Michèle Lamont: Businesses should “broaden who is valued and viewed as worthy”

In this exclusive article for MT, the eminent Harvard sociologist Michèle Lamont argues companies need to offer dignity and recognition to employees to create more successful societies.

by Michèle Lamont
Last Updated: 02 Oct 2023
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How can employers promote the social inclusion of those who are often viewed as second-class citizens in our divided world?

In my latest research, I consider how they can play a role in extending dignity to everyone, based on 185 interviews with change agents working across a range of organizational fields in the private and non-profit sectors. I also draw on 80 interviews with Gen Zs living in the Midwest and the northeast of America to learn about what they seek to get from their lives, including their work lives.
Clearly, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies will not suffice. In a piece I published with Sheen Levine and David Stark in Harvard Business Review last year, titled “Is your DEI Progress Undermined by Attention Inequality,” we wrote: “Some workers are getting noticed and recognized more than they deserve, while others are unfairly overlooked and toil away in obscurity — invisible, underestimated, or underappreciated.” 

This cannot be addressed through formal DEI policies. Instead, we argue for organising the workplace so that members of groups that are historically marginalised and invisible are more centrally located spatially and organisationally. We also propose that employers downplay issues of “cultural fit” in hiring.
In a recent CNN Business Opinion piece, Rosabeth Kanter suggested that employers should offer meaning, belonging, flexibility, certainty and opportunity to their workers in order to retain them. I build on her work by proposing that employers systematically transform the work environment with the goal of broadening who is valued and viewed as worthy.
For instance, instead of celebrating a few workers who do not have the usual profile of the white male middle-class employee, employers could profile those with unusual personal stories – from immigrants to late bloomers, and those who are on a second or third career.

They should acknowledge the value of care work, which is most often performed by women who are parents. This may be accomplished by making available lactation stations for breastfeeding mothers – a simple and low-cost way of lifting the too-often-invisible or taken-for-granted care work.
Think also of human resource policies favouring work/family balance (family leave, flex time) that implicitly acknowledge both our contributions as breadwinners and caregivers. Such recognition-promoting policies make a difference, as revealed in a study of nursing home employees who were given more autonomy and flexibility in their time management.

The implicit message of these policies was that employers recognize that their employees’ personal lives are important. The new policies freed them to attend their kids’ school functions or to accompany their elderly parents to a medical visit. They resulted in less absenteeism and greater work satisfaction.

Such flexibility remains somewhat rare in the lower rungs of the American labour market, which offers poor conditions to working mothers, who continue to do most of the family’s care work. Indeed, the working conditions for most US mothers are particularly harsh when compared to those in Italy, Sweden, and France, each of which provides extensive state-subsidised childcare.
An even more encompassing approach is to attend to employees’ spiritual lives, by for instance, making available prayer rooms. While these are unlikely to impact workers’ productivity, they may help sustain a sense of belonging that can have an impact on how employees feel at work – heard and seen, or invisible – which in turn shape how much of themselves they are able and/or willing to “give” during work hours.
Think also about workplace-based affinity groups (for women, LGBTQ+, and ethno-religious minoritised groups) that, once instituted, act as support networks for members of minoritised groups,  making their employers aware of their needs, allowing them to be seen.

Think also about unisex public toilets or sexual harassment policies: these serve practical purposes, but they are also important for the implicit message they convey concerning how much organizations value different populations and about their desire to integrate these groups fully in the workplace. 
Increasingly, under the influence of positive psychology, a growing number of organisations are promoting empathy and kindness in their organisational culture. While such admonitions cannot hurt, it’s more effective to create institutional changes that provide explicit and implicit cultural messages about who belongs and how much the employer has the long-term well-being of their workers at heart. This should be a constant element in internal and external communication.
In short, much more is possible. At a time when the Great Resignation lingers despite premature media celebrations of it ending, employers may no longer have the luxury of promoting productivity at the expense of workers’ quality of life – even more so if their typical employees are millennials or Gen Z who put a premium on work/life balance, as my collaborators and I showed in a recent Sociological Science article.
But one may wonder: Why should employers care about dignity? This is not a widely accepted idea, but it should be. The gap between the “winners” and the “losers” of our current system is growing, separating a minority of college-educated professionals and managers, who have the credentials needed for upward mobility, from the “people below,” workers without a college degree who make up a whopping two-thirds of the American workforce.

For this group, their horizons have drastically narrowed over the last decades: they have lost their footing in many occupations where they used to be hired. They were displaced from 7.4 million jobs in the United States since 2000. Most of these jobs were their way into the middle class, and a growing number now require a college degree.
At the same time, many working-class people have grown hopeless, as documented in Deaths of Despair, and by other pathbreaking studies. As shown in Hitlin and Andersson’s recent book, The Science of Dignity, establishing one’s own sense of dignity is crucial for one’s sense of well-being, just as much as having material resources. While this idea may seem counterintuitive, it is gaining in importance in the context of declining youth mental health, at a time when many millennials and Gen Zs are aching for more meaningful work lives.
Even beyond individual benefits, giving respect to workers and asserting their dignity will help us move toward a better society, one with less violence and social conflict, better public health, and more collective participation. This requires going beyond traditional economic thinking and focusing on how people feel throughout their workday, and how to re-energize their work lives. It requires some thinking about how to reinvent capitalism to make it more inclusive and more humane. 
While dignity and recognition do not make insecurity, scarcity, and material constraints go away, they affect how people understand who they are and their place in society, and what they are willing to give when they don’t have to. On this rests our capacity to create more successful societies.
Michèle Lamont is a professor of sociology and African and African American Studies at Harvard University and the Robert I. Goldman professor of European Studies. Her first non-academic book Seeing Others: Redefining Worth in a Divided World is out now.

Picture supplied by author. Photography credit: Nina Subin