make sure your managers are providing their subordinates with positive feedback when the latter have demonstrated that they have behaved in kind ways; make sure as well that your managers are providing corrective feedback to employees whose behaviors do not conform to the principles of the booklet of kind behaviors;
  • Use your organization’s digital platform to share video testimonials from managers and employees that concretely explain the kind behaviors taken from, or inspired by the booklet they use in the workplace and the value this has brought to their team.

Be mindful to balance your approach

Now that we’ve run you through our 6-step process, you’re only halfway there. It will be up to your HR department to skilfully explain to your employees that there is a procedure in place for an alleged victim to formally report to HR when he or she has experienced an act of incivility by another employee (the alleged perpetrator). As importantly, though, HR will have to make it clear that the perpetrator is considered innocent until proven otherwise.

Last but not least, be mindful that this procedure is designed in such a way that it neither incentivizes nor disincentivizes reporting an act of incivility. Because if you don’t find this perfect balance, your organization risks sinking into the dark abysses of a culture of denunciation, which, let’s face it, is just another form of deviant or uncivil culture.