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Do Your Employees Feel Respected? Understanding & Improving Perceptions of Respect in the Workplace


Employees are the lifeblood of any organization, and feeling respected in the workplace is critical for employee engagement, retention, and overall well-being. However, respect is complex and multifaceted, and perceptions can vary greatly between individuals and groups. As leaders, it is important to understand how respect is defined and shaped by research, gain awareness of potential blind spots, and take intentional action to foster an inclusive culture where all employees feel valued.


Today we will explore the research surrounding perceptions of respect in the workplace and provide practical recommendations for leaders seeking to improve how respect is understood and demonstrated across their organizations.


Defining Respect: An Employee Perspective


Before improving respect, it is crucial to define it in a way that resonates with employee experiences. While respect tends to look different cross-culturally, researchers have identified common threads shaping perceptions among diverse workforces globally (Holvino, 2010). At its core, feeling respected means feeling appreciated, understood, and valued for one's full identity and contributions (Tadajewski, 2018). It involves:


  • Dignity and Fair Treatment: Respect means being treated with basic dignity, fairness and courtesy by leaders and colleagues. This includes respecting personal boundaries, listening without judgment, and valuing each person as a whole human being (Holvino, 2010).

  • Inclusion and Voice: Employees want to feel included in discussions and decisions that impact their work. They want their ideas, backgrounds and perspectives to be heard and valued as part of the organizational culture and strategy (Tortoriello et al., 2019).

  • Identity and Individuality: Respect means feeling comfortable bringing one's full self and identity to work without fear of bias or reprisal. It acknowledges that individuals have complex lives and responsibilities outside of work (Shuck, 2011).

  • Recognition and Appreciation: Beyond financial compensation, feeling respected means seeing one's efforts and contributions acknowledged in sincere, meaningful ways by those in positions of authority (Rosen et al., 2013).


This employee-centric definition of respect serves as a foundation for understanding where gaps may exist and change is needed within organizations. The next section explores common disconnects between intentions and impacts.


The Intention-Impact Disconnect


While respect is a universal human need, perceptions are highly subjective and individual experiences matter most. Research finds leaders often have blind spots around how respect is experienced across diverse identities and demographics (Tortoriello & Pollack, 2020). This can lead to unintended disrespect even when inclusivity and respect are organizational priorities.


  • Unconscious Bias: Well-meaning leaders are not immune to unconscious biases that can subtly undermine intentions. Biases around identities like gender, race, age or background may unconsciously shape little actions and comments, creating disrespectful impressions (Kulik et al., 2007).

  • Privileged Perspectives: Leaders from privileged identities may lack awareness of microaggressions, disrespectful atmospheres or subtle exclusionary dynamics that others experience daily (Holvino, 2010). Their perspectives are limited and normalized within a privileged context.

  • Tone Deafness to Identities: Policies or decisions intended to increase respect may miss the mark if they do not authentically acknowledge and value the various identities that shape employee experiences at work (McCray, 2017). Attempts at inclusion risk falling flat or feeling inauthentic.

  • Mismatches in Communication Styles: Cultural or generational differences in preferred communication styles can inadvertently create disrespect if not properly understood across diversity of thought and perspective (Tortoriello & Pollack, 2020).


These disconnects between good intentions and impacts are common, even in respect-focused organizations. However, awareness is the first step toward building true understanding and respect. The next section provides real-world industry examples.


Industry Examples: Bridging Intention and Impact Gaps


The following examples showcase practical ways leaders are proactively assessing respect levels, gaining awareness of diverse perspectives, and taking actions to authentically bridge intention-impact gaps.


  • Technology Company Survey: A technology startup leadership team realized respect levels varied significantly by gender and ethnicity based on company-wide survey results. To better understand employees' experiences, they facilitated small listening sessions across diverse identity groups to gain trusted feedback and identify tangible action items (Reddy et al., 2020).

  • Non-Profit Roundtables: A national non-profit partnered with external consultants and employee resource groups to host open roundtable discussions about respect experiences. These helped elevate voices often overlooked, surface generational and cultural differences in preferred workstyles, and shape new flexible policies to support work-life integration for all (Collins et al., 2019).

  • Manufacturing Company Forums: As part of its inclusion strategy, an automotive parts manufacturer created ongoing respect forums where cross-functional employee panels jointly discuss pressing respect-related issues, brainstorm solutions, and report progress to executives. This fosters a continuous feedback culture and shared responsibility for progress (Donnelly et al., 2018).


These examples demonstrate proactive and authentic approaches to assessing respect levels among diverse employee populations, gaining awareness of disconnects between good intentions and real impacts, and partnering with employees themselves to devise tangible solutions. Intentional strategies like these build trust that an organization is committed to respect for all.


