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Dignity in the Workplace

By       Message Robert Fuller     Permalink
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As workplaces become dignitarian, rank becomes less rigid and fixed. While care must be taken not to assign it to someone lacking the necessary skill and competence, rank is likely to change on a task-by-task, or even hour-by-hour, basis. Faced with ever-shifting missions and circumstances, companies and organizations can reassign ranks to facilitate each new undertaking. There is no favoritism shown toward those temporarily serving in positions of high rank, and care is taken to protect the rights and privileges of those lower down on the totem pole.

5. Compensate Equitably

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No organization can claim to be dignitarian if the ratio of the highest to lowest paid employees exceeds a certain number. What is that number and how is it determined?

The ratio is usually decided by the board of directors or by its committee on compensation. Typically, such groups include highly paid, high-ranking executives from other companies. If they are not already friends of the CEO or president, the latter are in a position to build and strengthen those friendships by lavishing attention and perks on board members. Sometimes outside compensation experts are brought in to advise board members on executive compensation, but the board members know it is management who butters their bread, not shareholders.

The resulting inflation of executive salaries is implicit in John Kenneth Galbraith's wry and oft-quoted remark: "The salary of the chief executive of a large corporation is not a market award for achievement. It is frequently in the nature of a warm personal gesture by the individual to himself."

The average ratio of highest to lowest paid employees in the United States is in the hundreds. In Europe and Japan it is variously put at ten to fifteen, an order of magnitude less. It is rankism on the part of U.S. company directors, not the relative expertise of their CEOs, that accounts for this gross disparity.

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A dignitarian way to restore fairness in compensation is for the board to take into account the views of all stakeholders in the organization. In the corporate world, this includes employees, customers, and shareholders. In the academic world, it means students, faculty, staff, alumni, and perhaps a few representatives from the local community. In the nonprofit world, it is staff members, funders, and the community served by the organization.

Some companies have already begun the journey toward a fair compensation model that will be the centerpiece of a dignitarian workplace. Newsweek reports that at the grocery chain Whole Foods, executive salaries are capped at fourteen times the average worker's pay, leaving the CEO, whose stock holdings have made him a multimillionaire, with a salary of $342,000. In the same spirit, Ben and Jerry, the ice cream gurus and founders (and principal shareholders) of their successful firm, have limited their own salaries to seven times that of the janitors. Though these steps toward a dignitarian workplace are unlikely to be enforced when founders no longer control a company, they nonetheless represent significant milestones.

And what such trailblazers find when they give their workers a voice in management decisions and a stake in earnings is that the enterprise and everyone involved in it reaps significant benefits.

6. Delegate

Dennis Bakke, the author of Joy at Work, describes the company he cofounded and led--AES Corporation, a leading independent producer of electricity--as "a workplace where every person, from custodian to CEO, has the power to use his or her God-given talents free of needless corporate bureaucracy....Every decision made at the top is lamented as a lost chance to delegate responsibility--and all employees are encouraged to take the game-winning shot, even when it isn't a slam dunk." Bakke describes a model of a company that treats employees with respect, delegates power, and holds those who assume it accountable, and argues that this all makes good business sense.

7. Break the Taboo on Rank

Among the twenty "Breakthrough Ideas for 2005," the Harvard Business Review lists "A Taboo on Taboos." These include such old, familiar risque' subjects as sex, death, and God. But one taboo remains--one still too hot to touch in corporate America--and that is rank. Rank is the elephant in the boardroom and on the factory floor. As with other elephants that have sat in our living rooms, bedrooms, and schoolrooms over the years, we can learn to talk about it and in so doing relieve a lot of pain and eliminate dysfunctionality. We've learned to discuss race, gender, and sex. So, too, can we learn to discuss rank--its rights, its responsibilities, and especially the limits to those rights and responsibilities. Unless we talk about rank, we are powerless against rankism.

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Once rankism is on the table, it's harder to get away with it. The moment politicians recognize and acknowledge it as a problem, any rankism on their part will be seen as hypocrisy. And if there's one thing voters dislike in their public servants, it's hypocrisy.

Breaking the taboo on openly addressing the subject of rank and learning to recognize and call rankism by name are prerequisites to exposing our uses of power to public scrutiny and subsequently rejecting any that are judged likely to inflict indignity. This is what it means to build a dignitarian society.

8. Be Transparent

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Robert W. Fuller is a physicist, a former president of Oberlin College, and author of The Rowan Tree: A Novel. He has consulted with Indira Gandhi, met with Jimmy Carter regarding the president's Commission on World Hunger, worked in the (more...)

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