To understand Giovinella Gonthier, you have to understand the tree crisis. “I told you the story of how my doorman told this guy that his dog couldn’t pee on our tree-right?” asks Gonthier, a striking woman in her mid-50s, who recently moved into a new West Loop condo building.
“The guy’s argument was, ‘Well, we don’t have parks in this neighborhood; where’s my dog supposed to pee?’ He doesn’t live in our building; he just felt he had the right to let his dog urinate on the lawn.”
This story came up in the latter part of two weeks I spent listening to the world according to Gonthier. A raconteur by nature, Gonthier employs her considerable intelligence and wit to talk for long stretches of time without stopping, particularly if she is on the topic-and she almost always is on the topic-of civility. By the end of the year she will have given lectures and seminars on workplace civility to some 40 corporations and professional organizations, for a fee ranging from $4,000 to $7,000. Next year, she will jet to Botswana, Denmark, and other far-flung locales to do the same. And she will be toting her new book, Rude Awakenings: Overcoming the Civility Crisis in the Workplace (Dearborn Trade Publishing), which she spent 12 hours a day seven days a week for four months writing. “I did an article on civility for this little professional journal, 1,700 readers-and suddenly I had three different publishers calling me, asking me to write a book,” she told me happily.
Yet to say that Gonthier is fighting bad behavior at the office is like saying that Gloria Steinem was protesting bras. Gonthier is less a civility consultant than a de facto global activist, at war against the disintegration of Western society as we know it-a gloomy development she continues to illustrate via the tree story:
“Well, the man came back, and he cut down our tree. It was like, ‘Take that.’ They saw him. And the way it got slashed! Because he didn’t have the proper tools. I’ve never cried for a tree, but when I looked at it, I was just so sad. I live in a place where it’s in-your-face urbanism. And we need trees, because trees give us oxygen, and they clean the air, and they also aesthetically make the area look more beautiful, and he didn’t see all of that. He just got upset.”
Gonthier is creeping toward the essence of her message-the one that can get obscured in her book by section titles like “Good Cheer Can Be Infectious!” and in her seminars by the sort of group activities you hoped you had left behind in third grade. Indeed, the dénouement of the Tale of the Urinating Dog reveals why civility is Gonthier’s passion. “We don’t want to be told anymore how we should behave,” she declares. “And instead of saying to the doorman, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, you didn’t have a sign on the lawn. Next time I’ll be more careful’-because that’s how I would have approached it-he came back with this ‘I’ll show you’ attitude. And this is what I mean when I say that things are descending into chaos.”
There you have it. Chaos. Descending into it. Think about that the next time you slouch away from the office printer without refilling the empty paper tray.
* * *
That act of workplace incivility, by the way, ranks number four on a list titled “Eight Actions Sure to Alienate Coworkers and Disrupt the Office,” on page 124 of Gonthier’s book. Scanning the list, I note that while my conscience is free of printer-related transgressions, I may once have relieved the office’s overstuffed mini-fridge of a can of diet Coke. (It had been there a very, very long time.) Gonthier takes a hard line on soda pilfering, too-a zero tolerance policy, in fact. “Managers should threaten dismissal if anyone is caught stealing food,” she writes on page 127 of Rude Awakenings. “Discuss it as a serious problem at organization-wide meetings. Choosing to belittle the problem or ignore it will only lower morale and productivity.” Whoa.
You’re laughing? That’s all right; Gonthier has a sense of humor. She has heard it all before, too. Similar griping chatter, for instance, filled the hallways of Rush-Copley Medical Center in Aurora after some 80 of its managers and executives read the book in preparation for an August leadership retreat that would include a three-hour workshop with Gonthier.
The morning of her presentation, a genial crowd of nursing supervisors, accountants, department heads, and executives all have the book in hand as they line up for Danish and coffee, then find their assigned seats in a large meeting room. I take my place at a round table; next to me is the hospital’s amiable facility manager, Rodney Horton. I ask if he learned anything from Rude Awakenings. “Not really,” he says. “Most of it’s common sense.”
