Today I write this piece on respect at work but not necessarily from the research literature on it. It is from my personal experiences, and anecdotes shared by people I know well. What exactly do I mean by respect here? It is a broad term that can encompass everything from common courtesy and good manners (greeting and acknowledging you, your opinion and your presence, making eye contact and associated body language) to respecting your opinions and valuing your presence and ideas. What is commonly understood is that if you are respected at work, you will be happy at work, you will give your best, and everything will be more or less optimal.
The fact that a lot of the features associated with disrespect at work can be quite subtle and escape notice of people not directly affected by it makes it somewhat tricky to explain it and the reason behind your frustration when you don’t get respect. There is a great likelihood of people dismissing it altogether or minimizing it (“Oh he didn’t really mean that”; “You are being oversensitive”; “She treats everyone the same”). I see this as gaslighting, making the victim doubt their judgment and perhaps sanity. And all of this is done in a shroud of pleasantries with the larger group (“But he is so nice with everyone else”). There is a strong element of hierarchy here where it is the junior colleagues who are more likely to face disrespect. Workplace incivility is another term coined by Lynne Andersson and Christine Pearson who describe this “low-intensity deviant behaviors which have an ambiguous intent to harm their targets and violate the workplace norms that require mutual respect.”
In one of my conversations with a friend who has worked for several years in different organizations, he remarked that whenever he had a conversation with a ‘super boss’ (boss’s boss), the super boss would not make eye contact with him directly and look at his boss only for the entire duration of the conversation. And this was a common occurrence experienced by other junior colleagues in his experience in multiple organizations.
I experienced something similar in a group setting where we had several meetings together with the same group and I was the lowest in the totem pole of hierarchy. One of the group members did not make eye contact with me at all in the course of several months of our group meetings. It was as if I did not matter or exist. Another member shushed me more than once to hear the other peer with the same seniority as she. In another awkward incident in the same setting, I was among the first few people to arrive at the meeting and the newly arrived member of the group individually called out the other two by their names and exchanged pleasantries without addressing or acknowledging me at all. This made me think back carefully and I realized that this has been the pattern with almost all members of the group, except two. How do I recall the exact number of people who respected me? Because I exactly remember being respected by these two at least in the common courtesy and manners department. Respect of views and opinions? Not sure. There was primarily indifference for most of my expressed opinions. I started by doubting my suggestions and opinions as not nuanced or articulate enough whenever I faced that stone cold silence. But then I thought again and realized that it was not possible that none of my articulated thoughts lacked merit. I had several years of experience when this incident happened.
To contrast this sordid example with my earlier experience in another country where I started my work life. I was again the junior most individual in that setting and quite new to my first full time job. My opinion was sought by the president of the institution where he came down to my office after his secretary got an appointment with me and sat down to hear my views on a hotly debated topic that was being discussed ardently before a joint decision could be made by the institution. I felt completely listened to and was motivated to give my best. In the same place, I did not feel a hint of hierarchy or the associated disdain or indifference in any shape or form. There was effusive and justified praise for the work achieved as well as the effort applied.
Kristie Rogers’ distinguished the two types of respect employees value from their workplace and seniors. Owed respect is the one that is given to all employees irrespective of their position and signalled by civility, and earned respect involves recognizing employees who show certain valued qualities or behaviors. Owed respect would be absent or minimal for the junior employees in workplaces or cultures with a strong sense of hierarchy. Earned respect is likely if one is a peer or a senior in these settings. How would one develop the much-touted ideals of transparency and trust, which is believed to be the optimal context for a workplace filled with engaged and productive employees in such a hierarchical environment? The right noises are made in many settings where people have read enough Harvard Business Review articles and other HR research to superficially make it more democratic, but the actual truth is far from it. Some people believe that calling their seniors by their first names would make it an equitable space but that is also a superficial stop gap measure which means nothing if respect is not given in the true sense of the word.
Rogers found an “extraordinarily engaged workforce” in her research where there were regular displays of owed and earned respect. It is practically a no-brainer and yet elusive in my experience and several people I know in the work culture in many places. This is anecdotal evidence, but it carried enough emotional heft for me as I gradually started losing interest in that project and decided to withdraw from work with people where even owed respect was missing.