Woman In Foreground Group Of Men Whispering

No one size fits all when it comes to respect at work

So what does a respectful workplace look like?

Written by Professor Gary Martin FAIM
3 minute read
Woman In Foreground Group Of Men Whispering

Thanks to the late Aretha Franklin’s powerful rendition, we can spell out the word “respect” with gusto. What remains clear nonetheless, is that many of us still find it challenging to put the principles of R-E-S-P-E-C-T into practice in the workplace.

It has prompted bosses across the country to tell employees to do their bit to create more respectful workplaces.

As straightforward as it may seem to tell people to be respectful to and of others at work, respect can be a slippery concept.

One of the biggest mistakes many of us make when it comes to being respectful in the workplace is believing we know exactly what respect looks like.

The assumption is often that a one-size-fits-all definition of respect exists that everyone understands and embraces.

The problem is that while people know what respect looks like to them, they do not necessarily know what it looks like to their colleagues because not everyone sees respect the same way.

Most in the workplace understand that respect is about appreciating the values and uniqueness of others and being mindful of their feelings.

It is how this basic understanding plays out in the workplace that ends up being the issue. 

Many find it easier to describe disrespectful behaviour than to define actions of respect.

This is hardly surprising since there are literally hundreds of behaviours embedded in workplaces that, to varying degrees, may be considered disrespectful.

Disruptive-type behaviours like angry or rude outbursts, shouting and threats may all convey a lack of respect.

So, too, can demeaning conduct such as humiliation, backstabbing behaviours, insensitive jokes or sexist comments. 

Also, invading someone’s personal space, setting someone up to fail, chronic lateness or being deliberately slow to respond to requests may also be considered to be disrespectful.

Even non-verbal taunts such as staring or glaring, pointing, whispering to exclude others and positioning one’s body to exclude another will be viewed by some as disrespectful.

What we sometimes forget is that these types of behaviours, if left unchecked, often escalate into cases of sexual harassment, persistent workplace bullying and discrimination.

These are viewed by most as three of the worst forms of disrespectful workplace behaviours.

Respectful behaviours, on the other hand, will include treating others with consideration, being inclusive, valuing colleagues and accepting their differences.

A respectful environment will usually mean that employees will be able to express themselves freely and share their ideas with the confidence they will be taken seriously.

In a respectful environment, efforts and achievements are recognised and colleagues consider the impact they have on others.

Most importantly, many will regard a respectful workplace as one in which calling out and addressing bad behaviours, which can lead to harassment, bullying and discrimination, is encouraged.

Collectively, these behaviours form the basis of a respectful workplace though this list is by no means exhaustive. 

To most, the benefits of a respectful workplace should be painfully obvious.

There is likely to be better teamwork and increased productivity and employees will feel safer and more satisfied.

If we are serious about creating more respectful workplaces, then we must do more than simply telling people to behave respectfully.

We should take Aretha Franklin’s advice and, as the lyrics in her song tell us, “find out what it means to me”.

Since each individual is likely to have a different understanding of what respectful behaviour may look like, leaders across the corporate, government, not-for-profit and community sectors must find out what respect means to those in their workplaces.

Using this as their starting point, they must paint a picture of what is considered to be respectful behaviour in their respective workplaces.

Simply painting a picture and sharing it, however, is not enough.

Leaders need to be role models by consistently acting in a way that is respectful of others as well as praising those who act respectfully.

There is also a need for leaders who want to foster respect in the workplace to no longer tolerate disrespect.

While individuals may have varying ideas of what respectful behaviour looks like to them, workplaces must set their own standards about what constitutes respectful behaviour.

And leaders at all levels of an organisation must play a key role in fostering respectful behaviours.

At the same time, we must remember that while cultivating a respectful workplace may start at the top of the leadership tree, everyone has a role to play.