It’s Time for People to Get Thicker Skins (Or Is it)

Monique, a bright-eyed young employee, approaches her manager regarding George, who works in the cubicle beside hers. A veteran employee, George is a bit rough around the edges. Monique complains about his inappropriate jokes, the sarcastic comments, the banter at others’ expense. Hearing his interactions from her cubicle, she finds
 it hard to concentrate. She is uncomfortable dealing with the situation herself and is requesting that something be done.

Managers faced with such complaints typically provide some variation of the following answer: “Sorry, Monique, we can’t change someone’s personality. The best solution is for you to develop a thicker skin.”

(And here’s a not-so-big secret: Inside his or her head, the manager is usually thinking, You’ve gotta be kidding! Just grow up, suck it up and get back to work!)

I’ve written here before about how underlying beliefs can sink ships. The thicker-skin belief is yet another lethal (and misguided) one. It implies that it is the responsibility of the person on the receiving end to ignore, accept or even embrace colleagues’ uncivil conduct. This belief renders everyone (including the manager) blind or indifferent to uncivil behaviour.

I hear the thicker-skin idea when I am called to help turn around the behaviour of abrasive managers. People who are struggling with such a boss are often told (in nicer terms) to suck it up and move on. It’s part of a set of common myths that enable abrasive behaviour. For those of you who live in Canada, the recent scandal surrounding star radio host Jian Ghomeshi is a classic and sad example of alarm bells not going off because of deep seated beliefs that immunize star hosts from being accountable for bad behaviour.

I also hear the people-need-to-get-a-thicker-skin notion often from folks who have been in the workforce for many years and believe that the workplace has—and will always be—a battlefield where one is bound to encounter inappropriate behaviours of all sorts. In this war zone, one needs to fend for oneself, which includes developing selective deafness and blindness (and of course, some savvy combat strategies to boot).  It’s that old “If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.”

Ah, yes, the good ol’ times. Prior to the development of anti-harassment legislation, women and members of minority groups survived many an insult by developing very useful “thicker skins”. However, whether you like it or not, the pendulum is moving well away from people having to fend for themselves. Nowadays employers are increasingly accountable for creating psychologically safe workplaces where people can perform at their best. When Monique can’t concentrate because of George’s inappropriate behaviour, the employer has an obligation to act.

My suggestion? Let’s create workplaces that make people of all skin thickness feel comfortable and safe. By the way, it’s good for business too. Other good things will flow: productivity, engagement, retention, attentive customer service, and innovation.


Don’t hesitate to contact me directly for any help to make your work environment more civil.

And a little update: The new Respect-on-the-Go toolkits and the Team Civility Boosters™ can now be accessed directly from our website’s home page. As the proud “mama” of these newborns, I am thrilled to report that more than 1,200 have already been purchased and they are receiving a tremendously enthusiastic reception.

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A COUPLE OF DAYS after this blog was posted, I received the following email from a female executive who manages a group of several hundred people (quoted with permission):

Dear Sharone,

Great perspective! In my 20 years working in one of the best organizations in Canada that has won many important awards, I never witnessed inappropriate comments about any ethnic groups….. except French-speaking people. As a Francophone, I quickly realized that for English speaking Canadians, French people are simply not considered ‘an ethnic group’. With time, I learned to dismiss comments that were made to me and not take offence to them. I often remember the day I attended your harassment session several years ago very fondly because it was the start of my personal healing. When I came back from the bathroom (where I had escaped in a highly emotional state when the conversation got to “thicker skins”) you spoke of incivility. You had given a name to what I was experiencing and by that simple fact I felt I could start getting my confidence back. I too often still see jokes or satires made on the accounts of French people. I am still hopeful that this behaviour will change in the near future.  


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