Taking Action: Recommendations for Leaders


With understanding of respect definitions and common intention-impact gaps, leaders can take focused action to foster psychologically safe, respectful environments. Here are tangible recommendations supported by research:


  • Assess Respect Levels Across Diversity: Utilize anonymous surveys, small group sessions, and employee feedback tools to gain quantitative and qualitative insights into how respect is experienced across identities, cultures and roles (Tortoriello & Pollack, 2020).

  • Audit Policies for Identity-Inclusiveness: Review policies, communications, visual culture and decision-making processes through an identity lens to identify gaps in representing diversity of thought and experience (Holvino, 2010).

  • Implement Ongoing Feedback Mechanisms: Establish regular listening opportunities like forums or suggestion boxes where employees feel empowered to safely provide feedback and jointly problem-solve respect issues with leaders (Donnelly et al., 2018).

  • Mandate Unconscious Bias Training: Ensure all people managers and above complete optimized unconscious bias training aimed at raising awareness of privileges and blindspots that can subtly undermine respect (Kulik et al., 2007).

  • Lead with Vulnerability and Allyship: Communicate a humble, learning approach by acknowledging limitations and openly soliciting employee expertise to strengthen understanding of their complex lives beyond work (Rosen et al., 2013).


These steps require intent, effort and patience but will pay off in higher employee engagement, inclusion and retention - key benefits of a psychologically safe, respectful workplace. The conclusion reiterates leaders' role in cultivating respect.


Conclusion


True respect in the workplace involves understanding employee experiences holistically across diverse identities and roles, gaining awareness of potential blind spots, authentically valuing each person's humanity and contributions, and fostering environments where all feel empowered to safely engage and be their full selves.


While good intentions alone are not sufficient, awareness is the first step toward progress. It is incumbent upon leaders to proactively assess respect levels, address gaps between intentions and impacts, authentically partner with employees in crafting solutions, and lead with an open, learning mindset committed to improving understanding over time.


Respect must be cultivated intentionally and continuously through humble, two-way dialogue and ongoing feedback mechanisms that honor complexity and lift up overlooked voices. Leaders who make respect a daily priority through actions like unconscious bias training, inclusive policies and psychologically safe feedback cultures will see the dividends of higher employee engagement, well-being and performance across their organizations. Employees simply want to feel valued - that universal human need is well within leaders' power to nurture.


References


  • Collins, S. K., McKinnies, R. C., Matthews, E. P., & White, J. (2019). A qualitative analysis of stress and coping strategies used by black women entrepreneurs. Journal of Organizational Psychology, 19(6), 19-133.

  • Donnelly, R., Gabriel, Y., & Özkazanç-Pan, B. (2018). Untapped potential: Toward inclusive organizing for social change. Organization Studies, 39(11), 1487-1510. https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840618800799

  • Holvino, E. (2010). Intersections: The simultaneity of race, gender and class in organization studies. Gender, Work & Organization, 17(3), 248-277. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0432.2008.00400.x

  • Kulik, C. T., Perry, E. L., & Bourhis, A. C. (2007). Ironic evaluation processes: Effects of thought suppression on evaluations of older job applicants. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 21(6), 689-711. https://doi.org/10.1002/(ISSN)1099-1379

  • McCray, C. (2017). Interagency leadership: Managing risks in nonprofit conversions. Risk Management, 63(4), 30-37.

  • Reddy, S., Anthropic, & Chakraborti, T. (2020). Achieving fairness without collecting sensitive attributes. arXiv preprint arXiv:2006.04772.

  • Rosen, B., Jerdee, T. H., & Prestwich, T. R. (2013). Dual bias: The effects of applicant gender and weight on attributions of free response descriptions. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 8(2), 27-32.

  • Shuck, B. (2011). Integrative literature review: Four emerging perspectives of employee engagement: An integrative literature review. Human Resource Development Review, 10(3), 304-328. https://doi.org/10.1177/1534484311410840

  • Tadajewski, M. (2018). Ethics for marketers: The moral foundations of marketing practice. Sage.

  • Tortoriello, M., & Pollack, J. M. (2020). Temporary allyship: Formal diversity structures' curvilinear relationship with temporary allyship. Academy of Management Journal, 63(3), 875-899.

  • Tortoriello, M., Reagans, R. E., & McEvily, B. (2019). Bridging the knowledge gap: The influence of strong ties, network cohesion, and network range on the transfer of knowledge between organizational units. Organization Science, 21(4), 1024-1039. https://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.1080.0349

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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