31 08 2013
The ever-thoughtful Charlie Stross has written an article about the problems facing the NSA. There's not going to be just one Edward Snowden or Bradley Manning, there's going to be heaps of them - because the Three Letter Acronym security departments are busy getting rid of all of the permanent employees who felt loyal to them and replacing them with contractors who have no more loyalty to them than the security department's loyalty to the contractor.
Now, I personally believe in being loyal to my employer. I (of course) honour the various clauses in my contract that say they get to own all my work for them, and that I won't sell or leak their secrets, and that I won't work for someone else without telling them. I believe in being loyal to the customers I work for and the people I work with. I believe that I am more valuable to an employer the longer I work there because I know the intricacies of the job better and am better at solving problems by recognising them and their underlying causes. These are things that a new employee will always struggle with.
But I believe that the big problem with employers these days is this pernicious idea that their workforce is interchangeable, not to be trusted, and best used by screwing them for as much work as you can get out of them and then throwing them away. It's an "Atlas Shrugged" mindset that believes that somehow the people at the top are being held back by the people at the bottom, and that therefore workers don't deserve any of the benefits of being at the top. It's also contributed to by the idea that companies poach people - especially "rock star" workers and people high up the ladder; the idea that those people (and their loyalty) can be bought just for their experience and to (somehow) change their environment just by being in it.
The "glory days" of jobs for life that Charlie talks about in his essay are really the times before the MBA school of management came into being; when people managed companies because they'd worked their way to the top. Those people knew the business intimately, they'd sweated over it for decades, they knew the people - and the employees knew them. There was much more of a feeling of trust in those organisations, because it was about personal relationships more than work relationships or "rightsizing" or "mission statements". Walt Disney was famous for remembering every person in the 700-strong Disney workforce. These days, one gets the impression that the management of some companies consider it a burden to even associate with the people more than a step down the org chart.
At the moment all we're really seeing, IMO, is the 'tit for tat' nature of the Prisoners Dilemma being played out in corporate workforces. If you want to find the point at which employers started cheating on their workforces, then you have to keep on going back - past the 1980s anti-union laws and workplace deregulation, past the 1880s and the weavers and miners unions, past the 1780s and the clearances... in fact, just keep going: its feudal lords demanding tithes, and high priests demanding donations, and kings demanding tributes. The Greeks famously invented Democracy, but even then slaves, women, and other "not our sort" people couldn't actually vote. The process of cheating on the people beneath you for your own gain has a long history - far longer, I would argue, than the history of the workers rebelling and demanding their own rights.
So now the workforce is no longer loyal to their employer, and we see the mistrust and second-guessing that usually accompanies standard Prisoners Dilemma situations. I think the two are evenly matched - the employer might seem to hold the power (because they write the contract the employeee must sign without change) but the employees are many, and their methods of working around the employer's restrictions and exploiting the employer's weaknesses are many and subtle. The employee has much more mobility than the employer, and while there are usually non-competition restrictions in the contract the number of times I've heard people subtly, and not so subtly, ignoring these (for example, sales people poaching client lists) makes it difficult for the employer to fight all those battles.
Overall, it's a pity, because I think a situation where employer and employee trust eachother and work together is much better than one where each is subtly trying to screw the other. Once you see it as a contest, though, it's all downhill from there. Many organisations try to rebuild trust, but the "team building exercise" is such a cliche for uncaring management that it's boring to repeat it. If you're trying to rebuild trust, but not fundamentally changing the management style and not addressing the needs and issues of the workers, then it's really just an exercise in paying some management consultant to take your money and laugh at you.
I currently work at a company which does have, at least in our Canberra offices, a lot of respect for its workers. It's easy to imagine being paid well for being a "subject matter expert" rather than having to go into management to keep climbing the pay ladder. We have regular functions every fortnight or so where you can speak to just about anyone - not 'town hall' meetings which in my experience are still basically management telling the workers the way it's going to be. And I think that there are many examples of companies that are doing the right things by their workers and seeing a lot of benefits - it's easy to cynically see what Google get out of paying for their sysadmins to have good internet connections, but the sysadmins get a decent deal out of it too, and the trust and understanding that goes with it is not easily bought.
So I do think there's hope. But I think we have to see a profound shift in the employers and their attitudes to staff before that changes. For a start, weed out the psychopaths and bullies in management before you complain about theft of office supplies. Promote people from within rather than always hiring top management from outside. Stop trying to win my trust with company slogans and mission statements, and start actually listening to me when I tell you about the opportunity that I can see right in front of you. Stop treating companies like feudal families, with their fiefdoms and strict hierarchy, and start treating us all like citizens.
All posts licensed under the CC-BY-NC license. Author Paul Wayper.
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