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Achieving Equity and Inclusion Through Civility Training

Mark Nagy, PhD

Imagine if you had not exercised nor ate very well for a number of years as you focused on your career growth. Eventually, you meet with a doctor who tells you that you must take better care of yourself in order to improve your health. Heeding the doctor’s advice, you change your eating habits and engage in exercise. For one day. How much would your overall health improve?

The answer, of course, is not much. Much like ignoring one’s health, recent societal events have led many organizations to realize they haven’t focused on developing an equitable and inclusive culture because they’ve focused on financial growth. Yet, many organizations expect to improve their overall equity and inclusion “health” by mandating that employees attend an annual training that, at best, lasts for a couple of hours once a year (Medeiros & Griffith, 2019). Clearly, the effect of such a short training will not change the inclusive culture of an organization.

If organizations really want to improve their equity and inclusive culture, they are going to have to invest time and resources to the initiative. Perhaps not surprisingly, an exclusive, as compared to an inclusive, culture is driven by an uncivil work environment. According to Lynne M. Andersson and Christine M. Pearson (1999), workplace incivility “is a low-intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm the target, in violation of norms for mutual respect.” That definition isn’t very long, but it contains three very important components:

  1. Workplace incivility behaviors are of low intensity. This means they are not egregious; they may be subtle behaviors such as the rolling of one’s eyes in response to a comment or the exclusion of an invitation to join others to lunch.
  2. Workplace incivility behaviors are ambiguous. This means that uncivil behaviors may not necessarily be intentional, but they are can be interpreted as uncivil by a recipient.
  3. Workplace incivility behaviors violate environmental norms of behavior. These are essentially unwritten rules of appropriate conduct. Because they are literally unwritten, these rules may not be known or understood by all employees.

The point here is that workplace incivility involves a lot of behaviors that can be interpreted as exclusionary, even if they are not intended to be as such and even if they are not well understood. Yet, such behaviors directly lead to perceptions of exclusion, and a consequence of those perceptions is an exclusionary workplace culture.

To change those interpretations of ambiguous behaviors, organizations must engage in civility training. Christine M. Pearson, Lynne Andersson, and Christine L. Porath (2000) define workplace civility as “behavior that helps preserve norms for mutual respect at work. It comprises behaviors that are fundamental to positively connecting with another, building relationships and empathizing.” The best aspect of workplace civility training is that it focuses on what to do not what to avoid. So much of the employee compliance training focuses on what to avoid. A great example of such an initiative is sexual harassment training. Such training warns employees to avoid telling “off-color jokes” or to make sure not to display “offensive” pictures in their offices. But what is an “off-color joke”? What is an “offensive” picture? Truth be told, if you asked most employees, there would be widespread disagreement as to what constitutes an “off-color joke” or a picture that is “offensive.” That widespread disagreement, with its inherent ambiguity, only fuels perceptions of uncivil behavior and, ultimately, an exclusionary culture.

In order to reach a common understanding of what comprises respectful behavior and, consequently, an inclusive work culture, a work team must determine for themselves what it means to be respectful to one another. In this way, an understanding of appropriate behavior must be determined from within the workgroup, from the ground up (if you will), and not mandated by those from other parts of the organization (like Human Resources). In this way, workgroup civility is defined at the local level. In fact, what may be appropriate in one area of an organization may be deemed to be inappropriate in another area of the organization. For instance, what may be considered humorous (and thus, appropriate for conversation) on a pediatric floor in a hospital may be quite inappropriate on an oncology floor of the same hospital. Thus, it is imperative that in order to achieve an inclusive culture, the workgroup must find common ground and come to an understanding of what constitutes appropriate behavior within their team.

Such an understanding is going to take time, and it is certainly going to take more than a couple of hours of equity and inclusion training once a year. In fact, it will take multiple hour-plus meetings as the group works through their differences to achieve common ground. Some components of civility training should:

  1. Establish a “Civility Code of Conduct.” The work group should create a written document of what constitutes appropriate behavior and detail how the workgroup members will hold each other accountable and how disagreements will be addressed.
  2. Enhance existing knowledge and skills. To increase the interpretation of ambiguous behaviors, civility training should include an awareness of how individuals make attributions about others (i.e., the Fundamental Attribution Error and the self-serving bias), how we interpret and manage emotions, and how to enhance communication and conflict resolution skills. Doing so will only add to the efficacy of an inclusive culture.
  3. Utilize an experienced and well-trained external facilitator. In order to have difficult discussions involving respectful (and perceived disrespectful) behaviors, the workgroup members must participate in a psychologically safe environment, one in which all members will be certain that nothing discussed will be shared with upper management through the facilitator.

Thus, much like a person making widespread and long-lasting changes to their diet and exercise regimen in order to improve one’s personal health, an organization must make widespread and long-lasting changes to achieve an inclusive culture and organizational health.


Medeiros, K., & Griffith, J. (2019). #Ustoo: How I-O psychologists can extend the conversation on sexual harassment and sexual assault through workplace training. Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 12(1), 1-19.

Andersson, L. M., & Pearson, C. M. (1999). Tit for tat? The spiraling effect of incivility in the workplace. Academy of Management Review, 24, 452-471. doi: 10.5465/AMR.1999.2202131 

Pearson, C. M., Andersson, L. M., & Porath, C. L. (2000). Assessing and attacking workplace incivility. Organizational Dynamics, 29(2), 123-137. doi: 10.1016/s0090-2616(00)00019-x

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