A number of years ago I heard a story from a participant in a respectful workplace workshop. On her third or fourth day at work she joined a table in the lunchroom with a few other members of her new team. A supervisor walked in, heated up her lunch, and left. When the supervisor left, everyone at the table began to talk about her in a very insulting and degrading manner.The new employee interrupted and told her colleagues that she was really uncomfortable with what she was hearing. She said that they all stopped talking and looked at her.They seemed completely taken aback by her comment. It was as if, she told me, they had no idea what they were saying. Speaking negatively, gossiping, maligning someone was a habit, what they routinely did; a  “cultural norm” in that workplace.

So the question I would like you to consider is this: do you know where your culture is?

Are you aware of how people in your workplace interact with each other? Are you aware of the conversational norms, the way they talk, the jokes they share, what I call the micro-behaviours that characterize our workplace relationships and shape our cultures?

The fact is that our vernacular is sprinkled with conversational “norms” that have discriminatory roots that serve to perpetuate disrespect. Popular humour in particular often focuses on gender, religion or ethnicity.

The subject of joking comes up a lot when I am doing respectful workplace training. What’s wrong with telling an “off colour” joke if everyone is ok with it? The assumption is that if people laugh and don’t raise an objection to what they are hearing that means they are ok with it.

My experience working with issues of workplace disrespect has proven otherwise. Most employees will not make the choice that young woman made to speak up and object to what she was hearing. As a rule most of us “put up and shut up” rather than speak up.

As I share with my audiences, even if people laugh, or don’t object, that doesn’t mean that they are comfortable with the joke, or comment, or that they don’t find it offensive. It just might mean they’d rather laugh and be considered part of the group, than be the person who speaks up and spoils everyone’s fun. Or they’re worried that if they speak up, they’ll be the next one targeted.

You want to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to workplace respect.Try these Respect Tips to ensure you know where your culture is.

  1. Shift from Assumption to Curiosity – don’t assume that the fact that you are not hearing anything about problems means there aren’t any. Instead, make a choice to get curious about your cultural norms, the characteristics of relationships, the status quo in your workplace.
  2. Get the Respect Conversation started – Create a safe environment to talk about the micro-behaviours that can damage workplace relationships, productivity and teams. Start asking others to share their workplace reality with you, “what it’s like to work around here” from their perspective. If no one seems willing to talk, it could be that people are fearful to speak up.
  3. Take an honest look at the dynamic of power in your workplace: how it is expressed, how it is manifested and how it impacts workplace relationships. Power and respect are two sides of the same coin.When power based behaviours are “cultural norms”, fear characterizes workplace relationships. That is a problem for a number of reasons. Fear causes people not to speak up about issues and problems that are affecting them at work. In addition, neuroscience has established that fear inhibits focus, productivity and creativity. There is a direct correlation between workplace disrespect, fear and the organizational bottom line.
  4. Don’t ignore disrespect – deal with it.  Make sure employees know that you want to hear about, and are prepared to take action to deal with workplace disrespect. Taking action does not mean a direct path to termination. It means starting the conversation, normalizing conflict, and setting respectful behavioural expectations for everyone, in particular workplace leaders.Coach and support them to be able to demonstrate respectful behavioural norms and hold everyone, and I mean everyone, accountable for doing so. Look to HR to support, not own, the conversation.
  5. Lead by Example – As Albert Schweitzer wrote “Example is not the main thing in influencing others.  It is the only thing.” Think about your belief systems, behavioural norms and leadership style. How do you express and manifest your power?  What choice do you make if you hear an off colour joke, gender based comment, or witness bullying behaviour? Model the respectful behaviour you want others to emulate. Build relationship and trust. Empower employees to make the choice that session participant did – to speak up and walk the talk of respect at work.