Not long after, Gonthier is introduced. Wearing an electric-blue pantsuit that highlights her olive skin, she speaks into a wireless microphone. And as if she had heard Horton’s comment, she says, “You know, I hear the criticism a lot-‘That is so obvious. This is fluff. This is common sense.’ But what I see is that common sense is a very uncommon commodity. We’re very abusive to people we work with.”
Some recent developments back her up. Numerous lawsuits have been brought against businesses because bosses or co-workers had behaved badly. In one 1999 landmark case, three employees in Texas sued their employer, GTE Southwest, for inflicting emotional distress. The plaintiffs won-proving a two-year-long pattern of abusive and threatening behavior by their boss, which included making an employee who had left behind some documents wear a Post-it note that said, “Don’t forget your paperwork.” The Supreme Court of Texas affirmed the decision and the plaintiffs were awarded a total of $275,000.
Overseas, incivility has stormed its way into the criminal code. The French parliament passed a bill in 2001 making bullying in the workplace punishable by a prison sentence of up to one year and a fine of $13,000. Sweden outlawed workplace nastiness in 1993, and the Portuguese parliament has recently considered similar legislation.
Gonthier’s focus, though, is less on bullying than on the decline in plain courtesy. Verbal slights, eye rolling, public criticism, and other subtle forms of incivility, while less obvious, may be more insidious and harmful. For example, a separate study of 1,800 people, published recently in the quarterly journal Organizational Dynamics, found that of workers who had been treated rudely, half said they lost work time worrying about the rude behavior directed toward them. A third admitted to intentionally reducing their commitment to the company. Nearly a quarter said they stopped doing their best work, and 12 percent quit their jobs. A 2001 study demonstrated that uncivil behavior hurts performance and profits, often because of the health problems that emerge when employees feel mistreated. “Although one instance of uncivil behavior might appear trivial, those slights and indignities add up,” the study’s lead researcher, the University of Michigan’s Lilia Cortina, said in Gonthier’s book. “They create low-level chronic stressors. It wears people down.”
And sometimes it winds them up. In Great Britain 51 percent of women and 39 percent of men had come close to punching a colleague, according to a survey of 450 office workers. The New York Times reported the results in August, announcing it with the headline “The Latest Modern Scourge: Office Rage.”
That slightly facetious title captures the attitude of many skeptics, thick-skinned managers, and plain old curmudgeons, who wonder if Gonthier’s “civility crisis” isn’t just another PC-driven, media-hyped spot of pop sociology. After all, the workplace has been rough-and-tumble since Homo erectus first organized a detail to go out and hunt for dinner. Now an entire lingo has infiltrated the circles of human resources and organizational development, where terms like “horizontal incivility,” “combative listening,” and “organizational resistance” are employed, as if the workplace were just one rude comment shy of erupting into cubicle-to-cubicle warfare. But is the threat all that threatening? Do businesses really need to invest time and money in trying to sand the rough edges of human behavior?
During a break in the Rush-Copley seminar, Barry Finn, the hospital’s chief operating officer, tells me that the effort makes sense for his institution. “We’re delivering a service that people can clearly differentiate from competitors,” he says. “If we’re treating ourselves abruptly or rudely, then we’re going to treat the patients that way, too. So for us, it’s just a good investment.”
When Gonthier continues, she whips a graphic onto an overhead projector that lists the costs of incivility: absenteeism, health disorders, lawsuits, and work rage leading to violence, among others. With the next graphic, Gonthier ticks off the reasons behind incivility. They seem endless: an emphasis on technology-“software over human ware,” Gonthier says; changes in the family, including more one-parent households and fewer workers with the support of extended family; staffing shortages and increased workloads; traffic and urban congestion; lack of sleep; and an acquisition mentality. “When we have money, we want more money,” she explains. “So we’re on this earn-and-spend treadmill that is very stressful.”
Next, she asks the Rush-Copley managers for examples of workplace incivility that they have experienced. Striding about the room like the Phil Donahue of old, she puts her mike in the face of a manager who has raised her hand. “Passing people in the hall and not acknowledging them,” the woman offers, “or ignoring people in the elevator.”
Gonthier nods. “It sounds so simple, but that emerges in my workshops as the number one source of hurt feelings. Just being ignored by someone in these casual encounters.”
