Our Voices

Honoring Workplace Dignity During a Global Pandemic

Our current global pandemic has created a dire public health emergency. At the same time, it has strained workplaces and their employees everywhere—physical places of work have given way to virtual ones, job loss or fear of it has become rampant, pay and insurance are at risk, and service workers across many industries continue to provide services often putting their own health in jeopardy.

As federal (and global) stay-at-home guidelines lengthen for many and state restrictions expand, the time for workplace leaders to act is now.

RFK Human Rights cares about these issues because human rights don’t end at the workplace door, whether during this pandemic or any other time. And that means the physical workplace, the remote workplace or the interrupted workplace for someone on a leave.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights tells us this. The UDHR protects our dignity—our inherent value and worth. It commits us to ensuring “just and favorable conditions of work.” Honoring workplace dignity advances that commitment. And with people spending at least one-third of life at work, work then becomes a major source of dignity in our lives—or a place where it is at real risk of violation.

As our recent collaboration with global advisory firm Willis Towers Watson made clear, “[a] culture of workplace dignity promotes an environment in which employees can experience a sense of self-respect, pride and self-worth, and it influences an organization’s ability to foster wellbeing, engage talent and drive business results.” (Read the report.)

So what does this mean as we face a worldwide health pandemic?

It means we can be dignity conscious, recognizing that many things are actually within our control.

As our friend Donna Hicks, author of the workplace-focused “Leading with Dignity” and expert on international conflict resolution, writes in that book: When dignity matters for an organization, it means it is “a dignity-conscious company that recognizes the importance of treating ourselves, each other, and the customers we serve in a way that honors their value and worth and the significant role they play in the organization.”

Hicks goes on to explain that: “Dignity [is] our highest common denominator—it is where we can find connection and compassion for one another, no matter our differences. . . It is a shared human yearning with which we can all identify.”

Recognizing the immediate need for connection and compassion in this moment, certain opportunities to demonstrate dignity consciousness become clear. Right now, we can choose to prioritize workplace dignity and commit to actions that advance it. No group of suggestions can be exhaustive, cover every workplace type or anticipate all necessary actions. Nor do they leave government action off the hook of steps necessary to protect workers. Our goal here for workplace leaders is to motivate deliberate thinking, spur on meaningful action and open a dialogue with others who are confronting these issues in their own unique and creative ways. Draw from the commitments set out here, and help bring greater connection and compassion to the workplaces that we lead.

