“When did people become disposable?”

A couple of weeks ago I enjoyed a long conversation over lunch with John-Robert Curtin, an educator, conflict resolution specialist, and media executive who is dedicated to fostering better workplaces. During the course of our conversation, J-R (as he likes to be called) repeated a question that has stuck with me, because it transcends so many societal settings, ranging from the workplace to international relations: When did people become disposable?

In the employment realm, disposability continues to manifest itself in so many ways, especially during this era of the economic meltdown, the effects of which continue to haunt average folks despite the performance of the stock market. Whether we’re talking large-scale layoffs while CEOs collect year-end bonuses, workers bullied or mobbed out of their jobs by co-workers, or horrific working conditions for those toiling in developing countries, this dynamic is very much a part of our modern systems of employment relations.

How can we reverse the moral, ethical, and psychological forces that allow us to treat people like this, denying their dignity and depriving them of good, safe jobs? Among many other things, we need to expand this conversation and our realm of influence to help make it so. This is why I am pleased to be a Fellow with the International Center for Compassionate Organizations, having accepted an invitation from Center co-founders Ari Cowan (Executive Director), Tony Belak (Associate Director), and J-R (Governing Committee member) to serve in this advisory capacity. The Center describes its mission this way:

The International Center for Compassionate Organizations is a nonprofit organization registered in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, USA. The International Center focusses on fostering cultures of compassion in government, business, healthcare systems, service agencies, colleges and universities, schools, faith groups, and other organizations worldwide. The Center responds to the emerging trend among a broad range of organizations seeking to incorporate compassion as a value and practice in their relationships with their staff, colleagues, board members, customers, and communities. The Center develops practical research, resources, education, consulting, coaching, and conferences. It takes a nonpolitical, evidence-based, and public health approach, and assists organizations to effectively improve employee engagement, productivity, staff retention, profitability, and customer satisfaction.

Later this year, J-R and I will be presenting on a panel on coaching as an intervention strategy for workplace bullying (with Ivonne Moreno-Velazquez and Jessi Eden Brown) at the biennial “Work, Stress and Health” conference, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology. This year’s conference will be held on May 6-9 in Atlanta.

10 responses

  1. Funny you should ask because I have been asking myself that question for many years and I certainly do not have an optimistic answer though I would love to have one. It’s my belief that it all boils down to our selfish culture and how our nation has neglected it’s citizens. We’ve been flushed as a nation and we are at a boiling point of having too many miserable people in this “one time great nation”. I see too much “me, me, me mentality” in our government, work and at home where people are willing to step all over family and so called friends to get what they want. Just look at how people are willing to let people suffer and how families treat their elderly and disabled family members. There is something terribly wrong with our culture. Miserable people bully other people and lose their integrity because their moral tank is on empty. If you have traveled much it becomes obvious that it is a cultural problem. It personally think we have been flushed and I absolutely do not see it improving as much as I absolutely hate to say that.

  2. But will this organisation press for higher, fairer salaries? A workplace may successfully be regulated so that bullying, mobbing, and patronising/other rotten managerial behaviour is stamped out, but the salary issue will remain. They may smile more, and pat you on the back more, but say at the end of the year, with a polite smile: “Sorry, you are still worth no more than this salary (that I know I couldn’t possibly live on let alone plan for the future on).” Ultimately, what is going to happen to all these underpaid workers when they get old and weak, unable to commute, carry heavy computers, etc, etc? How will society care for them? Will the big cheeses be there to help? No way – but they will have done their one day’s community service every year for their company. Isn’t that enough for such busy, important people?

    • I don’t know how explicitly the Center will be involved in compensation issues. But I think we should be glad for what it is, i.e., an organization that plants seeds of compassion rather than cruelty in our various societal institutions. There are plenty of other more traditional labor organizations advocating for wage equity, such as Jobs with Justice, another of my favorites.

    • MADAGASCAR24, I read your post and, for me, it raises an important point. Those in power can practice greater compassion – but how that helps to equal the playing field (fair wages, etc.) really remains to be seen. For me, the idea that employers show greater ‘compassion’ – in some ways – just accentuates that they are “in power” and that we continue to be ‘dependent’ on their good will (or lack thereof) vs. on actual justice in the workplace. Now, having said this, I think it’s better to have these efforts (i.e., work for greater compassion) than not. Perhaps they will contribute to building a greater foundation of justice, but I do think you’ve raised an important point about ‘core’ issues. Thank you.

      • Thanks for exploring and unpacking my comment, DR, and also well said. Compassion in the workplace is so easily a pretence, that need not be followed with any real changes – i.e. no changes to the effective results of discriminatory behaviour. The latter just goes underground and is no longer grinning on the surface.

  3. Pingback: “When did people become disposable?” | susankoons

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