Much of the rest of the morning is spent examining assorted instances of bad behavior. “What about rumormongering?” she asks. “Huge problem in the workplace. And what does it destroy if it’s allowed to fester?”
“Morale?” offers a participant.
“Yes, morale!” she declares. “There’s a favorite quote of mine in the book: ‘Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.’ How do you prevent rumormongering? Tell your staff that it is not allowed.”
In all, the seminar lasts nearly four hours and covers everything from cell phone etiquette to managing conflicts. I never caught up again with Rodney Horton, but when I called Finn several weeks later, he said the program was worth Gonthier’s fee. “You might think she speaks about things that are somewhat obvious, but I think it was helpful to get everyone thinking along those lines. Believe it or not, I’ve had to say to people at the directorate level, ‘Look, you shouldn’t send out these e-mails that are inflammatory or inappropriate or too long.’ And you realize, sometimes people don’t think, or they haven’t been educated about these things.”
* * *
Gonthier has dark, Mediterranean looks that match her Italian first name-“It means ‘young and energetic,'” she explains-but what everyone notices is her accent, a hybrid of British and French and, most likely, a dash of the five other languages she speaks. She was born in Tanzania of parents from the Seychelles, a group of islands off East Africa. Raised primarily in Tanzania and Kenya, where her father worked as a civil engineer, she was sent to boarding school at age seven in Tanzania’s capital, Dar es Salaam. There she attended classes with a melting pot of students, including Europeans, Chinese, Africans, Indian Muslims, and Pakistanis. “They were the children of diplomats, engineers, professors,” she says. “It was an incredible learning experience. You learned to take care of yourself, and not to whine.”
After graduating from Wheaton College in Massachusetts, she earned a master’s in education and political science at Harvard-and met Roger Wilson, whom she eventually married. But first she returned to the Seychelles to help her homeland shrug off the British rule that had governed it since 1814. Soon after it won its independence, in 1976, the Seychelles’ new president called Gonthier. “There were so few educated people in the country,” she says today. “He asked me what job I would like to have in the new government, and I told him I had always dreamed of being the ambassador to the United Nations.”
Three years later, her wish granted, she packed her bags and flew to New York. She was 30, and not above using feminine wiles to make her way at the UN. The president of the General Assembly was Tanzanian. “I played this little lady-‘Mentor me, coach me,'” she says. “He showed me the ropes.” Less than two years later, in 1981, a band of South African mercenaries invaded the Seychelles. Gonthier was ordered by the Seychelles president to get a unanimous resolution from the 15-member UN Security Council, denouncing the invasion. “This was during the cold war, at a time when it was impossible to get the U.S. and the Soviet Union to agree on anything,” she says. The day before the vote, she had secured 14 votes in favor of the resolution. The only holdout: the United States.
The young ambassador paid a visit to Jeane Kirkpatrick, the American representative to the UN. “She was extremely belligerent,” Gonthier says. “Her position was that if mercenaries have come there, you guys must have done something wrong. You must be bad people. I was exhausted. I had been working on two hours of sleep for days. And I just broke into tears.” Eventually, though, she worked out a change in the resolution’s language that persuaded Kirkpatrick to vote for it-the first resolution passed unanimously in seven years. “After the voting, she came and shook my hand,” Gonthier says. “That meant a lot to me.”
After eight years at the United Nations, and brief stints as ambassador to France and to the United States, Gonthier resigned her post in 1989 to join her husband, who was practicing law in Chicago. She started a protocol training business that sputtered for lack of diplomats here. Then she positioned herself as an etiquette trainer. “I was teaching people which knives and forks to use,” she says, “and I just found that it wasn’t really relevant when they were condescending to their dining partners. Etiquette training isn’t unimportant, but it’s only a small component of civility. I was interested in the bigger picture.”
Around 1997, she found herself waiting in the immaculate lobbies of her clients, watching employees interact with one another. “Here we were in these grand settings-fresh flowers, beautiful furnishings-and their behavior, their language, their lack of decorum were appalling,” she says. “And the people I was waiting for often weren’t honoring my appointments, which is wasting my time and extremely rude. So it all came together and I said, ‘Wait a minute; there’s a larger picture here. This is a niche I can cover.'”
