Public Affairs Ireland | Training and Development | Conferences

Thursday, 23 February 2017

This article was first published in PAI’s The Public Professional in July 2016.

Sile O’Donnell is a HR and Training Consultant and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in Trinity College Dublin. She has over 25 years’ experience of designing and implementing best practice HRM, change management and training strategies, initiatives, and policies in the public sector. She was Director of HR in the Eastern Regional Health Authority for five years and an Assistant National Director of HR in the HSE for five years. She provides a range of HR services (including individual and team coaching, line management and change management training, HR strategy and policy development, employee relations advice and representation) to many organisations and individuals in the public and private sector.

 “The attainment of dignity at work is one of the most important challenges people face in their lives. Ensuring the dignity of employees is equally important for employers as they attempt to make effective use of their human and social resources”[i]

Research clearly shows that improving dignity at work can reduce work-related stress, absenteeism, conflict and the costs associated with bullying and harassment complaints. The UK Health and Safety Executive ( estimates that every year bullying costs UK employers up to £2bn and 80 million working days. Improving dignity at work can also have a positive effect on employee engagement, performance and service delivery. This article examines the concept of dignity at work and how it can be measured and improved. It also outlines the legal framework governing dignity at work, and the avenues available to employees for pursuing complaints. Finally, practical steps are set out to help organisations improve dignity at work in a meaningful and holistic way.

What is dignity at work?

“Dignity… it means a belief in oneself, that one is worthy of the best. It means that what I have to say is important and I will say it when it’s important for me to say it. Dignity really means that I deserve the best treatment I can receive. And that I have the responsibility to give the best treatment I can to other people” Maya Angelou.

According to Bolton[ii], defining dignity at work remains an elusive challenge. Albert Camus once said that “there is dignity in work only when it is freely accepted”. In reality however, people are motivated, engaged, or disengaged in their work for a variety of reasons. Studies suggest that a broad understanding of dignity at work – including a sense of fulfillment and self-worth, the respect of others, development and meaning through work –  is necessary if organisations genuinely want to provide meaningful dignity at work.[iii]

Many organisational and individual factors impact on dignity at work, and based on my own research and experience, some of the main factors are outlined in Table 1:

Table 1

LevelFactors that impact on dignity at work

Motivationwell-being and stress

reward and recognition

job satisfaction and demands

participation in decision making

opportunities for meaningful creative work

employee engagement

job design/role clarity

competence and training

bullying and harassment


management style and competence

the physical work environment

Interpersonal (team)

participation in decision makinginterpersonal relationships

team conflict

role conflict

team effectiveness

management style and competence

leadership style


HR policies and proceduresorganisational culture

leadership style

power and politics

vision and strategy

organisational policies and procedures

organisational brand and reputation

communications strategy and style

In practice, most organisations do not spell out what dignity at work means in their HR policies and the scope of their policies is often narrowly or loosely-defined, with a focus on complying with law – and many organisations don’t join up and address all of the inter-related factors that contribute to dignity at work.

The importance of dignity at work has been highlighted at a national level; the ICTU’s Charter for Fair Conditions at Work[iv], which has received cross-party political support, recommends the development of a national Charter of Workplace Ethics to uphold workers’ entitlements“ to be treated with respect and dignity, as they go about their work”.


The Legal Framework

Some aspects of dignity at work are clearly defined in law. For example, the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015 define and prohibit harassment and sexual harassment as follows:

  • Harassment is “unwanted conduct (related to any of the 9 grounds) which has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity and creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person’.”
  • Sexual harassment is “any form of unwanted verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature being conduct which… has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity and creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person”.

It is also illegal to directly or indirectly discriminate against employees on any of the nine grounds covered by the Employment Equality Acts, 1998-2015.[v]

While there is no legal definition of bullying in Ireland, employers have a duty of care under common law and the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 to prevent bullying. In addition, the Courts and the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) regularly rely on the definition of bullying in the Health and Safety Authority’s Code of Practice[vi], which is as follows:

“repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual‘s right to dignity at work.”


