Bringing Humanity and Fairness to Work
We're all different – because of who we are, where we come from, what we believe in, and how we live our lives.
But we all have value as human beings. And, with the right approach, our differences can improve our experience at work, and enhance what we can achieve together.
To do this, we need to create environments in which everyone feels welcomed, fairly treated, and fully supported to do their best. In short, it's about prioritizing mutual respect.
In this article, we explore the benefits of mutual respect. We also outline the challenges to doing so and provide you with practical steps to build mutual respect in your workplace.
What Is Respect?
Respect is the foundation of humane and ethical behavior, and mutual respect underpins good relationships. To have respect for a person involves a fundamental belief in their right to exist, to be heard, and to have the same opportunities as everyone else.
Respect doesn't mean ignoring people's differences, or simply tolerating them. Rather, it involves recognizing differences, understanding their significance, and responding with interest, politeness and care.
Mutual respect is also based on a shared belief in the benefits of diversity – the variety of backgrounds, abilities and viewpoints within your team.
But it also means looking beyond differences. With mutual respect, you avoid labeling people in unhelpful ways. Instead, you celebrate the unique things that each of us brings – and capitalize on all that we have in common.
Mutual respect should be apparent throughout the workplace, from policies and processes to individual interactions. It has a guiding role to play in face-to-face meetings, written communications, body language, and the ways in which people behave together.
You can still tackle difficult conversations, as long as you do so with tact and diplomacy. And of course you don't have to agree with other people's ideas or beliefs. You can still form friendships and alliances. You can feel proud of your individuality, and of any connections you share with others at work.
But be sure to contribute to the culture of respect. Mutual respect can only be achieved when everyone sees it as a crucial and positive force at work.
Why Does Mutual Respect Matter?
Imagine trying to work freely, collaboratively and creatively with someone you don't respect, or who doesn't respect you. Maybe you don't need to imagine!
Lack of mutual respect not only gets in the way of your work, but it can also damage your relationships and your self-esteem. And it could lead to illegal or unethical behavior such as bullying or harassment.
So, it's important to share respect with everyone you meet, however different from you they may appear to be – whether because of age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical ability, experience, skill, education, or religion, for example.
The many benefits of mutual respect include:
- Improved well-being and decreased absenteeism.
- A more positive and focused working atmosphere.
- Trusted and open communication.
- Collaborative decision making.
- Better creativity, problem solving and innovation.
- More high-quality applicants for jobs.
- Increased loyalty among staff – leading to better retention of valued people.
- A reputation for fairness and ethical strength.
Research by McKinsey and Company showed that organizations that welcome diversity are better at attracting, retaining and motivating talent. What's more, they're likely among the most profitable companies in their sector. 
Identifying Disrespect – and Dealing With It
To play an active part in a culture of mutual respect, you first have to take a "zero tolerance" approach to anything that goes against it.
The following questions will help you to spot when you or others are being disrespectful – whether overtly, or in more subtle ways:
Does the behavior:
- Come across as rude, hostile or discourteous?
- Harm, disrupt or upset someone unnecessarily?
- Negatively affect people's work or their relationships?
- Undermine your team's cohesion?
- Damage your organization's mission or reputation?
- Break organizational rules, or is it dishonest or illegal?
If you answer "Yes" to any of these questions, you've likely seen something that needs to be stopped.
This may mean changing your own behavior – possibly breaking long-held habits. Or you might need to take time to learn more about the situation or topic for yourself.
When someone else is being rude or disrespectful to you or a colleague, think carefully about whether it would be best to challenge them yourself, or whether you'll need support from a manager or from HR. And if you're acting on someone else’s behalf, always find out what they would like to happen next.
Our article Bad Behavior at Work has advice about identifying – and dealing with – anything that doesn't fit in a culture of mutual respect. And Benne and Sheats' Group Roles is a useful tool for recognizing some of the more subtle forms of negative behavior that may be impacting your team.
Whatever level you're at, it's important to be familiar with your organization's policies on harassment and bullying. This will help you to know your own rights, and to treat others fairly, in line with the anti-discrimination laws of your particular country, region or state.
Creating a Culture of Mutual Respect
There's no "one-size-fits-all" approach to instilling mutual respect. There are, however, several positive practices that you can adopt.
Before doing so, think carefully about the needs of your organization and the people within it, and highlight any specific areas of concern.
When you've worked out your priorities, here are six strategies to boost mutual respect at work:
1. Get to Know One Another
Sometimes, people are disrespectful out of carelessness or ignorance.
To counter this, encourage your people to take an interest in one another's beliefs, behaviors and preferences. The Perceptual Positions technique is a good way to boost empathy and explore different points of view. And the Johari Window is a powerful tool for boosting self-awareness and trust in teams.
