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Dignity in the Workplace

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Opacity, censorship, and secrecy are rankism's handmaidens. What can't be seen, what goes on behind closed doors, what's recorded in closed books, can't be effectively evaluated or criticized.

A simple thing like open budgeting can allay suspicion, yield savings, and create a sense of communal trust. We opened the books at Oberlin College when I was president during the 1970s and after a flurry of interest during which people satisfied themselves on various counts, attention shifted to other matters. But knowing that anyone could examine the budget at any time kept administrators on their toes and eliminated chronic distrust on the part of students and faculty. If a doubt arose at some point about finances, those concerned could just go see for themselves. This put a damper on rumor-mongering, too, because we could always point to the actual figures.

The secrecy in which compensation packages are typically cloaked in most organizations gives those who are privy to this information--high-level managers--an unfair advantage over everyone else. Extending transparency to budgets and compensation discourages favoritism, one of the most invidious forms of rankism.

9. Flatten Unnecessary Hierarchies

Although rank often serves a valid purpose--clarifying levels of authority and expediting decision making--when it's not needed to get the job done, its existence alone can foster rankist practices. All too often rank functions primarily to provide a specious rationalization for unwarranted distinctions in status, salary, and perks. Gerard Fairtlough's book The Three Ways of Getting Things Done: Hierarchy, Heterarchy, and Responsible Autonomy in Organizations describes various models, from pyramidal to flat, and the conditions under which each works best.

One way to get rid of rankism is, of course, the one that has long been promoted by egalitarians--eliminating rank altogether. My favorite example of an organization that went this route is the Juice Bar Collective in Berkeley, California, where I often get lunch. At this small business, which provides takeout dishes made from scratch, each of the nine members is paid the same $14 per hour and each has one vote on policy. Old-timers get a little deference from newer members when it comes to hours, but not much and not for long.

When I ask what it's like to work there, everyone says pretty much the same thing: "It's a family. We each have our own opinions but we're very supportive of each other. We're working for ourselves and none of us ever wants to work for a boss again."The newest member of the collective told me, "What a great business this is! I am a one-ninth owner of the enterprise. I love everyone I work with. It's hard work but it's also wrong to call it work. It's worth making less money to be happy and on equal footing in your work life."

One old-timer volunteered: "We think about the customer's health. We care about the people we're feeding. The customer is always right, but if one of them is outrageously rude we reserve the right to tell them to go home and cook their own food. We do not feel we deserve to be abused by customers who feel they aren't being served fast enough. We are human beings and we are giving you food and you are not higher than we are. That's the feeling of working at the Juice Bar."

Not far from the Juice Bar sits the Cheese Board, a sister collective founded by the same people and run according to similar principles. It sells cheeses from all over the world as well as bread and bakery goods made on the premises. Recently, as I paid for a scone, I asked the cashier what it's like to work there. She replied, "It's nice. I've been here for fifteen years. We own the place." Then she looked up with a wry smile and added pointedly, "We're not disgruntled workers!"

These two examples offer valuable models of successful small businesses with flattened hierarchies run by happy employees who are proud of their products. Dignity is implicit. It even seems to rub off on customers--a notably contented lot.

What about issues of diversity in a dignitarian workplace? The diversity that is increasingly common in today's work environment makes ridding the workplace of rankism all the more important. Abuse and discrimination that might be taken for granted between people in the same identity group are likely to be magnified when they involve people of different race, gender, and so on. As Art Kleiner, editor-in-chief of Strategy + Business, writes:

A growing body of academic work substantiates the presence of rankism and its destructive impact. Research by Toni Gregory of the Fielding Institute strongly shows that the ability to create a diverse workplace depends on building up the mental and emotional health of the people who work there, from the executives on down. Dr.Gregory says, "Rankism is one of the key blocks to...diversity-maturity: that emotional growth which a diverse workplace requires." Dr. David A. Thomas, an expert on diversity at the Harvard Business School, points out that businesses, in their haste to treat a diverse workforce equitably, lose something when they create a corporate culture that inadvertently promotes sameness and suppresses cultural differences.

As rankism is identified and rejected and dignity becomes secure, the differences that diversity brings to the workplace are welcomed.

The next step beyond a diverse workplace is a dignitarian one wherein cultural differences can be celebrated and tapped for the wisdom inherent in them instead of blandness being promoted out of fear of reigniting old prejudices.

A final example of flattening unnecessary hierarchy is provided by the decentralization practiced by MoveOn, the Internet-based, nonprofit political action group. The "MoveOn Way" is described by cofounder Wes Boyd:

MoveOn staff live all around the country, and no two people work in the same location. This is not an accident. It's an experiment in radical decentralization, sometimes called the "virtual office," that we believe has been an important part of our success. The experiment began when we engaged our first core team members and didn't require any of them to relocate to San Francisco. We soon discovered that decentralization gave us important advantages over traditional organizations.

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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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