The ethics of respect

by Mary-Jane Ncube | Published on 25 April 2018 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter

Respect is a topical issue for people of all ages and in all spheres. Whether it is at preschool, in the home or workplace, we all have an innate expectation that we are owed respect by those around us. This is especially true of the people whose opinions we value most, such as our partners, our children, our co-workers and our peers.

Often, we rely on the way these important people treat us to affirm our own self-worth, because earning their respect is like receiving confirmation of the value we attach to ourselves. In fact, we may even begin to value ourselves more, simply because the respect accorded to us by others leads us to see value in ourselves in areas we may not have perceived any before.

People are not always considerate about the way they treat others in daily interactions. It is therefore fair to say that our expectation (to be respected by others) does not flow from what we think we are owed based on how we behave towards others. In other words, it is unlikely that we constantly have in mind a version of the Golden Rule that ‘I have behaved respectfully unto others, therefore they should reciprocate and behave respectfully unto me’. Rather, the expectation is instinctive, driven by a primal sense of entitlement. Irrespective of whether we exercise self-reflection and are aware of how well or poorly we treat others, we automatically expect the next person to see how valuable we are. Many of us are quick to feel disrespected by others, despite our own callous, indifferent or disrespectful attitudes towards them. These attitudes could be manifested in words, in actions or omissions; they could be directly expressed or subtly implied. Regardless of how the negative impression has been made, it is the fact that it has, that matters: the recipient feels disrespected, which directly impacts their sense of worth. And we are often none the wiser.


“R. E. S. P. E. C. T …. All I’m asking is for a little respect when I get home, find out what it means to

me (just a little bit, just a little bit).” - Aretha Franklin, 1967

These unfortunate dynamics play out in the context of the workplace with devastating effects. In my experience, there are many work environments where people feel that they are not being respected as individuals, units, or even as whole industries. It can be argued, for example, that strikes are a form of protestation by whole industries over what they perceive as disrespect for their contribution to society.

 At its worst, this disrespect in the workplace can lead to toxic working environments, where people escalate from simply disrespecting co-workers at a personal level, to disrespecting their professional outputs and contributions. This affects productivity, of course, and has a significant impact on the ethical culture of the organisation. A work environment characterised by disrespect – whether among (or between) senior managers, middle managers, supervisors, or general employees – carries the risk of undermining an organisation’s reputation and ability to achieve its objectives.  In the course of my career, I have met people who feel so disrespected by their supervisors that they reach a point of total despondency, where they simply do not want to go to work anymore. They lose the will to apply themselves appropriately, because their views are always disparaged in front of peers, they are dressed down in front of subordinates, and they are humiliated in front of clients. In this environment, they reason, it is better to be invisible. The potential ethical risk of extreme levels of disrespect in the workplace is that employees can respond by deliberately sabotaging the goals of the organisation.

Many organisations will argue that they have done everything humanly possible to entrench respect in the organisational culture. They may say that they have upheld respect as one of their sacrosanct values by espousing the need for co-workers to treat each other with respect. Respect as a business value is discussed in team-building sessions, in board and staff meetings, and repeatedly at strategic planning and team-building retreats. Yet, somehow, this does not seem to translate to respectful workspaces. Why?

I do not know the answer, and so I think it is important to ask some further questions: in what ways (besides the ‘standard’ ones mentioned above) should organisations make sure their people take individual responsibility for the way they treat their co-workers so that mutual respect becomes the cornerstone of ethical conduct? How do we monitor and foster mutual respect in organisations? We are often told that ‘respect is earned’, so how does one ‘earn’ respect in the workplace? Is it earned through performance? Job title? Seniority? Annual salary? Should companies set up standards for monitoring respect? Is respect an ethical opportunity and disrespect an ethical risk?

From my professional experience, people seem to think respect is a predicate for ethics. As such, some people argue that it is premature – even hypocritical – to advocate for an ethical culture and ethical behaviour when people do not respect each other. This article is not offering answers. It is merely provoking us to think about the ethics of respect.

Mary Jane Circle 

Mary-Jane Ncube is an Ethics and Anti-Corruption Specialist at The Ethics Institute. She holds a Masters in International Development from the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom.