The Dignity of Work: Transforming the One-Size-Fits-All Workhouse into a Custom-Fit Workplace

The inefficiency of slavery is now obvious, but to George Washington it came as a revelation. While on a visit to Philadelphia, Washington noticed that free men there could do in “two or three days what would employ [his slaves] a month or more.” His explanation—that slaves had no chance “to establish a good name [and so were] too regardless of a bad one”—was that of a practical man concerned with the bottom line, not that of a moralizer. Sadly for us, our first president did not draw the full implications of his insight. Had he done so, he might have used his immense prestige to end the indignity of slavery.

Today’s employers are not dealing with slaves, though it is often argued that wage-earners are wage-slaves, and that the dignity of salaried employees is only marginally more secure. Since Washington’s time, it has gradually become clear that negative motivation—fear of punishment—is less effective than the positive motivation that comes from being part of a team of trusted, responsible professionals.

Once a year, on Labor Day, the dignity of work is extolled from sea to shining sea. In the new book The Custom-Fit Workplace, authors Joan Blades and Nanette Fondas show how to turn that noble ideal into a year-round reality by providing a blueprint for employers intent on creating workplaces that unleash the full potential of employees.

The ill-effects of rigid work schedules, inequitable pay, and other demeaning practices are now the subject of a growing body of research documenting the damage done not only to individual employees but to the companies for which they work. It turns out that rankism—the rank-based discrimination and abuse to which most indignities can be traced—is no better for the bottom line than racism, sexism, and homophobia. All the discriminatory “isms” are self-inflicted wounds that drain away the life-blood of enterprises harboring them.

The indignities of rankism are not merely unfair, they are inefficient and counterproductive. Fear and humiliation work only so long as people lack options. The young are increasingly unwilling to put up with rankist environments, and soon these vestiges of the workhouse will become untenable throughout the economy. A culture of dignity in the workplace provides a competitive advantage because it means happier, healthier, more creative and productive employees. What does it matter if they work together in lockstep—so long as they get the job done? People who feel recognized as individuals and respected as human beings are more likely to give their best. Much as eliminating malnutrition makes for healthier workers, eliminating malrecognition makes for more reliable ones.

Customized workplaces respect employees’ dignity in ways that previous generations would have found astonishing and the next generation will take for granted. Great managers have long known that nothing motivates workers quite so consistently as pride in a job well done. In chapters on flextime, virtual and contract work, job and career lane changes, and childcare at work, Blades and Fondas provide a design for a dignitarian workplace that pays off in performance and profits.

Today, slavery has no defenders. As the liberating and empowering practices in this handbook spread through the global marketplace, the institutional indignities of the one-size-fits-all workplace will likewise be revealed as paternalistic, demeaning, and inefficient. When the history of the dignity movement is written, The Custom-Fit Workplace will stand as a beacon that lit the way.

Ten Ways To Stop Rankism in the Professions

1. Work: Take the trouble to understand how co-workers contribute to getting the job done and acknowledge their contribution.
If you are a boss, it’s not enough to avoid treating your employees in a rankist manner (though the example you set will reverberate through the entire organization) ; you are also responsible for making sure that your subordinates treat their subordinates with dignity. Dignitarian companies are not only happier workplaces, they are also healthier, more creative, and more productive ones.

2. Education: Create “Indignity Free Zones.”
Teachers are increasingly sensitive to the harm done to students by indignity. If you’re an educator, you can bring this awareness into the open and communicate it to those students whose bullying and humiliation of peers unconsciously mirrors that of adult society. A threat to a student’s dignity is more than a discourtesy. It is an attack on one’s status in the “tribe,” and carries an implicit threat of ostracism and exclusion. Status has historically been a matter of life and death and remains a determinant of whether we prosper or decline, so an attack on status is experienced as a threat to survival. Rankism poisons the learning environment.

3. Healthcare: Enlist your patients as partners.
If you are a healthcare provider, you can help your clients make the awkward transition from patients to partners. Ridding healthcare of its legacy of dehumanization and infantilization is good medical practice. You can also insist on respect throughout the organization in which you work. If you are a patient, have compassion for doctors, too. It’s not easy to give up one’s “deity status,” and many physicians are doing so with remarkable grace. Moreover, remember that they’re victims of rankism themselves at the hands of HMOs that often treat them less like the professionals they are and more like pieceworkers on an assembly line.

4. Sports: Have respect for the other team.
If you’re a coach, you can forbid trash talk, on and off the court, among your players and to your opponents. Show your team that they are capable of more—not by humiliating them but by teaching and inspiring them. Rent the 1973 film Bang the Drum Slowly and show it to your athletes. Its punch line—“I rag on nobody”—puts it in the anti-rankist hall of fame.

5. Religion: Exemplify rather than exhort.
If you’re a religious leader, you can refrain from pulling spiritual rank. You can do more for your flock by listening and providing them with a personal example worthy of emulation than you can by invoking higher authority, which is often little more than a claim that God shares your politics.

