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Incivility in the U.S is so Intense, Americans Feel Safest at Work

Every day it's something else: an act of terror, a political upheaval, a filmed incident of violence gone viral. Even Facebook, a platform designed for amicable sharing, has become a hotbed for conflict and negativity. Safe spaces seem to be vanishing from beneath our feet. Where to take refuge and experience some good old-fashioned civility? It might just be your cubicle.

Civility in America VII: The State of Civility, a new survey from Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate with KRC Research, found that 75 percent of Americans see incivility as having reached "crisis levels,” and 73 percent feel that the U.S. is “losing stature as a civil nation.” These stats are both record highs for the annual report, now in its seventh year.

Counter-demonstrators (L) and supporters (R) of U.S. President Donald Trump fight for a U.S. flag during a "People 4 Trump" rally in Berkeley, California
Supporters of President Donald Trump, right, and anti-Trump protesters fight for a U.S. flag during a "People 4 Trump" rally in Berkeley, California, on March 4. Stephen Lam / Reuters file

“Every year we are disheartened to see that levels of civility continue to erode,” Leslie Gaines-Ross, the company's chief reputation strategist, told NBC News. “In fact, agreement with the statement, ‘Incivility in America has risen to crisis levels’ grew to 75 percent by December 2016 — the highest it’s been since we have been tracking that sentiment, and statistically higher than it was in January 2016.”

Incivility Spikes Around the Presidential Election

What caused the spike in feelings and instances of incivility? Well, the presidential election — and what’s been going on in its aftermath — certainly played a big part.

“In the aftermath of a divisive presidential election, the American people are united in their belief that the campaign was — and our culture is — uncivil,” noted Gaines-Ross. “This unified outlook on the state of civility in America, not surprisingly, divides along partisan lines in terms of who is responsible, how uncivil the presidential candidates were, and the likelihood that our national civility ‘crisis’ will ease anytime soon.”

Americans say they’re personally experiencing incivility just about everywhere, including on the road (56 percent), while shopping (47 percent), in the neighborhood (25 percent) and online (25 percent). And while 34 percent of the 1,126 adults polled say they have in the past experienced incivility at work, the overwhelming majority (86 percent) said that their place of employment is currently a civil one.

Has the world gotten so bad that our office is our safe space, even if the environment is less than ideal? Or does it mean our workplaces are getting something right?

A No Politics Zone

While on the job there’s often an unspoken rule that politics aren’t to be discussed. This proves helpful in fostering civility in the workplace.

Amanda Ponzar, CMO at Community Health Charities, says she works with Trump supporters and Democrats, and people of all ages and backgrounds, but that everyone gets along, in part, because they don't talk about politics.

“Even though we don’t all agree, I feel respected and valued by my colleagues,” said Ponzar. “I enjoy their company, passion, and talent. We try to do fun things like bring in ice-cream, walk to Starbucks together, do water-drinking health challenges, host potlucks, play Pictionary, and other engaging activities, and there’s a strong sense of friendship and camaraderie.”

Health Charities CFO and COO Molly Gravholt noted that while there’s no official rule against talking politics, employees have “made a practice of not speaking about it,” a practice that “comes from the top," Gravholt added.

Standards of Civility Set by the CEO

As Gravholt and Ponzar suggested, employees follow the leader, and that leader is ultimately the CEO. If you work in a place where incivilities are frequent and/or mismanaged, your CEO is probably to blame.

“We've seen many challenges that companies have had regarding instances where an issue of incivility was reported, and in thousands of cases the organization did not handle them,” said Katie Smith EVP, chief compliance officer at Convercent, a governance, risk management, and compliance software platform. “This is incompetency at the very top: The CEO and board has to establish a speak-up culture that enables everyone to have a voice and also ensure that something is done about any [misdoings]. You can only ignore it for so long before it wrecks your culture.”

Smith notes that with huge companies like Uber facing allegations of sexual harassment, discrimination, and bullying, creating and nurturing civility is becoming increasingly important for CEOs.

Related: Uber CEO Resigns Under Pressure from Investors

“Every single industry is in the midst of an ethical transformation right now,” said Smith. “Not only do consumers care more than ever about companies' core values and ethics, but with the advent of the internet and social media, society also demands more transparency than ever. Companies have the responsibility to demonstrate their ethics and values daily by empowering their employees to speak up, holding leadership accountable to honor their commitment to the health of the culture through their actions, and ensuring transparency through open and honest communications.”

Taking Your Work Civility Home with You

According to the new survey, the majority (56 percent) of Americans think that civility will get worse before it gets better. But if corporations continue to enforce the practice, we may see things improve more quickly well beyond our office walls.

“I think companies can pave the way for greater society by giving individuals the ability to raise concerns in a safe way,” said Smith. "Organizations that are establishing that ethical transformation and showing what a healthy culture can look like may impact not only their employees but their stakeholders, their customers, and beyond."

Lew Bayer, president and CEO at Civility Experts Worldwide, and co-author of “The 30 Percent Solution: How Civility at Work Increases Retention, Engagement and Profitability” finds that civility entails a kind of domino effect. One positive interaction may lead to another, and then another, and so on. If you generate good vibes in the office, it will likely lead to more civil interactions outside the work place.

"If something makes you upset and you scream at someone, then they get upset, and they may be uncivil on the road,” said Bayer. “It's a system.”