Ombuds’ corner: Workplace incivility

In this series, the Bulletin aims to explain the role of the Ombuds at CERN by presenting practical examples of misunderstandings that could have been resolved by the Ombuds if he had been contacted earlier. Please note that, in all the situations we present, the names are fictitious and used only to improve clarity.


In 2011, the Canadian HR Reporter published several articles by Sharone Bar-David on workplace incivility (I would encourage you to read them here). These articles can shed some light on an internal issue here at CERN: what happens when there are violations of the Code of Conduct that we may face every day? Such incivilities can fly under the organizational radar and are not up to the level of any administrative or disciplinary action foreseen in the CERN Staff Rules and Regulations. However, if such breaches in respectful behaviour are tolerated continuously and nothing is done about them, they can create a toxic work climate. Furthermore, such a distortion of human relations can become, over time, embedded within our culture. People will simply believe that such behaviour is allowed and “normal”. Such incivilities are simply the visible tip of the iceberg, and can conceal bullying or abuse of authority. They can foster a climate in the workplace that favours the development of more severe violations.

What are these incivilities? Let me offer you some non-exhaustive examples:

- Every morning when he comes to the office, Paul* goes around his group – smiling, saying hello, shaking hands with some people, and enquiring if any particular issue has arisen from the day before. One day, for some unknown reason, Paul excludes two of his collaborators from his daily visit. He does not say hello and does not enter their offices, he acts as if they were not there at all, totally ignoring them. Moreover, once a week the entire group would typically go for a coffee – an event that Paul no longer invites them to. Instead, he merely says, in the corridor, that if they want to come, they know where it is. These two collaborators face social exclusion.

- Jeff* is used to making jokes – nothing entirely offensive – about his collaborators. However his jokes are ambiguous and it is impossible to say if they are just jokes or if Jeff actually means them. His collaborators start feeling quite a bit of unease because of the jokes and become suspicious of his motives.

- Don* spends quite some time in the corridors, as he believes that this is a good way of having informal chats with his collaborators. During these chats, Don also spreads rumors about people – nothing really insulting, but disclosing stories and sharing gossip, not caring about confidentiality. The trouble is also that anyone in the corridor can also hear what he says. For example, while talking about a recent hiring board, Don exclaimed: “Oh! I know who will get the job.” You can imagine the consequences of this statement on the group.

- Others bad habits can be: plagiarising work from someone else without referencing them or taking funny attitudes in a meeting when someone else talks, such as shrugging your shoulders, looking in an evident and noticeable way to the ceiling, rolling your eyes (which is an unfortunately widespread practice), or yawning loudly.

CERN does not have any administrative policy against all these incivilities. They are impossible to prevent. The best solution is that we have to be careful not to propagate such violations of the code promoting a respectful workplace environment.

The CERN Code of Conduct is an incentive for us to act in a respectful way. Many day-to-day “violations”, even if they do not appear malicious, are extremely dangerous to our workplace welfare as they increase the perception that such behaviour is allowed when it is not. This disrespectful behaviour will increase the possibilities of abuse and harassment, and will foster a bad working climate – all these things which are unacceptable and harmful to the Organization’s personnel, effectiveness and image. So, are also the “milder” violations of our Code of Conduct.

Remember that the Ombuds, according to his mandate, is here to give advice on the Code of Conduct.

* Names and stories are purely imaginary.

Contact the Ombuds Early!


by Vincent Vuillemin