The Work Hierarchy and Human Rights

Posted on 8th Mar 2019

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, 'All people are created equal'. Except they're not.

Of course, Jefferson meant that all people have an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In this sense, yes – all people are equal, or should be in a healthy democracy. But we needn’t look hard to see how unequal we are in other ways. Pick any group of people and you’ll find an array of talents, interests, and experiences that make each person unique and unequal to the others.

My thinking about this issue began many years ago while digging a ditch on a factory job with a tall, gangly Irishman named Seamus. Just off the boat from Ireland, Seamus was strong, enthusiastic, and eager to work. Yet even he got a little cynical by the second day in our hole. As laborers do, we groused and complained about how much harder we were working than the company executives in their air conditioned offices. And the crowning indignity was that we earned far less for our labors. In our minds, compensation should be a simple calculus: the tougher the work, the greater the pay. Didn’t we have an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Of course we did. Didn’t we have a right to as much compensation as the executives? Nope.

In the workplace, there’s a vital but often confusing juxtaposition of a legitimately unequal work hierarchy and inherently equal human rights. Maintaining the right balance between these influences is important for morale and productivity. An individual’s place on the hierarchy is determined by:

  • Unique skills
  • Demonstrated competence
  • Level of responsibility and accountability
  • Decision-making authority
  • Level of effort and commitment
  • Acquired social status
  • Market-based compensation and perks

This is not to say that every organization puts the right people on the right rungs of ladder all the time. Far from it – and to the extent that people are misplaced, problems are likely to emerge. But the hierarchy is legitimate. And unequal. Many people can successfully dig ditches, while few can successfully run the plant.

Of all the problems that can arise from the hierarchy, perhaps the most caustic is top-down entitlement. Some people believe that “height makes right”, so they mistreat employees lower on the ladder by dismissing, marginalizing, patronizing, belittling, neglecting, or even abusing them. In the modern era, such behavior has been checked to an extent by cultural advances (#MeToo), HR policies, and legal remedies. Yet a great many top-down entitlement issues are relatively minor infractions that add up over time. A lot of people dread going to work because the boss may blow up (again) or take (another) long lunch and expect others to pick up the slack. Plus, employees resist giving upward feedback for fear of drawing fire or even losing their jobs.

The counter-weight to the work hierarchy is human rights. These are inherently equal and should be extended to everyone from the CEO to the summer intern. In a healthy, well-run organization, human rights are upheld and even celebrated. All people are entitled to:

  • Safety
  • Respect
  • Dignity
  • Fairness
  • Her/his point of view
  • Earned opportunities

Human rights, however, do not entitle the hard-working data entry associate to the president’s salary, a corner office, or a promotion. These have to be earned. When people lower on the hierarchy conflate human rights with company standing, they engage in bottom-up entitlement. This is the Boomer complaint about Millennials – they want it all without having to work for it. And, to an extent, that’s a legitimate complaint. But if anyone – regardless of age or standing – contributes a unique skill that makes money for the company, shouldn’t they be given the opportunity to move up and to earn a higher income? That’s only fair. Seniority alone isn’t enough to guarantee a higher rung on the ladder – and that’s the Millennials complaint, which is also legitimate.

So the challenge for leadership is to determine fairly and accurately what everyone is contributing, the value of the contribution, and the appropriate rung on the ladder given that contribution. If everyone were created equal, no problem. But we’re not, so the constant balancing of hierarchy and human rights goes on. When we get it right, morale and productivity triumph. When we get it wrong, let the seething begin . . .

Gregory Powell, Ph.D., 2019