Marquette Business

The key factor employers forget when building a better office culture

Through her research and expertise, Dr. Kristie Rogers helps business leaders understand how fostering respect at work increases employee well-being and company success.

In the office, it may seem obvious that employees should respect one another. But, according to Dr. Kristie Rogers, associate professor of Management in the College of Business Administration, respect at work is usually only noticeable once it’s already been lost.  

“We don’t have a great grasp on what respect at work means,” Rogers explains, “but valuing others and making people feel visible is vital in the workplace.” 

Rogers has spent more than 10 years researching the intersection of work and identity, including why respect is so overlooked in the workplace despite it being cited as important by employees. Her findings have appeared in the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and more. She’s spoken at universities across the country on the advantages of creating a respect-based culture at work. And last year, she was named one of the top 50 undergraduate business professors by Poets & Quants. 

“As you acquire more power at work, being blind to how respect shows up makes the concept even more difficult and problematic.”

Dr. Kristie Rogers

Rogers’ research focuses on how business leaders can improve office culture by better defining what respect feels like to employees. Respect itself is a subjective experience that varies greatly among workers, Rogers explains. She discovered that people in lower-status roles tend to be more sensitive to respect cues, while higher-status individuals are often treated with a level of professionalism that allows them to take respect for granted. “As you acquire more power at work, being blind to how respect shows up makes the concept even more difficult and problematic,” Rogers says.  

Owed and earned respect

To understand how respect affects the workplace, Rogers engages in qualitative interviews with employees and leaders. She found that interviewing stigmatized people, such as incarcerated workers, Black law enforcement officers or working moms, yields the most transparent view of respect and identity. From her work with these individuals, she’s identified two ways that respect shows up at work: owed respect and earned respect.  

Rogers formulated her definitions of earned vs. owed respect after spending 15 months studying a work program for female prison inmates. In one of her most-cited Harvard Business Review articles, Rogers defines owed respect as what employees receive by virtue of participating in a work environment. It appreciates individuals’ protected characteristics, like gender identity or race, as well as ways of working together that feel inclusive. Earned respect is about matching or exceeding expectations in a job role. For example, if an employee lands a major client or makes a valuable contribution in a meeting, they’re eligible to receive earned respect.  

Empowering and building company culture

These two elements must work together, Rogers points out, and if companies try to divorce them, then workplace morale will suffer. In the spring 2024 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review, she urges leadership to move away from the idea that company values, like respect, trickle down from the C-suite. Instead, they should empower mid-level managers to build company culture. These direct supervisors can impact how company values figure into daily work, as well as set the tone for how to respectfully disagree. Rogers sourced the idea of respectful disagreement from her business negotiations courses, where she encourages students to solve problems not by compromising, but by finding integrative solutions. With the latter, all parties perceive the solution as a win. 

Rogers’ paper on employee well-being for Black police officers in the Journal of Applied Psychology won the “Responsible Research in Management” award in 2023 by the Academy of Management Fellows, and her focus on integrative solutions and closing respect gaps was also recognized by the Center for Positive Organizations in 2019. Today, her insight continues to offer business leaders a springboard for improving respect at work. For leaders looking for where to start, Rogers recommends acknowledging that, for many employees, who they are as people is enmeshed, or sometimes even in conflict, with what they do for work. Acknowledging this tricky intersection and providing structures for employees to work out difficulties within themselves, or with co-workers, helps individuals live authentically at work and be more open to supporting others in doing the same.  

“If we want to treat others with civility and positive regard, we must recognize that difference isn’t a problem. It’s what enables us to work better,” Rogers says.