Feeling disrespected at work is now a leading reason that U.S. employees are quitting their jobs, according to the Pew Research Center, following only low pay and lack of opportunity for advancement. This worrisome finding has implications for how leaders and organizations show respect to employees, and it also prompts an important question: What can you, as a coworker, do about it?
As management professors who specialize in research on respect, relationships, and the harassment and mistreatment of marginalized groups at work, we have some ideas about why many people are feeling disrespected at work right now. With these in mind, we offer a series of recommendations for how to help your peers at work feel respected, valued, and important.
Why are people quitting over disrespect?
Disrespect is the denial of someone else’s worth. It directly violates workplace norms of civility and is especially sticky in employees’ minds. Indeed, employees have a far easier time recalling and describing instances of disrespect or injustice than respectful or just treatment.
Respect matters because it signals our worth as an employee and as a person. There are two distinct types of respect at work—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. Cues of owed respect include signals of civility (e.g., supportive employee policies) and work environments that value all members (e.g., receptivity to input). We typically think of owed respect as infinite—everyone can feel respected as a valued member of the workforce.
Cues of earned respect include recognizing performance (e.g., an award, a merit raise) or behavior that goes “above and beyond” (e.g., employee of the week). We typically think of earned respect as finite and allocated based on respect-worthy performance.
Why is disrespect increasingly driving employees to quit their jobs? Three likely reasons are the pandemic’s sorting of occupations into “essential” or “nonessential,” changes to how we interact at work, and sociopolitical events.
First, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a categorization of occupations as “essential” vs. “nonessential,” instantly assigning a societal value to people’s work. For example, grocery store workers were publicly praised for being “essential” to helping society navigate the pandemic, while other employees’ daily efforts were not (e.g., knowledge workers’). The newly introduced designation of essentiality to certain occupations may mean that employees in some occupations are now perceived as inherently more valuable to society than employees in others. This not only changes how we understand our worth, but also amplifies our need to be assured that our skills and work are meaningful, regardless of essentiality or job performance.
Second, how we work has shifted greatly in recent years, and potentially heightened our attention to signals of respect and disrespect. With more workers than ever settling into permanent remote or hybrid work arrangements, there is a tendency to privilege work tasks in ways that make social cues like respect less frequent.
For example, the informal chit-chat that once took place between meetings provided opportunities for spontaneous recognition or feedback among coworkers. When working remotely, this often takes a back seat to the meeting agenda, making it less likely that we will naturally and informally praise our colleagues. Further, when interacting remotely, the subtle respect cues that we all tend to give—a nod, a thumbs up, holding the door open for someone—are all but erased. These changes may heighten our attention to receiving—or being denied—respect.
Third, respect and disrespect cues are not interpreted in isolation but rather against the broader socio-contextual and socio-political environments. In the last two years alone, we have worked through the greatest public health challenge in over a century, sociopolitical mega-threats and unrest, and an increasingly unstable economic landscape. In this context, employees are likely looking to their work environment—where most of us spend a significant amount of our time—to hold space for their beliefs about public health, social justice, and more. Yet the heightened polarization surrounding these socio-environmental jolts might make us unlikely to discuss these issues, or make the work context feel inappropriate for doing so. This potentially signals that the beliefs and values we hold dear are not worthy of validation.
How to build a respect cadence with your coworkers
What specifically should you do to help your coworkers feel respected? In an open-ended survey, we asked 100 employees and 100 managers questions about respect and disrespect, then analyzed the data to identify themes. Their responses were especially insightful when we asked about signals of respect they wish they were receiving but currently are not. Importantly, many of the respect signals that employees wished for did not need to come from a manager; they could be given by peers.
Researchers have studied the notion of “cadence” in work relationships, and it is helpful to think about respect in terms of a foundation of repeated respectful interactions. We feel like we have a positive respect cadence with a coworker when we understand how each of us wants to be valued (e.g., by giving honest feedback) and can predict the ways in which we show that value to each other (e.g., in a timely manner through text). This suggests that being clear with how you want to be valued, and regularly valuing others in ways that they want to be valued, are crucial.
Consistency is especially key for two reasons. First, a cadence requires consistent communication—sporadic or infrequent expressions of respect are unlikely to establish and maintain a beneficial cadence. Second, a foundation of repeated respectful interactions can buffer hurtful interpretations of a potentially disrespectful cue. If you do something that seems disrespectful but your behavior is usually respectful, a colleague is likely to attribute that one instance more generously, and may even feel comfortable following up with you about it.
As you try to show respect frequently and consistently to your coworkers, it is helpful to know what you should respect that will help them feel valued. Here are four things to keep in mind.
1. Respect the value of what your coworkers do. Most knowledge workers’ jobs were classified as “non-essential,” and signs of appreciation have waned for frontline workers initially designated as “essential.” While this classification may feel less salient now, it has become a part of our everyday vernacular. As employees grapple with life “post-pandemic,” now is the time to validate what people do as both individuals and members of teams.
As one employee in our survey said, “Say thank you . . . for what we do.” Also, remind coworkers why their work matters. Consider providing data points, such as testimonials from customers or clients. This gratitude and appreciation can help coworkers recognize the meaningfulness and essentiality of their work.
2. Respect your coworkers’ individual job performance. It is possible that the pandemic created an environment in your company where expressions of owed respect dominated, such that managers expressed gratitude and appreciation for everyone doing the best they could under the circumstances.
In our recent survey, employees expressed their desire to be respected for their individual job performance. 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.
Employees in our survey said they wanted others to “acknowledge the work that has been done, as it is being done.” Let your coworkers know when they do something well, tie the recognition to a specific behavior, and do so promptly after that behavior is displayed.
3. Respect your coworkers’ autonomy. You may not see your coworkers face-to-face as often as you once did. This may be because your coworkers craft their days in ways that serve their work and their home lives best, and it is important that you respect their autonomy to do so.
Employees in our survey described trust as the ultimate sign of respect—“The most important way of being appreciated is being trusted”—and expressed that they want others to “trust that I am working hard.”
Show members of your team that they are worthy of autonomy by trusting that they will get their work done and contribute in ways that work not only for you but also for them. For example, giving a coworker the space to reschedule a meeting with you to pick up their kids from school, and trusting that they will return to the issue in the evening, is a small gesture that could make a big difference in how respected someone feels.
4. Respect your coworkers’ struggles. Even workers with the most flexible jobs can feel dehumanized—that they are merely cogs in an organization’s machine. The seemingly never-ending pandemic concerns, geopolitical tensions and war, mass shootings, racism and racial violence, and legislation that impacts the rights of citizens might lead your coworkers to bring sadness, anger, and anxiety to work.
Employees in our survey said they wanted others to acknowledge that, still, “these are not normal times. There needs to be an appreciation that it can’t be business as usual.” These employees wanted others to respond compassionately and humanize one another rather than “being so by the book and almost like a work robot.”
Embracing a more human-centric approach to work involves listening to others’ voices and recognizing the impact that these events may have on how worthy they feel as both contributing employees and members of humanity more broadly. Doing so can reinforce the positive respect cadence you’ve built and help coworkers feel like your team and organization is psychologically safe.
As a free and abundant resource, respect should be available to all employees. Findings such as the Pew Center’s are concerning. The good news is that small changes to your own behavior toward your coworkers can make a big difference in how respected they feel.