Dignity, Respect, and the Bottom Line


In United Airlines’ pre-flight welcome video, President Jeff Smisek, announces that United’s employees and customers are “treated with dignity and respect.” “Treat others as you want to be treated,” he says. While I have no insight into United’s culture beyond the smiling faces ensuring that my seatbelt is fastened and my Blackberry is turned off, as an executive recruiter I’ve learned a lot about how company cultures can impact the business. Indeed, a company’s culture can pull people in and keep them around for years or it can compel them to race for the door at the first opportunity.

Why do executives move?

Often, executives move to satisfy intrinsic motivators such as achievement, recognition, and responsibility, as noted in this Harvard Business Review article. Interestingly, increased compensation is not as significant a motivator as you might think. More often, however, executives move for more intangible reasons. They may call it strategy, philosophy or chemistry but, many times, it boils down to an incompatible corporate culture. This is consistent with our experience, too. One of the primary reasons people return calls from executive recruiters is because the corporate culture where they work is not affirming or productive. It may even be destructive to the individual on a personal or a professional level. In essence they are working in a culture that does not allow them, or possibly anyone else, dignity and respect.

But how do you create a culture of dignity and respect?

Well, at one level, you can’t just create a culture since broadly speaking, corporate cultures are complex and develop over time as a set of learned and shared assumptions that yield predictable behaviors – behaviors that are typically based on how employees think they should act and how they believe they will be rewarded.  Thus, things must change over time.  Change can and should start at the top, but it must also spread throughout an organization to have any lasting impact.

Like most companies, our firm culture has developed over our 30 year history, and not without making our share of management mistakes.  But through those mistakes, and applying the lessons learned, we’ve tried to create a culture of dignity and respect that engages our employees for the long term. We learned that when employees are happy, engaged and valued, you are on your way to creating a culture that hopefully reduces turnover and avoids considerable replacement expense. (One client estimates replacement costs of roughly 70% of the position’s annual salary when factoring in recruiting fees, training, and the impact on others having to pick up the slack in the interim.)

Here are some tips to keep you from making employees feel insignificant and undervalued, whether they are in the board room or the file room.

1. Take it outside or, rather, inside. Save criticisms for a private meeting instead of in the hallway in front of others. Embarrassment just creates resentment.

2. “Did you really say that?” We’ve all heard, “There’s no such thing as a dumb question.” If that’s true, then there is certainly no need for rolling eyes or knowing smirks across the room. (However, asking the same question more than once is kind of stupid.)

3. Watch out for karma. Reserve negative comments about others for management meetings where your input can make the business or culture better. People are smart enough to know that while they may be your audience one day, they are likely to be your target the next. And the hyper colleague you dish about this year could be your manager next year.

4. Save the RED marker. Instead of using red ink to scrawl editorial criticisms on a document, try a face to face meeting to talk about the good things you see in the document.  Then refer them to Strunk & White’s Elements of Style or give them writing tools to help them improve. The personal touch always works better than receiving a document that makes them feel like they just got a big fat “F” from the teacher. Positive learning is always more effective (and life-long) than a kick in the gut.

5. Treat your colleagues like your clients. It is always surprising how quickly we return our clients’  or customers' calls, as if our life depended on it, but it may be days before we get back to our work colleagues. If you promise a colleague an answer or a document, don’t make them come begging for it. You would not want to be treated that way, and not responding to them timely makes them feel invisible at worst and angry at best and maybe even revengeful in the middle. None of the three will help your culture.

6. Keep it down. A raised voice is simply never appropriate. Period.

It’s easy to read these tips and say, “That’s not me,” but even “nice” people can get sucked into these behaviors. And if you assume that these behaviors negatively impact the psyche of your colleagues and their desire to stick around, then in turn the company culture will be impacted and turnover will likely increase. And let’s face it, turnover is expensive. So the moral of the story: Be nice. Save money. And both you and company will be better for it.



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