Accidental disrespect in the workplace

When negativity is so subtle managers often don’t realise it is their fault.
Accidental disrespect in the workplace

To be effective leaders, managers must understand how their attitudes and actions affect the people who work for them.

When managers focus solely on the work product and fail to recognise their role is to bring out the best in others, they may not realise they are demonstrating subtle signs of disrespect toward their staff, according to Derek Bishop, director of Culture Consultancy, a London-based organisation specialising in helping businesses transform their performance through culture change and employee engagement.

As a result, employees may lose trust or they may stop respecting their managers’ ability to lead.

“They may have a complete blind spot around their treatment of employees because it is unintentional, and they may not be aware of the impact they are having on people,” Bishop said.

Here are some ways managers may disrespect and undermine employees without realising they are doing so.

Projecting subtle signs. Sometimes the signs of disrespect are so subtle that employees themselves may not realise what is going on, according to Bishop. Things like short or aggressively worded emails or messages may be indications that something is not right. “We all live in a fast-paced world, and sometimes our interactions get shorter and blunter or more aggressive in style, and this can be a behaviour that might make you think something seems wrong,” he said.

Demonstrating lack of trust. “One of the biggest ways managers disrespect employees is by not trusting them,” said Philip Palaveev, CEO of The Ensemble Practice in Seattle, Washington, a consultancy that helps financial advisers build sustainable ensemble practices. “Managers demonstrate mistrust when they don’t allow their staff to be alone with clients or work one-on-one with them, or when they second-guess their employees’ decisions and disrespect their skill and judgement,” he said.

Excluding employees from conversations. In team meetings, managers might demonstrate they are being dismissive of individuals or cutting them out of the conversation by turning away from them. “This dismissive behaviour can also be about excluding an individual from discussions about projects or from general conversations, and that can be quite disrespectful,” Bishop said.

Suggesting employees are not entrepreneurial. Palaveev has worked with managers who claim their teams don’t display an entrepreneurial spirit and that they are only on the job to earn a paycheque. Most teams see this attitude as demeaning and disrespectful. “Just because the employees aren’t out to start their own business and attract new clients does not mean they do not have initiative, ideas, and the desire for growth,” he said. “And it doesn’t mean they are lesser employees because of it.”

Micromanaging employees. When employees are new to a position, managers often micromanage them until their skillsets improve or their performance reaches peak quality. But some managers micromanage when they don’t need to, Bishop said. “If an employee believes they have the competence, and they know they can deliver without having a manager watching over them, then that employee may feel management is being disrespectful by constantly checking up on them,” he said.

Sugar-coating feedback. Corrective feedback needs to be direct, according to Palaveev. “When I am being criticised, I don’t want that criticism to be disguised in backhanded compliments,” he said. When managers try to sugar-coat their feedback, it implies they not only see problems, but they don’t respect their employees’ maturity and ability to understand their mistakes and correct them.

Time to take corrective action

Sometimes disrespectful behaviour goes on so long, it becomes culturally ingrained in a firm, and managers are unaware of it. However, Palaveev believes it is management’s responsibility to correct it. He suggests managers watch each other for signs of disrespect and take corrective action within their own ranks. “Most managers would be horrified to realise they were disrespecting employees, because they don’t want to be disrespectful,” he said. “Awareness can go a long way.”

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in the United States. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Andrew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor at