April 3, 2020

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EEOC Chair Janet Dhillon posted a message last week urging employers and employees to be aware of instances of harassment, intimidation or discrimination and to take action to prevent or correct this behavior during the COVID-19 outbreak. “Our collective efforts to create respectful workplaces for all our nation’s workers, even during these trying times, will enable us to emerge from this crisis stronger and more united.”

Respect and civility in the workplace are important concepts to revisit at a time when most of us feel stressed and overwhelmed. Respect is what people want most from leaders, said Christine Porath, author and professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, in her 2019 TED Radio Hour on the cost of incivility in the workplace. 

Being treated with respect was more important than recognition and appreciation, according to survey data from over 20,000 employees around the world.  Employees who feel respected, Porath said, are more healthy, more focused, more likely to stay with their organizations and far more engaged.

What can organizations do to foster a culture of respect and civility?

Here are six steps to consider: 

  1. Create a respectful workplace policy
    Implementing a written respectful workplace policy codifies your commitment to building a positive company culture. An effective policy should set clear expectations for how employees should treat each other, and emphasize that everyone will be held accountable for their behavior. To keep it top of mind, communicate the policy widely and often, and make it a part of your onboarding process, Code of Conduct and other initiatives to create a positive, respectful work environment. 
  2. Train on what is and isn’t acceptable behavior
    While training should raise awareness of what constitutes incivility and disrespect (mocking or belittling someone, texting while someone’s speaking, telling offensive jokes, yelling, sabotaging a person’s work), the focus should be on positive behaviors and raising awareness of the benefits of civil actions and respectful communication.
  3. Establish clear reporting procedures
    People don’t always know how to respond to offensive behavior or may fear retaliation if they do report incidents. Whatever the reasons, underreporting misconduct lets bad behavior perpetuate, which can lead to a host of negative consequences for employees and organizations. Implementing a formal complaint process, explaining how the process works, providing different reporting options and encouraging employees to report incidents are all positive steps to address and correct inappropriate behavior. Additionally, managers and supervisors should be trained on how to handle complaints and avoid retaliatory behavior. 
  4. Encourage bystander intervention
    Bystander intervention training is another step to strengthen workplace culture, stop inappropriate behavior and prevent future incidents. Bystander intevention techniques can be applied in a variety of situations involving sexual harassment, as well as offensive comments about someone’s religion, age, national origin or other personal characteristics. Teaching employees different tactics to safely intervene during or after witnessing a threatening situation allows them to take safe action, if they choose, and importantly, show empathy and support for targets of misconduct.
  5. Foster diversity and inclusive thinking
    Training employees and managers on the benefits of diversity, inclusive thinking and cultural competency is another way to prevent conflicts and promote a more productive, respectful work environment. Diversity and inclusion training should also educate employees on how to recognize and manage unconscious biases. An effective technique is to use interactive video scenarios that show how hidden attitudes and assumptions can influence workplace decisions and lead to discriminatory behavior.  
  6. Promote allyship
    Cultivating allyship in the workplace also helps to advance diversity and inclusion efforts. For underrepresented groups who don’t always find their organizations welcoming, workplace allies can offer friendship and assistance by listening carefully and valuing their experiences and opinions. Particularly now, when people may feel more isolated than ever, practicing allyship is a way to express much needed empathy, understanding and support. 

Traliant Insight

The concepts of workplace civility and respect are taking on a new relevance. Implementing respectful workplace policies, training and education are positive steps organizations can take to inspire individuals and teams to be more engaged, healthy and productive during these unsettling, stressful times and beyond.