What is Workplace Dignity?

“When we talk about birthright, we talk about the right of opportunity, the right of opportunity to succeed or fail on individual talents, developed unfettered by man-made barriers. This is what gives [a person their] dignity.”

Robert F. Kennedy, Carrollton, GA, May 26, 1964

Every person's dignity is protected as a fundamental human right

Dignity is at the heart of human rights work around the world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (Art. 1) and that “[e]veryone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind” (Art. 2).

These commitments to dignity and equality extend to the workplace. Thus, the UDHR commits to workers that they are entitled to “just and favorable conditions of work” and remuneration that allows them and their families to live dignified lives (Art. 23).

Taken together, these principles affirm a fundamental right to dignity at work for everyone, without distinction of any kind. It applies to all workers no matter the work they do or where they do it, regardless of race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, or any other characteristic.

“Some principles really are universal—and the most important one is the principle that we are bound together by a common humanity and that each individual has inherent dignity and worth.”

Building on Robert Kennedy’s legacy of human rights advocacy, we are reimagining the workplace.


Photo: David Hume Kennerly/Center for Creative Photography/University of Arizona

At RFK Human Rights, we believe that dignity is our common denominator. Bridging our differences, our shared dignity unites us. Our new program, Workplace Dignity, is dedicated to creating a new understanding of the workplace—and coaching organizations on how to achieve the powerful, positive outcomes of honoring dignity at work.

For RFK Human Rights, a focus on workplace dignity is also aligned with other RFK HR strategic focus areas -- our young leaders are the voice of a new generation of workplace leadership; human rights education is fundamental to our Speak Truth To Power work (and what teachers teach students now will inform who they are as future workplace contributors); engaging the business community means helping business leaders understand how they can make the business decisions in a more socially mindful way, align with human rights norms in those decisions, and make workplaces that they lead more positive and more healthy; and our broader human rights work (including influencing governments) encompasses the workplace (e.g., our recent work on behalf of farmworkers in NY State).

Efforts to advance dignity complement existing workplace initiatives

A dignity-centered organization honors its workers with its policies, practices, systems and structures, as well as through the actions its managers take on a day-to-day basis. It establishes a common understanding of language and values that creates a context for organizational decisions. Without such dignity consciousness, actions intended to enhance the employee experience may fail to affirm dignity and may even cause harm.

“While each of our individual companies serves its own corporate purpose, we share a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders,” the Business Roundtable said in a statement. “We commit to deliver value to all of them, for the future success of our companies, our communities and our country.”

Honoring dignity includes, though it is not limited to, respected workplace philosophies and practices that are clear indicators of a healthy workplace culture. Each of the following established workplace concepts is a central tenet of dignity.

Diversity

Honoring diversity in an organization is about respecting difference (race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, educational path, socioeconomic background, life experience, etc.) and supporting the expression of individual identity. The dignity-conscious organization strives to increase its diversity, valuing the greater problem-solving capability that a broad range of perspective brings. Honoring the dignity of individual team members recognizes and encourages the unique talents and experiences of each person—especially those in under-represented groups.

Inclusion and Belonging

Inclusion is the active and intentionally welcoming behavior that creates a feeling of being personally valued—despite individual differences—and reinforces the sense of belonging to a team. Inclusiveness catalyzes the potential power of diversity: when people belong, they feel empowered to make unique contributions and have more pride in the organization. Feeling connected, respected, and supported honors the dignity of team members and reinforces an atmosphere of inclusion and belonging.

Equity

Equity is about fairness and justice. It is about giving people what they need to succeed and recognizing that when it comes to opportunity, not everyone has equal access (access which may be contingent on historical, societal, or organizational circumstances—systemic racism being just one example). Dignity consciousness centers and grounds employees and amplifies their shared interest in a level playing field. We are all better when we are each considered.

Psychological Safety

A work environment in which one can speak up to share ideas, questions, concerns, or failures without feeling humiliated is psychologically safe. Members of safe teams are less likely to hide mistakes because they know they will not be shamed for them and will still be valued. Managers can lead by example (admitting error, acknowledging blind spots) and honor dignity by encouraging the open expression of ideas and thoughts. Psychological safety helps unlock the potential of diverse teams. (INSEAD)

Growth Mindset

A growth mindset is the conviction that talent can be developed and skills can be learned. Organizations that exhibit this mindset encourage employees to pursue learning, embrace challenges, and develop new skills. In contrast, a non-growth mindset views employees more statically, not appreciating their potential to take on new tasks and larger roles. A growth mindset honors dignity by recognizing employees’ value to the organization as potential and evolving.

Help Us Protect Human Rights

Please give now. Your contribution will make a difference in the critical effort to achieve equal rights for all.