Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Posts Tagged ‘Dignity

Respect and Dignity

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Asking an employee population whether they are treated with respect and dignity has been part of employee surveys for a long time. 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. While some argue that it is a double barreled concept, it would be really impossible to treat someone with dignity, but without respect, and likewise if you are being respectful, dignity would, it would seem by necessity, tag along. As a gestalt, respect and dignity are two sides of the same coin.

I will deal with the dignity side of the coin here. 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”. [i] Freedom to create one’s life story requires freedom from oppression, and has within that notion both rights and obligations. One right is of control over oneself and one’s body and an obligation would be to take responsibility for your behaviors and actions – for your future.

Maintaining dignity in the world of work, using that definition, will be a balancing act. If dignity is about the right to choose, as one enters an employment situation one is giving up at least some dignity, in that you are working not necessarily to your own ends, on your own initiatives, but on organizationally defined goals and often on an organizationally defined schedule.

While the emphasis and enshrinement of dignity in the modern age largely was the result of the horrific abuses of human dignity in WWII, and today the only constitution that defines human dignity as an unassailable absolute right is the German Constitution in reaction to those abuses, the sense that humans have and should be treated with dignity is an ancient precept. The ancient Greek and Roman philosophers spent time with the notions of dignity, assigning human’s dignity because of their 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[ii]. Judaism and Christianity believe that mankind was made in god’s image and because of that, mankind, as a reflection of god’s image has dignity. There are religions that do not believe that mankind was created in god’s image, but because mankind was created by god, and given the ability to think, we have a dignified (rank) special place. In Islam for instance because mankind is a creation of god a person should not be harmed, for if you harm another human you are harming god. 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.

Needless to say 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, health care etc. your dignity in your society is measure against those that do have access to those items. 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, its meaning and your relative standing being solely derived from the society in which you are embedded. Organizations are nothing more than encapsulated mini-societies.

From an organizational measurement and performance perspective that is where 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, 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 (those referent points can be teased out) to the organization. And across a large number of people you will in all likelihood receive a range of responses, if the question is asked the right way and your scale is sensitive. You can take that range of responses and throw them against absolute business metrics such as turnover, customer satisfaction (depending on how measured can be relative or absolute), sales success etc. to determine which of the metrics are impacted by the relative treatment of people. And inferentially within your organization you can determine which specific policies, practices and processes are enhancing people’s sense of dignity, which are decreasing it and which simply have no bearing on the matter. And ultimately you can determine how to best impact people’s sense of being treated with respect and dignity, a human fundamental, and the financial benefit or cost of doing so.

Note: New blog postings from me have been few and far between this year. The reason is that I have been writing a book, co-authored with Scott Brooks, titled “Creating the Vital Organization; Balancing Short-term Profits with Long-term Success.” It is due out in mid-2016 by Palgrave.

[i] 2015, Barak, A. Human Dignity: The Constitutional Value and the Constitutional Right, Cambridge Press.

[ii] Soka Gakki International website. 12/09/2015,

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

December 9, 2015 at 11:53 am

Respect as a Commodity

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IBM factory employees, more than 1000 of them, are on strike in China. These are workers associated with a piece of IBM that made servers which was recently sold to another company, Lenovo, for 2.3 billion dollars. When you hear about a story like this, your mind is immediate drawn to working conditions or salary as a potential point of contention and the reason why the workers may have walked off the job. But as the New York Times reports (3/6/2014) the workers on strike were carrying banners with phrases such as, “Workers are not a commodity,” and “Give us back our respect.” When I first saw this I was a little surprised. But then as I thought about it, it made complete sense.

Pay, benefits and physical conditions are often the driving force of labor unrest when they are felt to be poor or substandard. And there are certainly plenty of workers in China who still toil under horrible conditions with low pay. However, as the article points out, in the last decade the average worker salary has risen 5 fold in China. And as the Chinese population growth continues to slow workers are not queuing up like they were for each opening, requiring jobs to be more attractive to entice people. The upward tick in pay and conditions has likely removed them or shifted them to a lower priority on the typical grievance list. In a standard Maslow hierarchy fashion, the more middle class standards that the workers now enjoy has shifted their concerns from physical needs to higher order needs such as respectful treatment.

Interestingly in the USA, up until fairly recently, when workers went on strike it was often about treatment. Then with the decline of pension plans, cuts to wages, as well as an increasing health care burden being shouldered by employees, labor unrest began to turn back towards the basics of pay and benefits. A few years ago, in 2005, when subway workers in NYC walked off the job it was all about pensions and health care as the union wanted to resist “roll backs” in the standards of pay and benefits that their members had previously received. Union workers, by the way, often rate pay and benefits more favorably on employee surveys because in general unions have been successful at getting higher levels of pay and benefits for their workers. And when you pay a worker more they rate that pay more favorably. Go figure.

I am not going to argue that pay and benefits are no longer an issue for workers around the world. In many places around the world there has been a “race-to-the-bottom” with transnational corporations searching out the lowest costs of labor to build products or provide services. And their freedom to allocate resources across borders has made that search global in nature. Workers, with more restrictive mobility to move across national boundaries, cannot relocate as easily to areas with labor shortages where pay rates would presumably be higher. This imbalance, where corporations can relocate more easily than workers, creates only a semblance of a free market with the advantage belonging to the corporations. Certainly in the USA with stagnant wages, pay and benefits are once again becoming more and more of an issue. Global Employment Trends, put out by the International Labor Organization states that in 2011 approximately 30% of the world’s workforce earned less than $2 per day and 14% earned less than $1.25 per day, defined as extreme poverty. So pay and benefits are going to stay a global issue for the foreseeable future.

When a workers is walking a picket line with a sign that says “Workers are not a commodity” what exactly do they mean? A fungible worker is someone who can be substituted by another worker with the same skill sets and ability. With fungible workers it does not matter if I have worker A or worker B, as they are the equivalent and can both do the job as assigned.  A fungible worker is a commodity. If they leave they are easily replaced and they are laid off or rehired as conditions require. If something is a commodity, like milk or a loaf of bread, I want to buy it at the lowest possible price. People though don’t want to be treated as though they are nothing more than a gallon of milk.

A while back for a Fortune 50 firm that was rapidly expanding through Asia I was hired to help them understand the differing drivers of what would make them an “employer of choice” in various Asian countries. Since they were a USA headquartered company we used the USA employees as a control group and were looking for differences by country. While there were slight differences country by country (mostly in dimension rank order and not dimension inclusion), the largest difference was found to be in China and it was on the notion that the company becomes part of the employee’s “family” along with a greater sense of community or we are all in this together, than was found elsewhere. So beyond being engaged with their work, these employees in China felt that the workplace was part of their family, part of how they defined themselves. So here you have IBM selling off part of their family to another company and the employees did not like it.

This notion of “company as family” is not restricted to China. In many organizations in the USA, especially small ones, perhaps still run by founders, you get employees stating that the company feels like family. A sense of we are all in this together. And as the company grows, and perhaps founders retire, they begin to lose that sense and it is quite common to have employees complain that what is wrong with the company is the loss of this sense of family.

When the IBM workers on the picket line in China ask for their respect back, they are quite possibly asking for their family back.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

March 7, 2014 at 4:52 pm

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