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spike bullet May 2003 - Respectful Workplaces

Definition - Respectful Workplace
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Workplaces
Tips for Creating a Respectful Workplace
Cultural Influences
Unhealthy Judgments about Others
Learning about Other Cultures
Gender Differences and Bias
Checklist for Sexual Harassment Prevention
Resources (links, books, articles, humor)

color bulletHow to Create a Respectful Workplace

Definition Respectful Workplace:
A respectful workplace is one where employees can feel reasonably safe and where they are treated fairly, creating the freedom to focus on getting work done. 


For more than 10 years, sexual harassment issues have generated news stories, lawsuits and individual pain.  Untold numbers of attorneys, human resource professionals and trainers are devoted to helping managers and employees understand that disrespectful behavior is not only illegal it is unproductive, costly and inefficient for businesses and organizations.

In recent years, the term "sexual harassment and discrimination prevention" training has taken on the focus of "respectful workplace," as a way of helping people understanding that diversity, tolerance for differences and acceptance of others is based on the concept of RESPECT.  Respect means showing consideration for others.

When people enjoy their work and respect their co-workers, productivity is high.  When people are afraid, intimidated or threatened, they spend their time and energy defending themselves or searching for a safe place.  

Unsafe and unhealthy environments have become generally known as hostile environments, even though that term has legal definitions for sexual harassment situations only.

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Workplaces 

In order to create a respectful workplace, it is important to first understand the differences between healthy workplaces and unhealthy workplaces.

The following chart compares some of the aspects we have noticed in our work.  In your organization, you may have the same aspects or different ones.  Try the exercise and see where you fit. 

Healthy Workplaces

Unhealthy workplaces

Highly productive Hard to get things done
People enjoy working together and spending time with their co-workers People are not friendly with their co-workers and may gossip about them
Changes can be made with full cooperation of employees Employees resist change or undermine efforts to make changes
Employees enjoy responsibility and seek  more responsibility Employees refuse to take on additional responsibility, directly or indirectly
Employees and managers are willing to help where ever needed Employees and/or managers stick to "it's not my job" or "that's the supervisor's responsibility" 
Work is finished on time Work is late or deadlines are ignored
Work quality is consistently very high Work quality is mixed or unpredictable
Customers and clients report high marks for customer service Customers and clients complain about the customer service they don't receive
Accidents, injuries, harassment claims and workers' compensation claims are very low Accidents, injuries, harassment claims and workers' compensation claims are high
Problems and issues are discussed openly between employees and managers Problems and issues are not discussed openly, even though everyone knows about them
People are not afraid to express their opinions People are afraid to tell the truth because they are ignored, reprimanded or viewed as trouble-makers
People are not afraid of disagreements because they realize diversity is healthy. They feel more productive when issues are resolved and processes improved. People are uncomfortable with disagreements and will try to stop open discussions of differences of opinion
When something doesn't work, the focus is on identifying issues not on blaming people Tough on issues, soft on people When something doesn't work, the focus is on blaming people Tough on people, soft on issues
When someone makes a mistake, they are coached to help them understand and improve When someone makes a mistake, they are criticized and punished
Employees feel empowered to do their job and to suggest changes for improvement Employees feel they do not have the power to change the way things are

Tips for Creating a Respectful Workplace

After identifying where you are, you can begin to create training, coaching and open discussion to move from an unhealthy to a healthy working environment.  

Unhealthy workplaces make people sick, physically as well as emotionally.

To change from an unhealthy environment to a healthy environment requires a strong commitment to changing the culture.  This no small task and will not happen overnight.  However, it is well worth the effort in regained productivity and improved profitability as well as the positive impact on people's health and their improved sense of belonging and well-being.  

Strong leadership and management consistency throughout the organization are required to make this happen.   

The question, "What's in it for me?" often comes up when management tries to change things.  It is important that management be fully committed to doing what must be done for the long haul, not just following this week's or this month's fad program (Management by Best Seller).  

Fad management techniques don't work.  Honesty, commitment, sensitivity, perseverance and diligence do work.  

One of management's biggest mistakes is believing that they can announce a new program and everyone will magically see the light and follow through with it (see The Plan below).  Management must be willing to change their own bad habits and unhealthy practices before they can expect employees to change. 

Understanding Cultural Influences

To create a respectful workplace, managers and employees must realize that diversity is a good thing.  They must learn about people, their differences and accept that the differences contribute in a positive way toward productivity and a healthy workplace.