While most organisations promote the use of informal resolution to address dignity at work issues before formal procedures are adopted, employees can seek external redress if they believe that their legal right to dignity at work has been violated. For example, an employee could lodge a complaint on one or more of the following grounds with the WRC:

  • a dispute under the Industrial Relations Acts 1946-2004 (e.g. an unresolved internal bullying claim);
  • discrimination, harassment or sexual harassment under the Employment Equality Acts, 1998-2015;
  • a constructive dismissal claim on the grounds of bullying under the Unfair Dismissals Acts, 1977-2007.

It is important to note that the law also protects employees from victimisation and penalisation – thereby protecting them from a broader range of behaviours and actions that violate the right to dignity at work. For example:

  • Numerous pieces of legislation including fixed-term working, part-time working and equality legislation protect employees from being victimised (unfairly treated) where they have sought to avail of their rights under the relevant legislation.
  • Both the Health Act 2007 and the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 prohibit penalisation of employees who make protected disclosure claims. The definition of penalisation in the Health Act for example is broad, and includes references to coercion and intimidation.

Dignity at work-related claims can also be progressed through the Courts system – for example through a civil claim for psychiatric injuries suffered as a result of bullying and stress. However the threshold for consideration of such claims is high, and a recent Court decision highlights a potential narrowing of the scope of such claims. In December 2015, the Court of Appeal overturned the largest ever award (€255,000) made by the High Court in relation to workplace bullying[vii]. In arriving at their decision, the Court determined that it would be “stretching the meaning of the word ‘repeated’ too far to regard a continuing process of discipline in pursuit of legitimate concerns, as repeated behaviour” of a bullying nature. While they acknowledged that there had been a “botched disciplinary process”, they concluded that it had been honestly pursued in the interest of child protection. They determined that if the decision of the High Court was to stand, it would “widen the tort of bullying to all kinds of situations that it was never intended to cover”. While the Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal against the Court of Appeal decision, there is no doubt that the Court of Appeal decision may deter people from pursuing bullying claims through the Courts system.


Conflict, performance management and dignity at work

Interpersonal conflict regularly surfaces in dignity at work complaints. What is considered normal or healthy conflict by one person can be experienced as bullying or unacceptable behaviour by another person. Because most policies do not define dignity at work and the scope of what it covers, certain behaviours might not fit within the definition of bullying, but they may well violate an employee’s dignity. Added to this, there is often a disconnect between espoused organisational values (e.g. dignity, respect, empowerment) and the behaviours that are actually tolerated or encouraged. Research in the UK education sector[viii] highlights the importance of developing an open and inclusive culture in which staff are encouraged to report issues that violate the right to dignity at work. The need for organisational cultures that support employees in speaking out about unacceptable behaviours and practices has also been highlighted in recent media coverage concerning whistleblowing.

In my experience in delivering conflict management training, I have also observed that cultural norms often dictate how conflict is managed in an organisation (e.g. avoidance, competing, or collaborative approaches to conflict management). A positive approach to developing conflict management styles can reduce the potential for unresolved conflict to escalate into bullying behaviour. It can also be useful to consult with staff to find out what dignity at work means to them, for example during values consultation processes or through focus groups.

Dignity at work issues often emerge during the performance management process and at times there can be “a fine line between reasonable management control and bullying”[ix]. It is interesting to note that the potential for an increase in bullying complaints was raised as a concern by some senior civil servants in the context of the implementation of the Performance Management and Development system (PMDS). Tackling under-performance creates particular challenges that need to be managed well to ensure that the dignity of the individual is preserved.

