If dignity is so simple, then why is it so difficult?


by Kristen Lucas

Vonda accompanied the CEO as he escorted several VIPs around the corporate office to make introductions. “This is where Geoff would sit if he were here today,” the CEO said and pointed to an empty chair in an office that belonged to a high-level manager who was out for the day. The guests laughed and said “hello” to the empty chair. Then they lingered at the door for a couple more minutes as the CEO outlined Geoff’s primary responsibilities and listed several notable accomplishments. Meanwhile Vonda—who did all the behind-the-scenes work of coordinating the visitors’ meetings, meals, and more—was never introduced by name.

Vonda was devastated. “I was standing right there with them the whole time and no one said hello. It was like I didn’t matter, like I was an invisible non-entity. My boss made it clear that Geoff’s empty chair is far more important than me.”

Vonda wasn’t harassed, discriminated against, bullied, or even abused. Her boss didn’t do anything illegal. He didn’t do anything immoral. He didn’t do anything that was explicitly uncivil. In fact, it is likely he didn’t intend to do anything at all. Yet, his introducing an empty chair and overlooking Vonda still was hurtful.

Any degradation of people’s self-worth and self-respect—whether it is triggered by an interaction, a condition of work, or a problematic organizational climate—can be considered a violation of workplace dignity.

In its most basic terms, workplace dignity refers to the self-recognized and other-recognized worth that is acquired from (or denied by) engaging in work activity.

Simply by the virtue of being human, people possess an inherent value that transcends context. And specifically in work contexts, people can earn dignity by performing work that is valued. Although the workplace is a site where dignity can be bolstered, it also is a place where it can be violated.

To gain to a broader understanding of workplace dignity and how it is experienced, I conducted focus group interviews with more than 60 working adults who shared stories about their dignity affirmations and denials at work. The participants were diverse—food service employees, retail clerks, a financial analyst, a political speech writer, a funeral director, blue-collar laborers, warehouse stockers, health care aides, and more—but their answers were strikingly similar.

There are a variety of factors that may contribute to dignity violations (e.g., hierarchy, financial pressures, job design, management style, distribution of risk and reward, and more).

But at the core, my research revealed that employees’ dignity ultimately is dependent upon interaction with others.

Talk to me respectfully: First, the employees needed to have their inherent human worth acknowledged by being talked to in respectful ways.

They wanted supervisors to use “please” and “thank you” when making requests. They wanted customers to get off their cell phones and talk to them as they completed their transactions. Even if they were not friends, they wanted coworkers to be kind and polite to them. They didn’t want to be yelled at or talked to like children.

But their desire for respectful interaction shouldn’t be confused with an expectation of highly “proper” behavior or hypersensitivity. When employees worked in organizations with cultures of coarse language and dirty jokes, that behavior was perfectly acceptable—just as long as they weren’t the only one cussed at or the target of the jokes. They were fine, too, when people were rude—just as long as the rudeness was quickly followed with either genuine apologies from the offenders or with organizational support expressed by supervisors.

Tell me when I’m doing a good job: Second, the employees desired to make meaningful contributions to their company and to be recognized for those contributions.

Whether they were mopping a floor, providing critical medical care, or doing any other task, they wanted their effort and ability recognized. They craved praise for a job well done and appreciation for going the extra mile. A simple “good job,” “thank you,” or “your job is important to this company” was enough to affirm their dignity.

At the same time, employees did not desire empty praise. If they didn’t do the work correctly, they wanted opportunities to improve. They were open to corrective feedback—assuming it was delivered in a respectful way and not issued as a public reprimand.

Similarly, they didn’t expect certificates, trophies, or other kinds of external validation. Informal but authentic expressions of appreciation were often all that people wanted.

Don’t rub it in that I’m worth less than others or just a number: Finally, the  employees needed to avoid interactions that gratuitously pointed out status differences or the tenuous nature of the employment relationship.

Even though they typically accepted the unequal and instrumental nature of the workplace, they did not want those particular vulnerabilities exploited. They wanted to be treated with the same respect as others in the organization. They wanted people at work to take interest in them— knowing and using their name, striking up conversations about life outside of work, including them in conversations with others, and expressing care and concern about their wellbeing.

They did not push very hard against inequalities embedded in the workplace. Sure, some people said that a raise would help their dignity. But they didn’t expect a big salary or a reserved parking spot next to the boss. Instead, they simply wanted the boss to look them in the eye and say “hello” when they rode in the same elevator. They didn’t demand lifetime employment. But they wanted honesty and compassion should they ever have to be terminated.

Overall, my research made one thing very clear: workplace dignity violations are rampant. Employees regularly are subjected to uncivil communication—from bosses, customers, and coworkers. They are publicly shamed for making mistakes but not even privately complimented for work well done. They are reminded in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that they are valued less than others, if they are valued at all.

Furthermore, dignity violations are deeply hurtful, inflicting shame, humiliation, and self-doubt. But the most compelling part of this research was recognizing just how simple dignity can be to achieve: Talk to people respectfully, tell them they’re doing a good job, and don’t draw attention to inequalities.

Ultimately then, the question is this: If dignity needs are indeed so simple, then why is it so difficult for people to have dignity at work?

Kristen Lucas is an associate professor in the Management Department at University of Louisville. Her research centers on how communication constructs organizations, gives meaning to careers, and influences human dignity in the workplace.

This article summarizes findings from “Workplace Dignity: Communicating Inherent, Earned, and Remediated Dignity,” in the Journal of Management Studies. All names used in this article are pseudonyms.

Image: Jan McLaughlin via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


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