Creating a Culture of Dignity in Your Workplace

Published: Nov 16, 2018
Modified: Jun 01, 2020


Business leaders who treat employees with dignity, acknowledging their sense of worth, will see benefits in the workplace. Donna Hicks, PhD, an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, believes that the way companies treat people is a cutting-edge issue today, one that has positive effects for individuals and the organization.

On AMA’s Edgewise program, Hicks encouraged leaders to become educated about dignity and create a culture in which people feel recognized and valued. “The clear benefit is that when people in a workplace feel their leadership, their supervisors, their managers are treating them well, they react in a positive way. They feel they’re ready to give discretionary energy. They’re more engaged. They’re more loyal to the organization,” said Hicks, the author of Leading with Dignity: How to Create a Culture That Brings Out the Best in People (Yale University Press, 2018).

Dignity versus respect

Hicks noted that dignity and respect are not the same—a distinction she recognized when facilitating diplomatic efforts in high-conflict regions of the world. People involved in conflicts often would demand respect, but she believed that what they really wanted was to be treated with dignity. In her AMA podcast, Hicks offered this explanation of the difference:

  • Dignity is our inherent value and worth. Every person is born with dignity.
  • Respect is something others bestow on us. We must earn another person’s respect.

“When people say, “I demand respect,” I think what they really want to be saying is, “Please treat me like a human being. Please treat me as if I’m a person with value and worth,’” Hicks said.

Honoring people’s dignity in the workplace

What does treating someone with dignity look like? Hicks has interviewed people around the world and identified some common ways of honoring people’s dignity. Among these behaviors: People want their identity to be accepted regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, and religion. They want to be treated equally and fairly, and they want to be understood. They want to feel safe, such as being able to speak up when something bad happens, and to be acknowledged when they suffer an indignity.

Knowing how to treat people with dignity does not come naturally, Hicks said. Business leaders must be educated to build their “dignity skills.” One example is to take responsibility when you make a mistake and apologize for any harm you’ve caused. “Nobody likes admitting that he or she made a mistake. But if you want to lead with dignity, you have to take responsibility,” she said.

Hicks believes that the mandate for dignity awareness and training in a company must come from the top. People need to see their leaders embodying the behaviors. But everyone is responsible for the culture of dignity. “Every single person in an organization is responsible for dignity—not only his or her own dignity but everyone else’s dignity as well,” she said.