There’s a secret to gaining respect – one that I had the good fortune to learn early in my career – and from a most improbable source. The secret to getting respect is to give respect.
Read on to see how that lesson was taught to me by a very special person.
Early in my career I was Branch Manager of a temporary help service. The largest part of our business was done in the Labor Division. The workforce was made up of day laborers – men who had fallen on the hardest of times. They were paid by the hour, and could receive a daily draw against wages earned. For most of them, working and getting the draw was the difference between having food and shelter or going hungry and sleeping in the Mission – or worse.
Every morning at 5:30 AM our office would open, and in would file the men looking for work.There were as many as a hundred who waited, drank free coffee, and hoped to be assigned and dispatched to a job. Many were assigned – some were not.
Early morning was a time when lots of bad things could happen – anger at not getting assigned – anger at perceived insults – anger at life – and anger at being treated poorly by the full time staff. The result had been a number of fist fights, knife fights, and one attempted shooting. Those problems resulted in a decline in business. I was sent there to correct the situation.
Our product was the labor that these men performed. It was in our best interests to maintain a positive relationship with our own people. Unfortunately, many men left for jobs feeling angry, patronized and disrespected. Some never showed up at their assignments, others walked off the jobs, some forged their time tickets.
Observing the situation for a week I could understand why the men felt that way. They were patronized – they were treated as the bottom of the barrel – they were not given any reason to feel valued. And when one was publicly humiliated – and that happened too often – they all felt that humiliation. The only thing most of these men had left was a shred of self respect – or at least the need to feel respected. When that need for respect was abused, when it was not recognized, bad things happened.
The first step to change occurred when my boss gave me a sign to put up in the office – visible only to the full time staff. It said “There but for the grace of God, go I.” A constant reminder of the thin line between good fortune and bad fortune.
And then we set up four rules that full time staff were required to follow:
1 – Every man who showed up for work, regardless of his condition or qualifications was to be addressed as “Mister” followed by his last name. First names could be used once the person was known. The use of any abusive name, description or nickname was prohibited
2 – Any discipline would be done confidentially, and without the use of abusive and demeaning terms
3- No assignments that were known to be unsafe would be accepted
4 – Assignments would be given on the basis of length of service, ability, past performance and availability.
Those were the rules. Some full time staff had a problem with these simple rules – they were replaced.
Into this environment walked a man named Riley Bentley. Mr Bentley was an African American – like about half of our workforce. He was big, muscular and an intimidating looking and acting man. He had a silver earring long before they were popular, and he had a “keep away from me ” manner. He was sober, he had no problem filling out the application, he looked you right in the eye. He was hired. From the first day, every job he was sent on resulted in excellent reports. He would come back every night, get his draw, and leave. No talk, no socializing – nobody messed with Mr Bentley.
He worked for us for about six months, then, like so many others, he stopped showing up. We had customers tell us if he came back they wanted to know – so they could get him back.
After a three month absence, Mr Bentley walked back in. I was running the Labor Office – it was hard to get and keep full time staff who would obey the rules and treat the men properly, and when they left or were fired, I filled in. I was glad to see Mr Bentley and I told him so. He had lost some weight, but he was still the strongest, hardest working man we had. One night, Mr Bentley came back to the office just before 6 PM – closing time. He looked me right in the eye and said I could call him Riley. I said that he should call me Andy, and we shook hands on it. He walked with me to my car after I had closed up – I asked him if he needed a ride – he said no and kept walking. That became a regular thing. He would arrive at the office just before closing time after working hard all day – and then chat with me and then walk me to my car and head off into the night.
And then Riley was gone – and I hoped he had found a full time job – he deserved one.
A few months later Riley was back, thinner, but still as strong as ever. I noticed he perspired a lot, even though it was fall and cold and he did not wear a jacket. While he was gone we had gone through two new full time staff – and I was back to opening and closing the Labor Office. Riley resumed coming in every night and spending time leaning on the counter and looking out to the street while we talked and I took care of business. Part of the business was paying the men in cash. We kept a large sum of money in small bills for that purpose. We had a safe but it was so busy during the after work hours that the money was in the safe, but the safe was kept unlocked. Anyone could have come in and held me up. Riley could have turned me upside down and taken the money and there would have been no way for me to prevent it. I think Riley read my mind. One night he told me the reason he always stayed until I locked up and why he walked me to my car was to thank me for showing him respect – and his thanks was to provide me with his personal protection. I was ashamed for my concerns – and glad I had Riley – our office was in a very tough part of town.
Riley worked a few more weeks – he seemed to be in distress when he came in at night – perspiring heavily, shivering, but he persisted. He would not discuss his physical condition, and he would never accept a ride or any other kind of help.
And then he was gone. A few weeks later one of our regular men came in and told me Riley had been found in his room – in a chair – and he’d been dead about a week. I was stunned, and saddened, and sorry about the loss of my friend – because we were friends, in our own special way. Riley had given me his protection as his way of expressing his respect. I had given him respect because it just made sense – on a personal and business level, to recognize the humanity of our people. I was repaid a hundredfold for that by Riley.
Ever since that time, Riley Bentley is in my prayers – and he always will be.
Riley taught me the secret to gaining respect. The secret has stayed with me since that time. It’s pretty simple. The secret is you get respect by giving respect. I will be forever grateful to Riley for that lesson.
There are other elements to gaining respect, such as keeping your word, making good on commitments, honoring what you promise. But aren’t they all part of giving respect? I think so – giving respect is the cornerstone to getting respect.
In your own life, take the time to recognize people that you may have passed by. There’s a saying ” The true measure of a person is how they treat someone who can do them no good nor any harm.” We all can profit from remembering that saying, and making it part of our daily self talk and behavior. And if you’re really lucky, maybe you’ll find a Riley Bentley in your life.