Sunday, November 20, 2016

Getting the Orange out of My Head: How Respect can set Inmates Free

Organizations can have very different work environments, including differences in the respect they give to employees. Organizational cultures differ, and managers differ, in whether they see employees and valuable and how well they acknowledge this. Many organizations think that it makes a difference – notice how I used the word “employee” just now, but actually words like “colleague” and “team member” are frequent in actual work. Does this matter?

For an example of how much this can matter – in a very special context – a recent paper in Administrative Science Quarterly by Kristie Rogers, Kevin Corley, and Blake Ashforth looked at an organization that operates professional call centers as part-time work for selected inmates in prisons. Every day inmates go to work in their orange jump suits (yes, just like in the TV series). Every day they go back to the prison wing after working. But this work is not like the demeaning chain gangs that we see in some old movies; the organization (Televerde) values its inmate workers and gives them both encouragement and respect.

So what happens? The respect they get from their Televerde managers, and from customers, changes lives. They get a specialized respect based on the value of the work they do, and their performance, and this gives excitement and self-respect. They get general respect from being seen as real people with lives and accomplishments, not inmates with orange jumpsuits and numbers, and this gives ideas of a changed and improved life. Together, these two kinds of respect, and especially the general one, puts the inmate-workers on a path toward removing themselves from their identities as current and future inmates, and attaching themselves to a new identity as a professional doing legal and respected work out of prison.

It happens impressively fast. These changes were easy to see over a period of less than a year (for most it was much faster), even though the Televerde workers were still in the prison wing, with their old friends and controlling prison wardens, every day after work. As part of the identity journey, they needed to transition from their old thinking habits – the orange in their heads – to a new way of seeing themselves as part of a regular civil society that they could not yet reach because it was outside the prison walls. Remarkably, they were able to not just see their inmate identity and their worker identity as separate beings coexisting in their minds, they also could shift to a new and holistic identity that would guide their lives after they were released from prison.

Giving workers respect is seen as important also in regular organizations, with no inmate workers, but there is a certain degree of cynicism about its effect, and there are also managers who don’t think it matters. After seeing how transformative it can be under these conditions, when it is done honestly, maybe it is time to reconsider.