It’s easy to say we should never engage in sexual harassment and should always act respectfully, but that’s overly simplistic. There isn’t one clear-cut, objective standard for sexual harassment or respect—both concepts involve subjective criteria.

One person’s compliment is another person’s harassment. Plus, what does respect look like when we’re stressed and facing a big deadline? Or, when we are out of the office having fun with co-workers? These are concepts that depend on context and the perspectives of those involved.

Is Respect Knowledge, or Is It A Learned Skill?

People approach sexual harassment prevention like it’s a body of knowledge to read and memorize. You might think you can teach people about sexual harassment by discussing legal standards and policies, where employees can understand the rules, acquire the knowledge and verify they won’t ever engage in it. But showing respect and treating people in a professional manner is a skill—just like showing good manners is a skill. It’s something you must practice over and over again. Treating respect as a skill that requires practice is a foundational element to our sexual harassment training approach.

Create a Shared Language of Respect

Before you can start building your respect skill, you need to have a shared language and common assessment of behaviors. Without this, when respect issues arise, conversations become emotional and can quickly escalate. We developed The Workplace Color Spectrum® as a tool to do just that. The Workplace Color Spectrum® describes conduct as existing on a spectrum that ranges from respectful to toxic.

Ensuring our actions are on the respectful end of the Workplace Color Spectrum® takes intention, patience, and lots of practice to successfully navigate different types of situations and different people with different points of view.

No matter how good of a person we may be, our first impulse or reaction isn’t always to be patient, widen our lens, and switch perspectives. Learning how to do that is really a new work skill—a “workplace respect” skill.

How to Develop Our Workplace Respect Skill

There are four key ways you can start to develop and hone your workplace respect skills.

We must think about whether there’s a power imbalance between co-workers. Why? Because the more powerful person often forgets that the other person is vulnerable.

How many times have you heard an executive say, “well, [the offended person] could’ve refused.” Spoiler alert: the person probably didn’t feel comfortable refusing. The many stories in the press lately, unfortunately, illustrate this fact all too well. To develop our respect skills, we have to consciously switch our perspective to see a situation from a co-worker’s view, and think about the possible impact of our actions and comments to those around us.

We check to see if tribalism is at play. Tribalism—behavior and attitudes that arise from loyalty to one’s own social group—is human. We’re all guilty of it at times, but it very quickly creates barriers and undermines cultural health. There are many tribes:

  • liberal v. conservative
  • men v. women
  • citizen v. immigrant

.. you get it. It’s a tribal dynamic that creates conflict for anyone who’s not “in the tribe.” In the workplace, a culture of respect grows when we treat each other as members of the one workplace tribe.

We identify the social intelligence of the people around us. Let’s face it. Some people are less aware of situations and context than others. Unfortunately, folks who have lower social intelligence often struggle to find the right thing to say in a given situation and can inadvertently put their foot in their mouth—causing conflict.

We assess the strength or weakness of the workplace culture.

Some organizations have pretty clear expectations about behavior—reinforced through the actions and comments of senior leaders. Other organizations are less intentional and allow peoples’ actions—including disrespectful conduct—to become the workplace culture.

In the organizations with a weaker workplace culture, there’s no “true north” or common values that guide everyone’s behavior. This is why those environments are more likely to have respect issues.

It Takes Practice

The important thing to understand about the four steps outlined here is this is not a one-and-done process. These are steps we need to take every day, as part of our interactions with each other in the workplace, to build our respect skill as part of a commitment to cultural competency. The good news, however, is these behaviors become reflexive over time, the more we do them.

Lastly, each and every one of us has a duty to practice our workplace respect skill, independent of what our employer may or may not provide us to comply with legal regulations. And the tools for developing this skill are a core component of our sexual harassment prevention training program.

Sexual Harassment Prevention Resources

Want to learn more about developing your workplace respect skill and preventing sexual harassment? Check out these sexual harassment prevention resources:

Ready to take the next step? Preview our Preventing Sexual Harassment Course.