I recently read an article in the Harvard Business Review, “Do Your Employees Feel Respected?” and it reminded me of a seminar I attended several years ago when I was president of a hospital. The course was about creating and sustaining patient care excellence in hospitals and one of the faculty was Paul O’Neill, former CEO of Alcoa and Treasury Secretary of the United States. I found one of his topics particularly meaningful – respect. He posed three questions that every employee in an organization should be able to answer “yes” to:

  • Am I recognized for what I do?
  • Am I treated every day with dignity and respect?
  • Am I given the things I need to contribute to the organization in a way that brings meaning to my life?

Am I treated every day with dignity and respect? Sounds like a tall order, but an important one. How would my employees answer that question? What were the daily interactions I had with my employees that demonstrated that they had dignity and my respect? Our behaviors as leaders are contagious; both the good ones and the bad ones. I wondered what behaviors I was modeling to other leaders in the organization that demonstrated respect for our employees and their contributions to the enterprise?

A few years later we were in the midst of a major renovation and expansion project in our main hospital building. There was a period of time when the loading dock area was being completely rebuilt. It meant that our dumpsters could not be placed next to the hospital for easy loading of trash and waste. Our management team developed a solution where the dumpsters would be placed in a designated area in an adjacent parking lot and the environmental services staff would roll the bags of trash to the dumpsters in wheeled carts. No doubt we pictured the effort taking place on pleasant sunny days and that it would work out just fine for our employees, and not on cold, blustery nights when the small wheels on the carts could hardly be pushed through the slush. This is what I encountered as I was walking to my car to go home one evening.

Although I didn’t know his name, I recognized the employee as he had been with us for several years. And while I would acknowledge him whenever I passed him in the hallway, and he would say hello in return, I had never engaged him in conversation nor was I ever quite able to get a smile out of him. I approached him this evening and said, “This looks hard!” He said, “Yep, it’s pretty hard.” I responded, “It’s not right. We’ll fix it.” And we did. Our director worked with the impacted staff to figure out together a better solution. While only a few staff members were impacted by the change, word got around to all the employees in environmental services that the hospital president had  recognized that one of their colleagues was dealing with a difficult situation and that the situation was fixed. As leaders we had a good discussion about involving our staff – respecting their ideas and opinions – in decisions that would impact them.

Previous to this encounter, I liked to think that the leaders in my hospital had done a pretty good job of demonstrating respect for our employees in a variety of ways. We talked about it and included it in our leadership expectations. We had formal rounding programs that allowed senior leaders to interact with staff on all three shifts and on weekends, providing information and answering questions. We had “leader apprentice days” where senior leaders would work in various departments in the hospital, assisting in a variety of jobs in housekeeping, food service, patient registration, and clinical areas. We had formal recognition programs that gave our managers and supervisors excellent tools to publicly recognize employees for excellence in patient care and customer service.

In the end, it still comes down to the interactions that every leader has with every employee they encounter, every day. Research shows that employees who feel respected are more satisfied with their jobs and more loyal to their companies. It is through our daily interactions with our employees that we as leaders can most powerfully demonstrate our respect for them.  Sometimes all it takes is some basic empathy and courtesy.

It would have been easy to keep walking to my car that evening; it likely had been a long and stressful day, but I hadn’t experienced the kind of difficulty and frustration that Maurice was having right then. Through that brief encounter we were able to identify and fix an issue that was impacting some of our valuable staff members, and by demonstrating our respect for them and listening to their ideas we ended up with a more engaged and loyal group of employees.  So the next time you’re on the way to your car, take note of what’s going on around you and acknowledge the employees you see.  As with my experience, it could provide that one simple step on the path toward the culture you’ve been striving to achieve.