Who needs dignity at work?

What does dignity mean to you and why do we need it in the workplace?

It seems that everyday stories about bullying and harassment and discrimination appear in the news. On social media feeds and in the press.

Is there more of it happening? Is it being reported more? Are more people able and willing to stand up to it and shout out about it?

Inappropriate behaviour in the workplace – why does it happen and what can we do to stop it?

I’m not about to go into the why. It should be noted that some research seems to be showing that bullying provides, amongst other things, improved social status relative to where they started.

What can we do stop it?

Often attempts to stop inappropriate behaviour focus on describing these behaviours and banning them. Followed by describing the consequences of this behaviour.

These approaches don’t work if they don’t reflect the culture of the organisation. Or are implemented as stand-alone policies with little or no support from leaders.

A different approach is to promote dignity at work.

At face value dignity is pretty straightforward and dignity at work an obvious concept.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines dignity as:


Wikipedia defines dignity as:

… the right of a person to be valued and respected for their own sake, and to be treated ethically. It is of significance in morality, ethics, law and politics as an extension of the Enlightenment-era concepts of inherent, inalienable rights. The term may also be used to describe personal conduct, as in “behaving with dignity”.

Dignity at Work

When it comes to dignity at work the concept becomes a little less clear. Many organisations and businesses (both in the public and private sectors) fall back on anti-bullying definitions. These then focus on unwanted behaviours and characteristics – such as:

“a workplace free from bullying, intimidation, harassment or victimisation” – UCL

“To a workplace free from bullying, harassment or victimisation” – the CPS

“This includes providing an environment free from harassment, bullying, discrimination or abuse from colleagues or service user” – the NHS

“Any form of discrimination, harassment, victimisation or bullying within the workplace will not be tolerated” – Toyota  

All these policies reference the need to behave appropriately but then descend into defining that behaviour by the negative. There then follows pages of definitions, instructions, roles and responsibilities, actions and sanctions.

The right language?

It is not being argued that definitions about unwanted behaviours (and processes) aren’t important or needed. The point is that dignity at work should be about promoting wanted behaviours and should reflect the culture. It should be as important as organisational values. If appropriate behaviours can be defined by the negative, why can’t inappropriate behaviours be defined by the positive?

The promotion of dignity in the workplace should recognise the right of all employees to be treated with dignity and respect and then define what means for the organisation. Anti-bullying and discrimination need their own policies as part of how the organisation deals with conflict and complaints.

Workplace culture

Dignity in workplace culture is often under-recognised and Dr. Donna Hicks, an associate at the Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs at Harvard University, argues here that conflicts in business and international diplomacy have the same common denominator: our human reaction to the way we are being treated.

In the article and interview she explains that:

Dignity is something we are born with — it is our inherent value and worth” and “Honouring dignity is not so simple. We may all be born with dignity, but we are not born knowing how to act like it. It has to be learned.

Finding a suitable policy that better reflects a positive approach to dignity has proven harder than I first thought!


what does good look like?

An interesting example is Windstream, a FORTUNE 500 company, a leading provider of advanced network communications and technology solutions. They promote working with integrity as a way of integrating their vision, beliefs and values – which includes a statement to “Cultivate a climate of dignity, trust and respect for all”.

The document does cover process and sanction – by providing an overview – but it is very upfront with its description of appropriate actions, responsibilities and how to behave.

Very few other organisations talk about dignity and respect in a positive manner. Some examples where it does happen include the work of D. Carriere & Associates in Canada; the Balance Careers in the US; and Northern Ireland.

Talking in detail only about negative behaviours can’t be the only way. There are no doubt many legal, regulatory and organisational reasons. This is despite the rising evidence that prevention and training and policy-setting is not working – see my blog on the subject of regulation. Is there another way? One that complements legal compliance with one that treats employees as adults?

You’ll need to read the next blog on the subject – coming soon!

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