Workplace Dignity Commitments

  • We can choose to lead with kindness and humility, and encourage others to follow our example. Take a moment in a team meeting to share acts of kindness people have experienced—or given—during this time. Listen to understand and don’t fake interest. Step back and let others speak up.
  • We can double-down on workplace anti-bias commitments and policies and discuss them. We can call out biased, charged or exclusionary terms (“Chinese virus”, “I’m in a jail”; “now I know what house arrest is like”). We can check in on colleagues who are in communities that may be affected by such jargon elsewhere in their lives, whether based on their ethnicities or where they live. Recognize, for example, that this moment may be particularly hard for colleagues from China or Asian-American co-workers.
  • We can be visible (even if “virtual”), and communicate often and without hiding difficult news. We can signal vulnerability not needless stoicism, and encourage a safe environment for others to speak up.
  • We can stop and reflect, be patient and diffuse rather than ignite conflict. This is crucial given the strain that permeates the lives of everyone in ways known and unknown—people are dealing with financial fears, health concerns, household management and food-on-the-table challenges, unexpected family or caregiving responsibilities, unavoidable distractions and much more. On top of that, many are lonely. Now is the time to cut people a bit of slack when potential misunderstanding, confusion or missteps might occur.
  • We can recognize good efforts, and give proper credit for new ideas that strengthen the team. We can encourage open discussion about already set team or organizational goals and deliverables in light of obstacles or challenges now presented. After all, what was in the 2020 plan as of January may well need to be revamped—needless stress will likely set in if this is not confronted directly and early. Same, too, for individual goals that may have been earlier set. Some companies, for example, have changed how they approach performance ratings for the first half of the year. We can take time, too, to appreciate the efforts of Human Resources and other internal operations (facilities, IT) colleagues, who, in organizations that have such teams, are on the front lines of the workplace response.
  • We can appreciate that remote work, where being utilized, can and should be paired with, in the words of a friend of mine, remote humanity. Encourage creative connectivity, such as video or group chats or “socials”, prioritize regular check-ins especially with individuals in challenged locations, and commit to maintaining newly deepening connections. We have found in our own organization that a benefit of virtual lunches, workouts and the like is the new understandings of each other that we form; we should strive not to lose them. At the same time, leaders should be sensitive to the technology constraints that some staff might have while at home (internet access, lack of personal equipment, etc.)—open discussion about such things is valuable. Also consider whether a co-worker in, say, the Italy office could use a hello or a check-in. Our organization has an affiliate in Rome and we are quite focused on reaching out to colleagues and friends there.
  • We can be mindful of others’ time, schedules and coping challenges, especially those with ongoing, new, or changing caregiving responsibilities. Flexibility around meetings and the like is key—those fortunate to be able to work from home may be figuring out moment-to-moment how to manage care for a relative, parenting, logistics around an impending childbirth or medical procedure, or any range of related matters. And they may now be juggling small make-shift work spaces, competing needs for space among roommates and family members, and more. There is a big difference between working from home here and there and a very extended period of doing so. Demonstrating understanding of these challenges creates empathy and understanding.
  • We can showcase relevant workplace benefits and resources, like assistance programs and local mental health support options. Yes, they may be available on a shared doc or intranet site, but now is the time to re-communicate and make things easier for others where we can. Think about offering help, information or financial support on managing ergonomics and supply issues while working from home.
  • We can think doubly (triply!) hard about furlough or termination decisions (and their timing) and consider alternatives like paid leave, reduced hours, reassignments and internal or cross-company mobility, job shares, and cost containment (including short-term or other reductions to executive pay).
  • We can communicate honestly and compassionately – in words and in manner – if job loss decisions are made, offer outplacement services, stay connected with furloughed employees and contractor partners and, particularly in the case of community-centered workplaces, consider launching supportive Go Fund Me or gift card campaigns (in particular, many local businesses and restaurants—each with their own workforces—have started these) meant to help workers.
  • We can commit to using any federal or other monetary relief assistance to support, properly compensate and retain workers and give back to the community—not bolster executive pay.
  • We can discuss these same opportunities with supply chain partners, knowing that their workers are supporting our businesses and that those workers face many of the same issues, sometimes in even more acute ways. Supplier Codes of Conduct exist; review them to determine opportunities to influence supply chain workplace practices, including through agreement amendments.
  • We can ensure that still-open workplaces, especially now, are clean, safe, and healthy, and tell workers how this is being done. We can show heightened support for and engagement with workers who are showing up while others in the same organization are at home—consider outdoor meetings for fresh air and more space, enhanced pay, paid sick leave, staggered or additional breaks, more break areas, and direct acts of gratitude.
  • We can reconfirm interview schedules for any still active open job positions, use video capabilities (but, again, not assume all have them!) and ask whether accommodations are needed.
  • We can honor the dignity of workers in workplaces other than our own. Take time to support and show appreciation for health, safety and service (delivery, sanitation, postal, food, customer support) workers, educators and journalists in our communities, knowing that their active “on the front lines” work is often at risk to themselves. Tip generously. Leave a note or a gift for your postal carrier or sanitation team. Email a teacher. Purchase a newspaper or journal subscription. Support a local Go Fund Me effort. Thank the team at your local supermarket and consider supporting smaller markets or restaurants temporarily offering grocery items. Letting someone know that they are seen and appreciated honors their dignity.

In a piece earlier this month in the Yale University Press Blog, Hicks emphasized that honoring the dignity of others can be seen as an act of generosity. Making a commitment today to be generous in action and in spirit to those we work alongside or who, with the services they continue to provide, are helping us move our lives through this moment a little more easily, shows dignity consciousness. And it allows us to answer a question Hicks ultimately poses in a way we can be personally and emphatically proud of: “What did I do to make a positive contribution when the world was in such a state of upheaval?”

How are you committed to honoring #WorkplaceDignity in this moment? Share your commitment today.

Jeffrey Siminoff is Senior Vice President at RFK Human Rights. He and his team are focused on connecting RFK Human Rights’ legacy of human rights work, and the values that underlie it, to the workplace through a focus on honoring dignity. These efforts, supported in part by a generous grant from the Tramuto Foundation, will drive change in the workplace through actionable tools and content for organizations, leaders, and individual contributors, among a range of future initiatives.