Infantilizing a Workforce with ‘Civility and Respect’.

At the end of this post, please find the PDF of a webpage devoted to Civility and Respect from the University of Alberta (U of A), Human Resources, Health, Safety and Environment. Most of the comments I make in the post pertain to this webpage.

In their 2021 Letters on the Implementation of the Call to Action on Anti-Racism, Equity and Inclusion, Alejandro Adem, President of NSERC, and Ted Hewitt, President of SSHRC, reported that the staff of their respective organisations are mandated to take Diversity and Inclusion Training, and Civility and Respect.

“We are developing more resources for staff like our publications on anti-racism and personal pronouns, and delivering mandatory Diversity and Inclusion Training, and Civility and Respect.” — Alejandro Adem, NSERC1

“We continued our mandatory Diversity and Inclusion Training, and Civility and Respect for all staff.” — Ted Hewitt, SSHRC2

It’s not clear from these statements whether the word ‘mandatory’ scopes both Diversity and Inclusion Training and Civility and Respect. But I suspect so.

My interest here is in discovering what ‘Civility and Respect’ is referring to in these letters. My search begins with a webpage devoted to the topic from the University of Alberta (U of A), Human Resources, Health, Safety and Environment.3

A YouTube video entitled “Learn about the National Standard – Civility and Respect” is embedded in the centre of the page. I will devote my next post to this video so as not to distract from an examination of the rest of the content.

The U of A Civility and Respect webpage is divided into three subheadings: Our Goal; Proposed Definitions; and a Call to Action.

I shudder to think of the level of incivility and disrespect among university staff and faculty members that must have obtained to motivate this program. Sweater-vested nerds exchanging fisticuffs in faculty hallways? Spitballs plastered on office doors? A line-up of tattle-tales snaked around the corner from the Dean’s office? Some waiting for the strap?

Of course I’m being facetious. The idea that staff at NSERC and SSHRC appear to be mandated to take something like the infantilising drivel on this webpage makes me feel anything but civil and respectful — whatever these terms might mean.

The opening sentence under the subheading Proposed Definitions states that:

It is a good practice for work groups to have conversations and come to shared understandings of terms such as civility and respect and how they show up in the workplace.

The opening sentence of the webpage (under Goals) states that civility and respect are shared norms. If civility and respect are shared norms, then it’s an incoherent notion that work groups would have to have conversations to come to shared understandings of what these words mean. A norm just means that these shared understandings obtain — or it’s not a norm.

Again under Proposed Definitions, the meanings of the terms civility and respect are suggested as starting points. Let’s have a look.

Civility is [1]“the behaviours that help to preserve the norms for mutual respect in the workplace. [2]Civility reflects concern for others” and is usually demonstrated through manners, courtesy, politeness, and a general awareness of the rights, wishes, concerns, and feelings of others.

  1. I wonder if the aforementioned work groups are expected to compile a list of these behaviours or whether they are given a list of behaviours that they are expected to adhere to? Or both? If a list of behaviours is made to “preserve the norms for mutual respect in the workplace”, is a corresponding list of behaviours that don’t also compiled?
  2. i) A psychopath can reflect concern for others. A psychopath inclined to prey on others learns and exploits these behaviours and psychological traits to his advantage. One advantage might be to outcompete his co-workers by demonstrating his uber-commitment to civility in order to score an administerial position with a substantial pay raise. If the criteria for civility are met, why should it matter that they are met by a psychopath? (I’ll have to revisit the psychopath example for diversity and inclusion.) ii) What is the force of the word “usually”?


Respect is [1]“an active process that integrates personal, group, and institutional behaviours geared towards acknowledging and valuing [differences]”. [2]The Cambridge Dictionary defines respect in terms of honour and care for others, and behaving in ways that do not cause offense.

  1. This sentence is incoherent.
  2. This sentence is also incoherent. i) Honour is a synonym for respect. Hence honour tells us nothing at all about what respect means; i.e. respect is respect. ii) Care can be a noun or a verb. As a noun, I can administer care, e.g. as a nurse, without caring, a verb. I might care, a verb, for the victims of floods in Bangladesh, but not provide any care, a noun, for these victims. Which sense of care is criterial for ‘respect’? iii) Which behaviours do not cause offense? Offense to whom? Are some offences permissible, such as causing offense by telling another she has caused offense? Who vets whether one offense trumps another, and by which criteria?

Apparently somebody has authority to mete out consequences when civility and respect, whatever these terms mean, are violated. I don’t know who has this authority. But this person had best be acting on something more clearly defined than the proposed definitions, e.g. when responding to a grievance. On this note, the last statement under the subheading Goals is worrisome:

Individuals are held accountable and afforded the opportunity to remedy their behaviour when actions are not respectful.

  1. Individuals are held accountable for what? What is respectful?
  2. Individuals are held accountable by whom? What does it mean to be held accountable? The authors of this webpage ought to be forthcoming with some examples.
  3. What is meant by “the opportunity to remedy their behaviour”? Here, the authors also ought to be forthcoming with some examples.
  4. This statement might be paraphrased as, “Johnny, you can stand in the corner and take a time-out until you are ready to apologise. When you apologise, you can rejoin the group.” Johnny needs the paycheque and might seethe with resentment at this punishment/ “opportunity”. He thinks the C-word and goes through the prescribed civil and respectful motions.

Under the subheading Call to Action:

Opportunities for ongoing learning and development for all levels of the organization

  • In my research, I’m noticing that mandatory training is often being referred to as an “opportunity for learning.” Since it appears that Civility and Respect training is mandatory for employees of NSERC and SSHRC, this training might also be cast as an opportunity. In any case, the concept of mandatory, a “must”, is (in EDI and related discourse) often being conflated with the concept of an opportunity, a “may”. It’s not only a weird conflation, but it also has an Orwellian ring when an opportunity is mandated.
  • In any case, I doubt that the U of A Civility and Respect Call to Action means that its staff can take this training only if they feel like it.

Ensuring that respect is a value that permeates policies and procedures 

  • Once again. What is respect?
  • How is this ensurance being enforced and by whom?
  • What is it for this ill-defined concept, respect, to permeate policies and procedures?

Mechanisms to address the impacts of uncivil and disrespectful behaviours 

  • Some examples of these mechanisms?
  • Impacts of the behaviours? Impacts of the mechanisms? Examples, please.

I leave off with two questions:

  1. Is it an uncivil and disrespectful behaviour to criticise Civility and Respect?
  2. What is the function of a university?

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