Leadership   //   November 11, 2022  ■  4 min read

With anxiety high, can business leaders maintain a respectful workplace?

Business leaders find themselves navigating a variety of workforce challenges, from persuading reluctant employees to return to the office to executing layoffs in the face of an economic downturn.

As pressure in the workplace grows, only half of executives are completely confident that their companies can maintain a respectful working environment, according to PwC’s recent Pulse survey, based on feedback from 657 executives in the U.S. in mid-October.

With management favoring on-site employees over remote ones for advancement and compensation, the result can be “a tense work environment,” the report said. “Executives who proactively defuse tension and address this head on can help foster trust with employees, which is critical for companies to realize their overall business goals.”

Social platforms Twitter and Meta have dominated lay-off news lately, and had inevitable knock-on effects to both companies’ workplace culture. And with more CEOs eyeing layoffs, company culture is further endangered, which is why it is essential that businesses handle cuts with care. “No reduction in force can escape a negative impact on culture,” said Emily Chipman, executive coach and principal consultant at Rusman Consulting Solutions in Salt Lake City. “The best thing you can do to maintain a culture of respect is be as gracious and generous as possible to those who are leaving. Those who remain feel guilt. Those who leave can be shocked and devastated.”

In the event of layoffs, management may want to use mental health experts for support, added Chipman.

When Chipman herself was subject to downsizing in the past, she related, the blow was softened by the way management handled the transaction, speaking openly and honestly about their decisions and offering support to those who were affected.

How does management foster a workplace of respect with so much anxiety in the air?

“We believe that the atmosphere of our office can make or break our company’s efficiency,” said Stacey Kane, business development lead at the U.K. e-commerce site EasyMerchant. “When our employees believe their contributions are valued and respected, they are more invested in our organization’s overall success. However, if there is a lack of mutual respect in the workplace, productivity suffers and it is more difficult to retain good employees.”

Kane said her company has several policies in place to ensure a respectful work environment. They include bi-monthly meetings that provide a safe space for employees to unload about their concerns and discuss the best way forward. A standard code of ethics makes it clear what is expected of all workers, including management. Employees who excel in their jobs are publicly recognized, as those who are struggling are provided support. Meanwhile, a dedicated individual in the HR department serves as counselor, someone with whom employees can speak freely about their challenges and concerns. 

Significantly, the C-suite strives to set a good example for employees. “Respect begets respect,” Kane said. “If we want a respectful workplace, the practices must start with the managers.”

“Establishing a respectful workplace is no easy task by any means,” said Joshua Rich, president and CEO of Bullseye Locations, a New Jersey-based location-based marketing service. While conflicts may be unavoidable, there need to be boundaries, he added.

Codes of conduct ensure “basic levels of respect” remain intact, he suggested, with certain aspects of the workplace made non-negotiable. For example, employees could be limited in the amount of overtime they are allowed to work, while downtime is valued and respected so team members can maintain work-life balance. “Where things get complicated are when redundancies are carried out and the workers made redundant have close ties to those still at work,” Rich said. “These can create situations where employees are biased against certain managers and favor others.”

“When we feel valued and respected, we feel seen and heard and that our contributions matter,” said Liz Pavese, director of behavioral sciences and advisory at CoachHub, a talent development platform. “When people feel that they are in a respectful environment, they can thrive. Respect enhances collaboration, reduces stress, is a driver of engagement and is core to having a sense of belonging.”

Everyone plays a role in maintaining a respectful workplace, as Pavese sees it — “and certainly, leaders play a crucial part as culture creators and reinforcers.”