ACA Blog

Hope Yancey
Jan 25, 2012

Dignity on the Job

Recent news headlines about protests by domestic workers in Chile offer lessons to us in this country about employment. You may have heard the story.

A maid working in an affluent housing development was detained by security for trying to walk from the gates of the development to her place of employment at her employer’s home, instead of waiting on a community minibus, which was late. It seems workers like maids, nannies and gardeners in the gated development are prohibited from walking the streets of the neighborhood freely due to a presumption that they will commit crimes or their presence on the streets will somehow cause other problems for residents. Until recently, the household workers were required to pay fees to use the obligatory transportation. The case has launched a wider-ranging discussion about low pay, long hours and discrimination in that country. Perhaps maid Felicita Pinto will become for the Chilean movement the symbol housekeeper and seamstress Rosa Parks was for American civil rights.

The story set me thinking on similarities to gated neighborhoods in the United States and their exclusivity, and also the plight of domestic workers here who work places they can never hope to afford to live. But it also led me to consider what I’ll loosely call dignity on the job, or lack thereof, for many low and middle income workers.

I’m sure there’s debate about the proper role of advocacy in counseling, but I’ve always been frustrated that dignity on the job doesn’t seem to be something career counseling addresses much, and that career counselors don’t speak out more to advocate on behalf of broad labor concerns working people everywhere often share. Want help deciding whether to use a functional or chronological approach in your resume? Career counselors can assist. Need to prepare for a job interview? Career counselors are ready with mock interview sessions. Want advice on proper interviewing attire? Career counselors have you covered. Are your interests more Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising or Conventional? Career counselors will administer an inventory to help you find out.

But what about helping shape a more just workplace? After all, people spend so many of their waking hours at work it seems obvious that ill treatment there will have a negative effect on others aspects of life, creating additional problems for the individual and society. Everyone is entitled to dignity on the job. So much energy in career counseling is devoted to chasing that elusive job, perhaps at the expensive of devoting a little attention to the human experience of being an employee.

Anyone who isn’t very highly placed in the social and economic ladder – and securely fixed there – has probably found herself or himself on the wrong end of capitalism and its adversarial system of employment occasionally, whether they recognized it as such at the time or not.

Surveying some of my employment experiences over the years for examples of dehumanizing workplace treatment, I don’t have to think hard to pluck out some doozies:
•My first paid job was a seasonal position at a mall cosmetics store, part of a major chain, where policy regularly required employees to stop at the door after clocking out to have their purses checked by a manager on duty for stolen items. It was invasive of privacy and bespoke a presumption of guilt.
•At a nonprofit organization where I worked later, the director once called each employee into her office one-by-one and required us to sign a form confirming we wouldn’t speak with an ex-employee with whom she’d had an employment dispute. She further said the employment lawyer representing the organization had told her she couldn’t furnish me a copy of the document I was signing. I’m sure the document wasn’t legally enforceable.
•Pre-employment drug testing is a favorite of employers, to which I’ve been subjected more than once. Yes, substance abuse is a bad thing for employers, but unless you’re flying a plane or operating on someone’s brain, I don’t get the obsession with testing for it. Again, invasion of privacy and presumption of guilt.

Another example that stands out in my memory is the call center manager who told one of my then-co-workers words to the effect that yes, she could have time off to attend her grandmother’s funeral, but “if anyone else dies, you’ll have used up all your time.” (I recall this was a diligent employee requesting the time, not someone known for abusing bereavement time, and I believe the information was delivered without expression of sympathy for the worker’s loss.) So callous was the remark, I’d not have believed it had I not overheard it myself. If anything, the problem was not with the employee requesting time off but with the company’s overly restrictive policy.

These are but a few representative examples. I’m sure many of you have others of your own, indignities that are etched into your workplace memories. I tend to think the purpose of some dehumanizing on-the-job treatment is two-fold. There’s the surface purpose, if you will, like preventing theft, or discouraging drug use, or whatever ostensible end the employer has in mind. But the other purpose is to maintain tools of managerial control to condition the employee to a certain subservient mindset and establish from the outset who’s in charge. Counselors, as compassionate people, might seek to lead more discussion about the issue of dignity on the job.

Hope Yancey is a counselor and freelance writer living in Charlotte, North Carolina

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