Workplace Respect Takes a Hit as the World Is Turned Upside Down

Culture leaders need to intentionally strengthen workplace norms of behavior during this crisis to create a strong rudder that counterbalances the negative dynamics so they can proactively increase the health and respect within the workplace.

What happens to company culture when the world turns upside down? Norms of behavior weaken, allowing negative employee dynamics free reign and more negative impact on peoples’ behavior. 

In less than five months, we’ve had to navigate a pandemic, an economic free-fall ,and social unrest as people of all backgrounds stand up for Black Lives Matter. We are living in turbulent times—similar to the 1920s—with big changes in the economy, demographics, social values, and public health.

When life is uncertain, our established norms of behavior erode, and it’s those established norms of behavior that are the rudder and stabilizing force that help create a respectful workplace culture. Regardless of power dynamics, in-group/out-group tendencies, unconscious biases, or social intelligence, our established norms of behavior dictate how we show up at a work meeting, communicate with each other, and/or treat each other.  When those behavioral norms erode due to turbulence, anxiety, and an over-reliance on digital communication (as opposed to in-person communication), then the less healthy dynamics such as unconscious bias or in-group/out-group tendencies have no counterbalance and are more pervasive in affecting employees’ interactions with each other.

In fact, this situation is happening as illustrated by the employee sentiment data in our courses where we ask people about co-worker and team behavior:

There was a 10 percent drop in people saying behavior is governed by well-understood norms of behavior.

Weakened established norms of behavior is like a road without the guiding traffic lines to keep everyone on track. Without the visible traffic lines (or norms of behavior), you get a wider variance in behavior. At the workplace, that looks like a wider variance in negative consequences from power dynamics, in-group/out-group tendencies, and unconscious bias.

I believe respect can be mapped back to a few essential dynamics in the workplace culture. And that with rigorous measurement and training, the bad outcomes can be reduced—which is more critical now than ever before. 

Workplace dynamics are under more outside influence than at any time in recent history, so it’s imperative to understand that every individual has been impacted in some way by the upheaval over the recent months. “Business as usual” is no longer an option. Professionally, many now are working from home for the first time, which has required major adaptations by both employers and employees. Social, political, and economic issues, alongside an out-of-control pandemic, are redefining our nation, as well our individual response to them. Tumultuous times can’t be stopped at the workplace border. Uncertainty is a powerful emotion, so as you might expect, since mid-March, we’ve seen those negative dynamics have more impact on employee behavior.

In a comparison of responses collected from more than 100,000 employees at 145 companies prior to March 15 (and presented in the Emtrain Workplace Culture Report 2020) to more than 20,000 anonymous responses collected from after March 15, Emtrain found:

  • A 15 percent drop in the likelihood that employees would say, “No,” to an inappropriate request from a manager 
  • A 7 percent increase in people having to minimize their heritage or personal identity to fit in at work
  • 7 percent fewer employees reporting “strong and respectful relationships” between age groups
  • A 9 percent decrease in employees who say their workplace culture is “healthy” in the area of harassment

Notably, the drop in well-established norms allows negative dynamics more impact on behavior, and the result is a 9 percent drop in employees rating their culture as “healthy” when it comes to harassment.


You may be wondering how we can counteract the decline in respect as we continue to weather the pandemic and economic turbulence. The single best thing culture leaders can do is to work on actively developing and bolstering their norms of workplace behavior while the world is turned upside down. That means laying out clear guidelines for:

  • Communication (when is it digital and when is it through video or in-person with social distance?)
  • Meetings (a system for participation that allows everyone to be heard)
  • Power dynamics (remind leaders and managers that their words and actions carry more weight and impact than individual contributors)
  • Making decisions (intentionally create a business norm about how you expect employees to make decisions and who has input in certain decisions)
  • De-escalating/resolving conflict (intentionally create a process employees can use on their own to resolve the inevitable disputes that occur

By intentionally strengthening workplace norms of behavior during this crisis, you’ll create a strong rudder that counterbalances and minimizes the negative dynamics so you can proactively increase the health and respect within your workplace.

Emtrain founder and CEO Janine Yancey is a pioneer and visionary in healthy workplace culture, including online education in harassment, ethics, and Diversity & Inclusion. A former partner with an employment law firm whose clients included such Silicon Valley giants as Google and Intuit, she founded Emtrain in 2006. The boot-strapped startup began by delivering engaging online sexual harassment and workplace compliance training and recently evolved into an artificial intelligence (AI) platform that provides powerful data and analytics to identify toxic workplace issues in real-time.

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