Have we reached a tipping point in American employment?

I started writing about the insanities of 21st century employment a few years ago and at first I felt like a lone and perhaps cranky voice in the wilderness. I tried to keep my observations as objective as possible, because I realized that there was a continuing mis-application of business principles in an effort to make various companies more profitable. These companies were minimizing the value of personal judgment in an effort to create a perfect industrial machine.

Management’s attitude reminded me of old movie dialog: "There’s nothing personal in this. It’s strictly business."

From my viewpoint, that is absolutely the wrong approach because effective businesses are actually a carefully coordinated orchestration of personal communications. When you take the personal touch out of business, you get the same effect as the "phone tree from Hell." Every question gets a rote response and if that doesn’t help, too bad. You need to see somebody else, who will give you the same canned response.

You see this in organizations where managers say, "I know you did an exceptional job, but I am allotted only one exceptional review, two superior reviews and the rest must be limited to satisfactory. I have three valuable senior employees, so you get  a satisfactory review."

You also see this in organizations where customer service people give you unsympathetic and unhelpful service because they are punished for using their judgment to solve customer problems.

I think that’s an incredibly short-sighted viewpoint and it is beginning to have some serious implications for American businesses.

According to results of a representative, nationwide survey of 7,718 American workers aged 18 and over, more than half of American workers question the basic morality of their organizations’ top leaders and say that their managers do not treat them fairly.

Multi-generational workforce issues would seem to be coming to a head. Reacting to ongoing corporate scandals, accelerating outsourcing and continued downsizing, only 36 percent of workers said they believed top managers acted with honesty and integrity. Even fewer (29 percent) believe management cares about advancing employee skills, while one-third of all workers feel they have reached a dead end at their jobs.

The “New Employer/Employee Equation Survey” was conducted by Harris Interactive, Inc. for Age Wave, an independent think tank that counsels business and government on issues impacting an aging society, and The Concours Group, a global consultancy advising senior executives.

Read more about this survey here, and here.

It seems that this is a worthwhile topic to explore through blogging, and I am discovering other bloggers who write exclusively about this area.  There is enough to cover that I will continue this in a future post.


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0 Responses to Have we reached a tipping point in American employment?

  1. susan says:

    I would hope that things turn around, David, but I strongly doubt that they will. Money at the shareholder level is all that matters, and the cost of employee salary, medical and retirement benefits is so high relative to outsourced or foreign labor that the consumer doesn’t count, the employee doesn’t count, it’s the shareholder and the top executives that must bring in that extra penny per share.

  2. What a bleak future you paint, Susan.

    If that represents the mindset of American corporations, we are entering the post-corporation age, not the post-corporate age. Shareholders and top executives make up an investor/administrative team which produces nothing but investment plans.

    People work to fulfill their dreams, either directly through creating a worthwhile job or indirectly by working at a job that is endurable in order to make money for food and shelter and a little bit more for escape.

    If business owners leave out the human part of the Employer/employee equation, we can expect an industrial trainwreck soon.

  3. Rosa says:

    Aloha David,
    While the picture you describe may unfortunately still be part of our reality, I’ve seen the positive change toward your tipping point in companies of all sizes (a personal observation in my coaching practice) and I’m one with an optimistic view.

    My optimism stems from my experience in seeing that it really doesn’t take too much effort to change someone’s mindset once the light is turned on with how that personal approach does work – the rewards come pretty quickly to reinforce the behavior. Reframing, reinvention of company vocabulary (i.e. their language of intention) and new paradigms do work once they are illuminated in someone’s attention – most of what we do is get people to simple wake up to the posibilities and be more aware of their options.

    Take your example about “fairness.” Replace old, tired whining and power plays with ho’ohanohano (conducting oneself with distinction in the process of creating environments for personal dignity and respect) and everyone gets on board quickly – everyone wants it, and it does affect the bottom line directly.

    Once we have that initial pilot light more fires begin to burn, and like you, I am very heartened about the power our collective voices can have: blogging starts the conversation, but rest assured those conversations do continue to live offline where it matters most to people personally.

    Good post David, keep starting your fires, for my torch is ready!

  4. Eric says:

    I’m waiting for corporations’ short-sighted drives for profit at all costs to be their downfall. I hope that corporations will lose some of their power as more and more customers, and even the employees, are disenfranchised by this lousy service and impersonal interaction. Not holding my breath, but one can hope. Maybe then, the mom-and-pop stores can make a comeback and micro-businesses can flourish.

