Dignity is the inherent worth of every person, regardless of how they think, act and be. This total value as a person implies that each person should be treated as an end and not as a means. Human rights are based precisely on taking care of this inherent dignity in each of us, also at work.

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Analysis of dignity at work

As Professor Monique Valcour rightly points out, every time we go into a bakery and say good morning to the person who serves us, we do so not only out of courtesy, but also because we recognise the dignity of the person who serves us, avoiding that he or she is just a means of charging us for a loaf of bread. Dignity at work is no joke and deserves reflection and action.

As sociologist Andrew Sayer points out, when we’re hired, we’re hired as a means to a particular end. The great challenge lies in interacting in such a way that people are treated not only as means, but also as ends in themselves.

When we feel used as means or instruments, whether in our personal or professional relationships, we perceive that our dignity is being undermined.


“When we feel we are used as means or instruments, we perceive that our dignity is being undermined”.


Inherent dignity vs. earned dignity: implications for work

According to Kristen Lucas, author of “Dignity in the Workplace: Communicating Inherent, Earned and Remedied Dignity“, there are two types of dignity:

  • Inherent dignity: that unconditional dignity according to which we are all of equal worth.
  • Earned dignity, which emphasises differentiating qualities, skills or efforts that cause some people to be recognised with greater “dignity”.

Winning a Nobel Prize, for example, contributes to this dignity. But this should not lead to confusion: when we talk about the absence or lack of dignity, we always refer to inherent dignity. Moreover, it’s also true that dignity at work is always bivalent, dignity is both individual (one can lose dignity through one’s behaviours) and relational (one can feel one’s dignity violated by the treatment received by the other); in this article we will focus on the latter: relational dignity, and more specifically, relational dignity in the workplace.


Key factors for relational dignity at work: a comprehensive study

Although there’s some academic attention to dignity at work, there’s no theoretical framework to understand which phenomena positively or negatively affect a person’s (inherent) dignity at work.

This is why Pepperdine School in Los Angeles professor Cristina Gibson and her collaborators, authors of “Inherent and Earned Dignity: The Experience of Dignity at Work“, set out to systematically review how dignity at work has been addressed or defined. In total, the authors reviewed 523 academic articles in business management journals.

Following this review, Gibson’s team summarised three factors that diminish and three factors that promote or activate dignity at work. Among the factors that diminish dignity are alienation, exclusion and expendability. Thus, feeling like a tool, feeling excluded and feeling expendable negatively affect the dignity of each of us.

dignidad entre compañeros de trabajo

Conversely, factors that promote dignity include connection, incorporation and valuing. Thus, feeling connected to work, being an integral part of the organisation and feeling valued positively affect dignity.


“Feeling connected to work, being an integral part of the organisation and feeling valued positively affect dignity”.


Each of these six mechanisms was further examined at four different levels of analysis (societal, organisational, interpersonal and individual). The first three are summarised below with some practical examples:

* Society: This level of analysis includes factors beyond the organisation, commonly associated with political, cultural and social changes. A worker’s dignity can be diminished at the societal level, for example, when his or her country undergoes a major relocation of companies that previously generated employment (alienation), when there are social inequalities in his or her country based on gender, race or economic status (exclusion), or when there’s a strong irruption of automation (dispensability) that modifies the structure of the labour market. On the other hand, dignity at the social level can be strengthened when there are political and social initiatives to redefine decent work (connection), based on different regulations (incorporation), and by protecting the rights of employees (valuing).

* Organisational: This level of analysis examines dignity at the organisational level within the boundaries of an organisation without considering interpersonal relationships. In this sense, dignity can be violated when there’s excessive employee control (alienation) or when there are policies or lack of policies that exclude any group (exclusion). In contrast, dignity at the organisational level can be strengthened when there is genuine employee participation in the organisation (connection), when there are codes of conduct and ethics that are observed by all employees (incorporation), and from a culture that generates a climate of support and honest personal development (valuing).

* Interpersonal: This level examines how personal relationships at work, especially between supervisors and employees, which are asymmetrical in nature, can undermine or foster dignity at work. According to the article, abusive leaders who exhibit behaviours that involve ridiculing and belittling (alienation), deliberately excluding (exclusion) and treating the other with indifference (expendability) can diminish the dignity of the person concerned. Whereas leaders who empower and develop (connection), respect and recognise (incorporation) and give employees a voice and the necessary resources (valuing) can foster and activate dignity at work.


Listening, valuing, acknowledging: strategies to promote dignity at work

As Sayer points out, while we’d like to take the dignity of every person in the workplace for granted, this isn’t yet the case. Dignity is essential to our well-being, so we must continue to work not only to avoid diminishing it, but also to promote it. Randy Hodson, in his celebrated book “Dignity at Work“, explains that a good way for leaders and organisations to “practice” dignity towards employees is to avoid abuse, to avoid overwork, to show trust and empowerment, and to recognise each person’s involvement. Therefore, for those organisations that want to take the dignity of their employees seriously, they could:

* Encourage participation, and the inclusion of often less heard voices. Although there are more and more participatory processes in organisations, there are many voices that remain ignored or unheard, especially those in positions considered more basic. It would be good to make an effort to listen to and value different voices within the organisation. Listening is already an act of dignity.

* Promote a culture of respect and equality. The number of codes of conduct and ethics implemented in organisations is growing all the time. However, it isn’t so easy for these codes to permeate interpersonal relations, which sometimes remain tense, affecting the dignity of the individual. It’d be good to try to implement mechanisms that generate a positive climate where negative criticism, contempt and indifference have no place.

* Make an effort to value contributions. It is assumed that each employee must fulfil his or her role. This is correct. However, it’s sometimes necessary to highlight, and in public, the individual contributions of different team members.

* Promote personal and professional balance. Constant overwork was already considered in Hodson’s book as an element that can affect dignity at work. It’s important for the employee to be aware that there are peaks of work to be accomplished, but at the same time, it’s essential to avoid sustained overwork that can affect dignity. Facilitating a healthy balance between our various personal and professional responsibilities contributes to fostering the employee’s dignity.



  1. Sayer A. Dignity at work: Broadening the agenda. Organization. 2007 Jul;14(4):565–81.
  2. Lucas K. Workplace Dignity: Communicating Inherent, Earned, and Remediated Dignity. Journal of Management Studies. 2015 Jul 1;52(5):621–46.
  3. Gibson C, Thomason B, Margolis J, Groves K, Gibson S, Franczak J. Dignity Inherent and Earned: the Experience of Dignity At Work. Academy of Management Annals. 2023;17(1):218–67.