KU researcher finds the value of respect in work lives

During the 15 months that Kristie Rogers worked on her dissertation research, she spent much of her life moving between two completely different worlds.

In one, she was a graduate instructor at Arizona State University. There she was in control, lecturing on material she was an expert on, grading student work and guiding the flow of classroom discussion.

She would then leave that world to drive to a state prison. Inside, she entered a social universe where, she said, “I didn’t even know what the rules were.”

Rogers, a recent addition to Kansas University School of Business faculty, spent hundreds of hours observing and interviewing female inmates who worked for Televerde, a company that employed prisoners as business-to-business marketers. Her goal was to understand the role that respect — a hard thing to define, but something just about everybody in the world wants — played in their work lives and self-identities.

A paper based on Rogers’ findings recently won an award for best paper in organizational behavior at the national Academy of Management annual conference.

Rogers also presented her research when interviewing for the assistant professor position she holds now at the KU business school. The interest the interview committee showed in her work helped encourage her to come aboard, she said.

From the office to the prison yard

If possible, the women who worked for Televerde bounced between two worlds of even starker difference than those that Rogers navigated.

Though the Televerde offices were only a short walk away from the prison yard, the women who worked there spoke of “commuting” to work because the difference in how they were treated was so vast.

As one woman told Rogers, “We’re humans here; in the yard we’re inmates.”

When interviewing inmates for her research, Rogers couldn’t be alone with them in enclosed spaces, so she talked with them outdoors or in a conference room with a window. But she says she never felt threatened. Her biggest fear was that the prison guards wouldn’t let her through with the voice recorder she brought for interviews.

The women, for their part, opened up to Rogers, perhaps because they were flattered to have someone at the prison asking them about their day and their thoughts.

Valuing respect

When it came to how the women felt about their jobs at Televerde, Rogers saw a change in new employees after months of working.

“When I started, most women would say, ‘This isn’t really me,'” Rogers said. Meaning, most of the inmates she talked to had only worked in food service or as cashiers. They didn’t see themselves as professionals. Now they were talking with business executives who had no idea the woman on the other end of the line was in an orange uniform, talking from prison.

Over time, “the way they carried themselves changed,” Rogers said. Their posture was different. Some started wearing makeup to work. “The women saw this as an investment the company was making in them.”

It added up to what Rogers defines as respect, which is something research has shown employees everywhere say they value, even more than income, leisure time and advancement opportunities.

“After six to nine months on the job, they weren’t really wrestling with being two different people anymore” Rogers said.

They could be “the best employee, the best inmate, the best mother” whether they were in the Televerde offices, the prison yard, or on the outside in the corporate headquarters of Televerde, where some of the women ended up after being released from prison.

“They had just one identity of who they were regardless of where they were,” she said.