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Respect in the Age of New Professionalism

How do we show respect when strong handshakes and fancy titles don’t mean anything?

Back Article Apr 11, 2023 By Melody White

This story is part of our April 2023 print issue. To subscribe, click here.

I was in a meeting recently, and a fresh-out-of-high-school intern awkwardly asked a superior, “Do I call you Ms. Jones? Or Ms. Katie?” Everyone shifted uncomfortably. The woman he was talking to visibly bristled. 

The guy was trying to show respect and wasn’t sure how to do so in this modern work setting. We don’t refer to each other as Ms. or Mr. anymore — it’s old-fashioned and awkward. But in his experience to date, authorities required respect in the form of titles. That’s not how we show respect in the modern workplace. So that got me thinking, how do we show respect? 

We can’t give strong handshakes virtually, and with Zoom calls, it’s hard to know if you’re making eye contact. All the little things we relied on in the past to show respect and look professional don’t carry much weight, are considered awkward or aren’t possible. In an age where yoga pants and T-shirts are acceptable work attire in many organizations, what does professionalism look like? 

I asked around, and I got some answers.

Show up on time and prepared. We’ve all done it — didn’t read the full meeting invite, didn’t do the pre-reads and showed up 10 minutes late. And we’ve all had great excuses for this. However, for the person who called the meeting, put together the pre-reads and found time on everyone’s calendar, it’s exceedingly frustrating. They might interpret these actions as a lack of care. 

Own your mistakes. Mistakes will happen. It’s part of life, but being proactive when you mess up will show you have respect for everyone potentially impacted. Approach the situation with humility and grace, and try your best not to make your mistake someone else’s emergency. 

Know your teammates. I’ve been in too many meetings where someone explains one of my core competencies to me because they didn’t bother to ask about my background. Don’t be that guy! Now, I don’t expect folks in my super huge company to actually look me up on LinkedIn to get a rough idea of what I’ve done, but how great would that be if it happened? Here’s what that might look like.

Colleague: We need to overhaul our podcasting advertising program. Melody, I see you’ve spent some time in public radio. You didn’t happen to get into podcasting, did you? 

Me, shocked: Um, yeah, I did. I ran my own podcast for over a year.

Colleague: Awesome, would you be interested in leading this program? No one else on the team has any experience with this channel.

If that happened, I would feel so respected! You can do this for a teammate. You can make someone feel extremely respected and get a better product or program for your organization. 

Invite disagreement. When someone challenges you, thank them. Don’t get defensive, seek to learn. This shows you respect the person and are willing to hear feedback and grow. Go one step further: Ask for feedback and ask to be challenged. 

“A mark of lifelong learners is recognizing that they can learn something from everyone they meet,” writes researcher Adam Grant in his book “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.” A healthy and robust challenge network, as he calls it, is key to identifying your blind spots and building trust (which you need for respect).

Celebrate your team. When you see something awesome, say something. Put it in a Slack channel. Message your colleagues’ bosses to ensure they know how awesome they are. Lift people up anytime and in any way you can. Fun fact: A survey of 2,000 Americans released by the John Templeton Foundation found people are less likely to feel or express gratitude at work than anyplace else. So go against the grain and sing the praises of your team. Not only will you build trust, you’ll be happier too. (It’s in the Harvard Business Review, so it must be true). 

Don’t set useless meetings. If the meeting could’ve been an email, write an email. If the email could’ve been a Slack message, put it in Slack (or whatever communication tool you use for status updates). Respecting time is respect. Similarly, if someone requests updates in Slack in place of a meeting, provide the updates! 

Pay attention to details. Pets’ names, kids’ names, hobbies, favorite bands — when a colleague mentions something personal, listen. Make a note and then ask them about it later. 

“How’s Fluffy doing after her ACL surgery?” 

“How’s little Cambdenly taking to sleep training?”

“Do you have any new pottery pieces to show off? I loved that blue one you posted last week.”

When someone remembers my kid’s name, I immediately feel seen and respected. I have a vendor that consistently asks about her, and it’s such a powerful tactic to build trust. 


Modern professionalism isn’t about handshakes and freshly pressed suits. It’s about what you do and how you treat the people around you. This goes for everyone, no matter where they sit in the org chart, from the CEO to the intern. Everyone deserves respect, and the ways we show it has nothing to do with titles. It’s time we recognized and cultivated respect in the modern workplace, and stopped worrying about what people wear or what titles they use.  

Melody White is a Sacramento-based journalist turned marketing expert with an insatiable curiosity, which she channels into everything she does. Her career has spanned daily newspapers, public radio, higher education, technology, mobility and clean tech. She’s spewing her thoughts on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/melodygwhite.

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