Everyday Dehumanization


We often use offense as a way to measure our success navigating interpersonal situations. If someone is offended, we know we said something wrong, otherwise, all is well. Offending people is a poor measure of your treatment of others because people can be offended even when you are treating them with compassion and care. Similarly, a person who has been mistreated might not respond with offense under conditions of extremely poor treatment. You can’t rely on someone’s perception of offense to let you know if you are treating someone fairly. To do no harm in interpersonal situations, focus on everyday dehumanization instead.

Everyday dehumanization impinges on five foundational human freedoms. When you learn how to spot it and call it out, everyday dehumanization stops being a silently accepted part of your work and your life.

Dehumanization sounds like a heavy term. It is often used in conjunction with crimes against humanity, like genocide. The term everyday dehumanization describes the small ways in which we put people down in everyday life and deprive each other of humanity little by little. Everyone has experienced everyday dehumanization. It has happened to you – maybe even recently.

To be sure that you avoid behaviors that create everyday dehumanization, remember BARKS – it’s a mnemonic you can use to make sure you respect the humanity in others. BARKS stands for Boundaries, Autonomy, Relatedness, Knowledge, and Status. These are five freedoms that allow us to embody our humanity.

You may notice that the examples below include work and non-work-related situations. Everyday dehumanization is rampant in all parts of our society, and it’s important to see how it plays out in many parts of life. Remember that all people are whole humans. Children, people who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated, people who are disabled, and people experiencing homelessness receive everyday dehumanization at an extremely high frequency.

Boundaries: The freedom to say no.

Forcing a person to do, say, or endure something when they have expressed their opposing wishes is dehumanizing. Boundaries can be established and maintained by the individual and must be respected by others. Here are a few real-life examples of people failing to respect boundaries set by individuals.

  • A coworker presses for details about another co-worker’s weekend even though they tried to change the subject.
  • A boss demands that an employee come in to work on the employee’s scheduled day off.
  • A parent insists that a child kiss a Grandparent goodbye even though the child shook their head to indicate No.
  • A boyfriend keeps teasing his girlfriend after she tells him to stop.

Autonomy: The freedom to make decisions for ourselves and our families.

Different circumstances dramatically affect the way we live. We fail to take circumstance into account, when we judge the decisions of others against our own standards. When we make decisions for others, instead of letting them make decisions for themselves, that is a dehumanizing act. Here are a few examples of common ways that people are stripped of their autonomy to make decisions for themselves.

  • Child protective services removes the parental rights of a parent who is living in a recreational vehicle without running water.
  • A person is cited for unprofessional attire when they choose to wear ethnic or religious clothing to work.
  • An employee is fired for inappropriate behavior when she introduces her two husbands to her co-workers at a holiday party.

Relatedness: The freedom to interact with the people we choose.

Humans are a social species and our relationships provide us with a sense of safety, belonging, and love. When we block the formation or expression of relationships between people, we prevent the deep social bonds that keep people healthy. Here are a few examples of ways that people interfere with the relationships of others.

  • A parent admonishes her adult child for dating someone outside of their social caste or class.
  • A community creates a law preventing unrelated adults from living in a home together.
  • A hospital doesn’t allow a patient’s visitors because they aren’t blood relatives.

Knowledge: The freedom to access what is known so that we can make decisions for ourselves.

Knowledge is a form of power. When we prevent people from accessing information, we prevent them from using that information to make decisions for themselves. Here are a few examples of ways that people are blocked from accessing information.

  • A community prevents girls from participating in education after puberty.
  • A government has credible evidence that a dangerous illness is imminent and they don’t share that information with the people.
  • A company hides the known health risks associated with their product.

Status: The freedom to have relative importance to others.

A person’s relative importance to others changes over time and is based on the value systems held by the people involved. A person’s importance to people in one setting can be vastly different than their importance to people in another setting. When we put down, dismiss, diminish, or otherwise devalue a person (or whole population of people) vocally or with actions, we can block others from recognizing their relative importance.

Everyday dehumanization in the workplace usually occurs by blocking or stripping status from an individual. We can even strip status from ourselves in a process of self-dehumanization. Here are a few examples:

  • A junior employee with decades of photography experience tells her boss that it’s just a hobby and that she can’t be the new Head of Photography even though it’s her dream job.
  • An athletic club system hires trainers and staff with a Body Mass Index (BMI) under 25 to make the gym look more serious even though most gym members say they are more comfortable with a trainer who looks like them.
  • A logistics company allows truck drivers to work in the warehouse when the family has a new baby so that the driver can be home more during that time, but warehouse supervisors mock the drivers for being slow in a new role so drivers don’t tend to stay in the warehouse very long.

We have all experienced dehumanizing language and dehumanizing systematized rules. Everyday dehumanization is common. So, what can we do about it?

Learn to spot it.

You can start to be more careful about your own treatment of others when you learn to identify these five freedoms. Notice when you use everyday dehumanization in your own language and actions. Once you can recognize it, you can change it.

Call it out.

When you see someone else use everyday dehumanization, you can say simply, “Did you hear the dehumanization in that statement?” You don’t need to derail the whole conversation, just call it out and move on. Eventually people around you will begin to notice what you notice.

Teach others to manage their own boundaries and status.

The two ways that we can empower others is by teaching people how to create boundaries and to use their status wisely. When we don’t reinforce our boundaries, people will blindly dehumanize us without doing so purposefully. When we diminish ourselves by stripping our own status or failing to notice when people give us status, we dehumanize ourselves. Although purposeful victimization through dehumanization will always be a part of human existence, we can always be careful not to dehumanize ourselves first.

*Small Business Pro Tip: Review your company values, do you have one that is focused on your people?  If not, create one. 

Lead by example and work towards creating a more inclusive and supportive culture. 

Provide a place for employees to anonymously share experiences and report employees who are not treating employees appropriately.