What is The Dignity Asset at Work?

Want a quick path to destroying positive feelings employees have about your organization? Want to increase turnover? Want to generate dissatisfied customers or create quality issues? How about having employees seek out third party representation or foment a really enduring strike? Obviously not – yet everyday, organizations may act in ways that ignore, or, even worse, damage employee dignity, putting their company at risk for the outcomes listed above. Let’s start by understanding the concept of dignity.

Employee surveys have long included an item that asks employees whether they are treated with respect and dignity.

Those two words are so often used in conjunction with one another that they have become joined at the hip as a unified concept not only in the world of surveys but also in our day-to-day conceptual thinking as well. Respect and Dignity. Some argue that it is a double-barreled concept; it would be impossible to treat someone with dignity but without respect, and likewise, if you are being respectful, dignity would seem to tag along. Respect and dignity seem like two sides of the same coin, but there are differences. Respect is absolute (day-to-day interactions) while dignity is relative (how you treat a person or subset of people compared to others).

The concept of dignity has a long history and interesting origins. As a constitutional right, dignity today is often defined as a “person’s freedom to write their own life story”. Freedom to create one’s life story and to control one’s own destiny requires freedom from oppression and has within that notion both rights and obligations. One right is control over oneself and one’s body and an obligation to take responsibility for your behaviors and actions.

Maintaining dignity in the world of work, using that definition, will be a balancing act.

If dignity is about the right to choose – today, it’s often called giving people agency – you are necessarily giving up some dignity when you join an organization because you must work on organizationally-defined goals and on an organizationally-defined schedule. In other words, when organizations set a work schedule, a production schedule, or a requirement to work onsite rather than remotely, they run the risk of imposing on a person’s agency or dignity even though they are required to ensure organizational success. I am certainly not advocating for a non-structured work environment; I am advocating for a properly structured work environment, where the organization’s needs are balanced against the employee’s needs and onerous non-necessary requirements are eliminated. One thing that is very clear in our employee survey response data is that the typical employee wants to do a good job; the organization needs to help them achieve that goal.

While the emphasis and enshrinement of dignity in the modern age largely was the result of the horrific abuses carried out in WWII, today the only constitution that defines human dignity as an unassailable absolute right is the German Constitution. However, the notion that humans have dignity is an ancient precept. The ancient Greek and Roman philosophers spent time with the notions of dignity, assigning dignity because of our ability to think and choose. Dignity in Buddhism is based on the idea that humans can choose a path leading to self-perfection and hence are dignified . Judaism and Christianity believe that mankind was made in god’s image and because of that, mankind has dignity. Muslims believe that mankind was created by God, given the ability to think, and because of that have a dignified special place in creation. The major religions of the world do not have a corner on defining and rationalizing the need for dignity. Ubuntu for instance is a Bantu term that is often translated as “humanity towards others,” treating others with a humanness or dignity with which they deserve.

The concepts and definitions surrounding human dignity have been around almost as long as mankind’s abuses of that dignity. Dignity is a social term – a societal definition. You are treated with or without dignity only in relation to how others in society are treated. If you are enslaved your dignity is measured against those that are free. If you have no access to clean water, food, shelter, or health care your dignity in society is measured against those that do have access. The concept that no one is above the law, with its equal application, is a concept of uniform dignified treatment in the application of societies’ rules and regulations. When the law is not uniformly applied, by definition, there are some who are being treated with less dignity. If you were a solitary individual on an island the concept of dignity is meaningless, as there is no one else to treat you with or without dignity. The meaning of dignity and your relative standing is solely derived from the society in which you are embedded.

From an organizational measurement and performance perspective the concept of dignity gets interesting.

People in organizations are rarely if ever treated the same. And it would be easy to argue that some of the differences are there for motivational purposes, to give people something to strive for – more money, a promotion, or access to training and developmental experiences. As a relational variable when you ask someone “are you treated with respect and dignity” their response is in relation to how they see others being treated both within and external to the organization.

If you examine many of the long enduring strikes that have occurred in our nation’s history you will find that dignified treatment almost always is a mitigating factor.

Yes, pay and benefits come up but issues dealing with worker dignity are often the ultimate deciding factor in resolving labor disputes (and more broadly other societal disputes). Here are a few items from a labor relations index. How many of them have a dignity component? And how many of them could be applied more broadly to society as a whole? (e.g., replace the words organization and manager with society.)

  • Any complaints I have are heard fairly by the organization.
  • My ideas and opinions count.
  • This is physically a safe place to work.
  • My manager treats me with respect & dignity.
  • My manager cares about my well-being.
  • I receive appropriate recognition for the work I do.

And some of the major historical strikes that have occurred in the USA include:

  • Great Southwest Railroad Strike (1886) involved 200,000 workers on pay and working conditions but was ultimately triggered by what was perceived to be an unfair firing.
  • The Pullman Strike (1894) involved 250,000-factory workers who had been enduring 12-hour workdays and reduced wages. The settlement of the strike resulted in the creation of the national holiday called Labor Day, a celebration of labor and the dignity of laboring.
  • The Great Anthracite Coal Strike (1902) involved 147,000 coal miners who wanted better working conditions and pay, but was triggered when the coal mine owners refused to sit at the same negotiation table as the workers, as being in their presence was beneath them.

The list could go on and on, and it would include virtually all modern day strikes and unionization activity. The bottom line is that much strife in the workplace occurs when one group perceives themselves as being treated with less dignity.

Now let’s list out some current and ongoing issues going on in the workplace and let you decide their impact on dignity:

  • Monitoring remote employee keystrokes or monitoring them through their computer camera.
  • Return to the office or quit ultimatums.
  • Scaping the internet for employee’s social postings.
  • Monitoring emails or calendar meetings.
  • A “write them up” mentality whether it is for lateness, sickness, or other absences.

Dignity is not a difficult concept to master but treating others in a dignified fashion can be a difficult concept to implement.

How can you improve dignity in your workplace? While the actual method of delivering on these concepts will vary some overarching goals for increasing dignity include:

  • Increasing agency – giving people as much control over themselves as possible.
  • Manage from a place of trust – the vast majority of people want to do a good job at work; enable them.
  • While favorable treatment for some over others damages dignity, remember that everyone is different. They have different needs (e.g., child care, health issues, commuting issues), for which allowances should be made, as long as the overall treatment is viewed as equitable.
  • Provide a vision of the future for the individual that generates hope and excitement.
  • Create an environment that allows people to be their honest selves. But do not tolerate or allow abusive behaviors.
  • Remember every job in an organization is important (or it should not exist), treat the job and the person in it that way, and make sure they feel valued.

Want to learn more? Contact Jeffrey Saltzman directly.

[1] 2015, Barak, A. Human Dignity: The Constitutional Value and the Constitutional Right, Cambridge Press.
[1] Soka Gakki International website. 12/09/2015, http://www.sgi.org/about-us/buddhism-in-daily-life/buddhism-and-human-dignity.html


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