Career Coach: What to do when someone pulls rank?

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Career Coach Joyce E.A. Russell explores what to do when someone abuses their power.
Rankism leads to lowered morale and productivity, loss of talent, and disgruntled employees. Photo / iStock
Rankism leads to lowered morale and productivity, loss of talent, and disgruntled employees. Photo / iStock

Have you ever witnessed someone "pulling rank" on another person who is lower than them in the organisation'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. 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," or a religious leader exploiting an employee

• 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, from parents beating up on their children, doctors yelling at nurses, teachers treating students badly, customers being demanding of waiters, seniors hazing freshman in schools, etc.

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 activities and performance, individuals are consumed with either engaging in rankism behaviors or are subject to the abuses of rankism and suffer due to this. Researchers have also shown that it damages attempts by an organization to develop an inclusive workplace that is appreciative of diverse employees.

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 be talked about, ostracized or treated even worse. What they may do instead is 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 they lose valuable talent, and yet they may never know the "real reason" some individuals leave the firm.

Here are some thoughts for dealing with rankism at work:

• Individuals at work take their cues from the top. For any "ism" (sexism, racism, rankism) to end, the senior leader has to ensure that his/her culture will not tolerate it. The top leader must demonstrate that not only does he/she not engage in rankism behaviors, but more importantly, that they stop them once they see them.

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

• Having project teams where the leader shifts from time to time so rankism has less opportunity to exist might be a valuable strategy.

• Ensuring that the compensation systems do not reinforce rankism. For instance, if the pay of senior leaders and the CEO 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 in the firm.

• Listen to everyone, especially those at lower levels in the organisation. Follow the principle of management by walking around to meet employees at their work places 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 critical to deal with it and eliminate it if an organisation is to truly value the contributions and talents of everyone in the firm. It isn't that rank itself is the problem. 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 offender call them on it and insist they stop.

- Washington Post

Joyce E. A. Russell is the senior associate dean at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, career management, and negotiations.

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