Each of us is a culturally-diverse entity.  None of us has exactly the same programming because we get our cultural teachings from a variety of sources.  We respond differently to the same stimuli.

There are some predominant factors to consider when determining a person�s culture:

1. Environment and Space: 
A sense of the person�s surrounding and the distance between them and others ("social distancing").  Small acts (like acknowledging a person in the room or saying "good morning") show respect.

2. Appearance: 
A person�s dress style shows something about their feelings about themselves and their cultural reference point.  Many dress according to religious beliefs.  Make-up and hair style (or the lack of them) may indicate something about a person�s culture.

3. Eating Habits: 
Meal times, types and amounts of food eaten may indicate a particular culture.  Many people eat different foods at different times because that is their culture.

4. Communication Styles: 
Since over half of our communication is non-verbal, we often struggle to communicate with those of other cultures.  Non-verbal differences play a major role in our effectiveness as a communicator.

Example: Lack of eye contact can be very distracting to us if we are not aware that the other person believes they are communicating appropriately.

5. Beliefs and Attitudes: 
Many of our predominate beliefs are of religious origin.  In the United States, we are greatly influenced by parents and ancestors who came to America seeking the freedom to be themselves.  Significant holidays are based on religious or ethnic beliefs (Christmas, Easter, St. Patrick�s day, Halloween) or on celebrating our national pride (Martin Luther King Day, Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving).  Culturally imprinted beliefs and attitudes, religion and spiritual beliefs whether actively practiced or not are a very strong influence in everything we think, say and do.

6. Status: 
In some cultures, a male will refuse to work for a woman.  In some cultures, a working woman indicates deficiency in a male�s performance as provider.  In some cultures, students don�t question teachers; individuals don�t challenge authority; and employees don�t confront managers.  Even in America, we may be confused about the status of our own men and women, and our heritage of freedom as a melting pot of ethnic diversity. 

7. Work Practices Ethics: 
We must learn to assess differences between cultures where work is seen as a "necessary evil" and a "magnificent obsession," the ultimate achievement, the quintessential mark of success and performance.  Overtime to one person is a plus; to others, it is a punishment.  To some, a promotion is positive; to others, it is negative.

8. Timing: 
As a nation concerned with schedules and the consequences of not meeting deadlines, it may be difficult to comprehend cultures that are less concerned with schedules.

Diverse workplace

Unhealthy Judgments about Others

When we look at other cultural norms, it is easy to make judgments about rules different from our own.  The feeling that one�s own cultural rules or gender are superior or more "right" than the rules of others is the essence of unhealthy bias.

Cultural comparisons are natural.  The problem isn�t the comparison, rather the tendency to see other norms in less favorable light:

Those who have less time sensitivity are judged as lazy.
Those that respect authority and stress harmony are considered unassertive and lacking in initiative.
Those with an exacting dependence on promptness and efficiency are seen as cold and robot-like.
Those who depend on less communications are seen as devious and sneaky.
Men are better at ..., women are better at ...
Young people are better at ..., older people are better at ...

We are both targets and perpetrators of such cultural bias, which create the biggest barriers to inter-cultural and gender harmony.

Learning about Others

Ways to Gain More Information About Others

  1. Hold group discussions with participants from other cultures.
  2. Research information about various cultures.
  3. Discuss differences, one-on-one, with a open attitude of learning more.
  4. Watch and listen to the activities of others.
  5. Participate in culturally-diverse and gender-balanced activities.
  6. Ask other employees and colleagues.
  7. Learn about different personality styles, management/leadership styles and needs

Gender Differences and Bias

One disturbing aspect of the attention focused on sexual harassment and training is a new phenomenon called "male bashing."  Such behavior should not be tolerated any more than female bashing or racial/ethnic bashing.  

Derogatory comments about anyone regardless of race, gender, belief, national origin, sexual preference or any other reason is simply not appropriate workplace behavior.  

Comments that are passed off as "just jokes" are extremely destructive and damaging to the individuals and the organization that seeks to be healthy and productive.  Jokes that seek to embarrass someone else or to make them seem "less than" are not tolerated in a healthy environment. 

With the exception of child-bearing characteristics, there is no task that cannot be done by either gender.  Some men may be physically strong, others may not.  Some women may be compassionate, others may not.  There is no single word that accurately describes all men or all women.  People who say that "men can't do ..." or "women can't do ..." are engaging in illegal words of discrimination.  

