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.”

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