The inefficiency of slavery is now obvious, but to George Washington it came as a revelation. While on a visit to Philadelphia, Washington noticed that free men there could do in “two or three days what would employ [his slaves] a month or more.” His explanation–that slaves had no chance “to establish a good name”–was that of a practical man concerned with the bottom line, not that of a moralizer. Sadly for us, our first president did not draw the full implications of his insight. Had he done so, he might have used his immense prestige to end the indignity of slavery.
Today’s employers are not dealing with slaves, though it is often argued that wage-earners are wage-slaves, and that the dignity of salaried employees is only marginally more secure. Since Washington’s time, it has gradually become clear that negative motivation–fear of punishment–is less effective than the positive motivation that comes from being part of a team of trusted, responsible professionals.
Once a year, on Labor Day, the dignity of work is extolled from sea to shining sea. In the new book The Custom-Fit Workplace, authors Joan Blades and Nanette Fondas show how to turn that noble ideal into a year-round reality by providing a blueprint for employers intent on creating workplaces that unleash the full potential of employees.
The ill-effects of rigid work schedules, inequitable pay, and other demeaning practices are now the subject of a growing body of research documenting the damage done not only to individual employees but to the companies for which they work. It turns out that rankism–the rank-based discrimination and abuse to which most indignities can be traced–is no better for the bottom line than racism, sexism, and homophobia. All the discriminatory “isms” are self-inflicted wounds that drain away the life-blood of enterprises harboring them.
The indignities of rankism are not merely unfair, they are inefficient and counterproductive. Fear and humiliation work only so long as people lack options. The young are increasingly unwilling to put up with rankist environments, and soon these vestiges of the workhouse will become untenable throughout the economy. A culture of dignity in the workplace provides a competitive advantage because it means happier, healthier, more creative and productive employees. What does it matter if they work together in lockstep–so long as they get the job done? People who feel recognized as individuals and respected as human beings are more likely to give their best. Much as eliminating malnutrition makes for healthier workers, eliminating malrecognition makes for more reliable ones.
Customized workplaces respect employees’ dignity in ways that previous generations would have found astonishing and the next generation will take for granted. Great managers have long known that nothing motivates workers quite so consistently as pride in a job well done. In chapters on flextime, virtual and contract work, job and career lane changes, and childcare at work, Blades and Fondas provide a design for a dignitarian workplace that pays off in performance and profits.
Today, slavery has no defenders. As the liberating and empowering practices in this handbook spread through the global marketplace, the institutional indignities of the one-size-fits-all workplace will likewise be revealed as paternalistic, demeaning, and inefficient. When the history of the dignity movement is written, The Custom-Fit Workplace will stand as a beacon that lit the way.
Robert Fuller is the author of Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuses of Rankism.