Is Respect the New Belonging?

Is Respect the New Belonging?

by Felicity Menzies

In a recent interview for the Sydney Morning Herald, sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, was quoted as saying the workplaces she knows that manage sexual harassment well are the ones that have a strong sense of respect. “A written policy is not the thing that protects, it’s that thing in the middle: the culture.” Encouragingly, at Include-Empower, over the last few months, we have experienced an increase in queries regarding solutions for fostering respectful and safe workplaces. I am hopeful that in 2020, respect will start to receive the same attention afforded to belonging in employer diversity and inclusion efforts.

Understanding Respect

Respect is one of the core pillars of inclusion. When employees experience respect, they are willing and able to bring their whole selves to work and share their diverse ideas, perspectives, and experiences. Also, workers in respectful work settings experience higher levels of well-being, supporting employee engagement and productivity.

Respect exists when employees perceive that they are valued by the organisation and colleagues and that they can bring their authentic selves to work without risk of prejudice, discrimination, harassment or other workplace incivility. Only when employees feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work will the company benefit from their differences.

Respect is a basic human need and its fulfilment enhances well-being. In motivational models, respect triggers approach behaviours and improves engagement and effort. The experience of disrespect, on the other hand, damages self-worth and triggers avoidance behaviours including disengagement and altered professional aspirations.

Risks to Respect in Diverse Work Settings

Although disrespect is a risk in homogenous settings, diverse workplaces need to work harder to cultivate respect. Studies confirm that disrespect is experienced more by women, ethnic and religious minorities, people with disabilities, and LGBTIQ individuals relative to the traditionally dominant group. Rank and age are also linked to differential experiences of respect. Further, across geographies, marginalised groups vary and global employers must be alert to local issues. In Australia, cultivating culturally safe workplaces for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is relevant.

Causes of increased disrespect in diverse work settings include bias and stereotypes, cultural and language differences, privilege, and power. Sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, Islamophobia, and homophobia, for example, are threats to respect. In addition, command and control leadership styles and other manifestations of weak leadership capability such as low emotional intelligence and poor feedback giving are linked to higher levels of workplace incivility, harassment, and bullying. Also, organisational or team cultures that penalise mistakes or challenging the status quo increase the risk of disrespect because staff contributions and ideas are more likely to be rejected, dismissed or undervalued. Interpersonal norms such as office banter or ‘selective’ socialising can also undermine respect at work.

Respect and Safety

Respect intersects with safety because disrespect manifests in threats to one’s physical or psychological security. Safety threats linked to disrespect include harassment (including sexual and other forms of harassment), bullying, incivility, hostility, micro-inequities and micro-aggressions, and social exclusion.

Bullying and harassment

Workplace bullying and harassment is linked to a range of negative outcomes for the individual and employer: distress, anxiety, panic attacks or sleep disturbance; physical illness, such as muscular tension, headaches, and digestive problems; reduced work performance; loss of self-esteem and feelings of isolation; deteriorating relationships with colleagues, family, and friends; depression; increased risk of suicide.

The wider workplace also feels the effects of bullying and harassment through lost productivity, increased absenteeism, poor morale, and time spent documenting, pursuing or defending claims. Bullying is estimated to cost Australian organisations between $6 billion and $36 billion a year.

Masking individual difference

Disrespect at work also leads to covering—the active masking and downplaying of individual differences by employees to fit in and to avoid negative stereotyping, prejudice, harassment or discrimination. A US study by Deloitte and Kenji Yoshino from NYU School of Law found 61 percent of employees covered in some manner. The US-based study reported eighty-three percent of LGBTI+ individuals, 79 percent of Blacks, 67 percent of women of colour, 66 percent of women, and 63 percent of Hispanics cover. Covering occurred with greater frequency within groups that have been historically underrepresented, however, 45 percent of straight White men—who have not been the focus of most inclusion efforts—reported covering. Like bullying and harassment, covering has significant costs at organisational and individual level. Thirty-two percent of employees who engage in covering report it has negatively impacted their sense of self. Further, employees that cover are less committed to the organisation, experience a lower sense of belonging to the organisation, are less likely to perceive having opportunities to advance, and are more likely to have considered leaving the organisation in the past twelve months.

Staying silent

As well as negatively impacting employee commitment, engagement and well-being, when employees hide or conceal their true identities at work or refrain from speaking up, the workplace cannot benefit from their difference. In Australia, The Australian Workplace Psychological Safety Survey 2017 reported 58 percent of all respondents felt that their colleagues often reject others for being different and only 24% feel safe to take risks at work. In other words, 76% of Australian workers do not feel safe to speak up at work. In the same year, Gallup reported similar results from a survey of American workers. More recently, in 2019 business school, Hult Ashridge, released the results of their survey ‘Speaking Truth to Power at Work’. Results showed 73% of respondents indicated that they could assist their organisation’s performance with an idea, but 38% of these have not spoken up via official channels. Also, 8% of respondents said they knew of something that might harm the company but have decided not to or are still deciding whether to speak up. The researchers also reported that individuals are most guarded during formal meetings, which is problematic because it is in formal meetings where the most significant workplace decisions are made.

Solutions for Fostering Respectful, Safe and Inclusive Workplaces

Because the causes of disrespect in diverse work settings are varied, fostering a culture of safety and respect necessitates a multi-pronged approach. Focus areas include the cultivation of psychologically safe workplaces; a well-defined code of conduct, a zero-tolerance policy, and effective grievance procedures; best-practice anti-bullying and harassment training (with bystander/upstander training); celebrating individual differences; deliberately acknowledging the contributions of diverse talent; pay equity; cultural safety; inclusive pronouns and other language and addressing; privilege, sensitivity and mindful inclusion training with a focus on empathy; developing cultural competency and fostering cultural safety; employee affinity networks; and visible and active diversity champions and allies. 

The Role of Leaders

Leaders play a critical role in the cultivation of fostering respectful work settings by leading in a manner that models and promotes psychological safety. Psychological safety is a shared perception that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. In a psychologically safe workplace, people feel able and are willing to speak up when needed — with relevant ideas, questions, and concerns or to ask for help or admit mistakes — without being shut down. Quoting Amy Edmonson, who coined the term, “psychological safety is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able, even obligated, to be candid”.

At Include-Empower we partner with clients to develop six core leadership skills for fostering psychological safety and a speak-up culture:

  1. Empathy: the active consideration of other’s experiences and emotions
  2. Micro-affirmations: the mindful practice of verbal and non-verbal behaviours that foster respect
  3. Upstander strategies: calling out inappropriate comments and behaviours made by others in a way that reduces the social threat for all parties
  4. Emotional regulation: being aware of your emotional triggers, how you respond to bad news, the impact of that response on others, and choosing a more productive response, if required
  5. Seeking and giving feedback effectively: reducing power-distance/hierarchy and increasing awareness of blind spots and biases through establishing a mutually open and constructive feedback loop
  6. Running inclusive meetings: actively dismantling the psychological and other barriers that prevent individuals from contributing in formal meetings

The leadership capabilities described above are complex interpersonal skills and thus not easy to master. Effective development of those skills requires formal training, commitment, practice, reflection. However, the benefits that flow from inclusive leadership are significant. Studies show that when leaders succeed in cultivating a culture of respect, the organisation will be rewarded with better decisions, creative collaboration, motivated and engaged employees, and improved individual, team and organisational performance.

Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.