Donna Hicks on dignity

Donna Hicks is an international affairs professor at Harvard and author of Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflict (2011). I thought I’d share this short passage from her Introduction (p.4):

Dignity is a birthright. We have little trouble seeing this when a child is born; there is no question about children’s value and worth. If only we could hold onto this truth about human beings as they grow into adults, if only we could continue to feel their value, then it would be so much easier to treat them well and keep them safe from harm. Treating others with dignity, then, becomes the baseline for our interactions.

Applying this to the workplace

What if treating employees with dignity became “the baseline for our interactions” at work? How much would the experience of work improve, leading to a happier, healthier, more productive, and more loyal workforce?

In the U.S., we’re still at a point where urging the embrace of human dignity by our systems of employment relations may get you branded as a left-wing idealist who doesn’t understand the market needs and competitive values of the modern workplace.

But what if we elevated human dignity to its proper role in society, including making it the framing concept for how we govern the workplace?

At the very least, what harm can it do to imagine the possibilities?


Hicks invokes my friend and colleague Evelin Lindner, founder of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies Network, which I have mentioned many times on this blog.

I explore some of the legal & policy issues related to dignity at work in “Human Dignity and American Employment Law,” University of Richmond Law Review (2009), freely downloadable here.

3 responses

  1. Thanks, David. This is such an important message and links to wonderful and hopeful resources. In my career as an RN, the issue of dignity is so integral to providing compassionate and safe care for our patients and
    support for us. It is sadly often lacking.

    As a consultant and author specializing in communication and work culture I see a profound link between respectful listening and human dignity. When we validate someone, regardless of whether we agree with them or not, whether we are in leadership, friendship, co-worrker relationships, we are honoring their very existance. It is such a simple and powerful act. It even transcends major cognitive limits when caring for folks with dementia.

    When we don’t validate others, it seems polarizing and a precurser to power struggles and intense emotional pain. As if our voice being heard is life itself.

    I’d like to share a couple of links to my own blogposts with more info (hoping that is ok):

    Communication Tip for Working or Living with Folks Who Have Alzheimer’s or Other Dementia

    Disruptive Behavior, Bullying, Incivility-Workplace Abuse: A Glossary of Violence

    I’m always grateful for your work,


  2. Thanks for this post, David. I just ordered Dr. Hicks’ book.

    Through my studies and work in the area of conflict, I’ve come to believe that all conflict results from the perception that differences are threatening followed by the assumption that differences must be mutually exclusive. This perception is an inherent part of our default, fear-based survival instinct. Where this default reaction gets us in trouble is through our failure to question and/or test our perceptions and assumptions.

    Determining whether conflict is real or merely perceived requires: 1) self-reflection, and 2) dialogue. For a myriad of reasons (too many to go into in the forum), most of us neglect these two steps and, instead, react to differences in a competitive, adversarial mode – which in turn, tends to perpetuate and escalate the unchecked, perceived “conflict.”

    Take care.

  3. Thanks for the dignity discussion, David!!!

    As you note, it would be wonderful to make dignity a framing concept in how we govern the workplace!

    What if we could cultivate 360 degrees of dignity in the workplace?! I have a hunch that this would enhance productivity, efficiency, and job satisfaction for all!

    Congratulations, David, on your valuable blog highlighting these crucial workplace topics!!!

    Kind regards,

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