You could also offer coaching in active listening and mindful listening skills to improve communication and understanding. But remember that it's hard to see the whole picture of something if it’s not your own personal experience.
Perhaps there are particular social events that would allow helpful conversations to take place, or ways to let people share aspects of their personal or cultural lives. However, these will only work if there's an atmosphere of trust, and if no one feels pressure to reveal or explain more than they want to.
2. Learn About Your Differences
Some differences are harder to understand than others, particularly those rooted in unfamiliar cultures. And sometimes, when you start to get to know people, you find yourself with bigger questions than before – and new areas of potential conflict.
So it's a good idea to get expert advice as you explore the differences in your organization. A Forbes report listed 10 of the most trusted specialists in this field.  And professional bodies such as The Society for Diversity in the U.S., and Inclusive Employers in the U.K., can support you to have respectful and meaningful discussions about diversity.
In addition, a tool such as The Seven Dimensions of Culture can help you to understand different cultures' preferences and values.
Many organizations use Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to improve awareness of specific aspects of diversity. Before commenting on the Black Lives Matter agenda, for example, or participating in a Pride event, a company could consult with the appropriate ERGs to ensure that its approach was appropriate, expressed well, and supported from within the organization.
3. Promote Good Manners
Good manners are clear markers of your respect for someone. They show that you want them to feel respected, and that you've made an effort to do so.
When possible, take time to research the rules of etiquette that apply in particular context. Our article Avoiding Cross-Cultural Faux Pas explains some useful steps to take, particularly when you're working with people in different countries. You may still make mistakes, but your efforts to be respectful will usually reassure others about your good intent.
Whenever you're in any doubt, asking other people how they'd like to be treated is the most respectful thing to do.
Author Rosanne Thomas says that respecting other people's preferences is a step up from the "Golden Rule" (to treat others as we would wish to be treated). In our Expert Interview, she calls it the Platinum Rule: showing people respect by finding out how they want to be treated.
4. Let People Work Differently
Not everyone works in the same way. In a culture of mutual respect, managers should consider encouraging their people to find the approach that suits them best – and which doesn't negatively impact your team and organization's goals and objectives.
Use psychometric tests like the DiSC Model®, Myers-Briggs® Personality Testing, and the Big Five Personality Traits Model to help your team members to appreciate their own working styles, and recognize other people's. This can help them to identify strengths, negotiate any potential conflicts, and cooperate more effectively.
5. Maintain Boundaries
Not everything is appropriate to share with co-workers, and not all communication is right for work. Political campaigning, for example, or trying to argue down others' views, can create unnecessary tensions, and put mutual respect at risk.
It's important to know where the boundaries lie between sharing your experiences and views, on one hand, and being confrontational or causing embarrassment on the other. Think carefully about what's useful or necessary to share at work, and be alert to any particularly sensitive topics.
Maintaining clear personal boundaries also helps you to know if someone is encroaching on your rights. In addition, it helps you to see when you overstep the mark with others and risk upsetting or disrespecting them.
Our article How to Handle a Personal Relationship at Work has further advice on setting boundaries and maintaining high standards of behavior among your team. It also explains the importance of consent within relationships, to further strengthen a culture of respect – and to stay on the right side of the law.
6. Be a Role Model for Respect
A study by Georgetown University – involving around 20,000 employees worldwide – named respect as the single most important aspect of leadership. 
Diverse teams often require a more active, "involved" management style, because of the wider scale of knowledge, experience and opinion within such teams.
As a leader, let people know that it's important to challenge behavior that they feel is unacceptable, and that it's OK to be assertive (but not aggressive) in doing so. Our article Managing Emotion in Your Team has advice for maintaining respect even when feelings are running high.
Whatever level you're at, your words and actions can influence others, so it's important to lead by example. Work on your self-awareness and manage your own biases, so that you don't unintentionally favor people who you feel a close affinity with.
Always model the accepting, inclusive, welcoming attitudes and behaviors that you want to see other people adopt.
Mutual respect is about everyone being valued for who they are and what they bring to the table. It involves seeing people's unique contributions, recognizing and understanding differences, and celebrating diversity – but also capitalizing on common ground.
A mutual respect culture begins with a zero-tolerance approach to disrespect – particularly toward discrimination.
Help people to get to know one another and to become more informed about their differences.
Promote good manners, respect how people want to be treated, and let them work in ways that they're comfortable with whenever possible.
Use clear boundaries to be professional, guard people's rights, and realize when others might experience disrespect.
Model the behavior you want to see, and lead others to take a positive and principled stance toward respect for all.
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