How HR Can Encourage a Respectful Workplace

Posted By GOSHRM Administration, Tuesday, September 11, 2018

There are many different ways to define Respect in the Workplace. There are probably as many different definitions of a Respectful Workplace as there are personalities in your company. Each employee will define Respect in the Workplace through their own cultural lens and work experiences. To some, it means having empathy for others around you regardless of whether they are a subordinate, coworker or superior. To others respect is a safe and open environment where all employees are supportive of each other. Some feel respect is more authoritarian and reserved for people of power and influence in the organization. There were hundreds of responses when I googled “What is Respect in the Workplace?” The explanation I liked most was the one on Wikihow. It said…”At its heart, being respectful means showing that you value other people's perspectives, time and space.” I like this response because it is just specific enough to encompass almost any workplace environment you could think of. Whether it is a law firm, a theme park, government agency, hotel or hospital, this explanation of workplace respect makes sense and fits well.

As a mediator who has facilitated hundreds of employment mediations over the past twenty years, I can confidently say that a vast majority of workplace cases stem from someone feeling disrespected in the workplace. This is not always the obvious stated reason but when you dig deep and uncover the underlying issues that led up to the conflict and mediation, they usually boil down to the employee feeling they were disrespected by a manager, co-worker, corporate policy or a combination of those. Often times the employee who files a discrimination claim or requests a workplace mediation will ask for large sums of money or to have the manager fired or moved to a different department. Through the mediation process, it is often discovered that the employee just wants to feel respect in the workplace.

The following is a very common workplace mediation scenario, with names changed of course. David, an hourly employee working in the customer service department of a large organization claims he was discriminated against by his supervisor because of his Age. David is a 45 year old male who has been with the company for 20 years. He claims that his supervisor, Gabe, treats him different than the other employees who are younger and faster. David claims that he knows how to do his job and does not need a young wiper snapper who just started working at the company to tell him what to do. He is just not as fast as he was when he was younger. At the beginning of the mediation, David was visibly angry and insisted that his supervisor be fired due to his discriminatory practices. Through the mediation process, David was able to express to Gabe how disrespected he feels when Gabe tries to micromanage him. David is the most senior worker and feels that Gabe should respect his years and knowledge in the job. Gabe was able to share that the company was pushing all supervisors to increase the productivity of their subordinates to prevent layoffs. Through this process, David better understood the pressure his supervisor was under and recognized that everyone was being pushed, not just him. After going back and forth with various ideas, they settled on an agreement. Gabe and David signed the agreement and shook hands with a clear understanding of how the other man felt and how they could move forward and work together in a mutually respectful manner.

I have been asked by many HR professional and company executives “Why it is so important to create a respectful workplace and how is the more respectful environment going to make my job easier?” Another question I am asked a lot is “If most workplace disputes stem from disrespectful managers, co-workers or corporate policies, what can I do to promote a respectful workplace?”

Also, I am definitely not suggesting that HR professionals should be the sole creator and keeper of workplace respect. Additionally, HR professionals often have to overcome the hurdle of convincing company leaders and executives of the importance of creating a respectful workplace environment. Once those hurdles are tackled, HR professionals can focus on creating company policies that support a respectful workplace environment. Hence the title of this article.

Establish an early intervention conflict resolution policy that supports the type of environment you are trying to create. Offer employees a way to voice their concerns and opinions. When an employee feels disrespected, they should be able to express that and work towards an acceptable resolution without feeling the possibility of retaliation. An early intervention conflict resolution policy should include two options for employees to pursue. First option might be an anonymous type of survey or comment box. Many companies offer surveys but often ask the wrong questions, ask leading questions or they do not offer the security of a confidential process. Any of these mistakes can easily diminish the survey results. An effective survey or comment box should ask the employees what their main concerns are and what their suggestions are to improve any issues or concerns.

Second options should include a facilitated meeting with an HR professional or Professional Mediator. Early intervention mediation can help to empower employees to speak up without the fear of retribution. Mediation offers employees a forum to be heard on a level playing field. When early intervention becomes part of the culture where employees feel they have a safe avenue to be heard, they are less likely to file a discrimination lawsuit, quit or create unnecessary conflict in the workplace. These two options are a great way to reduce costs in the organization and create a respectful work environment.

Respect should be a focal point in new hire and continuing training for employees at all levels. Whether an employee is part time, hourly, middle management or a top executive in the company, the culture needs to reflect the importance of a respectful environment. A conflict resolution class should be integral to any organizations employee training program with a separate class designed specifically for managers and executives. Conflict resolution skills are rarely taught in school and often only briefly touched on in the workplace but these skills can make the difference between low or high employee turnover rates, expensive lawsuits, high or low productivity and non-violence or violence in the workplace.

As HR professionals, it is important to actively work on the skills to put yourself in someone else's shoes as well as assist managers to better understand employee issues and concerns. When HR staff and management are able to be empathetic and show employees that they are a resource for them when they have concerns or problems, the culture can begin to shift to a more open and respectful environment.

Of course, the recommendations above will only be successful in creating a respectful workplace after upper management buys into this shift 100% and employees feel the company culture has shifted. Policies and training are only effective when employees feel the policies and training are sincere and not a just a band aid. Depending on how far or close your organization is from having a truly respectful workplace will have a huge impact on how much effort an HR professional will have to put into this effort. Regardless, there is no doubt that your sincere efforts will be noticed and effective over time.

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