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Respect—it’s the one thing that can transform your company culture

October 13, 2021, 3:50 PM UTC

Hi everyone, it’s Emily. Happy Wednesday! Today I want to talk about a fundamental human need. Let’s go!

I recently spoke to a woman who works in TV news in New York. She wanted to move up, to advance, but felt like no one was taking her seriously. A last straw: She interviewed for an internal promotion. It was over Zoom. Still, she dressed nicely, put on makeup and prepared for a conversation.

The guy doing the interview? He showed up late, she said. Worse. “He did it in a white T-shirt, holding his phone,” she told me. “I’m, like, looking up his nose. It didn’t feel like I was going to be taken seriously.” She never even heard back from him, or anyone else, about the role.

This week’s newsletter is about respect. For workers, there is essentially nothing more crucial. Whether or not an employee feels respected is the most important measure of a company’s culture, according to an analysis of 1.4 million Glassdoor reviews written up last month in MIT Sloan Management Review. Workers want to be taken seriously and treated with “consideration, courtesy and dignity,” write Donald Sull and Charles Sull, the father and son cofounders of CultureX, an AI startup focused on the workplace.

No other measure—flexible schedules, workload, friendly colleagues—was more indicative of whether or not a worker approved of his employer’s culture.

“It’s so fundamental,” Donald Sull, who is also a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, told me by phone last week. “Employees rightly walk in the door expecting to be respected—if that’s violated it elicits a strong negative reaction and it’s universal.”

Culture is a squishy word executives like to use when talking about their companies. Personally, I thought it was sort of a bland PR pap, meaningless slogans that look good in corporate mission statements and have little correlation to real life. But company culture is a real thing. And it’s not about slogans or even benefits, necessarily.

For their research, the Sulls were able to break down what culture actually means to workers. Using AI technology through their startup, CultureX, they analyzed data from Glassdoor, where workers are asked to rate their employers’ culture on a scale of 1 to 5. The Sulls looked at those numbers and lined them up with the language that workers use in their reviews. (The research is part of a bigger project, you can see company rankings across a range of measures on their website.)

Sull said he was surprised that respect turned out to be such a powerful predictor of whether or not a company’s culture scored well. You can dig into individual company ratings, and sort by industry, here. A look at the tech giants, for example, shows that Netflix (known for its very specific culture of empowering employees) ranks very high for respect while Amazon and Apple score less well.

Of course, Amazon and Apple have large hourly workforces who work in different conditions from their desk-bound employees. Front-line workers, who toil for far lower pay under more constraints than professional white-collar workers, were far more likely to report they weren’t respected at work, according to Sull’s research. Some measure of respect simply comes with a higher paycheck.

Front-line workers face all kinds of levels of disrespect. Delivery drivers who urinate in bottles to keep up with the pace of work. Workers at a poultry packing plant forced to work the line during a COVID outbreak. Retail workers forced to jump multiple hoops to gain approval for sick leave.

After many years of reporting on sexual discrimination in the workplace, I already intuitively understood the importance of respect; though never gave it much specific thought. Many times, when a woman’s been sexually harassed, her biggest frustration isn’t with the perpetrator, it’s over what happened next: How her complaint was handled. Companies mess this up a lot.

Women are sometimes told an egregious incident isn’t actually that bad—“it’s just how he is.” Or they’re told, nothing. HR takes your report, and you never learn what happened. Worse, there’s retaliation—in pay or promotions or just in the air. You’re not treated the same. Bottom line: complaints aren’t treated with respect.

Of course, respect comes across in many other ways. Like with the employee working in TV news, who asked for more responsibility and was ignored. Maybe, you’re told a deadline is more important than a family emergency.

Companies where workers feel respected also tend to be more successful, at least according to some research. But Sull points out that the most fundamental argument for respecting your workers is ethical. “Human dignity is fundamental.”

As for our TV news employee, she recently left her company and found a new job elsewhere. She said she already feels valued.

Emily Peck

Visit Fortune’SmarterWorking Hub. And read more here:

1 Quote, 1 Story, 1 Number

“I can’t walk away. I can’t rest.” — Andrew Russo, the 87-year-old who allegedly heads up the Colombo crime family, explaining why he can’t retire or stop micro-managing his team in the Wall Street Journal.

An anonymous worker details what it was like to work remotely for McKinsey during the pandemic. The situation included 2 a.m. Zoom calls. Just no. (Mother Jones)


The number of women who left the workforce in September, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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