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The complex, but important, picture around dignity at work

woman with yellow hair looks happy due to maintained dignity at work

Dignity at work is emerging as a huge issue

In a brutally-titled article on Stanford University’s Graduate Business School website (“The workplace is killing people, and nobody cares”), professor Jeffrey Pfeffer -- who authored the book Dying for a Paycheck -- calls the modern workplace “shockingly inhumane.” He cites increased stress, lower (or stagnated) pay, and various other factors. Dignity at work in many workplaces does not seem to be part of the equation.

Our relationships to work became more complicated in the past year with COVID, different industries and companies that could/could not return people to physical offices, child care and senior citizen care, lack of human connection, and myriad other issues. 

Even before COVID, dignity at work was a concerning topic: only about 46% of employees (less than 1 in 2) trusted or respected their organization to do the right thing. Trust in senior leadership has significantly declined in the past two decades.

Meanwhile, at the manager-employee relationship level, 60% of managers in one global study indicated they “simply didn’t have the time” to respect their employees, as if respect is something that needs to be scheduled in Outlook. (2pm: Respect Dan.

It’s hard to have dignity at work when managers feel too busy and stressed with deliverables to even respect their direct reports. In late 2016, Google wrote an essay on “bringing civility back to the workplace,” with a good amount of research on micro- and macro-level shots at dignity:

My research highlights how small civil and uncivil behaviors spread, for better and worse. In one experiment, we found that those simply around incivility are more likely to have dysfunctional and aggressive thoughts, although they may be unaware of the connection. Research has shown that people who are typically surrounded by jerks learn intuitively to act selfishly, even when cooperating would pay off. Our environment rubs off on us, and if our environment is toxic, we can expect to stay somewhat sick and to pass it on to others.

Is dignity at work dead? Can it be fixed?

Table of contents
Then there’s the legal picture around dignity at work
How can your organization establish more dignity at work?
Does a focus on dignity at work help profit/loss?
Back to writing a dignity at work policy
Considerations for your dignity at work policy
The bottom line on dignity at work

Then there’s the legal picture around dignity at work

There are significant concerns about workplace bullying and harassment. 

Anywhere from 30-90% of US workers are either targets or bystanders. Targets suffer mental, emotional, and physical health harm. There's also a ripple effect on witnesses and families. 

Targets of workplace bullying are often women, African-American workers, Latinx workers, workers over 40, and workers with disabilities. When discrimination law moved from a focus on impact to intent in the 1980s, the law became much less effective in dismantling the social hierarchies at work that keep white men in the vast majority of power positions in the US workforce, according to University of Chicago researchers in a 2017 study. 

Right now, there are not adequate protections from bias that manifests itself in abuse of power that prevents these subsets of employees from getting ahead.

As such, there’s been a push for a Dignity at Work Act in the United States, which actually could have significant bottom-line impact. Research on workplace bullying and harassment has shown that targets of the bullying tend to be high-performing, highly-ethical employees whose competence poses a threat to their lower-performing, low-in-ethics bosses. 

The bully's motivation is to keep the upper hand — an ego-driven control move that's about abuse of power. Bullies are often deceptive managers who trick others into thinking the target is the problem.

Here’s the full Dignity at Work Act, FYI.

How can your organization establish more dignity at work?

There are different models you can follow within your own organization, with the common suggestion being that employees sign a Commitment to Dignity as part of a culture package when they on-board, and are asked to revisit it annually as long as they remain employees. The language can vary based on organization and industry, but it should be designed by a mix of:

  • Founders (if still in the operating picture)
  • Current executives
  • Legal team
  • HR
  • Board of Directors and any other stakeholders

Ideally the language would be drafted and then an all-hands meeting would result where the language could be reviewed and a group discussion could occur, as opposed to a dignity document simply being passed down as cultural law of the land (which would be somewhat undignified and thus ironic). 

