Why dignity in the workplace is so important

Tim Baker


written on August 10, 2017

Dignity is lacking in many workplaces, even though it may be more important to employees than ever before.

Workplace dignity is a frequent discussion point. Be it about diversity and equity, health and safety, merit, equal opportunity or anti-discrimination, the concept of workplace dignity can be the overarching framework for all of these programs.

Kristen Lucas, who recently wrote a paper titled, Workplace Dignity, defines the concept as, “a personal sense of worth, value, respect, or esteem that is derived from one’s humanity and individual social position; as well as being treated respectfully by others.”

Since most of us spend around a third of our adult life in a workplace, it’s more than reasonable to expect and experience the kind of workplace dignity consistent with Lucas’s definition. Yet, this isn’t the case in many organisations around the world.

There are several factors threatening dignity in the workplace. Consider these three common examples:

1. Overwork

People are often asked to do more than is reasonably expected of them. Overwork can constitute a form of indignity, particularly when it occurs with management support. This is not uncommon in times of budget constraints, cost-cutting, and frugality, and is is something we all expect at times. However, being continually overworked is ignominious.

2.  Abuse of power

A manager abusing their power and authority is also a common form of indignity experienced in the workplace. The use of idle threats and intimidation is humiliating to the recipient. Making it worse is that the person on the receiving end of this psychological bullying has little recourse, without taking a career risk.

3. Micromanaging

Being micromanaged and having incursions on one’s autonomy can violate individual decision making. Managers often justify this behaviour with comments such as, “if I don’t make the decision, nothing will happen”, or “the wrong decision will be made if I don’t step in”.

These are just a few examples of workplace indignity, of which there are myriad other forms.

The importance of communication

Workplace dignity is closely related to the quality of interaction and patterns of communication between manager and team member. There are numerous examples of human dignity violations arising from rude and disrespectful interactions, or the lack of communication, between boss and worker. We have all witnessed, or been on the receiving end of, these violations. The correlation between the quality and frequency of interactions and the extent of workplace dignity suggests that by improving the communication process, greater levels of respect and dignity will follow.

Dignity is more pertinent than ever

Being treated in a dignified manner has always has been important to people, but I consider workplace dignity to be more significant now than ever before in industrial history.

There are several reason for this assessment:

1. Work and self-worth.

People have an increasing desire to attain their sense of self-worth from the work they engage in. Apart from gaining self-worth, people want to be treated with respect in all walks of life, including the workplace.

2. Unpredictability and insecurity

The human connection to the organisation is more tenuous than experienced previously. Instead of a place of dignity and security, today’s workplace is one of unease and insecurity. Work was once a stable and predictable pillar in a person’s life. But today, more and more people are changing jobs for a variety of reasons within a short period of time. Turnover accounts for some of the tension we experience in the workplace.

As straightforward as the expectation to be treated with dignity might appear, the workplace faces many challenges that prevent this from occurring. Unfortunately, dignity in the workplace is the exception, rather than the rule.

Dignity isn’t dead

The workplace can still be a profound source of inspiration. People have the potential to  feel they’re making important contributions for themselves, their family, the organisation, and society-at-large. A person’s sense of self-respect can come from developing personally, or what Abraham Maslow, the famous 20th century psychologist, referred to as self-actualisation.

Personal growth and development is one of the ways people gain a sense of dignity. Feeling part of a greater whole can be dignifying too. Knowing that you are working toward a common cause that’s making a difference can be a source of self-worth.

These experiences and expectations in the current world of work present both opportunities and challenges for HR.

Dr Tim Baker is author of Performance Management for Agile Organizations.

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