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(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Dignitarian Way

S+B: What kinds of things have to happen to make organizations more dignitarian?
I see flexible hierarchies in which peoples’ ranks change as they move from task to task, and where there is no loss of status when a leadership role changes to a staff specialist role. In universities, the system of lifetime job security known as academic tenure needs to change. This can be accomplished without jeopardizing academic freedom. Tenure is a rankist institution in which a few people gain job security at age 30 and are largely unaccountable thereafter. There are now hundreds of applicants for every tenured position, at the same time that there’s a teacher shortage. Meanwhile, universities have created a category of second-class teachers called “adjunct faculty.” Adjuncts get paid about a third as much as the regular faculty, and have no health benefits or voting rights. Often, they don’t even get a parking sticker! They are an exploited group whose low compensation effectively subsidizes tenured faculty and administrators.
Exorbitant executive salaries are another example of rankism. Labor unions are not immune to it either. For example, they should be pushing “dignity security,” not just job security, and the two can be quite different.

S+B: Can you elaborate?
In the present rankist environment, the loss of one’s job can be a terrible blow to one’s dignity. We should thus do more to help people make the transition from one job to another. Dignity security would provide everyone with a fair chance to compete for any job for which they’re qualified; and it would guarantee transitional support, in the form of retraining and interim compensation, should they have to find a new one.
To be legitimate, rank must be earned in a fair contest with all qualified comers. In practice, this means periodic re-qualification because, with time, there are new aspirants who may be better qualified. Tenure is unfair to the young, much as “whites only” signs were unfair to blacks. It’s time to shift the focus from job security to the broader notion of dignity security, and take steps to protect dignity when, inevitably, changes occur in the particular roles and ranks we hold.

I found this out myself at Oberlin, when I resigned as president. Suddenly I went from being a somebody to being a nobody. I knew this was going to happen, and I anticipated the loss of status, but I didn’t anticipate the difference it made to my sense of dignity and ultimately to my identity. And I think that is true for everyone who suffers a similar loss.

S+B: You’re implying that the abuse of rank can be solved by changing rules, regulations, and job structures.
Those are certainly significant steps, just like antidiscrimination laws were a significant step for the civil rights movement. But there will still be indignity and humiliation that targeted people experience as denigration. Behavioral changes — the birth of a new attitude and social consensus — have to go hand in hand with legal and regulatory changes. I’ve seen this happen firsthand, because I’ve lived long enough to witness a sea change in the prevailing racial and gender attitudes in American and European culture.

Organizations are not going to become dignitarian overnight. In many of them, rankism is still below the radar. But giving it a name may help them evolve. Until the abuse of rank is recognized as no more legitimate than abuse based on traits like color and gender, rankism will continue to exact a toll on health, happiness, and productivity. But a dignitarian era is coming, because, in the end, most people don’t want to live in a world in which their dignity depends on either superficial traits or rank. Since we are, all of us, once and future nobodies, it’s in our interest to make our institutions and our society less rankist and more dignitarian.

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  1. Jim Collins, Good To Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t (HarperBusiness, 2001): Research into how good companies can become great, with case studies of those that have tried and even succeeded. Click here.
  2. Robert W. Fuller, All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Berrett-Koehler, 2006): Fuller’s blueprint for a “dignitarian society.” Click here.
  3. Robert W. Fuller, Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank (New Society Publishers, 2003): Fuller’s introduction to the concept of rankism. Click here.
  4. Ann Graham, “The Company That Anticipated History,” s+b, Winter 2006: By recognizing the value of black customers and employees during the time of apartheid, Eskom, Africa’s largest electric company, has shown the world how to combine social leadership and business success. Click here.
  5. Art Kleiner, “Diversity and Its Discontents,” s+b, Spring 2004: Analysis of the emotional maturity required in diverse workplaces and the ways in which addressing rankism can foster a healthy environment. Click here.
  6. Reggie Van Lee, Lisa Fabish, and Nancy McGaw, “The Value of Corporate Values,” s+b, Summer 2005: A Booz Allen Hamilton/Aspen Institute survey of corporate behavior finds that leading companies are crafting a purpose-driven identity, based on ethical behavior, honesty, integrity, and social concerns. Click here.
  7. Jack Welch with Suzy Welch, Winning (Collins, 2005): An overview of Welch’s managerial practices, including the “rank and yank” by which the bottom 10 percent of employees every year are fired. Click here.
  8. Breaking Ranks Web site: The Web site devoted to Robert Fuller’s analysis of the “dignity movement.” Fuller’s biography is also available through this site. Click here.
  9. Jim Collins’s Web site: Showcases his ideas and work. Click here.
  10. Thank you to Global Business Network’s Nancy Murphy for helping to set up this interview.
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