Thursday, September 3, 2015

Disposable Workers

What is the essential function of management?  Is it management of people or management of spread sheets?  Obviously the division is not as simple as that, but let's stay with the question a bit longer because it leads to another question.  In corporate management calculations, are people little more than disposable assets to be used for a season and then tossed aside?  Are they only slightly more important than paper cups at the water cooler?

We've heard the horror stories about Amazon, and a significant amount of truth appears to be in them.  Machines, flow charts, and maximized retained earnings take precedent over everything and everybody except for the highest paid executives, and they may not be safe either.  Like modern day serfs or peons, as soon as an employee serf has been used and exhausted to the point of diminishing returns, he or she is fired, making room for the next one in line.  That may be extreme, but it may also not be uncommon.

On the other hand, there are corporations that are lauded for their generous employee benefits and supportive workplace practices encouraging a full healthy life in ways that also lead to record profits and market share.  Sadly, it seems that many of them also consider employees to be disposable assets.  Unlike the more medieval methods of Amazonian companies, they create environments in which employees can be nurtured and grown in enthusiastic contentment until they have produced all the company wants out of them, which is not the same thing as all they are capable of contributing.  Then they are harvested like hens that no longer lay or cows that no longer give milk. 

Old hens and cows may be a poor analogy because terminated employees are, in many cases, just entering their prime as effective contributors to corporate prosperity.  Nevertheless, there are two strikes against them.  Strike one is the abundant supply of newer, less expensive workers who can do an adequate job and are willing to work themselves to exhaustion, at which point they can be let go.  If the marginal advantage of keeping a more experienced and more expensive employee is not that great, why bother keeping them when the newer, less costly person can do almost as well and be more easily and quickly disposed of.  Strike two is the threat that experienced employees pose for their superiors, who are very much aware that their own tenure is fragile.  The self protective safe thing to do is to not let experienced, qualified others gain too much attention from yet higher levels of management.  Culling the herd while relying on the supply of newer, cheaper staff who can be kept at a certain distance from higher levels of power is often a successful corporate survival tactic.        

It reminds me of dystopian science fiction movies such as Soylent Green (1973) and Logan's Run (1976) in which an otherwise promising world turns out to be a nightmare of scheduling the use and termination of a population for the sake of efficiency.  Both of them owe a debt to earlier works such as Huxley's Brave New World (1932) and Orwell's 1984 (1949).

So who rises to the apex of corporate power?  Those who are extremely competent sometimes do.  My guess is that more often it's the ones who keenly understand how the system works and have the Machiavellian skills to navigate it to their own benefit.  It can work for a while, but it's unsustainable because Machiavellian manipulators are not capable of strategic thinking for the benefit of others, including the corporation itself.  They are more like the emperors of the late Roman Empire who worked hard at out maneuvering each other, arranging the assassinations of each other, and misappropriating the wealth of the empire to satisfy their own appetites.  All the while the empire rotted away from within.

If it is a reality, it is a reality that must be confronted.  For those of us who consider ourselves Christian, that kind of management is a gross violation of everything God has revealed about our creation in God's image, the command to love one another as Christ has loved us, and the obligation to respect the dignity of every human being.  Moreover, it’s the kind of management that the most respected scholars of management and leadership have warned will always lead to corporate and societal disaster.  My own teacher, W. