Create A Respectful Workplace

got-respectYou’ve been working on your Respectful Workplace Policy for months. You’ve held meetings, gotten input, and made several drafts. You’re ready to unveil it.

But when it’s time for the Big Reveal, managers and staff give it just a brief glance then shelve it. It’s back to business as usual – and respect in the workplace hasn’t changed or improved.

It’s easy to feel let down.

The problem with policies is that we don’t tend to behave differently by reading about how we should behave.  We learn by doing.

So what do we need to do to make such a policy come to life?

There are three key elements to creating a respectful workplace:

  1. Taking Personal Responsibility

Too often, organizations aspiring to build respect into the culture overlook the need for everyone to take personal responsibility.  Blame cultures that are dependent on management to get things done, tend to focus on what everyone else should be doing to make the workplace hum.  Instead, get people to ask:  “What can I do to make this place better for everyone?”

Taking responsibility for one’s own behaviour at work is key.  As Socrates famously said, “Know thyself”.  Discovering what things make you react negatively, then planning a different reaction, can help.

For example, one staffer noticed that he reacted angrily if co-workers corrected his work.  When he asked himself about how satisfied he was with his reaction, he realized that he was going against his own values.  Previously, he had prided himself on being a fast learner.  In those days, he was quick to accept direction and adjust accordingly.  As his competence increased, he noticed that he had become rigid and stagnant, resenting any input.  Having taken the responsibility to look closely at himself and his own reactions, the  employee began, once again to solicit feedback and adapt it to his work. To everyone’s surprise, instead of biting people’s heads off when they suggested something, he asked for their thoughts and used their ideas on the job.

  1. Practice Firmness and Compassion 

Being able to empathize with others—walk a mile in their shoes – is key to creating  respectful workplace.  Knowing what others may be thinking or feeling can help in understanding their perspective. That can reduce defensiveness.  If people feel understood, they are more likely to listen to other people’s ideas and respond sensitively.  And empathy does not make you a doormat.  Being able to understand another’s perspective aids in getting your needs and wants across. So, having compassion actually helps you stand up for yourself when you need to.

The hallmark of a respectful workplace is awareness of people’s boundaries.  The only way to maintain boundaries is to defend them adequately.  For example, if a co-worker repeatedly dumps work on you at the last minute and it causes a backlog and time crunch, start with compassion.  You might say, “It looks like you’re overloaded with stuff and I’m glad to help out, but when you come at the last minute it backs me up.  I’m not always going to be able to help out, so next time come and ask me before it becomes an emergency.”  With compassion and firmness, you’ll get respect for your time from frantic co-workers.  Just be sure to be honest with yourself next time, if you will be stretched by a co-worker’s emergency, stick to your guns and say, “No.” Your resolve will be tested, but being firm helps others respect you.

Hold Yourself And Others Accountable.

Reacting with compassion and being firm with others is important to establishing how you wish to be treated.  And this is not a one-way street.  Creating a respectful workplace does not mean that everyone feels respected all the time.  Respect at work requires maintenance.

The first step is recognizing when disrespectful communication or behaviour is occurring.  In many cases, workplaces have adjusted to uncivil behaviours that seem to be the norm, but are actually eroding dignity daily.  Spotting behaviours that are contemptuous, sarcastic, defensive, attacking and critical or passive aggressive is key. And being able to handle these kinds of difficult situations is important.  Again, identifying these behaviours in ourselves and others is what sustains a respectful workplace.  For example, when we get angry, we may be tempted to wall-off the offending party.  We ignore them, put them off and generally become uncooperative. Noticing ourselves behaving this way, requires the ability to be honest about how we feel and act. Holding yourself accountable means being willing to change your own behaviour if it seems disrespectful.

If it’s a colleague who has started to withdraw, it is important to act.  Begin by telling the co-worker that you’ve noticed a change.  You might say, “We used to e-mail each other with updates and I’ve noticed that we haven’t been in contact for a few weeks. I wonder if we could talk about what’s going on.” Getting things back on track when they have gone sideways requires courage but that is what a respectful workplace is all about.

In general, most people will respond well or in-kind when another approaches them with compassion and a genuine interest in making things right.  However, there are occasions when your efforts may fall on deaf ears.  In this case, there may be a hidden agenda that has more to do with targeting or blaming others than a commitment to being part of a healthy, respectful workplace.  If this is the case, recognize there is probably little you can do to create change and seek guidance through organizational policy and advice in cases of harassment or dealing with difficult employees.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership.  Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.  They can be contacted at:

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