What Leaders Can Do to Prevent Disrespect in Their Organizations

Published: Oct 02, 2017

 Interviewing       Workplace Issues       

Organizations are defined by the behaviors their management model and allow, and it is the leadership that sets the tone and provides the template for behavior throughout the organization. Workplace disrespect is highly detrimental to the physical and emotional well-being of employees and presents enormous financial risks to employers as well, and it can come in many forms. It evinces itself through favoritism, allowing questionable language or humor, and applying pressure on employees to work extra hours or not take vacation time. Workplace disrespect can be overt in allowing discrimination, public criticism, or bullying, or by not following up on complaints. And it can be illegal or unethical, such as engaging in deceptive business practices, predatory pricing, or embezzlement.

Studies show that more than anything else (including money), people want respect on the job. And respect is what they say they get the least. Nine out of 10 employees report they have experienced or witnessed workplace disrespect. And its deleterious effect is widespread. Mistreatment of a colleague by itself is enough to reduce morale and productivity among employees who witness it. Discouraged employees quit, increasing workload on co-workers and further diminishing morale. As the saying goes, “People do not leave jobs; people leave people.”

Workplace disrespect is costly, dramatically increasing absenteeism and employee turnover, which directly affects productivity and annual hiring expenses. It exposes employers to potentially astronomical medical and legal expenses, and it damages personal and company reputations which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to attract the best and brightest job candidates. Even shareholder value is put at stake. In the U.S. economy alone, it is estimated that workplace disrespect may total 360 billion annually in associated costs.

Knowing what is at stake, it’s important that leadership take a zero-tolerance stance on disrespect within their organizations and model the good behavior and business practices they want to see every day. They can do this through the following strategies:

1. Clearly defining and communicating their organization’s “Code of Respect

To protect their employees, their shareholders, and indeed themselves, leaders must instill a culture of respect and make clear the consequences of not operating within it.

2. Hiring for attitude

Generally, people are on their best behavior during interviews. If hiring managers notice any warning signs, such as candidates who complain about previous employers, engage in disrespectful verbal or nonverbal communication, or fail to show common courtesy such as listening without interrupting, they should expect this behavior—or worse—if the candidate is hired. Better to choose another candidate than to deal with the inconvenience and potential expense of having to fire someone for a bad attitude.

3. Rewarding good behavior

This is an easy and low-cost way for leaders to promote civility, respect, and positive attitudes among employees. Something as simple as acknowledging an employee in a company newsletter for displaying exemplary behavior is tremendously powerful. Appreciation lunches and meetings, gift certificates, premier parking, or time off are all minor investments in employees that reap major returns.

4. Promoting for exemplary people skills

Include the need for strong interpersonal skills in job descriptions and hold employees accountable for these competencies in performance reviews. Tie raises, greater responsibilities, enhanced visibility to executives, and promotions to demonstrated proficiency in these areas.

5. Offering learning programs

Take the guesswork out of expectations by offering employees information and opportunities to practices skills that uphold the organization’s “Code of Respect.” 

Instilling and modeling a culture of respect is easier than leaders may think. It is undoubtedly well worth their effort.

Rosanne J. Thomas is the author of EXCUSE ME: The Survival Guide to Modern Business Etiquette. She is also founder and president of Protocol Advisors, Inc., specialists in providing business etiquette training to professionals at respected organizations from Tiffany & Co. to Boeing. She also helps prepare students at top colleges and universities to achieve the highest degree of workplace success.