Do Your Employees Feel Respected?

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Harvard Business School Publishing

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Harvard Business Review

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When you ask workers what matters to them, respect from superiors often tops the list. Yet employees report more disrespectful and uncivil behavior each year. This disconnect happens in large part because leaders have an incomplete understanding of what constitutes workplace respect—and so even well-meaning efforts to provide it often fall short.

The author’s research shows that employees value two distinct types of respect. Owed respect is accorded equally to all members of a work group or organization. It’s signaled by civility and an atmosphere suggesting that every member is inherently valuable. Earned respect recognizes individual employees who display valued qualities or behaviors.

To better understand the two types of respect, the author spent 15 months studying a unique work program for female prison inmates—a context that sharply highlights the differences between a respectful environment and a disrespectful one. At Televerde, a B2B marketing firm, regular displays of owed and earned respect have created an extraordinarily engaged workforce responsible for impressive profitability and growth, and recidivism among Televerde’s inmate employees is 80% lower than the national average.

Although Televerde operates in an unusual context, its employees’ need for respect is universal. The author details seven ways in which leaders and managers can convey owed and earned respect and thus build a workplace that allows employees—and, as a result, their companies—to become the best possible versions of themselves.


Harvard Business Review, Vol. 96, No. 4 (July-August 2018): 62-70. Permalink.