6. Guardian professions (policing): Bring dignity to law enforcement.
If you’re a policeman or woman, protect citizens’ dignity as you already protect their lives. Any kind of profiling is rankism.

7. Military: One part of a strong defense is not giving offense in the first place.
Indignity is the source of indignation, so to avoid escalation or revenge, take care to spare your foes gratuitous indignities.

8. Politics: Restore civility to politics
If you’re in electoral politics you can point the way to a dignitarian society, even if your colleagues aren’t yet ready to embrace your ideas. Treat your opponents with dignity. Don’t sneer, mock, or condescend. Avoid patronizing or posturing. When politicians lay claim to moral superiority, they extend rankism’s lease. Since rankism is an attack on both liberty and dignity, denounce it along with the other isms. Explain to your constituents why you’re against it—in all its forms—and then go after them one by one. Be the leader you wanted to be when you first imagined running for office. Be willing to lose an election for your dignitarian convictions. If you do lose, run for office a few years later, and win! To paraphrase Victor Hugo, dignity is an idea whose time has come.

9. Other professions: Show the world dignity through your profession.
If you’re an artist, expose rankism; put dignity on exhibit. If you’re a philosopher, define and deconstruct dignity. If you’re a psychologist, demonstrate the consequences of malrecogntion. If you’re a comedian, make us laugh at the double standards that apply to somebodies and nobodies. If you’re a filmmaker, give us heroes who overcome rankism without resorting to rankism. If you’re a songwriter, write an anthem for the dignity movement. If you’re a TV producer, stop exploiting humiliation and celebrating rankism. Sooner than you think, the staple of TV entertainment—humiliation—is going to feel as off-key as racism, sexism, and homophobia do today.

10. Be a Susan B. Anthony of the Dignity Movement.
In the 19th century, Susan B. Anthony traveled a million miles by train and gave 20,000 speeches advocating the enfranchisement of women. Sadly, she did not live to see the success of the suffragette movement she spearheaded (but her image is on the dollar coin). If you’re an organizer, create a chapter of the dignitarian movement in your area. Coordinate with other chapters and make them a national force under the slogan “no rankism” and the banner “dignity for all.” Programs to help the poor or end poverty will continue to fall short until those trapped in the underclass have found their voice and together insist on respect and equity. Do what Susan B. Anthony did for women and Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. did for African-Americans: help the victims of chronic indignity find an effective way to give voice to their plight and change the status quo.

A Dignitarian Manifesto

This post is a follow up to a conversation initiated by Doc Searls.

When it comes to politics, new language and new thinking are different things. Whatever new language progressives used in 2004 failed to change the electoral outcome, and at most it’ll help them eke out a few victories in the coming years. New language is like changing the window treatment, not the window, not the view, not the perspective.

What’s required for social change, and it could come from either party, is the kind of political realignment we get once every 50 years. Such realignment pulls a sizeable majority from the vast non-ideological, sensible middle of the political spectrum, and creates a real mandate for fundamental social change. Like those that FDR and LBJ presided over. Like the universal health care and campaign finance reform that we need now.

America may well be approaching another such tipping point. To actually tip, we need a core unifying idea to rally around, and equally we need a name for the situation we’ll no longer put up with. For the unifying idea I suggest the slogan “Dignity For All.” (The bumper sticker goes ‘Dignity4All’ and they’re being created by a woman in Kansas.) The constellation of behaviors and practices “up with which we will not put” all fall under the heading of rankism.

Rankism is defined as abuse of the power inherent in rank. It’s the culprit. It’s the cause of indignity. It’s the source of the most vexing political problems troubling Americans, from Katrina to Abu Ghraib to corporate corruption to bought politicians and elections. But most disturbingly, it is the cause of the emergence of an entrenched class locked in permanent poverty. America without the American Dream is not America … and the Dream is fast becoming a mirage. This trend must be reversed, and it’s going to take once-a-generation political realignment to do it.

The goal then is to build a dignity movement that provides grassroots support for democracy to make its next evolutionary step. In the sixties the step we needed was to overcome racism; in the seventies we trained our sights on sexism; now the challenge is to target rankism—in all its guises. And they are many: bully bosses, sexually abusive clerics, professors who “borrow” research results from graduate students or exploit them as assistants, politicians who threaten privacy and liberty, condescending doctors, arrogant bureaucrats, coaches who humiliate players. Wherever there is a hierarchy, it’s susceptible to abuse by power-holders of high rank.

But neither rank nor hierarchy are inherently, necessarily abusive. Actually, we admire, even love, people who earn high rank and handle it with grace and respect for those they outrank. What we cannot abide, what causes indignity, is abuse of rank. In a word, rankism. And we do need a word. It wasn’t until the women’s movement had the word “sexism” at its disposal that it made the gains it’s now known for: equal pay for equal work; the right to choose; Title IX, etc.

To bring about social change, it’s not enough to know what you’re for; you also have to know what you’re against. The dignity movement is for a dignitarian (not an egalitarian) society and it is against rankism.

