The research is clear: a persistent gap sits between what employees report they are experiencing and what employers believe their workplace and culture are delivering. In fact, while over 80% of employers believe that employees are treated with dignity and respect at their organization regardless of their job, role or level, only 65 percent of employees agree. And when it comes to feeling safe to speak up, the gaps are even worse. In short, and as noted in a 2022 Deloitte report, while a vast majority of leaders think they're caring and employees are thriving, nearly half their people disagree.
So it was with this in mind that I was eager to attend and lead a conversation at the Society of Human Resources Management INCLUSION 2022 Conference in San Diego last month. SHRM is the largest HR and related professional association in the United States, and the conference brought together business, diversity-equity-inclusion and HR leaders to share tools, know-how, and best practices to create a more equitable world of work.
As the leader of a new Workplace Dignity program at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, I know that organizations that honor the dignity of their workers – as individuals and human beings – are more engaging, more equitable, and ultimately more successful. I was privileged to join Chipotle’s Vice President of People Experience and Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer to discuss how diversity, equity, and inclusion are critical elements of a dignity-centered workplace, and how these efforts can be advanced through day-to-day leadership and structural interventions that affect the entire employment experience.
The “What”: Workplace Dignity, Inclusion and Related Efforts
People spend countless hours at work – one-third of their lives or more! That makes work a key influencer on meaning, purpose and value or sense of worth in our our lives. So when our dignity – our inherent value and worth – is not advanced (or, worse, diminished) at work it really matters.
As the Wall Street Journal has reported, Gallup found that dignity-centering leaders retain employees, thus reducing rehire costs. Gallup also found that it took a pay raise of more than 20 percent l to hire most employees away from a leader who engaged them, and a Catalyst survey found that 57 percent of white women and 62 percent of women of color who feel their company respects and values their life circumstances have either never or rarely thought of leaving. Prioritizing dignity is also a recruiting lever, as job candidates care deeply about workplace dignity drivers like fairness, equity, and inclusion. Finally, workplace dignity is the right thing to focus on. Much is given by workers, and in return their workplaces should have a culture that honors their dignity, drives inclusion and belonging, promotes equity, and offers equal opportunity.
While legal frameworks and human rights principles, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, anchor workplace expectations (like the UDHR’s commitment to “just and favorable” conditions of work and remuneration that promotes a dignified life), it is the day-to-day actions of leaders and organizational structures that affect actual employee experience. A dignity-centered workplace harnesses the power of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) as part of the holistic delivery of a workplace experience that allows all workers to thrive no matter the work they do or where they do it.
Our SHRM conversation drilled down on (a non-exhaustive!) action-oriented, tactical discussion of how-to’s. On the “day-to-day” side, we emphasized the importance of leaders finding visible and intentional ways of valuing team members’ differences, managing team meetings inclusively, fostering safe (physically, psychologically) environments, and driving “remote humanity” in distributed work.
Psychological safety is a good example of the interconnection between some of the core principles discussed at the conference. As Tawanda put it, “As a leader, it’s important to lean into giving people space and grace to be able to have conversations about what’s top of mind, to share what concerns them most, and be willing to listen to that” while also demonstrating vulnerability. And psychological safety underpins a dignity-centered work environment by unlocking the potential of a diverse team: as leading experts have explained, “While diversity is conducive to breakthrough performance, particularly when seeking innovation, it is rarely sufficient. Diverse teams need to feel psychologically safe before members can bring their best.”
On the structural, organizational level, we discussed the importance of recruiting and onboarding as early dignity touchpoints, prioritizing inclusion in internal communications (“what’s spoken about and also what’s not spoken about matters,” as I emphasized), valuing grassroots employee efforts (such as the labor of employee resource group leaders), promoting economic dignity in benefits and compensation, and measuring with purpose (and being transparent and acting on people-related data trends and inputs).
Good, dignified jobs bolstered by dignity-centered leadership and organizational structures matter for both workers and employers. Throughout the conference, I was gratified to see a community of workplace champions coming together – crucially, given today’s all too often freighted and charged landscape – to drive the kinds of workplaces that allow each of us to reach our full potential and truly thrive.