Here’s a new word for the workplace: Rankism. File it in your brain next to racism and sexism. And brace yourself for a big change at the office, because rankism is another kind of discrimination we should not tolerate.

What’s rankism, or rankist behavior? It is hiring an intern and ignoring her all summer. Or pointlessly yelling at the receptionist about a manager who is late. Or a professor taking credit for a graduate student’s research. All these are examples of people who think they can treat someone disrespectfully because of their lower rank. The Devil Wears Prada has tons of juicy examples “? as well as snappy fashion and a happy ending to make the story acceptable.

But rankist behavior is never acceptable. And Robert Fuller, the man who came up with the word rankism, is on a mission to end it. His big idea is that people have a right to be treated with dignity no matter where they are in the pecking order. He’s part of what’s become known as the “dignitarian movement.” (He’s written two books on this topic: Somebodies and Nobodies and All Rise.)

Wondering if you’re at a job where you’re treated with dignity? You need to receive recognition, humane treatment and a living wage.

If your job doesn’t qualify, you need to speak up, which is hard to do, but having a word to identify the problem is half the battle. “Vocabulary changes thing,” says Fuller. “The Feminine Mystique referred to the ‘problem without a name.’ Sexism was not a word until five years after that book came out. Once the word sexism was available women had a weapon to make demands.”

Fuller wants you to take cues from the success of that movement. Say, “Hey, that’s rankest,” the same way you’d say, “That’s sexist.” But don’t yell: “Having the words rankist and rankism will give workers in every line of action a battle cry. They won’t scream at the top of their lungs. They will mention it calmly and cause the person on top to look at their actions.”

Here are five more steps you can take to combat rankism in your own work life:

1. Get a good read on potential managers.
Management sets the tone of respect or disrespect at work. So sniff out offenders before taking the job. Vanessa Carney works at Let’s Dish, a food preparation company. “The management team here is genuine,” says Carney, “The people who run this company have a good attitude and it trickles down.”

Carney was especially impressed when the owner of the business sat down with her after a few months to find out what, exactly, she wanted to do in her career.

2. Let people know that rankism matters.
Probably those behaving this way are not even conscious that they’re doing it. In one study about harassment, most people who were disrespectful were not aware of it–they thought they were making jokes at the time.

“They are misguided comedians,” says study author Catherine Hill, director of research at American Association of University Women. She also found that people respond to what they perceive as cultural norms. So speak up when you see it, even if you are not on either side of the exchange.

3. Don’t accept rationales for rankism.
Common refrains are “This is the only way the business can work,” (to justify long and unpredictable hours), or “I got through this so you can too,” (to justify hazing-like practices).

Joanna Vaillant is a management consultant — a position known for difficult work conditions. But she did research to find a consulting company that respects its employees: Boston Consulting Group. She recommends talking to people who work in the company about the company. “In business school I talked to classmates who worked at different companies,” says Vaillant. And she chose well. She recently got married and received assignments that would allow her time and headspace to prepare for that big day.

4. Take a bad job.
Working at a low-level job is not just a headache, it’s an integral part of your personal development. A big barrier to fighting racism and sexism is that if you are white you don’t know what it’s like to be black, and if you are male you don’t know what it’s like to be female.

But everyone can work in a low-level job — especially in the service industry where the exposure to rankest behavior from customers is huge.

5. Consider leaving.
One of the scariest things about demanding change at the workplace is the prospect of getting fired. But young people today — those invariably filling up the entry-level positions — switch jobs often. So the risk of offending your current boss for speaking out against rankism does not seem that big a deal.

The workplace is ripe for eradicating rankism. The youngest workers are optimists about their ability to change the world and passionate about valuing diversity. Also, in poll after poll, young people report less interest in money and more interest in the quality of work and the quality of life work affords. So it makes sense that now is the time for the dignitarian movement, and we should all jump on board.

10 replies
  1. David Christiansen
    David Christiansen says:

    Another way to fight Rankism is to talk about the positive effect of letting everyone contribute. If people are overly uptight about “roles” and say things like “That’s not his job – he should just keep his mouth shut,” you know you have a problem.

