Why respect shouldn’t be a “four-letter” word at your office

In 2020, most of us will be working alongside people from different generations and different cultural backgrounds, and when it comes to creating a respectful culture, the real emerging challenge is getting to a shared understanding of what “respect” means to all of us. 

In 2020, most of us will be working alongside people from different generations and different cultural backgrounds, and when it comes to creating a respectful culture, the real emerging challenge is getting to a shared understanding of what “respect” means to all of us.  Our perspectives flow from our life experiences and when our life experiences vary so widely, what’s respectful for one person is rude to another. So simply directing a team to “be respectful” is woefully inadequate at arriving at a shared understanding of how to act in the workplace.

Last month I attended a sales annual kick-off conference where we had a funny and engaging keynote speaker. Now, a few of his comments were a bit provocative but still funny to my GenX sensibilities.  But looking around the room I could see a number of people grimacing and looking uncomfortable. This was a nice reminder as we start off 2020 that what’s harmless and funny for some of us may be uncomfortable and even offensive to others.

Our social norms are changing and until we reach some equilibrium, it’s safer to assume we all have different views on certain actions.  As an illustration, Emtrain produced a video scene reflecting a discussion between women about whether or not it was appropriate to call someone a harasser based on seemingly consensual sexual relations after an evening at the bar.  The women have conflict and when asked who acted disrespectfully, there’s a split in opinion. Some believe the younger women caused the disrespect and some think it’s the older woman.

The real issue here is that the women aren’t listening to each other’s perspectives. They each have a helpful perspective to offer, informed by their respective life experiences. And the African American woman at the end sums up the conflict handily when she observes that each side has a point and they need to hear the other’s perspective even as she mentally notes that none of the white women have a clue about what the experience is like for a black woman.

As the Chief People Officer at Zenefits, I instinctively understand that social norms are in flux, and strong people skills to navigate coworker interactions are more necessary now than ever.  So we need to be thoughtful about how we approach our work relationships in order to create a culture of respect. The Golden Rule–treat people how you would want to be treated–is a mantra that many people have spent their whole lives following; but I think it’s time we upgraded to the Platinum Rule–treat people how they want to be treated. And the only way to learn how people want to be treated is to ask them. Have that conversation that starts out with “How can we best support each other in these roles?” and “How should we interact and treat each other?”

Historically, we’ve referred to these people skills as “soft skills.”  But I think “soft”  is misleading because the impact from these skills is not soft – it’s pretty significant to our workplace culture.  Our work life includes the relationships we have with co-workers and all relationships, whether they’re personal or professional take skill and practice.  So instead of soft skills, perhaps we should call them workplace culture skills and articulate to our own business leaders why they’re so important to a great culture and employee experience. We need to show how well-developed culture skills correlate with stronger empathy, the ability to read nonverbal clues and an increase in respect and productivity.

In fact, Emtrain’s 2020 Culture Report correlates strong workplace culture skills with overall company health. In the Emtrain graph to the right, we see that the healthiest organizations have 60% of its employees feeling confident in their co-workers’ social intelligence while the least healthy company has only 17% of its workforce who are confident in their co-workers’ social intelligence.  Strong workplace culture skills correlate to greater empathy, respect and overall greater organizational health.

And while many people leaders intuitively know this, it’s helpful to actually measure and benchmark employee sentiment for our business leaders. You can get some of this information from an employee survey, but as shown earlier, the core culture issues of respect and harassment cannot be addressed through words.  We need to anchor a discussion with a video scene to ensure we’re all operating from a shared understanding of which actions people perceive as offensive and disrespectful.

So here are 3 strategies for creating a respectful culture in a multi-generational, multi-cultural workforce:  

  1. When we work with people from different generations, races and cultures–there will be different perspectives on who’s “right” and who’s “wrong” and we need to be conscious of that and very intentional in how we interact with our coworkers.
  2. Being intentional and deliberate in our coworker interactions is a workplace culture skill that needs to be developed and practiced.
  3. There’s a strong ROI for developing workplace culture skills as the healthiest companies in Emtrain’s 2020 Culture Report rank significantly higher in social intelligence; the healthiest company scored 63% compared to 17% for the least healthy company.

I recently joined Emtrain’s Founder and CEO Janine Yancey for a live discussion on LinkedIn where we covered all of these topics and more. Check out a recording of our talk here!