That’s it in a nutshell. Like any far-reaching analysis of social justice, the full story is a longer, more complex one. This web site is a primer on the dignity movement. There’s a 1 minute video for those in a hurry. The full treatment (interpersonal and institutional rankism and how to confront them) can be found in my book All Rise.

The goal is to make rankism as defendable as racism has become, which is to say, not very. It didn’t used to affect your career advancement to be identified as racist or sexist, but now it stops you in your tracks. As the dignity movement gains momentum, it will be equally disadvantageous to be known as rankist. If you’re interested in joining the movement to help us bring that day closer, please let us know.

Corporations Block “Upward Voice”

Last week I had the honor of participating in a Workplace Diversity event held by the St. Anthony Foundation, which focused on the theme of “Somebodies and Nobodies”. The vexing question that came up repeatedly was how to create a workplace environment where it would be safe for employees to bring up problems. I have to admit that I’m not optimistic about protecting truth-speaking in the workplace. As long as human resources departments are charged with supporting management actions rather than advocating for subordinate employees, managers will be able to abuse their power and retaliate against employees for the slightest inconvenience.

While I was drawing on my own experience when I offered my opinion at St. Anthony’s, I’ve since found my impressions can be supported by a joint Harvard/Penn State study on fear in the workplace. I hope business leaders will think seriously about the outcome of this study and consider how worker silence could expose their organization to litigation, undermine productivity, and ultimately destroy their public reputation. It’s not just about alleviating employee stress and doing the right thing anymore: it’s about the bottom line. The culture of fear is bad for business. It’s time to initiate an open conversation, and the first thing to talk about is rankism.

Advice to Fight Bullying: Transforming Culture or Magical Thinking?

One of the most consistent tenets of the growing movement against bullying is to advise bystanders to side with the victim. While supporting targets of aggression is one of the core principles I live by, I’m concerned there is a certain amount of magical thinking involved since there is little to no honest discussion of the cost of standing against rank-based power.

In most occasions where I overtly supported the target of rankism, I became a target myself and suffered adverse consequences. The person in power perceived me as participating in a coalition “against” them and responded as if there was some growing threat. I once resigned for a job where the manager had started to find subtle ways to punish me when I refrained from supporting his attack another employee. The manager detected a pattern in which I always attempted to balance his criticism with a positive comment and dismissed my attempts to support the target as a sign of “special friendship”. A few years later, I was fired from a good job because I attempted to avoid being used in one manager’s scheme against another: just by trying to remain neutral, I was perceived as potentially disloyal and soon became the target of the manager’s scheming myself. In that same job I never received any acknowledgement for my attempts to advocate for mistreated people at the bottom of the heap.

Leading a life that’s dedicated to “siding with the victim” requires a great deal of self-sacrifice. Because of my choices, I’ve never made it past entry level jobs: skills, experience, and work ethic simply aren’t enough if you don’t cultivate the good will of those in power. I don’t have health insurance or any retirement savings (though I’ve been responsible about saving whenever I have work, I’ve need to tap these savings during periods of unemployment). I haven’t had a vacation, in the sense of being able to travel some place special, since 1993, when I had the good luck to be able to attend a 3-day academic conference in Santa Fe. I’ve been publicly smeared as well as materially harmed, so I don’t even get the reward of a public reputation for good works.

There are many things I would have liked to do with my life that I will never be able to do because I have made a habit of siding with the victims. I made all these choices with my eyes wide open. I knew that I would have to sacrifice my own interests to uphold my belief in what needs to be done to create a dignitarian society.

I’m the first to agree that encouraging children to side with the victim of bullying will help create a better society. It would be great to see more people practice siding with the victim in cases of workplace rankism as well: not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it models the behavior they want to pass on to their children and helps build a culture that will protect other people who dare to stand up for an underdog. However, the first step in promoting this behavior is being honest about the consequences.

Doing the right thing can be very costly, and there’s not always a karmic force or a greater community understanding that will compensate for that cost. If parents and teachers lie to children about these costs, and, worse, fail to model the behavior they preach, they will be perceived as hypocrites. This won’t create a culture that transcends rankism: it will create a culture of cynicism that treats the weak and the vulnerable in worse ways than ever before. Think about it: will children who learn through experience to associate doing good and maintaining their integrity with a life of ongoing punishment necessarily choose to stick with the “moral high road”? More realistically, they will end up in therapy complaining about how their parents lied to them and perhaps start indulging in ruthless Machiavellianism as the cure.

If we really want to alleviate rankism in society, the first thing to do is create institutional protections and occasional rewards for siding with victims and advocating for minority viewpoints. We need to reform the legal system so it once again functions as the recourse for justice for all citizens instead of a corporate tool. Just exhorting people to “side with the victim” and hoping that the spirit of good will ultimately trump power is an exercise in magical thinking.

Employers Snow Congress

Employers have been testifying to Congress that U.S. citizens refuse low status jobs. However, hiring managers and HR personnel are routinely telling job applicants that they are overqualified. What we most need in this country is a better way to connect workers to employment opportunities. Employers shouldn’t run to congress and complain about not being able to find employees when they’ve set up a system that rejects, discourages, and deflects most jobseekers.