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Respect in the workplace: shifting workplace culture

11 min read
Respect is one of the 25 key drivers of a great employee experience. Here’s why respect in the workplace is so important and what you can do to nurture a culture of workplace respect in your business.


What does respect in the workplace mean?

Respect is defined as ‘a high or special regard’ by Merriam-Webster. In another sense, it’s defined as ‘an act of giving particular attention’. When used as a verb, it can also mean ‘to refrain from interfering with’.

When we look at these definitions into the context of a workplace, it’s clear that respect means valuing the qualities, skills and positive attributes of the people we work with, and appreciating what they bring to the table.

In a respectful environment, co-workers are aware of one another’s strengths and challenges, and reinforce one another’s performance through positive feedback.

Respect in the workplace might also mean appreciating people for who they are and letting their individuality, background and unique contribution shine through, rather than trying to overly homogenize them to fit in.

Although we wouldn’t expect an employer to ‘refrain from interfering with’ an employee’s way of working entirely, it’s true that trusting and empowering people to work in their own ways, bringing in their background and life experience, is key to positive work culture. In this sense, respect is also an important component of workplace diversity.

See how respect in the workplace fits into the bigger employee experience picture

Aspects of respect in the workplace

There are several important topics to get a handle on if you’re looking to promote a more positive work environment.

Diversity and inclusion

A diverse workforce brings together a broad range of perspectives, skills, styles of working and personal identities. This varied mix is a source of strength and innovation in a healthy company.

To fully benefit from a diverse workforce, it’s crucial that all different cultures and identities are treated with an attitude of mutual respect, so that each person feels a sense of belonging.

When employees feel confident that their unique point of view is welcomed and taken on board by other team members without prejudice or stereotyping, they are more likely to voice ideas and feel valued.

Constructive criticism

Constructive feedback is a cornerstone of respect in the workplace because it takes the focus away from individual points of view and reframes conflicts in terms of a shared goal. When giving constructive feedback or constructive criticism, the key is to deliver actionable points that the other person might use to improve, rather than telling them what they did wrong.

Equal opportunity

Equality between employees doesn’t mean erasing their differences. It means making sure that each person has an equal chance of success, and that they are judged on their professional merits and the results they can achieve, rather than on certain characteristics or relationships.

To offer equal opportunities to everyone, leaders and managers must be scrupulous when considering internal promotions or external hires to make sure they avoid nepotism or favoritism. When personal ties and friendships, shared culture and background or even office politics get in the way, businesses are at risk of treating people unfairly, which can amount to discrimination.

Respectful communication

Communicating respectfully should be a given when it comes to everyday interactions. Greeting people pleasantly, allowing others to speak or finish their piece during group discussions, and avoiding profanity are all hallmarks of a positive workplace.

But it’s when things become tense that respectful communication really comes into its own.

It’s entirely normal to become frustrated when things don’t go to plan or when mistakes and miscommunications disrupt your progress. But it’s what you do with that emotion that matters.

In a respectful workplace, inevitable points of friction such as disagreements, mistakes and personal feelings are handled without resorting to blame or aggression.

Respect helps employees develop skills like being able to actively listen, rather than just waiting to make their points, which can improve communication and strengthen relationships.

What is the ROI of workplace respect?

Working in a respectful atmosphere is more pleasant than working somewhere people simply tolerate one another. But does respect actually benefit employers and make businesses more successful?

To answer this question, we only have to look at the impact of good employee experience on a company’s bottom line.

Respect is one of the key drivers of employee experience, influencing engagement, intent to stay, inclusion, well-being, and the marrying up of experience vs expectations. So it follows that respect in the workplace is a valuable investment for your business as well as your employees.

  • A positive employee experience is associated with higher levels of engagement at work. Engagement brings with it better employee performance, better customer satisfaction, strong company culture, and higher levels of innovation in a business.
  • EX is a driving force behind great customer experiences, which in turn foster increased customer loyalty and brand value, not to mention repeat purchases and higher spending.
  • Great employee experiences are tied to a higher intent to stay, meaning that the expenses of employee churn are reduced. When you factor in the cost of recruiting, onboarding and training new employees, it can cost up to 50%-60% of an employee’s annual salary to replace them.
  • According to Jacob Morgan, companies that invest in employee experience are 4x more profitable than those that don’t.

