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Dignity in the Workplace

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I have sometimes felt an undercurrent of resentment directed toward me because of my independent attitude. I know they want me to be a handmaiden, but I am fortunate enough to be able to choose to work only for people who respect me. I am acutely conscious, however, of how tough it is for those who have no other option but to put up with disrespect and antagonism.

By maintaining your dignity in the face of rankism you can sometimes stare it down. A forty-one-year-old office worker in Seattle writes:

After reading Somebodies and Nobodies, I quit a job full of rank abuse to find one that was free of it. In interviews I specifically asked about this issue and was pleasantly surprised by the interest in it. Not long after I accepted a position as development director for an interfaith association, it became clear to me that a long-term staff member was an unconscious rankist. In the absence of a name for her habitual disparagement of co-workers she'd been allowed to "just be her" for way too long. Her subordinates were miserable. But after we began to discuss the subjects of somebodies and nobodies and of rankism and dignity, her behavior changed markedly for the better.

Two years later, the same woman wrote again:

It's not just that my relationships with my superiors, my co-workers, and my friends have been changed--my relationship with myself has changed as well. Once my experiences with rankism were illuminated, I could understand why I had always felt frightened and unsure. Now I'm more confident and willing to stand up for myself. I've even enrolled in college--something that was unthinkable before.

It is essential to understand that rankism cannot be ended with more rankism. It can only be ended when people find a way to protect the dignity of their tormentors while at the same time suggesting to them a way to treat others with respect. The following success story is from a thirty-five-year-old salesman at a Silicon Valley company who had taken a management job--director of strategic alliances, at almost double his old salary--at a large, well-established software company. His response to chronic bullying there helped a perpetrator break an ingrained pattern of abuse toward his subordinates.

My enthusiasm quickly faded when I realized my boss, Ross, was a tyrant. My inability to confront him early on and establish my independence enabled him to become increasingly unpleasant. He would:

  • Cut me off midsentence during meetings with my colleagues.
  • Discount my opinions.
  • "Forget" to include me in conference calls with my partners.
  •  Force me to provide him with a detailed, to the minute daily plan.
  • Question my intelligence and dedication

Ross gave his team impossible goals and went ballistic when they weren't achieved. For over a year I thought about quitting despite the fact that the dot-com implosion had decimated the job market. But the very day I planned to announce my resignation, Ross began redirecting his wrath toward someone else.

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Then, after six months of relatively good treatment from him, there was a blowout. He came by my desk yelling some unreasonable demand, and when I protested, he became extremely aggressive and started verbally attacking me. The next time I saw him, I insisted that we go to Human Resources together. I was nervous and angry and once there, I realized my actions could cost me my job.

At first Ross was composed and pretended to be nice. But after about an hour his rage began to appear and it became obvious to the director of HR and even to Ross himself that he had unintentionally put his aggressive nature on display. He managed to calm himself and the meeting then took a turn: both he and I began treating one another with more respect. He even praised me for how much I'd grown and what a good job I was doing, while I acknowledged that his management style had improved prior to this last blowup.

This ended my difficulties with Ross. From then on he treated me with kindness and respect, and subsequently, when his stature in the company declined, I even felt sorry for him. I've never witnessed a more profound transformation in someone's personality. My experience with Ross taught me that rankist people can change.

A monthly newsletter with items on workplace and school bullying, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychiatric injury, and information about conferences and books on these subjects can be found online at bullyonline.org. Further evidence of the negative effects of bullying appears in a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in December 2002. It shows that rank-and-file members of the Air National Guard with abusive supervisors were more likely to perform only the minimum required of them. And in a study published by the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, also in December 2002, researchers found that the number of sick days taken by hospital employees bore a marked correlation to their perception of fairness--or the lack of it--in the workplace. There can be little doubt that abusive bosses are bad for both the health of workers and the bottom line of companies that employ them.

Academia and Civil Service

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The institution of tenure was established in response to arbitrary firings by administrators, often for personal or political reasons. Protecting workers and teachers from administrative rankism was and remains an essential goal. By broadening the group of secure individuals, tenure diffuses dominance hierarchies, and that's to the good. But achieving these ends by granting lifetime job security creates another problem--one whose financial cost has become unsustainable and whose moral cost, especially to the far greater numbers of the untenured, is no longer defensible. It is time to find a better solution to the vital need to enhance and extend academic freedom.

To be legitimate, rank has to be earned in a fair contest with all qualified comers. In practice, this means periodic requalification because with the passage of time, there are new aspirants who may be more competent. In violation of this principle, academic tenure gives professors a job for life just as civil service tenure does for government workers, regardless of their ongoing performance.

Non-accountability is a recipe for rankism. Recipients of tenure may well have earned and deserved renewal of their contracts, but lifetime appointments effectively bar others from even competing for those positions. The consequences for young applicants to a tenure-track position are no different from those that racial and gender discrimination has on blacks and women. Tenure now functions as the equivalent of a perpetual "Sorry, No Vacancy" sign to countless legitimate contenders for academic positions. John M. McCardell Jr., president emeritus of Middlebury College, Vermont, observes: "Why must institutions make a judgment that has lifetime consequences after a mere six or seven years?...Why not a system of contracts of varying length, including lifetime for the most valuable colleagues, that acknowledges the realities of academic life in the twenty-first century?...Today, almost every negative tenure decision is appealed....Few if any of these appeals have as their basis a denial of academic freedom."

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Have you experienced rankism where you work? Did y... by Robert Fuller on Thursday, Oct 10, 2013 at 2:41:08 PM
dear  Mr. FullerYour article is too long. It ... by Mark Sashine on Thursday, Oct 10, 2013 at 3:10:55 PM
This country  is in crisis  of &nbs... by Mark Sashine on Thursday, Oct 10, 2013 at 3:32:08 PM
Hello Mark, Yes, it is a chapter from my book "All... by Robert Fuller on Thursday, Oct 10, 2013 at 4:55:37 PM
Considering that I applied to Oberlin College to b... by Mark Sashine on Friday, Oct 11, 2013 at 7:41:39 AM