Respect: The Challenges Instilling It in Your Younger Employees

By Eric Chester

Every relationship at every job needs to start with the employee giving respect rather than setting out to earn it immediately.

As employers and managers, we want our workers to show up with a basic respect for themselves, for the company’s policies and standards, for the rules, for authority, for the goals and objectives of the company, and for their boss, coworkers, and customers.

It’s not that your younger employees don’t value respect. On the contrary, they know all too well what respect is, and, more important, the power it holds. They want respect; they never want to be “dissed” — not by their friends, not by their parents, not by their teachers, and certainly not by their employers.

They live by the creed “He who has the respect has the power,” and to them, respect is a prize that must be won. They crave it and will go to great lengths to get it, but when it comes to giving respect, they are stingy. They won’t automatically respect a person simply because of her age, position, or title. They do not want to yield their power or put someone else in a position of control over them.

In a strange reversal of the traditional dynamic between youth and age, they believe that they are owed respect automatically but that you have to prove yourself worthy of their consideration. In most situations, respect is bartered. “You respect me first,” they seem to be saying, “and then maybe I’ll respect you!”

Teaching them to internalize respect for others, for the task, and for the company — well, that’s not easy, but accomplishing it brings tremendous value to employers and, in the long run, the teens and young people who are learning what it means to work.

You’re special — the rules don’t apply to you!

Because their interests and desires have been catered to by advertisers, media conglomerates, and even parents, teens and young adults are used to being sought after. Focus groups seek their opinions, marketers listen very, very carefully to what they think is cool and what they think is lame, and parents may spoil them rotten. And because their adulthood is being forced on them at younger and younger ages, in some cases they’ve needed more power to cope with an increasingly difficult world.

We promote things like independence, creative thinking, initiative, self-esteem, and “thinking outside the box” at the expense of equally — and sometimes more — important values such as respect.

Bestselling books with titles like First, Break All the Rules and advertising slogans like Outback Steakhouse’s “No Rules, Just Right” perpetuate the notion that rules are a bad thing, and that you need to have the courage to stand up in the face of authority and be completely unconventional if you’re going to succeed, have fun, and get ahead.

So music, movies, books, schools, friends, and even parents — all the major influencers of our lives — combine to hammer home messages that, when summed up, tell us that others must earn our respect, but that they should in turn respect us simply for who we are. Immediately, a double standard invades the way a culture and a generation views itself and its work.

An overdose of self esteem

To further complicate things, as mentioned previously, you are now employing people who were raised on an overdose of self-esteem. Remember, the heart of that message is to esteem the self, and that doesn’t always result in healthy self-confidence or self-respect. When people feel they are above the law, or that a rule is made for someone who isn’t as special as they are, compliance falls by the wayside.

Your ultimate aim, however, should not be to destroy or even minimize self-esteem, but rather to instill a sense of respect for others that supersedes self. This is not something that is done by imposing another rule; it’s done through mentorship. It’s important to bear in mind that while your parents had these conversations with you when your habits were being formed, this is probably new ground for the young people you’re leading.

As a leader, you have the ability to move people to the right, across the horizontal axis, by teaching them what respect is and why it is a non-negotiable in your business. And you move them up the vertical compliance axis when you show them why respect makes them stronger, not weaker, and why demonstrating respect will lead to more responsibility and a greater success for them.

3 critical areas of respect to instill

Let’s examine the three critical areas of respect you want to instill within your workers.

