You'd think that respect is a timeless value that needs no explanation. But there have been large shifts in what it looks like in the workplace over recent years.
For example, not so many years ago, male managers would likely have expected to be addressed as "Mr.," while their team members might have accepted sexual harassment as a sad fact of life.
By contrast, today's managers try to inspire respect without the formalities, and their people expect equal consideration. That sounds like a walk in the park, but getting respect right for everyone is sometimes more like crossing a minefield.
It helps to have a map showing the perils that lurk out of sight. And, we have that with “Excuse Me: The Survival Guide to Modern Business Etiquette," a new book by Rosanne Thomas.
When I spoke to Thomas for our Expert Interview podcast, I asked her to explain the link between respect and business etiquette.
"I look at respect as the foundation and I look at business etiquette as the mechanics," she replied. "We need to have the respect and then we actually need to evidence it. It's not enough for us to say, 'I'm a respectful person. I've got a good attitude.' We've got to evidence all of those things."
What does that evidence look like? According to Thomas, it's any number of little things. "For instance, are you looking up and smiling as someone approaches you down the hallway? Do you refer to them by name, if you happen to know their name?" says Thomas.
"Little things like holding a door open to make sure that the person behind you is able to come in, or cleaning up after meetings – tiny little things like this matter," she adds.
While respectful, those actions don't sound particularly modern. This suggests that "modern business etiquette" is not about throwing out the old rules in favor of the new ones.
Rather, it's about retaining traditional behaviors that still have a role in the modern workplace. And then, adding new protocols that reflect changes in society and their associated expectations. As I said earlier, a minefield.
In her book, Thomas offers a helpful steer with her Platinum Rule. This is an updated version of the Golden Rule, which states that we should treat others as we would like to be treated. With the Platinum Rule, we treat others as they would like to be treated. And to find that out, we may need to ask them.
As an example, Thomas shares a recent experience. She saw a person in a wheelchair manually propelling himself up a hill. A passer-by came up from behind and started to push the wheelchair up the hill, saying, "Here, let me help you." The man in the wheelchair declined the help, saying that he would prefer to wheel himself.
"This is where the Golden Rule and the Platinum Rule are not the same," she points out. "We might prefer that someone help us if we happened to be in a wheelchair. But that is not necessarily the way in which the other person wants to be treated. So, we always need to ask."
In the workplace, this means using empathy and respectfully worded, non-judgmental questions to discover people's preferences. How do they like their partners or spouses to be referred to? What’s their preferred mode and style of communication, which may differ according to age or role?
If we don't make a conscious effort to create a respectful workplace, we're risking a lot, Thomas warns, because a lack of respect can be pervasive and corrosive. "It affects morale," she says, "and productivity, and it might affect mental health, which could affect physical health."
"It certainly has an impact upon attendance and absenteeism, and it's contagious, in that one person's disrespect is contagious to other people. So, it's really a win-win if we have a respectful, inclusive, civil workplace. And it's lose-lose if we don't," she says.
With the Platinum Rule in mind, I ask Thomas what we should do if we feel we are being disrespected by someone at work. What's the best way to convey how we would prefer to be treated? In this clip from our Expert Interview podcast, she gives her advice:
How do you show respect at work? Join the discussion below!
For a long-lasting, fulfilling experience at work, it pays to think carefully before applying for a job.
"The best leaders, the ones who make the most change, know that communications is not a soft skill but a rock-hard competency." -Sally Susman
"He’d also just talk over people, including me. And my reaction was not me at my best. I just sat there in a passive-aggressive huff. " - Simon Bell