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What Does Respect Mean in Today’s Diverse Workforce?


February 28, 2020  |  Tracy Cote


In 2020, most of us will be working alongside people from different generations and different cultural backgrounds, and when it comes to creating a respectful culture, the real emerging challenge is reaching a shared understanding of what “respect” means to all of us. Our perspectives flow from our life experiences and when our life experiences vary so widely, what’s respectful for one person is rude to another. So, simply directing a team to “be respectful” is woefully inadequate at arriving at a shared understanding of how to act in the workplace, especially a diverse workplace.

Last month, I attended a sales annual kick-off conference where we had a funny and engaging keynote speaker. Now, a few of his comments were a bit provocative but still funny to my GenX sensibilities. But looking around the room I could see a number of people looking a little uncomfortable. This was a nice reminder as we start off 2020 that what’s harmless and funny for some of us may be uncomfortable and even offensive to others.

Our social norms are always changing, and until we reach some equilibrium, it’s safer to assume we all have different views on certain actions. As an illustration, Emtrain produced a video scene reflecting a discussion between a few women about whether or not it was appropriate to call someone a harasser based on ostensibly consensual sexual relations after an evening at the bar. In their conversation, when asked who acted disrespectfully, there’s a split in opinion. Some believe the younger women exhibited disrespect in the conversation, and some think it was the older woman.

The real issue here is not about who was right or wrong; it’s that the women aren’t listening to each other’s perspectives. They each have a helpful point of view to offer, informed by their respective life experiences. And the African American woman at the end sums up the conflict handily when she observes that each side has a point and they need to hear the other’s perspective — even as she mentally notes that none of the white women have a clue about what kinds of discriminatory issues she has faced.

As the Chief People Officer at Zenefits, I instinctively understand that social norms are in flux, and strong people skills to navigate coworker interactions are necessary now more than ever. So we need to be thoughtful about how we approach our work relationships in order to create a culture of respect. The Golden Rule–treat people how you would want to be treated–is a mantra that many people have spent their whole lives following, but I think it’s time we upgraded to the Platinum Rule–treat people how they want to be treated. And the only way to learn how people want to be treated is to ask them. Have that conversation that starts out with “How can we best support each other in these roles?” and “How should we interact and treat each other?”

Historically, we’ve referred to people skills as “soft skills.” But I think “soft” is misleading because the impact of these skills is not soft – it’s very significant to our workplace culture. Our work-life includes the relationships we have with co-workers and all relationships, whether they’re personal or professional take skill and practice. So instead of soft skills, perhaps we should call them workplace culture skills and effectively articulate why they’re so important to a great culture and employee experience. We need to show how well-developed culture skills correlate with stronger empathy, the ability to read nonverbal clues and drive an increase in respect and productivity.

In fact, Emtrain’s 2020 Culture Report correlates strong workplace culture skills with overall company health. In the Emtrain graph to the right, we see that the healthiest organizations have 60% of their employees feeling confident in their co-workers’ social intelligence while the least healthy company has only 17% of its workforce expressing confidence in their co-workers’ social intelligence. Strong workplace culture skills correlate to greater empathy, respect and overall greater organizational health.

While many people leaders intuitively know this, it’s helpful to actually measure and benchmark employee sentiment for our business leaders. You can get some of this information from an employee survey, but as shown earlier, the core culture issues of respect and harassment cannot simply be addressed through words. We need to anchor a discussion with real-life examples and conversations to ensure we’re all operating from a shared understanding of which actions people perceive as offensive and disrespectful.

Here are 3 strategies for creating a respectful culture in a multi-generational, multi-cultural workforce:

  1. When we work with people from different generations, races, and cultures–there will be different perspectives on who’s “right” and who’s “wrong” and we need to be conscious of this, and very intentional in how we interact with our coworkers.
  2. Being deliberate in our coworker interactions is a workplace culture skill that needs to be developed and practiced.
  3. Focus on developing workplace culture skills; there’s a strong ROI for this as evidenced by Emtrain’s 2020 Culture Report, which illustrated the healthiest companies in terms of performance rank significantly higher in social intelligence.

I recently joined Emtrain’s Founder and CEO Janine Yancey for a live discussion on LinkedIn where we covered all of these topics and more. Check out a recording of our talk here!


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