To Retain Employees, Help Them Feel Respected

Among people who left their jobs in 2021, the Pew Research Center found that feeling disrespected was among the top three reasons for calling it quits. Those who left also said it was pretty easy to find a new job and reported that their new work situation was an improvement. Along with addressing pay and opportunities for advancement, creating an environment where team members feel respected is critical to retaining talent in a tight labor market.
If you’ve ever turned the Aretha Franklin hit up to max volume and belted it out with her in the car or dancing in your living room, you know that incredible sense of empowerment the Grammy-winning song inspires. That was very intentional. Franklin took the song, originally written by Otis Redding as a plea to the woman he loved to show respect for her man, and flipped it into a powerful 1970’s anthem demanding respect for women and people of color. The line, “Find out what it means to me,” turns out to be great advice for most relationships, including those in the workplace.
“Respect matters because it signals our worth as an employee and as a person,” three management professors from Boston College, Marquette University and Texas A&M University, advise in the Greater Good Magazine from the University of California, Berkeley. “There are two distinct types of respect at work,” they continue. “There is the baseline level of respect that we are all owed as valued people and members of the workforce, and the respect that we earn for meeting or exceeding work expectations.”
They assert that the COVID-19 pandemic brought numerous changes to the workplaces that have exacerbated feelings of disrespect, including the early sorting of occupations into categories of “essential” and “nonessential.” In addition, with many people still working remotely, informal opportunities to show respect for and recognize the contributions of colleagues have decreased. Even subtle acknowledgements like a head nod, smile or something as simple as holding a door open for someone are lost online. Finally, polarization in the larger community climate can also leak into the workplace and leave people feeling less valued.
Send the right signals
In an open-ended survey with both employees and managers, the faculty members explored questions of respect and disrespect with a specific focus on what signals of respect people wished they were receiving but were not. Interestingly, many of the signals the respondents most wanted to experience at work could just as easily come from a colleague as a manager.
They also found that consistency is key. People need to see respectful behavior on an ongoing basis to trust it. Creating that foundation of repeated expressions of respect can even hep you weather an unintentional slight or occasional moment of disrespect.
Consider these suggestions for some of the most effective ways to boost feelings of respect among colleagues within your work environment.
  1. Help validate the contributions your colleagues make. Show appreciation for what they do and how they support the work of the team. Your show of respect can be as simple as pointing out the specific way that a coworker’s knowledge or skills helped accomplish a shared goal. You might say, “Thank you for preparing the PPT slides for the presentation. They really helped us get our points across in a high-impact way.”
  1. Recognize quality work. The survey respondents were particularly hungry for individual praise after several years of focus during the pandemic on themes more related to pulling together for the good of the team. “You may think of this as something that typically comes from a manager, but respect for a peer’s job performance can be especially meaningful because it is not necessarily expected, and because peers can often understand and relate to their coworkers’ challenges in ways that others cannot,” the authors write.
  1. Respect one another’s autonomy. Especially with the current mix of remote and in-person arrangements, we need to trust one another to schedule workloads in ways that are most productive for that individual. “Employees in our survey described trust as the ultimate sign of respect,” the authors write, noting that employees want others to trust that they are working hard.
  1. Acknowledge individual struggles. It is easy for anyone to feel like a cog in a wheel with fast-paced demands coming from all sides. The antidote is a strong human-centered approach that recognizes the challenges individuals may face at work and at home, ongoing uncertainty as the pandemic lingers, and even feelings of overwhelm due to staffing shortages, supply chain challenges and the rapid pace of change. Treat your coworkers as people first and you will forge another link in an ongoing chain of respect.
While feeling disrespected can quickly lead to a sense of isolation and lack of engagement, it’s encouraging to know that the freely available resource of shared respect among colleagues can help team members feel valued, important, needed – and committed to their current workplace.

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