Can I Employ Someone as a Doormat?

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Person under doormatHave you ever walked through the city and seen those people holding signs advertising something? They can be found on busy street corners or open air shopping malls. Their signs point the way to a restaurant lunch deal, the nearest bottle shop or cheap parking. You might have similarly seen someone outside a pizza shop waving a sign to passing traffic highlighting cheap lunchtime meals.

I have a problem with this; in fact we should all have a problem with this. It is not a problem with advertising; it is a problem with the fact that people are being used simply as sign posts. Sometimes the people are handing out advertising material as well and this lessens (a little) the problem because at least there is interaction with people as part of the job. However to simply strap a sign to a human person and have them stand in one place or even walk around effectively treats them as an object; it is below our dignity as people.

I am sure they get paid for this task, although of course it would not be much, but even so, payment does not make an unjust action just. I might decide to hire a person to lie across the threshold of my door so that I can wipe my shoes on them as I enter the house. I may pay them, and pay them well for being my doormat, but, is it right to use a person as a doormat? If someone freely chooses to sell their human dignity to me, am I able to buy it? I would say the answer is no.

Each of us is a personal subject, a being that thinks, perceives and intends. We belong to no one else. A subject directs what actions will take place. An object on the other hand, has actions directed to it, I am using a chair to sit on, I am using a mug to drink coffee. An object is always just that, an object, if my mug cracks, I will just get another one, it is dispensable. We begin to encounter problems when we lose the distinction between subjects and objects. If I turn a person into my doormat, I have made that person into an object, similarly, if I pay a person to act as a signpost.

The thing with human dignity is that it is innate; it is naturally within each of us. Dignity is not something that society bestows for passing certain milestones. It is not like acquiring a driving licence and it is not like graduating from university. It cannot be sold and it cannot be lost. That is why the life of the migrant, the intellectually disabled adult, the brilliant scientist, and the drug addicted gangster are all of equal worth. Christian tradition would say that every human person is sacred because they are created in the image of God but belief in the dignity of human life certainly extends beyond Christianity.

Early in his Pontificate, Pope John Paul II, wrote an encyclical titled, Laborem Exercens, which was on the subject of human work. The Pope wrote at length about the value of human work and that determining its value is not primarily in “the kind of work being done but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person”. Whether one is employed to govern the nation or sweep the streets of that nation, John Paul writes that work must enable a person to become “more a human being and not be degraded by it”. A person who is working should never experience a lowering of their dignity.

It is not to say that difficult work or boring work is below a person, but when the person doing the task is seen as only an impersonal force and not as an individual then we begin to move into problems. Even though we all need to work to survive, the essential distinction is that work is for ‘the person’ and not the person ‘for work’.

If employers wish to erect signs advertising their products and services then they should seek permission from the council for a sign post, and not offer a “job” where the person is given no more value than a metal pole. Offering jobs that are below human dignity does not benefit society; they only serve to make all of us a little bit poorer because we begin to perceive things that are not normal as a part of normal life.

Bernard Toutounji

Bernard Toutounji

Bernard Toutounji is an Australian Catholic writer and speaker. He writes a fortnightly column called Foolish Wisdom ( which examines afresh issues within news, culture or faith. One of Bernard’s favourite quotes comes from Edith Stein who said "All those who seek truth seek God whether this is clear to them or not". Bernard is married to Jane and they have two daughters.

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7 thoughts on “Can I Employ Someone as a Doormat?”

  1. Pingback: Can I Employ Someone as a Doormat? - CATHOLIC FEAST - Every day is a Celebration

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    I commented previously and it did not appears so I must have done something incorrectly. I will try again.
    I would much rather see someone wearing a sandwich board and walking around than standing in line to get a handout. Work is work. If there is a job to do than someone should be able to do it. Unfortunately the attitude in this country has changed to say, “I won’t get a job because I don’t like the jobs that are out there, Therefore give my welfare check and I will be fine. I have done many jobs over my life time that I did not find appealing or endearing to me. I did them because I wanted to support my family instead of taking a handout. I guess that is not what is expected anymore. If I can’t do the job I like than I won’t work at all.

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    I agree with Rob, and wish to add that perhaps your concern obviates an opportunity for humility. Of course, I doubt many would leap for the opportunity to be humbled in this way, although Catholicism and Orthodoxy are both rich with saints who accepted the humility of their circumstances. Non-religious folks get these opportunities all the time, and I suspect on a non-political level concerned with human rights and dignity every person offered such employment is also presented with the opportunity to practice humility – with or without consciously surrendering to the humility intrinsic to it.

    Some of these folks may be happy just to have a job, and even a smaller number of them might not be bright enough or possess talents which would pay them better. In fact, with a little research one could find other employment which offends dignity even more, but at least one presumes that within all the elements to be considered about this job, at least there is no injurious threat to health or life.

    Accordingly, I don’t see much use in struggling with the points you raise.

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    What if the sandwich board did not say, “Eat At Joe’s”, but rather, “Vote for Smith!” or even, “Pray To Stop Abortion”? Are those also fundamentally unjust and an insult to human dignity? What if Joe’s Diner didn’t pay someone to wear a sandwich board, but instead gave him a free T-shirt with their logo on it?

    For that matter, isn’t a priest in his vestments or a nun in her habit a kind of walking billboard for the Catholic Church?

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    This is a ridiculous argument. These “doormats” have an absolute choice as to whether they want to hold a sign on a street corner. You talk about dignity, but there is also dignity in work, no matter what shape or form. The beauty of the free market economy is that a worker may choose one form of employment over the other.

    Moreover, it is likely that these “doormats” enjoy being outside, listening to their iPods, and acting silly — in fact, it sounds like a fun job! Indeed, this job is probably more liberating and dignified that being chained to a cubicle on the fourth floor of a nondescript building in a corporate wasteland.

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    I disagree with this article. Who decides what is beneath the dignity of a human? Is jumping around in a mascot suit on a street corner to advertise a business also beneath human dignity? What exactly are the criteria for jobs beneath human dignity? There are probably a million jobs in this economy that someone could argue are beneath human dignity. Yet the only one who minds these jobs is the author of this article and no one is making him do these jobs. I myself have stood at corners holding signs advertising pro-life views. I also have verification that one such instance saved a baby’s life. But I was a human sign post. It was supposedly beneath my dignity.

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    I knew a sign-spinner (which is apparently a job requiring more skill than that of a sign-waver) who not only enjoyed but took great pride in his work, in his ability to rotate the sign at great speeds, the height to which he could toss it and recover it seamlessly, the number of honks and thumbs-up he was able to elicit from passing traffic. He viewed his job largely as one of entertainment for commercial purposes; he livened up his street corner, advertised for his company, made a living, and mastered difficult skills to do so.

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