Managers must realize that they are responsible for setting a good example and enforcing the laws federal, state and local.  Managers are responsible for getting the necessary training to know what is illegal and what they should do about it.  And, they are responsible for making sure all employees receive training and behave in appropriate ways toward each other.  

Managers who fail to stop illegal behavior may be subject to civil and criminal penalties individually, in addition to penalties imposed on their company in a lawsuit. 

The concept of corporate liability for "knew or should have known" is a growing area of discrimination and harassment law.  If this concept doesn't exist in your state, it probably will in the future.  That concept implies that managers and their company can be held liable for not stopping actions that lead to discrimination or harassment whether they actually knew about it they should have known about it. 

As we learn more about different people and begin to appreciate our differences, we must also have strong rules for those who do not already know how to behave.  The following checklist helps remind managers and employees about what is necessary to prevent harassment in your workplace.  This checklist is also available as a downloadable file in the Resources section

woman with checklistChecklist: Sexual Harassment Prevention

  1. Do you know what sexual harassment is, how to report it and conduct an investigation?
  2. Do you pay attention to your workplace and conduct regular inspections?
  3. Are pornographic and/or sexually oriented posters, pictures or other inappropriate materials displayed in your area?
  4. Are you a positive role model?  Do you avoid making inappropriate remarks, touching, jokes and comments?
  5. Are you "tuned in" to the grapevine?  Do you know which employees are dating?  (If the situation changes, it could turn to harassment).
  6. Are you available and prepared to take all complaints seriously?  (Teasing, joking or banter may be sexual harassment).
  7. Have you conducted employee training on:
  • Your sexual harassment policy,
  • The complaint process and how it works, and
  • The investigative process and how it works?
  1. Do you conduct employee meetings and/or question-and-answer sessions to reinforce your policy against sexual harassment?
  2. Do you discuss your concerns?
  3. Have you implemented other means to detect sexual harassment:
  • Exit interviews
  • Attitude surveys,
  • Suggestion box (anonymous), and/or
  • Employee hot-line?
  1. Have you:
  • Issued your company policy to all employees?
  • Posted your policy on sexual harassment?
  • Included the policy in the employee handbook?
  • Delivered information that satisfies your state laws?
  • Followed up to make sure new employees are informed?
  • Re-issued company policy against harassment on a regular basis?
  • Scheduled on-going sexual harassment training?
  1. If you receive a claim of sexual harassment, do you act immediately?

 Source: Zero Tolerance: Sexual Harassment Prevention training program.

World Wide Web graphic  Internet Resources

book graphic  Books   -  Disclosure: We get a small commission for purchases made via links to Amazon.

  • If It's Broken, You Can Fix It: Overcoming Dysfunction in the Workplace, Tom E. Jones.  AMACOM Books, 1999 ISBN: 0-8144-0460-X

world wide web - articles  Articles

Related articles on our website:  Other articles: 

smiley graphic  The Lighter Side  

The Plan

In the beginning was the plan.
And then came the assumptions.
And the plan was without form,
And the assumptions without any substance,
And darkness was upon the face of all workers.
And they spake unto their team leaders, saying,
"LO, this is a pail of dung, and none may abide the odor thereof "
And the team leaders went unto the supervisors and saith,
"This new thing, it is a container of excrement, and it is very strong, such that none may abide by it."
And the supervisors went unto their manager, saying,
"This is a vessel of fertilizer, and none may abide its strength."
And the manager went unto the vice president, bearing this message:
"Lo, this plan contains that which aids plant growth, and it is powerful."
And the vice president went unto the senior vice president and saith,
"This new thing promoteth growth, and it is powerful."
And the senior vice president went unto the president and saith unto him,
"This powerful new plan will actively promote the growth and efficiency of all units, even unto the uttermost parts of the organization."
And the president looked upon the plan and saw that it was good.
And "the plan" became policy.
� Author Unknown
From the book, If It�s Broken, You Can Fix It, by Tom E. Jones

About our resource links:  We do not endorse or agree with all the beliefs in these links.  We do keep an open mind about different viewpoints and respect the ability of our readers to decide for themselves what is useful.

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Page updated: October 16, 2023   
Institute for Management Excellence, Copyright � 2003 All rights reserved

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