Respect in the workplace requires a two-way street

In the 1970s, whenever a miner died underground all of the miners walked off the job in respect for the dead miner. They were required to take the next day off also. The thinking was that after a fatality, the miners would find it difficult to keep their minds on their work and could potentially get hurt as well. Toward the end of that decade, miners began working the next day and donating their pay to the family of the deceased miner.

I never worked at a mine when a miner died. However, at one mine, I did unexpectedly meet a group of miners who were walking out of the mine in the middle of a shift. I stopped one of them and asked where he was going. He explained that a miner had been killed on the section called 2 Right. My fellow worker, Marvin, and I walked out with them. Thankfully, it turned out that the miner was not dead, only seriously injured. He returned to work about seven months later.

On Election Day, November 1972, Marvin, and I again met a group of miners on their way out two hours early. The spokesman of the group, Joe, was an informal union leader who had been defeated in his bid to be president. He was an advocate of strikes in response to any union-company disagreement. When he reached Marvin and me, he asked us if we were going to walk out to vote. At that time, miners were not allowed to leave work early to vote. This prohibition was later changed by the union contract. As a matter of fact, walking off the job was a reason for dismissal.

I explained to Joe that I had voted prior to coming to work. He said that everyone in the mine was planning to walk out in a show of force. He further added that we should join them or our cars would not be in working order when the shift ended. Marvin looked at me and said, “Let’s go vote.” It turned out that fewer than 20 miners walked out. I feared for my job, but nothing came of it.

Joe tried to get his way by threats and bullying. Sometimes he accomplished his objective but most of the miners did not like him nor did they respect him. The coal mine could be a violent place and the rules of a normal workplace often did not apply. At times, we had to spend a lot of energy dealing with irrational power struggles.

Effective leaders understand that respect in the workplace needs to be demonstrated in all directions. The best way to create a respectful environment is to talk about clear expectations and talk to people who refuse to demonstrate desired behaviors. Joe got away with his behavior because nobody discussed the negative impact of what he did. Also the crews had no forums for productive discussions about how they should act. Had these opportunities been available, over time, the respect level would have improved. Bullying cannot survive in the light of open dialogue.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray’s completely revised, third printing of “The Facilitative Leader: Behaviors that Enable Success,” visit his Web site, or call him at 740-629-4536. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.