Respectful Handshake

How to cultivate a respectful workplace

Turning the dream into a reality

6 minute read
Respectful Handshake

A top issue in workplaces – one that is all too often a lightning rod for frustration and miscommunication – are continuous attempts to make a respectful workplace a reality, according to AIM WA Chief Operating Officer Shaun Ridley FAIM.

This broad issue was explored thoroughly and at a granular level at AIM WA’s Creating a Respectful Workplace: What Does it Look Like and How Do You Do It? event.

Highlighting the rates of harassment in industries across Australia, Dr Ridley said if you thought your organisation or industry was immune from the issue – think again.

“While all the talk in recent months has been about the mining industry, analysis by the Australian Human Rights Commission showed that the mining sector was in fact number five on the list of industries with the highest rates of harassment,” he said.

“Top of the list was the information media and telecommunications industry, followed by art and recreational services; electricity, gas, water and waste services; retail trade; and then mining.”

With the idea of harassment and conflicts at work being more subtle and nuanced than what has been widely reported on, cultivating a respectful workplace is important to every organisation.

Defining a respectful workplace

When the question “what is a respectful workplace and what does it look like?” was posed to the panel, AIM WA Chief Executive Officer Gary Martin FAIM said it was a difficult question to answer because everyone had a different view on what respect was.

“There’s so much difference in what we each view as being respectful behaviour and that’s where the problem is – it’s actually hard to come to grips with any one definition,” he said.

“In a broader sense, it’s about being mindful of others.

“People think being disrespectful is about sexual harassment and that’s all it’s about, but that’s the extreme end of the continuum.

“It starts off with just using someone’s name when you come across them instead of ignoring them.”

For AIM WA Board Member and Fortescue Metals Group Fortescue People Director Linda O’Farrell FAIM, a respectful workplace was having an authentic and genuine compliance mindset with equal opportunity, no bullying or harassment.

She said a respectful workplace was one created by having a conversation with everyone in the organisation about values.

“Everyone should be able to speak up if something doesn’t feel right and there should be channels for people to voice those concerns.” 

“I think that’s what a good, respectful workplace looks like.”

Having worked with different organisations of various sizes, UPShift Solutions Chief Executive Officer Maree Wrack said respect was about being considerate of people’s strengths and their sensitivities.

“It’s also celebrating difference and being able to celebrate achievements – the good things about the workplace,” she said.

“Then there’s safety – our physical safety, social safety and psychological safety.

“In terms of a definition, it’s a workplace where everybody feels safe and included.”

Embedding respect into the culture

According to Sound Legal Principal Lawyer Gemma Nugent, embedding respect into the workplace and its culture is more than just creating a lengthy workplace policy.

“I have been asked to draft workplace policies on social media and various other workplace behaviours and, in the end, they kept asking me to add more things until the document was about 160 pages long,” she said.

“I asked them whether they thought a new employee would read it because, although they hoped they would, as someone who has been an employee myself, it usually doesn’t happen.

“The response I received was that it didn’t matter.”

Ms Nugent said building a respectful culture within companies had to be practical, trickling down from supervisors and training.

Ms O’Farrell agreed, saying training is incredibly important and a respectful workplace starts with the leaders.

“Leaders can make decisions that are incredibly empowering for people and they have a lot of power to help navigate an incredibly complex environment,” she said.

“I think a really important part is to encourage your leaders by actually having a broader conversation around personal responsibility, where the duty of care is to yourself first and your own safety.

“Deal with psychological safety and performance by encouraging a culture where people call out behaviour when they see it.”

Separating healthy conflict from bullying

“A big problem with bullying at the moment is so many people call everything bullying,” Professor Martin said.

“Bullying is a big problem smack in the middle of this idea of a respectful workplace.

“We do want some disagreements – we want people to challenge each other around ideas and so on but, when that gets labelled as bullying, it kills off the culture of the organisation as well.”

Ms O’Farrell said mitigating this came down to leadership training and inclusive leadership.

“If you are in a meeting and there’s not a lot of different ideas coming, do a round robin where everybody speaks,” she said.

“It comes down to having those different tools in the toolbox.”

Providing support to perpetrators of disrespect

When considering perpetrators of disrespect in the workplace, Ms O’Farrell said it was not simply a matter of throwing the proverbial rotten tomatoes at them.

“Sometimes you will find that the perpetrator is actually quite psychologically conflicted themselves,” she said.

“We have chaplains who are there for anyone who needs to be listened to.

“They’re not there to judge and we continue to provide support to people who may have done the wrong thing because who hasn’t at some point in time?

“I’m not absolving that but, by and large, 99 percent of the population are doing the right thing.”

Current anxieties feeding disrespect

Professor Martin suggested that Ms O’Farrell’s assessment of 99 percent of people doing the right thing may now be different.

“It might have been 99 percent, but now I think it’s probably 89 percent,” he said.

“The reason I say that is because right now, it is really hard to get the sack because there is no one to replace you,” he said.

Professor Martin said this bred an attitude of permissiveness in the workplace that could be quite harmful.

Ms Wrack said two-and-a-half years of the pandemic had also strained many people’s mental health.

“People have been hyper vigilant for so long, like animals in the wild,” she said.

“So people are suffering from an overdose of cortisol right now, so that’s really making it difficult for people to be present with other people and be there with them in conversation.”

Finding ways to ease collective anxiety

Ms O’Farrell said it was crucial to pause and take a break from the constant flow of productivity.

“One of the lovely things that we’ve done recently is actually just had whole day out with our team – we did meditation, yoga, kinesiology, aromatherapy and we finished with a sound bath,” she said.

“I think it’s taking a step back and saying that the world is pretty complex, it is pretty hard to navigate and we’ve all had a really tough time.

“The engagement and sense of joy, networking and genuine love for another that came out of something like that has been astonishing.”

Speaking truth to power

Leaving some words of wisdom on how people might better talk truth to power – telling their boss something they might not want to hear – while maintaining a respectful workplace, Ms O’Farrell said although it took courage, the best thing to do was to get to the point very quickly and to understand how that was going to have an impact and be empathetic about it.

Ms Wrack said to prepare for a difficult conversation, one of the most important things you could do would be to take somebody for a coffee and out of the workplace.

“That would be my number-one tip, so that you’re actually able to connect in a different way,” she said.

Ms Nugent said depending on how awful the news was, or how difficult it was, think about what support the receiver would need after that conversation and then move to that support person.

“Plan for the conversation – and what’s going to happen afterwards,” she said.

Professor Martin suggested to approach a difficult conversation with your boss in the form of proposing feedback.

“Most of the time you’re going to get a yes,” he said.

“Not necessarily the case that they will like to get feedback but at least you’ve asked.”

Professor Martin said if one just dumped the information on their boss, guards could go up.

“If it’s something that you don’t think was going to be received well, it might be best to speak to someone else first and get two minds around how you might approach it,” he said.