There are several examples online, but University of Cambridge is a good starting point. Their dignity at work policy includes the following language:

  • Employees need to focus on, and be cognizant of, treating others with dignity and respect.
  • Discouraging any form of discrimination and harassment by suitably challenging inappropriate behaviour, making it clear that such behaviour is unacceptable (and raising concerns with managers where appropriate so these can be dealt with).
  • Supporting any member of the University who feels they have been subject to discrimination and/or harassment, including supporting them to make a formal complaint if appropriate
  • Managers have particular responsibility for setting standards and ensuring appropriate workplace behaviours are maintained. They should set a good example and ensure concerns raised are acted upon.

A printable PDF version of their dignity policy is here.

Does a focus on dignity at work help profit/loss?

There are several examples of this, including one from a badly-performing hospital.

In that hospital, as detailed here, the CEO was determined to take full advantage of the knowledge and commitment of his experienced workforce. A history of labor-management disputes was the core issue, but he managed to put in place a shared leadership model that relied on employees taking personal responsibility for improving the quality of care and reducing operating costs. He created representative councils to give employees meaningful involvement in shaping care practices and the quality of their lives at work. 

In the early phases of implementation, the researchers found that employees contributed most to the change initiative when they believed that doing so would increase their control over their work and work environment. 

When they followed up three years after implementation, they discovered that the employees contributing most actively to the shared leadership program also expressed high trust in management and perceptions of fair treatment.

These hospital workers managed to turn things around because they were treated with dignity – which employees experience as self-worth, self-respect, and the respect of others. Showing trust, granting autonomy, and recognizing the value of individual contributions all build employees’ sense of ownership of their work and pride in performing it.

The hospital essentially turned itself around because of a renewed focus on dignity at work.

Back to writing a dignity at work policy

Core principles you want to include:

  • The office is free from bullying, harassment and victimisation
  • All staff are considerate of each other and treat each other with respect
  • Unlawful discrimination in any form is never experienced
  • All employees skills and abilities are valued and championed
  • Work-life balance and employee wellness are prioritized

Again, this is why the process of developing the dignity at work policy needs to include executives, legal, Board, HR, and other stakeholders. The bases must be covered.

When you get to the actual format of the policy, common sections in such a document will include:

  • The overall policy (how, what, when, where, who)
  • Dealing with complaints
  • The process for complaint/outcry
  • The appeals process for those accused
  • Monitoring and review

People want to know that dignity at work isn’t just a “woke for the sake of woke” policy -- they want to know that it’s fair and it protects everyone equally. That’s why the legal language and context will be important. 

If it’s simply another HR document, it runs the risk of being toothless, and then managers have the window to run roughshod over employees and treat them in less-than-dignified ways. You want to make sure the policy has heft.

Considerations for your dignity at work policy

  • What type of work environment do you want to create?
  • What would that look like?
  • Where is the current gap between that desire and your reality?
  • Who needs to be involved?
  • Who should write it?
  • Who should review it?
  • Who should ultimately own it?
  • How can an average employee weigh in on it before it’s official policy?
  • Should there be a committee or governing body, or will that be too much bureaucracy around the idea?
  • What would be the tiers/escalation of punishment?
  • Are executives truly on board with the idea, even for high-performers? Will they dismiss high-performers as bullies by saying “cost of doing business?”

These are some of the core questions you need to think and work through before you even come to the table to craft a dignity at work policy.

The bottom line on dignity at work

A lot of issues around dignity at work are tied up with some of the major issues of work anyway -- trust, communication, collaboration, effective management, motivation, purpose, vision, mission, and the like. 

Typically speaking, if there are good, effective-communicator managers within an org, and they have some understanding of team-building and motivation and priority-setting, there’s a good chance it will be a dignified workplace. 

Where dignity at work begins to fade is unclear priorities, bully managers (or a narcissist boss), toxic coworkers, communication leaving much to be desired, erosion of trust, and similar actions. 

Work is often about money and growth, yes, but the foundation of work is an ecosystem held together by these core human elements. If you can continue to focus on successful development of those elements, you can have a high-performing organization steeped in dignity at work.

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