Where managers have shied away from managing poor performers, the introduction of performance reviews forces them to address performance or conduct issues that have been avoided for years or even decades. Added to this, it is frequently the case that employees have low self-awareness of their own under-performance[x]. Therefore, dignity at work-related issues may increase when “difficult performance conversations” have to take place. In my role as a trainer, I encounter this issue frequently, and many managers do not have an appetite for managing under-performance because of the fear of counter claims of bullying and stress. Under the Health and Safety Code of Practice[xi], reasonable and essential disciplinary action in the course of work is not bullying, but of course any such actions must follow fair procedures (e.g. providing a right of information, reply, representation and appeal to an employee where disciplinary procedures are invoked).

Prevention is better than cure, and coaching and OD interventions (e.g. to develop role clarity, improve team effectiveness) can help managers to manage conflict positively, improve performance, provide constructive feedback and have “difficult conversations” in a way that respects the dignity of the employee concerned. Mediation, stress management programmes, and dignity at work, conflict management and PMDS training can also be helpful. For example, the use of skilled mediators as part of the informal process for dealing with bullying and harassment complaints can potentially reduce conflict escalation and third-party referrals.


Work-related stress and employee well-being

Numerous studies highlight links between dignity at work and work related stress.The UK Health and Safety Executive states that bullying accounts for up to 50% of stress-related workplace illness, and it is estimated that work related stress results in costs of $300bn annually for employers in the US[xii]. Studies have also shown that work-related stress can be caused by, and can contribute to, bullying. Employers have a legal obligation to protect workers from work-related stress, which is deemed to be a “hazard” under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005.

Many organisations have either broadened the scope of dignity at work policies to include stress monitoring and prevention or have developed stress management policies. The Health and Safety Authority ( has developed a useful tool called the Work Positive Profile, which can be used to monitor potential stressors and to measure psychological well-being in the workplace. The scoring norms are based on a sample of over 6,000 employees and 25 organisations that have completed the Profile. The Profile can be used to:

  • identify psychosocial risks in the workplace;
  • comply with health and safety legislation;
  • develop effective health and well-being initiatives; and
  • ensure that employees are happy, healthy and productive.


As part of their Work Positive initiative, the Health and Safety Authority has also adapted the UK Health and Safety Executive’s “Management Standards” approach. The Management Standards describe the following six key areas that organisations should monitor and manage to prevent work-related stress:

  1. Demands: workload, work patterns and the work environment;
  2. Control: how much say the person has in the way they do their work;
  3. Support: encouragement/resources provided by the organisation, managers and colleagues;
  4. Relationships: promoting positive working to avoid conflict and deal with unacceptable behaviour;
  5. Role: whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles; and
  6. Change: how organisational change is managed and communicated in the organisation.

There are clear links between all of these “stress prevention” areas and the factors that impact on dignity at work (outlined in Table 1). This reinforces the importance of a holistic approach to measuring and improving dignity at work across HR policies and programmes (e.g. stress and dignity at work policies, safety statements, employee well-being, and employee engagement).

Moving beyond compliance to employee engagement

There are obvious linkages between dignity at work and employee engagement and this is illustrated in the following definition of employee engagement:

“being positively present during the performance of work by willingly contributing intellectual effort, experiencing positive emotions and meaningful connections to other”.[xiii]

The first civil service-wide Employee Engagement Survey (comprising 15,000 participants) was undertaken in September 2015[xiv]. The findings showed that 75% of respondents experience a sense of well-being at work, with an overall positive engagement level of 70%. However, comparatively low levels of organisational commitment were reported at 48%, and employee perceptions as to how the public values the work of civil servants revealed the lowest score of all the areas measured, at 33%. Public service motivation theory[xv] proposes that public sector employees are motivated by a desire to serve the public and have a positive impact on society. Recent research[xvi] highlights the impact of recession and public service reform on the motivation of public servants and the need to provide a positive working environment to counteract the impact of these factors.

It is important to note that improving engagement requires:

  • a willingness to look honestly at survey findings – employees who are disengaged are often less likely to complete such surveys, so engagement and well-being levels might be worse than they appear to be.
  • commitment and resources to address problem areas identified in surveys. A lack of follow-through can leave employees feeling cynical and less engaged.
  • regular dialogue with employees – a survey only represents one point in time and does not constitute full meaningful engagement.

