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Why ‘rankism’ harms the workplace and how to address it

Dealing with ‘rankism’ in the workplace
“Rankism” is a term that refers to treating people that we perceived to be lesser than us in a lesser manner simply because we can.
(Jetta Productions / Getty Images/Blend Images)

Have you ever witnessed people who “pull rank” on another person who is lower in the organization’s hierarchy? They make abusive or manipulative comments, act disrespectfully to others or take advantage of them. They abuse their power or perceived power.

The term “rankism” was used by Robert W. Fuller in his book, “Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank,” as treating people that we perceived to be lesser than us in a lesser manner simply because we can. It involves acting in a superior way in an attempt to get what we want (such as eliminating the competition so that we can win at all costs) or feel better about ourselves. It can take many forms, including:

• Exploiting your position to obtain unwarranted advantages and benefits, such as a senior leader rewarding him/herself with extra perks

• Abusing a position of power, such as a tenured faculty member telling students they can do “what they want in the classroom since they can’t be fired”

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• Using rank as a cover to insult or humiliate others

It can (and does) occur in any social hierarchy. Every day we see examples of rankism, including parents beating up on their children, doctors yelling at nurses, teachers treating students badly and customers being demanding of waiters.

In the workplace, rankism leads to lowered morale and productivity, loss of talent and disgruntled employees. Those being abused feel degraded, disrespected and demeaned. Similar to harassment at work, instead of being able to focus on work, individuals are consumed with either engaging in rankism or suffer due to this. Researchers have also shown that it damages attempts by an organization to develop an inclusive workplace.

It would seem that those being abused by others in higher positions of power would simply speak up and defend themselves. But often this does not happen. People just go along for a variety of reasons; they may fear the consequences if they speak up. They may continue to work, but without the same sense of spirit or energy. They become less engaged and look for opportunities to leave. This can be highly damaging to a firm when it loses valuable talent, and yet it may never know the “real reason” some individuals leave. Here are some thoughts for dealing with rankism at work:

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• Individuals at work take their cues from the top. For any “ism” (sexism, racism, rankism) to end, the senior leader has to ensure that the work culture will not tolerate it. The top leader must not only not engage in rankism behaviors, but more importantly, stop them once they are seen.

• Employees have to feel comfortable being able to speak up. You know you have a rankism culture if people are fearful of questioning things.

• Ensuring that the compensation systems do not reinforce rankism. For instance, if the pay of senior leaders and the chief executive is significantly above the lowest employee (as is often the case in the U.S.), this perpetuates the belief that some individuals are worth significantly more than others.

• Listen to everyone, especially those at lower levels in the organization. Follow the principle of management by walking around to meet employees and ask them how things are going and listen to what they have to say. Then, act on what they have told you. Listening alone is not enough.

Rankism is difficult to address and to remedy, but it is crucial to eliminate it if an organization is to truly value the contributions and talents of everyone. What is at issue is the abuse of rank or power. Sometimes the best way to challenge or address rankism is to “pull rank” and have a person who outranks the offenders call them on it and insist they stop.

Joyce E. A. Russell is the senior associate dean at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business with more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, career management and negotiations. She writes the Career Coach column for the Washington Post.


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