Olympia Snowe And The Ugly Effect of Incivility

Olympia Snowe is just the latest example in politics and business to demonstrate the ugly effects of incivility and why civility matters. She just announced that she is not going to seek another term.

She did not make her decision because she was facing a difficult reelection bid. A USA Today article on February 29 on page 5A explained: “She last won re-election in 2006 with 74% of the vote. ‘I have no doubt I would have won re-election,’ she said in a statement.”

Instead, the article goes on to explain that the reason she gives for stepping down is a frustration with the “polarization and partisanship that has overtaken Washington—and the Senate, in particular. ‘I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term,’ she said, adding that she would seek opportunities outside of the Senate to encourage civility in government. ‘It is time for change in the way we govern.’”


In a nutshell, that’s the problem with incivility. At a certain point, people simply say, “No more. I don’t have to put up with caustic, vitriolic, negative behavior.” And they disengage, refuse to serve, quit their jobs.

It’s not just in politics that incivility is causing a problem. In business today it is costly to replace a worker. There’s downtime between the time a person leaves and a qualified replacement is hired. There’s a learning curve for the replacement before she achieves the same level of productivity as the person who left. The whole process can take upwards of a year, a year of lost productivity coupled with the costs of hiring a new person and paying that person as she becomes proficient at her job. While businesses don’t expect to keep a worker from leaving for a good reason—a better position, a relocation—good businesses ensure that employees don’t leave for preventable reasons. But when a person leaves because of a preventable reason, such as incivility, that should be unacceptable.


And it should be unacceptable to the American public. That uncivil atmosphere of the past few years is reflected in Congress’ approval rating that has steadily declined and hit a new record low of 11% in December 2011. It is time to demand from Congress—the House and the Senate—civil behavior. Incivility has little to do with partisan politics and much to do with the culture tolerated by the leadership of an institution. I can accept any elected official’s decision to return to private life; what is unacceptable to me is a resignation caused by the contentious and uncivil atmosphere in Congress.


People leaving their jobs or as in Senator Snowe’s situation refusing to serve in an uncivil environment is too costly a result for a reason that should be and is preventable. And rudeness and incivility in the workplace are preventable. Prevention begins by changing the workplace culture and that means change must be embraced from the top down. That change is grounded in three powerful principles that should govern interactions in the workplace: be considerate, be respectful, and be honest.

Change in the uncivil atmosphere pervading Congress is needed now, before we lose any more senators or representatives for a totally preventable reason. It’s time for the Congressional leadership to recognize that the current culture is toxic and to take responsibility for restoring civility in our House and in our Senate.


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