Donna Hicks: Demand dignity, earn respect


According to Dr. Donna Hicks, dignity is a quality we all possess by virtue of being human, while respect is something that we must earn.

Hicks is the author of the excellent Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflict (2011), a book I’ve recommend before on this blog. On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of attending her luncheon talk at Boston’s Union Club, where she shared some of her core ideas about dignity.

Her distinction between dignity and respect was one of many thought-provoking observations during her talk. She explained that everyone should expect, nay, demand, to be treated with dignity. As for respect, that esteem must be earned by our conduct.

She added that we should endeavor to treat with dignity even those we do not necessarily respect, while conceding that this is easier said than done.

“Dignity violations” at work

Hicks, a researcher at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard, comes from a professional background of international conflict resolution. However, she now readily applies her dignity framework to all settings, including the workplace.

In that context, she referred to “dignity violations” that occur commonly within workplaces. She cited neuroscience research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show that dignity violations and physical wounds cause similar harmful impacts. Accordingly, when consulting with organizations and their leaders, she urges them to listen to employees and to take their concerns seriously.

Seven years of hard thinking

Dignity is a slim volume of some 220 pages. Nevertheless, Hicks shared with us that it took her seven years to think through the concept of dignity to the point where she could finish the book. Those qualities of contemplation showed in her talk. And during the lively Q&A, she engaged the questions and comments, rather than responding with pre-packaged answers.

It goes to show: When wrestling with something as complicated as dignity, a slap-dash approach is not recommended.


To learn more, take a look at Dr. Hicks’s new Declare Dignity website.


Thank you to Ellen Pinkos Cobb for her invitation to attend the luncheon. Ellen is an attorney, consultant, and author of Bullying, Violence, Harassment, Discrimination and Stress: Emerging Workplace Health and Safety Issues, a global compilation and summary of laws concerning workplace aggression, now updated (2012) and available on It’s a terrific resource.


A few years ago, I examined some of the legal issues related to dignity at work in “Human Dignity and American Employment Law,” University of Richmond Law Review (2009), freely downloadable here. I wish that Dr. Hicks’s book would’ve been available when I was writing this piece, and it would’ve benefited greatly from incorporating her perspectives.

I’ll be addressing some of the dignity-related aspects of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill I authored in a future blog post.

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