  1. Workers must respect the work contract. Assume nothing. Clarity when it comes to their job-related obligations is not something you can take for granted. Your young workers need to know that they are entering an agreement to perform certain tasks for a certain amount of pay. If there are incentives, make them known. If there are standards, explain them. If there are rules, tell them what they are and why they exist. And, above all, if there are consequences for disrespecting the rules of the workplace, eliminate all ambiguity about them and make certain they are followed to the letter.
  2. Workers must respect their managers and coworkers. When young, front line staffers work with or for someone they don’t like, they often must respect his position of authority and the role he plays within a team or an organization. They should know the procedure for resolving a workplace grievance, but also be made to understand that “tattling” on a supervisor or manager who they believe overstepped his authority is a practice that should only be used in rare and extreme circumstances. They must be taught how to separate personal feelings from workplace behavior, and be encouraged to think their way through tense situations with their bosses rather than spouting back each time they feel like they’ve been unfairly reprimanded or pouting when they feel they’re due a pat on the back. These are not innate behaviors, and a little mentoring in these situations goes a long way.
  3. Workers must respect the line between work and socializing. Your first bosses went out of their way to avoid hiring your friends because they wanted to keep you focused on work, not horsing around on the job. That’s changed. Now employers know that to reduce turnover, it’s important for young employees to work with people they like, so they try to hire a young employee’s close friends. Working with friends makes work enjoyable, pro-vides resources for support, and creates camaraderie and teamwork. But sometimes the nonwork dynamics of those relationships creep into work situations, and that can cause problems, or even chaos. To keep employees within the boundaries of acceptable workplace relationships, clear lines must be drawn, and employees must be made to respect those boundaries.

Respect for the chain of command

The military is a place where young people are made to respect rules and authority. Military leaders create a ­follow-the-orders mentality because respecting the chain of command is a matter of life or death, especially during the chaos and confusion of battle.

In the movie A Few Good Men, a battle-hardened Colonel Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson) oversees the American presence at a dangerous base in Cuba. Jessep, called to testify in a murder trial, is on the witness stand talking about orders when he turns the interrogation around and asks questions to the prosecuting attorney (Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise).

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Col. Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson) is confronted by Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) in the film version of A Few Good Men.

“Ever put your life in another man’s hands, asked him to put his life in yours?”

No, sir.”

“We follow orders, son. We follow orders or people die. It’s that simple. Are we clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are we clear?”


That testimony, of course, comes back to haunt the colonel because it was his orders that led to the murder of a soldier. This tells us something about the responsibility that comes with a position of authority — a position that can and should command respect. We can’t take it lightly. And if we abuse our authority, we should expect to pay the consequences.

In fact, I’ll make clear what I hope, but can’t assume, would be obvious: no one needs or should employ workers who act as robots, marching only in the direction we tell them, never questioning policies or decisions. That’s why initiative is a key factor in a strong work ethic. And if a boss abuses (or attempts to abuse) his authority, a worker needs to take a stand.

Initiative isn’t so much breaking the rule that says “respect your boss” as it is proactively confronting a situation, even when the boss or a friend is breaking the rules. So now we’re also talking about integrity. And professionalism. These things all work together; they aren’t silos built miles and miles apart.

In most instances, there is no reason young people — or older workers, for that matter — must sacrifice their individualism or their ingenuity, much less their integrity, in order to toe the line for the organization that employs them. Conformity and obedience have their place. Indeed, most religions make obedience a central tenet — some out of fear, some as a response to love. And much like love, respect is a condition you can’t order someone to adopt — it has to come from within.

Excerpted with permission from Reviving Work Ethic: A Leader’s Guide to Ending Entitlement and Restoring Pride in the Emerging Workforce, by Eric Chester. Copyright 2012 by Eric Chester. For copies, visit Published by Greenleaf Book Group Press, Austin, TX. All rights reserved.

Eric Chester is a leading voice in the global dialogue on employee engagement, and building a world-class workplace culture. He's an in-the-trenches researcher on the topic of the millennial mindset, and the dynamics of attracting, managing, motivating and retaining top talent. Chester is a Hall-of-Fame keynote speaker and the author of 4 leadership books including his newly released Amazon #1 Bestseller On Fire at Work: How Great Companies Ignite Passion in their People without Burning Them Out.  Learn more at and follow him at @eric_chester