    If you have a problem being “rankist”, try to remember the following maxim: Anyone who can contribute should be allowed to. If you start to think this way, you will stop rankist behavior.

  2. breakingranks
    breakingranks says:

    As a call center employee, I ran into that attitude a lot. Every time I tried to take initiative and show I could stretch my skills, I was told “we hired someone for that”. The (mostly minority) women who worked in the call center were never allowed to meet or mingle with the mysterious folk who had “been hired” to do these jobs. A dignitarian organization would look for and appreciate ideas from its lower level employees.

  3. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    These comments make me think about teamwork. I think a company that encourages real teams — those that are temporary and project-based — is a company that encourages dignity. I say this because an essential value of a top-functioing team is that everyone’s contribution matters.

  4. chakragold
    chakragold says:

    I loved this column. I have been experiencing this type of behavior for a while now, but didn’t know quite what to call it because it’s projected from people from various walks of life and races. But the one common denominator is a superiority complex due to, IMO, their job titles. It’s as if they perceive someone with a lower “ranking” job title as not in their league at work, in particular, but mainly in general in life. Someone once told me that a job title reflects your inner drive and motivation; that if you have one that is lower on the totem pole that means you don’t have much motivation to have a better one. I totally disagreed with this because it doesn’t account for circumstances beyond one’s control or just where you may be in life relatively speaking. However, in my work environment, this attitude of rankism seems to be promoted and encouraged.

  5. Alexandra Levit
    Alexandra Levit says:

    My favorite symptom of rankism is when people invoke the names of higher ups to get you to do something, as in: “Mr. General Manager wants the new purchase order process implemented this way.” Apparently it’s not good enough for a regular old employee to initiate change, because a lot of people feel they must “invoke” in order to make their words the gospel.

  6. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    I think those people Alexandra is talking about — the name invokers — are so lacking in confidence. Anyone with any leadership skills would give a reason beyond Mr. Big Guy wants it.

    So I find myself drawing another conclusion: That rankism is directly related to self-confidence – invertedly, or whatever that word is for oppositely.

  7. KV
    KV says:

    After reading the posts, I think it is much easier to recognize when one is a “victim” of rankism, but much harder to recognize when you actually might be promoting it. I doubt anyone would do this consciously, which is why I think it should be recognized.

    Think about a time when you were introduced to an individual, and later found out that they were a C level executive, or an Ivy League MBA Grad. Did your behaviour change at all? Did your behaviour change so you tried to be more likeable, or paid more attention. If you did, I believe it is a way of acknowledging value in the rank.

    I don’t think that its always wrong to do that (after all, you should surround yourself with people smarter than you, and to do that, they have to like you), but to be able to shift your paradigm, you have to be conscious of it first.

  8. Joe
    Joe says:

    My work environment, one which does value its people with lots of monetary and other tangible benefits, is one where rankism still exists and is very prevelant. I believe it comes down to emotion – fear. The “name invokers” are an excellent example. They fear displeasing Mr. General Manager, and associate pleasing Mr. GM as increasing their probability of a promotion or more $$.

    One way to implement Penelope’s argument I believe is to help create a culture where benefits and promotions aren’t tied to making one particular individual happy. However, given that students who make the teacher happy and do something the teacher’s way are more likely to be rewarded on their report card, this habit is very familiar to us and drilled into our heads for at least 12 consecutive (and highly formative) years.

  9. Emily Starbuck Gerson
    Emily Starbuck Gerson says:

    Wow, I wish the higher-ups at a magazine I once interned at read this…nowhere NEAR as bad as Devil Wears Prada, but the interns were not treated well, and not taught much. One time I even overheard a writer say, “I don’t want to do it…just give it to the interns.” The absolute worst is that I didn’t get paid, and they wouldn’t even cover my $40/month parking there! Have some respect for the peons. Maybe it’s because it was corporate…all of my internships after that were at independent places that treated interns much better.

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