Civility is an Ethical Issue

by Linda Fisher Thornton

Civility is Part of  Ethical Behavior

The Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary defines civility as “polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior.” These behaviors are the ones we use when we treat others with care.

According to Michael Brannigan, The Pfaff Endowed Chair in Ethics and Moral Values at the College of St. Rose in Albany, NY., “Ethics deals fundamentally with how we treat each other on a daily basis. Indeed, our small acts of civility and incivility constitute the heart of morality.”

Responsible leaders know that civility is the minimum standard for how we should treat others. As members of a society, we are expected to behave in ways that allow others to pursue their life’s work and to contribute fully to that society.

Civility is at the Core of Ethical Leadership

Treating others with respect and care is an important part of being a good citizen, and it is a “load-bearing beam” that provides a foundation for ethical leadership.
According to Wikipedia‘s definition, “Ethical leadership is leadership that is involved in leading in a manner that respects the rights and dignity of others.” (Trevino, Brown and Hartman, 2003)
In their article, “The Moral Foundations of Ethical Leadership” in the Journal of Values Based Leadership,  Joseph P. Hester and Don R. Killian conclude that:

Civility has in the past been on the sidelines of ethical discussions, and we can agree that its role has been neglected. As we have incorporated strands of insights from moral theorists and sociologists, we agreed that civility ― this unfocused value ― can no longer be ignored. We can’t speak about ethics and moral behaviors without talking about community, issues of morality exposed by human need, and the moral role that civility plays in the leadership culture.

Joseph P. Hester and Don R. Killian, “The Moral Foundations of Ethical Leadership,” The Journal of Values Based Leadership, online at

Civility is an ethical issue in a global society. Ethical leadership includes the responsibility for treating others with respect and care, even when it’s not convenient, and even when it impacts profitability.  This responsibility includes:

  • respecting others
  • avoiding harm
  • building trust
  • reducing stress
  • listening to others (regardless of their position)
  • engaging people in meaningful work, and
  • providing an environment where everyone can do their best

Civility is a “load-bearing beam” in the foundation of ethical leadership. Ethical companies accept nothing less.

Questions for Discussion:

1. How clearly do our performance standards specify that we expect respectful behavior?

2. Do all of our leaders know that civility is the minimum standard for behavior in our organization?

3. How well are we backing up our performance expectations by holding people accountable for using ethical interpersonal behavior?

4. How can we make our expectation for respectful behavior clearer?

5. How can we strengthen the accountability for using ethical interpersonal behavior at all levels of leadership?


For more, see new book 7 Lenses and the 21 Question Assessment: How Current is My Message About Ethics?

7 Lenses is a Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner in Business Ethics41cEVx-Tu4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
2014  Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
About 7 Lenses  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

© 2012 Leading in Context LLC 


  1. Tomas,

    I am delighted to hear from you. Thank you for your comment and for your work. Mutual benefit and cooperation are important foundations for responsible leadership in a global society. The movement toward respect and civility being considered the minimum standard for interpersonal behavior is clearly gaining momentum. Thanks for being part of it!


  2. Thank you for this post. Being civil is a part of the foundation of any system that wants to solve complex issues. Our Institute for Civility in Government is a nonprofit that is growing a national movement to change the culture in our society from one of polarization and discord to one of mutual respect and cooperative effort. Currently our membership has come from 36 states and the District of Columbia. All we need is thousands and thousands of people to join the movement. Someday it will happen.
    We also offer Civility Training to teach people the basic skills that too many in our society lack. Please look us up, and join us by spreading the word.
    Excellent article! Keep it up and let’s work together to build a better USA.


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