How Important is Human Decency at Work?

By Dianna Pierce Burgess, Co-founder and Executive Director, Press Forward

I’ve gotten to an age where I’ve heard this phrase quite a bit in the past 10 years “It’s comforting to know good things CAN happen to decent people”.  

This is always in reference to someone I know well (across multiple industries such as journalism, PR, academia, finance, corporate America) who has finally landed a really good job based on their merits. These merits are a shopping list of extra-ordinary qualities: hard-work, excellent leadership and communication skills, incredibly loyal and kind, an above-average moral compass that they hold onto at work and beyond, brilliant problem-solver, thoughtful & caring manager who inspires and supports others, a can-do attitude that appeals to those above and below them, and the list goes on.  These are people who have always strived to do the right thing, who have often been overlooked, who have never wavered in their belief that – if you keep your nose to the grindstone, work hard, subscribe faithfully to a decent ethical code, treat others with respect and equally – eventually you will be rewarded with a promotion or recognition from peers or better pay, or sometimes all three.  

But what strikes me as profoundly wrong in this scenario is that this is a rarity.  I can think of 4 times in the past 10 years when we’ve sat around a dinner table here in London or D.C. or New York or L.A., gathered with friends, catching up where we left off, and someone tells a story of so-and-so who finally got a fantastic job as a VP or Director, where they are treated well, and are very happy, and have finally earned long-overdue respect.  And that’s when someone says the line at the beginning of this blog. 

Why is decency not more prominent in business? Where did the lessons of childhood get cast aside along the path to adulthood? In HBR’s Social Responsibility post, @BillBoulding, Dean of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, argues the “DQ” (or Decency Quotient) is just as important as the IQ (intellect) and the EQ (emotional intelligence). He is 100% right. But he and I agree, it’s often overlooked.

“Unfortunately, we have far too many examples in business of what happens when decency fails. The Great Recession is a case in point. Ten years later, business, particularly in the financial sector, is still trying to win back trust from a public who came to believe the industry was greedy, self-serving, and focused on the bottom line at the expense of the greater good.”
He lays out a few concrete examples where decency paid off and it’s absolutely worth the read. I have a few examples of my own. In lecturing to university students here in London, I brought in the Head of Starbuck’s/Europe, the Chief Financial Officer at Virgin, and a Senior VP at Burberry to speak to the students about life lessons as it relates to their impressive careers. To a man (and woman), they all had similar themes: humility, don’t be afraid to admit when you are wrong, listen listen listen, have passion for what you do, and most important: treat everyone equally and with decency, As @BillBoulding concludes: “If business can become more intentional about decency,  I believe it can become a healing force our world so badly needs.”

Time for Organizations to Align Employment Policies with Current Family Needs

Wake up, World! We have got to get with the program. Since 2013, 40% of working mothers (with children under 18) are sole or primary breadwinners in their households (US Dept. Of Labour study). Compare that to 11% in 1961. This is not 1961. This is 2019. We’ve got to address this statistic. As this working mother says in The Times London over the weekend: “It cost me £122 to come to work today – and that’s before I bought a sandwich and paid for my train fare. I always knew putting an 18-month old and four-year-old child into nursery would be expensive, I just never realized it would be more than my monthly mortgage payments. If I miss my train home, it’s an extra £15 per child for every 10 minutes I am late to collect them.”

But there are additional statistics:

For roughly 4 decades, more women than men receive college degrees annually. In the 1981-1982 academic year, women got more bachelor’s degrees than men (in the US), and since then, women have outpaced men consistently. 

Women and men alike are told a college-degree leads to higher wages, but gender inequality is still alive and ruminating worldwide.

In the past, just because you have a college degree, this doesn’t always translate to more working college-educated women in the workforce. Until now.  A new report reveals women are on track to make up a majority of the university-educated workforce this year (2019) in the US.

Add to that these statistics: A 2018 survey shows nearly two-thirds of Dads reported they’d consider quitting their job to spend more time in the early weeks and months to care for their child. And 62% said they’d consider taking a lower paid role to do so.

Several studies both in the US and Europe, however, show that men often don’t take the paternity leave or time off when it’s offered, sighting negative perceptions, anxiety over lower pay, fearing job security. European countries have far more progressive and accepting family-friendly leave policies, but there is still economic difficulties in utilizing them. So we need to reconcile this seesaw.

But what all these studies have in common – and what women have already known for decades – is that these are issues that affect anyone who decides to take a step back to care for a child, even temporarily. And unless we decide to not bother with children anymore, we have got to figure out a better way to accommodate working parents. As best as I can tell, this is not an issue that will just go away, and the sooner we discuss it, study it, offer new alternatives and viable policies for both employee and employer, the better off we’ll be as a society.

Some people are thinking outside the box. Rohan Silva, who started Second Home, is one. Second Home offers hip co-working spaces in London, LA, and Lisbon, to entrepreneurs but with an added bonus: an on-site nursery to deal with the challenge of childcare for small businesses, in particular. Millennials are the key. They are all thinking outside the box in their approach to life, work, marriage, kids, travel, experiences,… the balance of it all.  And unlike the study referenced above, a study that focuses just on Millenial dad’s reveal times are changing: a joint study with Deloitte and DaddiLife found that 87% of fathers aged 25 to 40 are involved in the day-to-day parenting, and nearly two-thirds have asked for more flexible hours since becoming a Dad.

But it also reveals that employers are not keeping up with parents needs (again, something women have known for ages).  Nearly half of the men said they consistently experience “tension” from their employer when trying to balance the work-family seesaw.  Who amongst us has not had that crazy day of calling in grandparents, neighbors, people you barely even know, to patch the gap between you leaving work and the nursery/pre-school/daycare/community center closing and you might be charged $1/child per minute that you are late? And when I say you, I am speaking to the Collective You.  More and more it’s not just women but men, co-sharing these duties. And bless ‘em. If that means these issues will get looked at more closely, studied, discussed, changed, well, I am all for it. Policy-makers are still (a vast majority of them) male, so having them step in our shoes for a few miles, understand what we face, means empathy. And with empathy comes understanding. And with understanding comes change, hopefully, for the better. 

Author: Dianna Pierce Burgess, Press Forward, Co-Founder and Executive Director