What happens if you don’t have respect in the workplace?

Cultures, where a lack of respect is normalized, may evolve gradually, almost without anyone noticing.

This could stem from an overly competitive environment where employees feel adversarial towards each other rather than part of a team, from leadership that prioritizes success over respect, or from a variety of other factors.

If managers and leaders set an example of disrespectful behavior, for example by raising their voices or by using feedback to let off steam rather than as a learning opportunity, employees may see no reason not to follow suit. If employees feel respected they are more likely to respect others.

Inclusion and belonging

Where there is a lack of diversity in the workplace, prevailing cultural norms in the majority group may cause some people to feel isolated and misunderstood rather than respected and included. This may even escalate into unfair treatment and discrimination.

Innovation

When it comes to productivity and collaboration respect is essential. With a positive working environment, employees may feel more comfortable sharing ideas or speaking up. Without it, their work may fall short of their potential because they are too stressed out to come up with more creative solutions.

A culture of disrespect stifles talent and stalls progress and innovation that could have propelled the business to greater success.

Intent to stay

At worst, a lack of respect creates a toxic work environment where people don’t experience psychological safety. And when people don’t feel safe to be who they are at work, they’re much more likely to quit.

How much do employees value respect in the workplace?

A recent study of 20,000 employees found that respect was ranked as the most important leadership behavior. Employees value being respected by senior management because it shows that they and their work are valued and that they are seen as more than just economic units.

Respect in the workplace examples

Here are 10 of the outward signs of a positive work environment where people enjoy mutual respect.

  1. All employees speak to each other in a polite and friendly way, regardless of rank or seniority. Rudeness, sarcasm or ridicule are not seen as acceptable.
  2. During discussions everyone has the opportunity to be heard without interruption
  3. Employees are free to express ideas and opinions without negative repercussions
  4. Employees’ work-life balance is respected, with some flexibility in working hours and schedules to allow for life commitments outside work
  5. Constructive feedback is delivered in a respectful manner
  6. People’s contributions are recognized and celebrated
  7. Attitudes are positive and non-judgmental. Gossip is minimal.
  8. Individuals are all treated with the same respect, without management ‘playing favorites’
  9. Conflict is handled in a civil and constructive way regardless of personal feelings
  10. People feel they are in a fair working environment

Building a culture of respect

It’s clear that mutual respect in the workplace is essential for any successful business. So how do you go about building it?

It all starts with your core values. Brands with strong, coherent values that are understood and lived at all levels of the business are off to a flying start. Your values help to set the standard of behavior you aspire to as a company, and can provide a reference point for discussions during coaching and mentoring between employees and managers.

Development of a respectful environment can be set in motion at senior leadership level, with leaders modeling the behaviors they want to see, such as politeness, willingness to listen and discuss, and following through on promises.

This high-level example of respect begins a cascade effect. Managers and leaders elsewhere in the company structure can model the same behaviors with their teams, who will in turn adopt the same values as they progress in their careers.

The role of feedback and listening

Respect in the workplace goes hand in hand with good communication. This is a two-way street, with leadership and management listening carefully to employees as well as employees embracing company values.

Dashboard for tracking respect in the workplace

Of course listening to each individual perspective becomes more difficult at scale, especially with a remote or hybrid workforce. Technology and tools such as employee experience management programs allow businesses to enhance their listening ability, going beyond traditional measures such as employee engagement surveys so that every voice is represented, no matter the scale of the organization.

With advanced methods like sentiment analysis and text mining, it’s possible to unearth rich and nuanced insights from employee feedback that is typed or spoken. Leaders and managers can understand at a glance how their people think and feel about work, including whether employees feel respected and if they see their workplace as a fair environment.

As part of a centralized system of experience design and improvement, feedback and listening can flow smoothly into insight and action, with tools that allow managers to respond and adapt to employee feedback in real-time so that potential issues are swiftly addressed and corrected, and even predict future trends based on employee experience data.

Go deeper

See how respect in the workplace fits into the bigger employee experience picture