  5. I’m afraid I come down heavily on the pessimistic side of this discussion. “Personal dignity and respect” in the workplace? Puh-leeze.

    For more than 20 years I’ve watched corporations increasingly do everything possible to thwart, punish and fire those employees with smart, innovative ideas while promoting the dull, the drones and the go-alongs.

    At the same time, companies have cut so many employees from the workplace, there is no time left for the remaining few, who are doing the work of two, three and more employees of a decade ago, to even think about the quality of their work; just push it out as fast as possible and damn the quality – as in the coat I didn’t buy, priced at $500, with every thread hanging loose and two buttons missing.

    Simultaneously, the average worker’s pay increase during the past ten years has been barely one percent while benefits have been cut to the bone.

    I don’t think aligning health insurance with the workplace was the best idea America ever had, but we are stuck with it until something smarter comes along. Still, there is nothing requiring corporations to supply health coverage at a reasonable cost or at all. A whole lot of those 45-plus million without health coverage are workers.

    There is another growing and insidious practice corporations have taken up to increase their profits on the backs of workers: misclassification of employees as contractors though they are required to work under the rules of employees. It’s illegal, but nothing is done about it while those contractors pay the corporation’s half of FICA and Medicare, get no paid vacations, holidays or sick days, supply their own health coverage at hugely higher premiums than group insurance rates and have no recourse to unemployment insurance when the company lays them off.

    This while executives are pulling in salaries up to a thousand times that of their average workers and take multi-million dollar parachutes when they are fired. Carly Fiorina walked away from HP with $21 million? She failed, for god’s sake. Why do shareholders put up with this?

    And who believes that Scrushy, Lay and the rest of them are the only ones cooking the books in corporate America to line their pockets? They’re just the ones who got caught.

    And your description of managers having quotas on levels of review they can bestow is unspeakable.

    Given all this, I can’t imagine that anyone is surprised at the results of the Harris Poll. We are becoming a nation of serfs indentured to the company (until the next round of layoffs) by means of a barely liveable wage, too few jobs and too tired at the end of a 12-hour workday to complain.

  6. Stephan F says:

    Your comment on the performance evaluation reminded me of http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/2005/01/giving_a_damn_a.html a great story of how stupid performance rationing is.

    I wonder if it actually is possible to excel in a large or even a medium corporation.

    A bureaucracy turns into a Skinner box where “safe” thing is the only only thing you can do. Even if the “safe” thing is completely insane, damaging and barely profitable.

    It seems like teams excel if they are less then 10 people in size with a clear, objective goal. But in most companies they just flounder around with as many people as possible.

    I wonder if we might not take a page (just not the whole book, it has problems too) from the film industry, where professionals come together for a project, form a company, get a product out the door, dissolve the company and then move on to the next project.
    Not that different from everyone being real consultants.

  7. BJ says:

    As a small business owner who fled the corporate world 30 years ago, I must add that even in an ideal work environment; a supportive atmosphere, excellent wages and benefits, flex-time, profit sharing, etc. not all employees are holding up their end of the bargain.

    While I agree with your assessment in general, too many Americans have forgotten what an honest day’s work and/or a job well done is.

    We consumers also share part of the blame, we expect infinite variety and choice, and 24×7 service for ever decreasing prices. We stupidly destroyed our manufacturing base chasing cheaper goods.

    We are a compassionate people, we lament poverty and degradation, yet fuel third world exploitation and ecological destruction with our relentless consumerism.

    We also expect our retirement/pension/investments to increase providing justification for corporate abuse and fiduciary irresponsibility.

    To paraphrase Milo Minderbinder or Pogo; we are the corporation and the corporation is us.

  8. Debra Riley says:

    462404: Hey, does anyone know where I can find a list of gas stations with low prices in my area?
    TITLE: Emperor has no clothes phenomenon
    URL: http://writelife.typepad.com/blog/2005/03/emperor_has_no_.html
    BLOG NAME: Writelife
    DATE: 03/21/2005 01:20:14 PM
    Over at Ripples, David has posted Have we reached a tipping point in American employment? And he’s touched on several aspects of today’s corporate work world that make me want to tear my hair out. I call it The Emperor

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