For the first couple of years, while the economy was riding high, she was laughed out of the human resources departments she visited. When the dot-com bubble burst, though, anxiety soared in the workplace. The same slights that money once soothed now became real wounds. Soon after, Gonthier wrote her book, and then came September 11, 2001. “All of a sudden, I think, people realized we’d better get a grip.”
Not everyone has embraced the fight against incivility. Last year, a federal judge in Georgia rejected a woman’s claims that she had been subjected to a sexually hostile work environment at a Wolf Camera store: “The modern notion of acceptable behavior” has become corroded by lewd music, videos and computer games, “perversity-programming” broadcast standards, and other degrading factors, the judge, B. Avant Edenfield, ruled. As a result, “victims” like the plaintiff may have to accept a certain amount of boorish behavior or workplace vulgarity as normal.
“Yes, that’s the old argument: Toughen up; that’s the way the world is,” Gonthier tells me by telephone a week after the Rush-Copley workshop. “You only have to look at the academic studies to see that there is a direct correlation between incivility and diminished productivity. Yes, the world is that way in some places. But at a certain point, you have to ask yourself, Should you accept it that way?”
As Gonthier warms to her topic, she begins to sound like the ambassador of old, arguing to the assembly that nothing less than world order is at stake. “I think that in a civilized society,” she tells me, “civility is simply owed to us. Our forefathers raped and pillaged. We’ve gone beyond that-or should have. But there is a thing that’s happening now in Western society. There’s this steady deterioration of civility, in all walks of life.”
More grim studies: The number of road rage incidents went up 51 percent between 1990 and 1996, according to AAA. In the air, says the U.S. Aviation Safety Reporting System-a confidential monitoring system for airline crews-reports of unruly passengers increased by about 800 percent, from 66 in 1997 to 534 in 1999. Another survey showed that cases of violence and sexual harassment on three Japanese airlines soared to 570 in 2000, a sevenfold increase in just four years. “Our society is just spiraling downward,” Gonthier says. “And I think the result is that people are starting to feel a sense of hopelessness.”
For her part, Gonthier doesn’t leave civility at the office. She loathes most TV and literally can’t bear to see a set in her house. When she and Wilson moved into their new condo, she had the TV built into the wall, and a curtain specially hung to hide it. “When Roger wants to watch TV, he pulls the curtain back,” she says.
Indeed, Wilson sometimes seems to serve as a lightning rod for Gonthier’s concern about the decline of civilization. Recently he came home from work and mentioned that a committee in his department had chosen, for its regular departmental outing, to go to Navy Pier, where each member would be given $48 to spend on food and entertainment.
Gonthier’s jaw dropped. “You don’t want a French cabaret evening? You don’t want the opera?” she asked rhetorically. “You just want to go to Navy Pier to bond by eating junk food and going on these rides?”
In the world according to Gonthier, by accepting uncivil behavior, by not reaching for a higher standard, we submit to the gravitational pull toward base instincts and boorish behavior, toward slashed trees and Navy Pier.
“I know you hate that place,” Wilson told his wife, “but it’s the most popular venue in Chicago. People love it.”
“That’s my point-why?” Gonthier said. “There’s a Shakespeare Theater there; it’s apparently one of the best in the world. Why aren’t they choosing to go there? Junk food and rides-that’s an easy amusement. You don’t have to think. You’re not bettering yourself.
“I hope spouses aren’t invited,” Gonthier added, drawing her line in the sand. “Because I’m not going.”
“Giovinella, not everything’s about you,” Wilson answered, ending the argument. “I formed a committee, and the committee decided this. And in America, we believe in democracy.”
For Gonthier, that may be part of the problem. “With freedom,” she says, “comes responsibility”-and not enough of us are taking responsibility. Take the upcoming meeting of Gonthier’s condo association, where the board will decide what action to take against the tree slasher. Gonthier is not optimistic. “I bet you it will end up as nothing-we’ll just let this guy get away with it,” she says. “You see, that’s the thing: No one is calling anyone on this stuff. We’re all afraid, and we’re all saying, ‘Well you have to develop a thick skin; this is the way the world is.’ But in the meantime we’re descending. We’re spiraling downward, in a very fast trajectory.”