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Productivity

Want employee engagement? Show them respect

Michael Baker
Smarter Writer

Michael Baker is a retail consultant and vice-chair of the ICSC's Asia-Pacific Research Council

Michael Baker
Smarter Writer

Michael Baker is a retail consultant and vice-chair of the ICSC's Asia-Pacific Research Council

Employees who are engaged and committed are crucial to the success of a business. Yet for many business leaders, their own incivility could be the biggest obstacle to nurturing that engagement. Here’s the best thing you can do for your employees to ensure their happiness, and consequently grow a happy and healthy business.

Sign with children drawn on it

Respect is clearly correlated with employee engagement

Study author Christine Porath says that "without respect, even if people want to perform well, they can't". Using the survey data and other research, she quantified the impacts of discourtesy on work performance. It seems you don’t even have to be directly on the receiving end of disrespect for it to have an adverse effect on your work: "Just witnessing incivility caused outcomes to falter by nearly half", she reports.

The flipside – showing respect to employees on a regular basis – resulted in a clear increase in employee engagement, greater job satisfaction and greater likelihood of staying with the employer. The positive correlations were not small, rather, they were strikingly large.

Be polite on the shop floor

These results are particularly relevant to consumer-facing businesses like retail, where negative employee performance as a result of incivility can manifest itself in ugly ways. Sales staff are not likely to engage with customers, close sales and create a positive in-store shopping experience if they are victims of disrespectful behaviour from above.

Retailers can have a particularly hard time with this issue because many employees are seasonal, part-time or temporary, meaning that they are more likely to be treated, and, in turn, behave like, replaceable commodities, or cogs in the machine. In Australia, retailers have depended too heavily on good pay and conditions – often government-mandated – to ensure that the morale and performance of their employees are up to snuff. These are turning out to be not enough.

Without respect, even if people want to perform well, they can't.

Christine Porath, Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business

Bad attitude is infectious

One of the worst aspects of incivility in the workplace is that it is apt to be contagious – employees get the message that this is the way they are supposed to behave and proceed to do the same to others, not just to their colleagues but to their customers as well.

This can be deadly to a brand because the only 'ambassadors' a brand has are its own employees. If the employees are not in a mental state to promote the brand, then look out.

Retail employees face a potential double whammy because in many instances respect is not forthcoming from the customers themselves, who too often carry in their minds negative stereotypes of sales assistants. It’s a problem that feeds on itself.

Some company executives may have trouble with the HBR study because it conveys the impression that respect is an automatic entitlement that doesn’t need to be earned by the employees themselves. They could plausibly argue that we live in an entitlement culture where many employees believe they should get respect, high pay and good working conditions just for showing up – and that just isn’t fair.

How to create a respectful organisation

Whether employees are automatically entitled to respect or have to earn it, Porath sees several important steps that company leadership can take to remedy the problems uncovered by the HBR study:

  1. Promote a culture of respect within the firm. Begin with the hiring process. This means making comprehensive reference checks on people to ensure they have a good record for civility in other workplaces.
  2. Be role models for lower-level employees. The behaviour of company leaders is keenly discerned at all levels within the organisation, so setting a good example is important for establishing the right tone.
  3. Incorporate metrics for respectful behaviour into performance evaluation and reviews. If promotions, perks and pay rises are partly dependent on being respectful, standards should rise.
  4. Correct uncivil behaviour when it occurs. Don't turn a blind eye to it and let it become the company culture.

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