On the surface, a respectful workplace seems easy to cultivate. Just be kind and courteous to people, and that should be enough, right? Well, that sounds great, but the truth is, it’s more complicated than that. Respect at work includes more than superficial niceties—it’s about creating an office environment that is truly inclusive and healthy for everyone.
“Showing respect in the workplace simply means not being intentionally or accidentally harmful to another,” says Kryss Shane, author of “Creating an LGBT+ Inclusive Workplace: The Practical Resource Guide for Business Leaders.” “By being mindful of how we speak and act, and by working on identifying and correcting our implicit biases, this becomes increasingly easy over time.”
At its core, showing respect means recognizing people’s humanity. It means valuing other cultures, accepting different identities, and protecting individuals from unfair treatment in the workplace. For a long time, women and other underrepresented groups have been subjected to discrimination and microagressions, so part of cultivating a positive work environment today is cultivating cultures that don’t support exclusionary behavior.
Unfortunately, respect seems to be something workplaces are lacking worldwide; Harvard Business Review reports that 54 percent of employees in an international study didn’t feel respected by their bosses. To make sure your office is an inclusive environment, and to eliminate marginalization, here are some helpful tips and some insights from experts on creating respect in the workplace.
1. Start the conversation
Make your intentions of having a respectful and inclusive workplace clear, and outline what that means to you. There should be some baseline standards that aren’t up for debate, even if they have been a part of business culture in the past. The idea that it’s acceptable to bully new hires or only ask women to make coffee runs might have (wrongly!) flown in the 1980s (or even in the 2000s), but that doesn’t mean those traditions should continue.
After establishing some initial guidelines, open up conversation in the office about what respect means to everyone. Make sure you listen more than you talk—no matter your background, you can learn from others’ experiences. You could start by saying something like:
“It’s really important to me that you all feel respected and valued as individuals, so are there some ways that we could do better? We can talk about ideas now, but if you’d feel more comfortable, you can fill out the anonymous survey I sent to your emails.”
Encourage your employees and coworkers to be honest, and make it clear that there will be no repercussions for speaking out.
2. Check your bias
Almost all of us have implicit biases, or unconscious beliefs that certain groups of people will act a certain way or stick to a certain stereotype. These biases are products of the cultures we grew up in and around, and it’s up to us to understand and address our biases in order to be as respectful and understanding of others as possible. Implicit biases can be subtle. That’s why, sometimes, we need a little help to know how to address them.
A great place to start is Harvard's Implicit Association Test. Implicit bias tests aim to test subconscious bias in categories like race, sexuality, gender, and religion. After taking some of the tests yourself, encourage employees to take them and reflect on the results.
If you have room for more extensive training in your budget, consider hiring a professional and holding an implicit bias workshop at your office. Not only will it help your employees to reflect on personal biases, but group activities and discussions will also continue to open up dialogue at the office about respect.
3. Understand different needs
A diverse team boosts both levels of innovation at work and financial returns. Diverse teams will have a wide range of needs, though, and in order to create a respectful work environment, those needs need to be prioritized. Most of this just comes down to treating people like valuable individuals and getting a little creative.
Maybe you have hired a pregnant woman for the first time and are unsure of how to help her feel comfortable at work. Instead of following your company’s precedent or assuming she will come to you with her needs, ask her how you can help. Maybe she feels nauseous in the morning and would like to work remotely for the first half of the day. That might not have been the way the company has handled pregnancy in the past, but if it doesn’t negatively affect anyone else, why not?
Or if you have employees who need time to pray multiple times a day, help them to find a private and comfortable space. Boiler rooms or supply closets shouldn’t be the go-to if there are empty conference rooms available. Try to be cognizant of their prayer times when scheduling meetings; part of respecting employees is helping them to balance personal and work commitments. They shouldn’t have to miss out on essential discussions to fulfill spiritual needs.
4. Be intentional about hiring
Creating a culture of respect comes from the top down. If upper managers aren’t respectful, middle managers are less likely to follow suit. Similarly, if upper management isn’t diverse enough to relate to subordinates, it will be challenging for them to be understanding of employees’ needs. Part of creating a culture of respect is helping everyone to feel represented.
Yinnan Shen, an instructor of Managing and Cultivating Cultural Differences at Columbia University, says that prioritizing diversity and inclusion in upper management is what helps companies to feel more inclusive overall.
“Is the leadership heterogeneous? Are diverse voices and perspectives included in planning processes?” Shen asks. “If not, a good starting point is to make sure that you have diverse voices in the room where decisions are made.”
Shane adds that informing women, people of color and LGBTQ+ people of opportunities is important. It’s hard to diversify a workplace if the people you are looking to recruit don’t know that opportunities exist. Take steps to reach beyond your usual network.
Although having qualified people at the top is essential, part of being a qualified person in many cases might mean being able to relate to subordinates in a variety of ways.
For example, imagine a company’s entire executive team is made up of men. When it’s time to hire more executives, you have two candidates who you feel would be equally good additions—a Latina woman and a white man—and the white man technically has seniority. Does that disqualify the woman? Consider the differing viewpoint she brings to the table. If lower levels of the company are more diverse, adding diversity to upper management might be important. These are things worth considering beyond resume-builders.
5. Prioritize inclusion, not just diversity
Be careful not to just prioritize diversity because it’s the “trendy” thing to do. In order to ensure decisions to hire a diverse workforce aren’t performative, prioritize inclusion, not just a diverse looking team.
“Yes, it’s good to have women and people of color sitting as part of your company,” says Shen. “But it's more important to truly respect and value their input and understand why their presence is necessary. Diversity doesn’t drive innovation or performance; inclusion does.”
Make sure women and minorities have seats at the table (or invites to the Zoom meeting). Ask their opinions if they don’t speak up. Sometimes it’s hard to feel comfortable voicing your opinion if you’re in a sea of people who don’t look like you. Part of making your office a respectful environment is creating a culture that actually values diverse perspectives.
About our sources
Kryss Shane is a lecturer at Columbia University and the author of “Creating and LGBT+ Inclusive Workplace: The Practical Resource Guide for Business Leaders.” She has been a professional speaker since 1996, lecturing on diversity, inclusion and equity to business executives and community leaders. She has also been named a “Leading LGBT Expert” by the New York Times. She holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Human Development and Family Science from The Ohio State University, a Master’s degree in social work from Barry University, and is currently working on a Doctorate of Philosophy in Leadership from University of the Cumberlands. She also holds multiple certification certificates from Columbia University.
Yinnan Shen is an associate at Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership in addition to teaching about multicultural leadership in the engineering department of Columbia University. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Information Management and Information Systems from Beijing Language and Culture University and a Master’s of Science in Public Relations & Corporate Communication from New York University.