Drawing on available research, there are a number of factors that can improve both dignity at work and employee engagement:

  • an inclusive leadership and communications style, and line managers who motivate, empower and support employees[xvii];
  • an organisational culture in which there is trust, dignity and mutual respect[xviii]; and
  • meaningful work, employee voice, a supportive work environment and person–job fit[xix].


Moving from prevention to cure

“Organisations that want to promote dignity in the workplace need to start by creating a workplace where appropriate behaviours are promoted and supported, rather than waiting for bad behaviours to occur”

Drawing on the themes explored in this article, there are a number of steps that can be taken to improve dignity at work:

  • Consult with staff to identify what dignity at work means to them;
  • Based on this consultation, make dignity at work an organisational value, describe positive and negative behaviours and how these will be supported/addressed;
  • Ensure equality in recruitment and selection, supported by audits of recruitment and selection processes and training for interviewers;
  • Include information on organisational values, dignity at work, well-being and relevant HR supports and policies in induction training and employee handbooks;
  • Incorporate dignity at work and positive conflict management into people management /performance management training and leadership development programmes;
  • Promote the use of mediation, coaching and OD interventions to prevent and resolve conflict, performance management problems and dignity at work complaints; and
  • measure dignity at work through regular monitoring and analysis of HR data (e.g. numbers of grievances and third-party referrals, surveys, turnover and absenteeism data) and take corrective action.

In summary, improving dignity at work is not a quick fix and it is not simply about complying with law – it requires significant leadership and cultural change, to ensure that values, HR policies and organisational behaviours are aligned to support and improve individual dignity in a meaningful way.

CIPD: Bullying at Work: Beyond Policies to a Culture of Respect ( D1785DF6D34F/0/bullyatwork0405.pdf)

O’Donnell , S. (2014): ‘Workplace Bullying’, Public Affairs Ireland Journal, May ed.[i]Hodson, R. (2012): Dignity at Work, NY: Cambridge University Press. Page 4

[ii] Bolton, S.C. (2007) ‘Dignity in and at work: why it matters’ in Dimensions of Dignity at Work, Elsevier, London, pp. 3-18.

[iii](;Valcour, M (2014): ‘The power of dignity in the workplace, Harvard Business Review.


[v]The nine grounds covered by the Employment Equality Acts are: gender, marital status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, race, or membership of the Traveller community.

[vi]Health and Safety Authority’s Code of Practice for Employers and Employees on the Prevention and Resolution of Workplace Bullying

[vii]Ruffley v Board of Management of St Anne’s School [2015] IECA 287

[viii]Equality Challenge Unit (2007): Dignity at Work: Final Project Report

[ix](CIPD, p.267).

[x]Hackman, JR (2002): Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances, Boston: Harvard Business School.

[xi]Health and Safety Code of Practice for Employers and Employees on the Prevention and Resolution of Workplace Bullying

[xii]Rosch, P.J. (2001): ‘The quandary of job stress compensation’, Health and Stress, Vol 3

[xiii]Alfes, K, Truss, C. Soane, EC, Rees, C., Gatenby, M (2010): Creating an engaged workforce – findings from the Kingston employee engagement consortium project, page 5.

[xiv]Found at The survey comprised 112 questions across a broad range of areas including engagement, well-being and commitment.

[xv]Paarlberg L., Perry J. and Hondeghem A. (2008). From Theory to Practice: Strategies for Applying Public Service Motivation. In Perry J. and Hondeghem A. Motivation in Public Management: the Call of Public Service. Oxford: Oxford University

[xvi]O’Riordain, J (2013): Public Service motivation: state of the Public Service Series, Dublin: IPA

[xvii]CIPD: Bullying at Work: Beyond Policies to a Culture of Respect ( D1785DF6D34F/0/bullyatwork0405.pdf)

[xviii](see for research on organisational trust)

[xix]Alfes et al (2010).

[xx]CIPD, page 17

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *