WILL THE CRASH OF ENRON, FOLLOWING THE DOT.COM DEBACLE, END THE ABUSE OF THE 'NEW ECONOMY' EMPLOYEES IN THE UNITED STATES, WHO SURRENDERED THEIR BASIC RIGHTS IN THE INTERESTS OF COMPANY SHAREHOLDERS AND EVEN HAD TO MAKE VOLUNTARY 'CONTRIBUTIONS' TO THEIR FIRMS' POLITICAL FRIENDS?
Workers in the United States work harder than their counterparts anywhere else in the industrial world, with the exception of the South Koreans and Czechs, according to the latest International Labour Organisation (ILO) statistics. In 2000 the Americans put in an average 1,979 hours in the workplace, an increase of 36 hours on 1990 (1). This is puzzling since in the last 10 years the US has enjoyed great economic prosperity and had a substantial rise in productivity, two factors that were always assumed to mean less work and more leisure (2).
But, as Benjamin Hunnicutt, a historian of work and leisure at the University of Iowa, says, "work has become a new belief system, a new religion". According to economist Juliet Schor, people work longer hours (or hold more than one job) to keep up with the steady decline in their purchasing power, and be able to afford to buy everything they feel they ought to own (3). Such overwork leaves little time for family, leisure, community or civic duty. Time is increasingly absorbed by the workplace. Sociologist Arlie Hothschild has found that, for many employees (women in particular), "work is home and home is work". The workplace provides a sense of community, while the home is increasingly defined by dysfunctional relationships (4).
Whether as a cause or consequence of this, the model of human resource management popularised by new economy giants such as Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco, Apple or Amazon — companies that to the global elites, epitomise technological and social progress — strives to fulfil all the needs (physical, psychological, emotional) of employees. The corporate campus — the word suggesting a convivial cocoon, as well as a young, laid-back ambiance — was a workers' paradise, with child care, exercise facilities, cafes, therapists, grief counsellors, laundry, post office, bookstore, break rooms stocked with soft drinks and aspirin, and even a concierge service attending to special needs (ordering flowers or buying theatre tickets).
The objective has not been to decrease the workload of employees but to allow them to overwork in the best possible conditions, since well-being improves productivity. Such golden cages look glamorous, especially from the outside. In the rankings of favourite employers that have been a staple of the business press, old-fashioned criteria such as good pay and benefits or lifetime employment were out, and new perks in. At the height of the economic boom, favourite companies were those where work was fun. People in a recent Fortune survey singled out three criteria: "a sense of purpose, inspiring leadership, and knockout facilities" (5).
These traits, says Dave Arnott, a Dallas Baptist University professor, mirror the three defining characteristics of a cult: devotion, charismatic leadership and separation from community (6). In such companies, obsessive workaholism has been justified by the sense of a grand mission (building the future, changing the world) and by an "us versus them" ethos (them being most often the competitors, the government or the trade unions) fostered by competition. The financial factor is simply a by-product of the great adventure. As the cliché goes, "It's not about the money, it's about the future" (7). Salary may not have reflected the amount of work, but employees have stood to benefit, via their stock options, from their contribution to the bottom line, and presumably to the value of the stock. And in the new economy that for a while seemed to defy the laws of gravity, the sky was the limit (8).
Commitment to the firm has been bolstered by devotion to the chief. It is not surprising that Steve Jobs (Apple), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Larry Ellison (Oracle), Jack Welch (General Electric) or Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines) became folk heroes whose superstar status was rivalled only by the biggest pop culture icons (in sports, movies or rock music). Their every deed was mythologised in hagiographies and fawning media profiles. And their presumed charisma (from the Greek: gift of grace) earned them the right to expect their employees to go the extra mile (9).
Separation from community has happened because of the amenities on those corporate campuses. If a company caters to all needs, why would employees need to leave the workplace, except perhaps to sleep, and why should they interact (or to use corporate jargon, interface) with the outside world? New technologies (magnetic identification cards, surveillance cameras, pagers, cell phones, email) put employees on a short electronic leash. Their whereabouts are known and they can be reached at any time.
At Cisco, a company that just announced that the productivity of its employees had to increase by 50%, the head of human resources called for an update of the idea of work/family balance. The goal should be integration, not balance, so that employees move seamlessly between on-the-job and off-the-job duties throughout the day. The blurring of private and professional is actively promoted at Southwest Airlines: the company employs both the spouses of 821 couples, and actively promotes relationships among its employees through its own singles group, Mingle (10). The problem with this new social contract is its one-sidedness. Since the firms are primarily dedicated to the creation of shareholder value, they are prone to constant shedding of employees, which, for the downsized, means the simultaneous loss of job, family and community.
Ten hugs a day
As in all cults, incessant indoctrination, through training sessions, retreats (usually in the employee's own time) and all hands meetings, instils corporate values and leaves little room for critical thinking. The corporate creed (mission statement, company goals and values) is recited as a catechism. House slogans and cheers, typically using sporting and war metaphors, are chanted with enthusiasm. Even clothing, often adorned with corporate logos, is a way of proving loyalty. At Nike, employees are encouraged to tattoo their ankle with the famous swoosh logo.
To promote teamwork and bolster employee morale, there is now a cottage industry of counsellors, facilitators and job coaches whose own job is to explain to employees how to be themselves. As in chat shows (and in cults), the public confession dominates. Dubious human resource theories justify bizarre practices. At Health Care & Retirement Corp in Toledo, Ohio, employees were subjected to an 11-hour seminar on the art and science of hugging. Human resource director Harley King explained that "the average human needs eight to 10 hugs a day; the minimum is four." (But you have to get permission before you hug someone, and you can't just hug the most attractive people.)
The new combination of overwork and loss of job security has demanded the use of newspeak of course: using the rhetoric of freedom and personal fulfilment, psychic income and title inflation could make up for stagnating wages. So, in the fast food industry, almost everyone is a manager. Many firms followed the lead of distribution giant Wal-Mart when it decreed that all employees (the majority of whom only earned minimum wage) would be called associates. Well, they are in a way, since their pension plan made them, if in infinitesimal proportions, corporate shareholders. There is also a suspiciously strong correlation between the actual concentration of corporate power and talk of employee empowerment.
Combining constant lowering of costs, empowerment and emotional fulfilment of employees has often required ingenuity. In December 1999 the Bank of America, after announcing the prospect of 10,000 redundancies, sent all its employees a glossy brochure inviting them to adopt an automated teller machine. Adoption meant assuring, on their own time and at their expense, the weekly maintenance of an ATM machine in an urban or rural area. The brochure explained how to keep your ATM on the road to success; pick up any trash that may have been left behind, clean the screen and keyboard, make sure the lights are working and trim bushes. The initiative promised to be a win-win endeavours characteristic of the new economy: customers would enjoy shiny ATMs, employees would derive pride and satisfaction from their volunteer work and shareholders would gain value.
But the California Labour Commissioner, noting the bank's naïve interpretation of labour law, ordered it to compensate the volunteers for their time and effort, and provide them with cleaning and gardening tools. The bank was puzzled by this intrusion of the government and said the bureaucrats had misunderstood an initiative meant simply to boost employee morale and promote teamwork. The bank was outraged at the suggestion that it might have tried to lower its costs with the threat of layoffs. It also assured the world it never intended to use the ATM's hidden camera for quality control purposes (11).
During the 1990s stock market euphoria, overwork reached its peak. A work-is-fun culture justified non-stop work in hot start-up companies headed for IPO (initial public offering) riches. Internet mythology glorified those who never left the office, sleeping two hours a night under their desk. For others, there was nothing wrong in working 16 or 18 hours a day in a playful, festive atmosphere, surrounded by football machines, basketballs, frisbees and games and toys. For the self-defined individualists and libertarians, organised joy was de rigueur, and anything was a pretext to party with colleagues: going away, celebratory drinks and the obligatory Friday night drinking binge. The bubble has burst, but certain habits persist — those pink slip parties where laid-off workers congregate to network with recruiters.
(1) Washington Post, 4 September 2001. (2) Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, Basic Books, New York 1976.
(3) Juliet Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, Basic Books, New York 1992, and The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need, Basic Books, New York 1999.
(4) Arlie Hochschild, The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work, Metropolitan Books, New York 1998.
(5) Fortune, 12 January 1998.
(6) Dave Arnott, Corporate Cults: The Lure of the All-Consuming Organization, AMACOM, New York 2000, p 8.
(7) These are the words used by venture capitalist John Doerr in Secrets of Silicon Valley (2001), a film directed by Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman.
(8) Ibrahim Warde "The rise and rise of the Dow", Le Monde diplomatique English edition, October 1999.
(9) Michael S Malone, Infinite Loop: How the World's Most Insanely Great Computer Company Went Insane, Doubleday, New York, 1999; Alan Deutschman, The Second Coming of Steve Jobs, Broadway Books, New York 2000; Ken Auletta, World War 3.0: Microsoft and Its Enemies, Random House, New York 2001; Mike Wilson, The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison, William Morrow & Co, New York 1998; Janet Lowe, Welch: An American Icon, John Wiley & Sons, New York 2001.
(10) Fortune, 10 January 2000.
(11) The San Francisco Examiner, 23 December 1999; The San Francisco Chronicle, 23 December 1999.
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