Treat Everyone At Work With Respect

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It’s been a while since I’ve written about career, I think we fired off both barrels during Career Week 2009 last year. However, with the economy recovering and a new jobs bill, I wanted to discuss something that falls under the category of “obvious but clearly not obvious enough.”

You should treat the people that you work with, regardless of where they are in the “hierarchy,” with dignity and respect.

I used to work at a defense contractor that had a bit of an old fashioned corporate mentality. Besides the idea that promotion was mostly by tenure (not always, but frequently), there was a prevailing attitude that the singular goal was completion of the mission and it didn’t matter how many heads you needed to knock to get that done. While I can appreciate the approach, when used sparingly during crunch time, too many people took that approach all the time. Your ability to demand, yell, and beat up other people was seen was an asset. All too often I heard “I don’t care if people like me, they just need to listen to me and do what I say.”

That might have worked for Don Draper on Mad Men, but it doesn’t work today. It may have worked when employees stayed at a company their entire career, but it has stopped being as effective today because of career mobility. In fact, it can have a negative impact on your career. Let me recount a story, told me by my friend Belle (not her real name):

Belle manages a small group in her company and from time to time she needs to make hiring decisions. The other day, she’s flipping through a stack of resumes when she finds a few qualified candidates that she wants to bring in. One of them, we’ll call her Tremaine, used to work with Belle’s friend, Ariel. Belle calls Ariel to ask about Tremaine, her qualifications, her personality, etc. Turns out that Tremaine, while a capable manager, was difficult to work with and quick to look down on people. Tremaine never got a phone call.

(Fans of Disney will probably recognize Belle and Ariel as famous Disney heroines, Tremaine was the wicked stepmother in Cinderella so bonus points if you knew that)

Tremaine’s head-knocking attitude, while effective at the time, didn’t win her any friends and it certainly didn’t win her a phone call for a position she had all the skills on paper. In that particular role, people skills are crucial in motivating people to do good work. Tremaine’s approach was not going to work in that environment.

It’s just one data point but I think it illustrates a broader idea – that it doesn’t make sense to treat people poorly.

{ 26 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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26 Responses to “Treat Everyone At Work With Respect”

  1. Hannah says:

    I have to disagree with that entire scenario.

    It’s very unprofessional of Belle to be asking her friends for hiring advice. If Ariel was simply a professional contact who could act as a reference for Tremaine, that would be one thing. But Belle shouldn’t deny a strong applicant a phone call simply because a personal friend doesn’t like her personality.

    • ziglet19 says:

      The industry I work in is very small, and it is very common for people from different companies/agencies to communicate this way. I don’t think it is at all unprofessional for someone to contact other people they know who can provide useful feedback.

      • Martha says:

        I agree with ziglet19, in most small industries it is very common to know someone who has worked with someone else. This can hurt or help you depending on your reputation. Although it may not be the “right” situation (as HR wouldn’t approve) it is still a common situation.

    • Anonymous says:

      People use facebook to make judgements on people. This is a much better way that some random comment or photo posted on a personal blog.

    • Scott says:

      So Belle should waste everyone’s time by interviewing Tremaine, or even worse, hiring Tremaine, only for it to not work out for anyone involved? No thanks…

      As an employer, I think the more information you can get on a prospective employee the better you can make your decision (within the law of course). If a prospective employee has some black mark on their past that they fear will surface and hurt their chances of employment, they should address that issue point blank in a cover letter and explain their situation. If you’ve got secrets you want left buried, then don’t get mad at people who find you unforthcoming when they ask about them.

    • Jim says:

      What makes it unprofessional? It’s a personal friend who works in the same industry and worked at the same company as the prospect? Wouldn’t you try to get as much information as you could about the actual person, rather than rely on interview answers (which are polished anyway) and words on a resume?

      Is it more professional to take everything at face value without doing full due diligence? Is a background check professional (if so, why?)?

      • Hannah says:

        The scenario you gave was not a background check or due diligence, it was gossip. Tremaine was denied an interview even thought she was capable, simply because Belle’s friend did not like her personality. Belle is obviously overvaluing Ariel’s opinion and allowing it to influence her more than a professional contact’s opinion should. How do you think Belle’s boss or HR department would react to the knowledge that she is making hiring decisions based solely on the opinion of a personal friend and former employee, who now works at a competing company in the industry? Not well.

        I’m not saying that the right thing is for Belle to interview Tremaine even though she has made up her mind not to hire her. The right thing would have been not to make up her mind about a candidate based on her friend’s opinion about her personality. The workplace is not a sorority.

  2. zapeta says:

    I think the lesson here is don’t burn any bridges. My experience is that you can get people to both like you and listen to you at work if you approach it in the right way.

