Is Respect a Two-Way Street?  It’s More Like a Multi-Lane Highway


Lately, it seems everyone has a lot to say about respect – including me.

I notice that we are particularly interested in talking about respect – and the importance of respect – when we think we have been disrespected. We mock or resist the idea of respect when we are challenged on our own behavior.

As someone who spends my days investigating and resolving workplace conflict and harassment, I applaud our focus on respect. I’m simply concerned that our focus has become a narrow and often treacherous, one-way street.

Instead of asking “How can each of us make this relationship more respectful?”, we often ask “How are you going to change so that I feel more respected?”

If we continue down this one-way street of respect, alone and outward facing, we will never merge lanes and travel together. Respect is both an entitlement and an obligation. We are entitled to respect, and we are expected to be respectful. No exceptions.

It does not matter whether you are a leader, employee, client or customer; it does not matter whether you or they posted the first message of disrespect; it does not matter whether you initiated the discussion or were “provoked” to respond. In each situation, everyone should show up in a respectful manner.

You can vehemently disagree, you can hold others accountable, you can file complaints, you can sue, you can do all sorts of things in the name of your beliefs, causes and experiences. But for respect to go anywhere – and stay awhile – our communication to and about each other must remain respectful.

How to Move from One-Way Streets to Multi-Lane Highways  

We often support respectful workplaces in the abstract yet fail to create them in reality. Here are some real-life examples that I see in my investigative practice:

Example #1

One person files a complaint of harassment against another. Often, I see one or the other being given more airtime to share their story based on their role in the review, their “reputation” or their “connections” to others on the team or in their organization.  This is not respectful.

All individuals in any workplace review should be given an equal, genuine and fulsome opportunity to tell their story and share their perspectives and opinions, without pre-judgment. And all individuals should be able to participate fully in their complaint/defence, without fear of personal judgment, attacks, shunning or retaliation by the other (or the other’s posse) in the workplace.

Example #2

Often, I see a group of employees shun a leader faced with a complaint; or a group of leaders shun an employee who has filed a complaint. I have also seen leaders isolate other leaders in the name of objectivity. This is not respectful.

Both/all individuals should be supported through this process. By support, I mean procedural support (allowing someone to be with them in formal meetings) and emotional support (genuinely checking in with them to see how they are doing and offering them formal confidential assistance if it is available).

Care for all participants as the humans they are. They do not become less human or less worthy of humanity simply because they are involved in a workplace investigation.

Example #3

In my practice, at times, I hear staff gossiping about leaders and leaders gossiping about staff. By gossip, I mean discussing individuals who are not present about matters that are not directly relevant to you or your role. This is not respectful.

All individuals should be guaranteed a confidential and discreet process to air differences of opinion and resolve interpersonal conflicts and complaints (informal or formal).

Example #4

Many times I learn of insidious complaints that have festered and damaging allegations of wrongdoing that have remained outstanding. This is not respectful.

Parties to a workplace conflict/complaint should be given clarity over workplace concerns soon after they arise. Once an issue has been raised, however informally, it must be fairly reviewed and resolved.

Example #5

I have seen, first-hand, individuals left waiting for a significant amount of time (and sometimes forever), not knowing if a workplace review has been concluded or its outcome. This is not respectful.

Everyone should be guaranteed closure in relation to interpersonal conflicts and workplace disagreements. When a matter has been concluded, parties should know the outcome. When a person has been found to have been disrespectful, they should be told this (along with specific reasons and a basis for the conclusion). When a person has been found not to have been disrespectful, they (along with the person who raised the concern) should be told this, again with a helpful explanation as to why.

Example #6

Individuals often use their passionate beliefs about a cause, strong views on a particular issue or anger at someone else’s conduct to justify their own disrespectful behavior. This is not respectful.

Everyone should come to work knowing that while others may not agree with their views or opinions and at times, may have concerns with their communication and conduct, everyone will be treated with basic civility and respect

Moving Forward Down the Multi-lane Highway

For every concern we have with others’ actions, let’s take 30 seconds to pause and reflect on our own actions and reactions either to them or about them.

Instead of disrespectfully reacting to being wronged, let’s show others how to do it right.

One-way streets of any kind have always caused concern, chaos and carnage – respect is no different. It’s time to take a different approach.


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