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Executive Insider

Employees Behaving Badly? It’s Not Necessarily Who You Think


Companies Focusing on Workplace Civility as a Differentiator.

Like many large companies, my Fortune 100 client annually selects a group of graduate students from the country’s elite universities for a summer program that culminates in job offers for the cream of the crop.

In recent years, however, program leadership has identified a disheartening trend among those potential recruits with almost perfect pedigrees: Shockingly little basic business etiquette and the requisite “soft skills” to recognize and exhibit appropriate workplace behavior. Among the issues witnessed are:

  • Repeatedly reporting late to work and oblivious to the impact.
  • Typing nonwork-related content on cell phones during conference room discussions.
  • Wearing sweatpants and hoodies to meet the company’s CEO.
  • Getting intoxicated while traveling for business on a company charter flight.
  • Telling highly inappropriate jokes to new or casual business acquaintances. 

The problem was so acute that the client is considering attaching serious incentives to addressing it: 20%-to-30% of summer student-workers’ evaluations could be based on these competencies. 

My client isn’t alone.

In its “Tackling 2023 Future of Work Trends” survey, management consultancy Gartner Group found among the top issues facing organizations was a “workforce-wide erosion of social skills” for Gen-Z workers (those born after 1996). The study noted that business leaders for the past five years have consistently voiced concern that this digital native generation “lacks the social skills necessary to thrive in the workplace.” 

Lack of Business Etiquette Spans All Ages

The COVID-19 pandemic may have changed the nature of work, but the necessity for these fundamental skills remains. And while the lion’s share of attention has been directed at younger workers, this deficit has less to do with age and more with declining exposure and opportunity to practice these basic societal competencies. 

“Organizations need to recognize that everyone’s social skills have eroded since the beginning of the pandemic,” Gartner noted in its study. “No one, from any generation, has cracked the code for navigating our new shared professional environment. Focusing exclusively on Gen Z will not adequately address this challenge; organizations must redefine professionalism for their entire workforce.”

Business Etiquette an Emerging Priority

The problem is so widespread that a recent Wall Street Journal story sported the headline “What the #@$%! Happened to Our Manners at Work?” 

Organizations are now stepping in. An April 2021 survey by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that nearly 60% of responding companies said that closing their workforce’s so-called “emotional and social” skill gaps has become a higher priority since the pandemic began. 

The Solutions? Self-Awareness, Modeling, Empathy and Training

The silver lining may be that at least some workers are aware of the problem: LinkedIn reported in August 2022 that enrollment in its two most popular business etiquette courses soared 127% year over year, The Wall Street Journal article noted. A January 2021 survey conducted by online platform Tallo of more than 2,400 Gen Z students found that three-quarters said soft skills were more important to their career success than hard skills. 

As leaders grapple with post-pandemic in-office versus remote work, it’s worth remembering the roles modeling and leading by example play in developing these skills. Because of early lockdowns required the then-deadly COVID-19 and enduring remote-work practices, “many new-to-the-workforce employees have had few in-person opportunities to observe norms, pick up on professional nuances, develop casual relationships and gather evidence about what is appropriate or effective within their organizations,” Gartner noted. “The expectations of managers when it comes to new hires’ soft skills may simply not align with the experiences they’ve had available to them, at a time when most employees think these very skills are becoming more critical to succeed in the workplace.” 

Indeed, Gartner found that a primary reason to bring workers back to the office—at minimum in a hybrid capacity, and especially among the youngest cohorts—was “so they can learn some professionalism,” Gartner’s McRae told Digiday. After all, “as human beings, we learn by observation.”

Employers Must Fill the Gap to Achieve Competitive Advantage

Organizations need to understand where their employees are in the post-lockdown world and act accordingly. “Looking at it from a different angle, instead of Gen Zers needing to meet traditional levels of professionalism, maybe we need to meet them where they are,” McRae told Digiday. The solution might mean “more explicit coaching on certain things, from meeting a client to senior leader expectations.”

More companies agree. A July survey of more than 1,500 business leaders by found that 45% of companies now offer etiquette training, while 20% plan to do so in the future.

“We require such training now more than we ever did before, as the success of our businesses is dependent on our teams’ abilities to develop relationships with colleagues, as well as customers,” Isla Sibanda, cybersecurity specialist at virtual private network provider PrivacyAustralia, told ResumeBuilder. Skills most often covered by responding companies include appropriate, polite business conversation (78%), professional dress (75%) and writing professional emails (69%).

There’s evidence that such interventions work. Stanford University researchers found that the early-career female professionals they studied who participated in an online intervention program, including peer groups and one-on-one coaching, perceived a 9% improvement in their soft skills. The study also found the training led to better performance evaluations and higher retention, the latter an important factor for organizations in the still-strong labor market.

More than three years after COVID-19 shut down society, the pandemic’s aftermath continues to profoundly shape the workplace. As organizations grapple with historic challenges—a competitive labor market, durable remote-work practices, an exhausted workforce, and pressure from an uncertain economy on both employers and employees—organizations must differentiate themselves to succeed. Ensuring that their workforce understands the importance of business professionalism and can confidently deploy those skills will give companies an edge over their competitors.

Written by Stephanie Nora White.

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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - Executive Insider - Employees Behaving Badly? It’s Not Necessarily Who You Think
Stephanie Nora White
Stephanie Nora White is founder and managing partner of WPNT Ltd. The U.S.-based firm has provided communications training and strategy to organizations worldwide, from Fortune 300 companies to Silicon Valley start-ups, for more than 20 years. Stephanie is a lecturer at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, Northwestern University’s Graduate Integrated Marketing Communications program and at DePaul University.

Stephanie Nora White is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with her through LinkedIn.