    • Harsh says:

      I agree. Never burn bridges. Even if you resign from the company I don’t think it is professional to badmouth people after you leave.

  3. Craig says:

    Great post!

    Despite the obvious legal and ethical issues with Belle’s actions, the fact remains that as our professions become more specialized, the corporate world becomes much smaller and this does happen. With unemployment teetering at 10% (see link) many recruiters are faced with literally hundreds of resumes and only a few open positions— often forcing employers to rely on social capital (or worse Facebook) to turn three-dozen applications into three or four.


  4. Nick says:

    Given that professional references are basically meaningless if provided by the prospective employee, I don’t see any problem using networking to learn more about someone’s work performance.

    • Jim says:

      I agree, let me find three people that I know will say nothing but good things about me… it’s like getting a review of a restaurant by the owner or head chef’s mother!

  5. live green says:

    I always follow this not just at work, but in life. When you treat people with respect, they usually show that same respect back at you. It’s also a good way to form contacts, which are always useful in today’s work environment.

  6. I’ve work on the same team for 13 years, and have been a team coordinator for a bit more than half that time.

    Something that comes up every single year in my review is the fact that our weekly team meetings are pleasant. People generally wait their turn to speak, and disagreement are generally civil.

    It’s rare that a meeting occurs without at least a few joking comments being made – but everyone takes turns being the target of the jokes. Everyone has a sense of humor and treats everyone else with respect.

    The result? A very productive team with very little turnover. If a team member tells the team about a problem they are having, the reaction from the rest of the team isn’t the skewer this person, but to ask what they can do to help.

    • Shirley says:

      This must be a very productive team that truly understands the meaning of TEAMWORK. These people would be a pleasure to work with and sound as if they all have a common goal.

      • There’s a reason why I’ve stuck with the team for 13 years 🙂 It’s definitely a great group of people who focus on the big picture.

        Another team that we interact with has almost constant turnover. I’ve trained maybe a half dozen of their people on their piece of code that interacts with my system (although this is really a task that the person on their team should do before transitioning to a new duty).

  7. freeby50 says:

    I don’t see how what Belle did what is ‘unprofessional’ or possibly have ‘legal’ or ‘ethical’ issues.

    I don’t see how getting a reference from a trusted peer / friend is wrong in anyway. And I don’t see why anyone should be required to interview someone who gets a bad reference. This isn’t about people playing favorites but about actual legitimate work place problems.

    • Shirley says:

      I agree with you, however I do believe that more than just the one opinion should be sought since this decision will decide whether or not to even interview a well qualified person.

      • Jim says:

        In this situation I think there were several well qualified candidates and so she was using this extra data point to filter out the list even more.

  8. Alan says:

    “while a capable manager, was difficult to work with and quick to look down on people.”

    That’s the key sentence…it was never a instant “oh I don’t like her” or anything personal. It was a reflection of how tremaine operates in a management position.

    Employee morale is very important, and if you have a manager that looks down on their employees, no body wins.

  9. Glenn Lasher says:

    There’s another level to it as well.

    In 1997, I was laid off. I found a new job and moved on.

    Some five or six months later, I heard that my old boss was out of a job, also. I had heard that my new employer was looking for someone of his qualifications, and I put the two together.

    Did I get a finder’s fee? No. What I did get was a new boss who, to paraphrase The Who, was the same as the old boss, but in a good way. I enjoyed working for him, both times, and was happy to help him out.

    He later helped me out as well by giving me a heads up that the company was getting ready to collapse, giving me time to get into a new one.

    • There’s a member of my team who was previously an external with another company. She had worked on my team for several years. She decided to go a different direction with her career.

      Later, she was attempting to get a position with the company (as an internal employee). What commenced was a full court press with several team members imploring the boss to somehow find a way to add her to the team.

      Good employees (or bosses) can be hard to find. When you find on, hang on tight.

  10. How about being courteous with everyone just because it’s the right thing to do?
    Granted, some people are, as my dad would say, gaping anal apertures. Doesn’t mean you should be a jerk in return.
    You don’t have to be everyone’s buddy. But you should at least be civil, or what Miss Manners would call “coldly correct.”
    Also: I’ve heard the saying “Be nice to the people you meet on the way up, because you might encounter them again on the way back down.” Something to consider.

  11. CreditShout says:

    I am so torn on whether it is more important to be effective when it comes to getting the job done, or more important to network and consider other opinions. Though, as an employee, you will probably prefer the boss that considers your viewpoints and is more approachable. Overall, the company will do better if your boss is able to make tough decisions in order to get tasks done proficiently, but quickly. I think it’s important to have balance, and be courteous to everyone, but overall I am more concerned about tasks than people’s feelings.

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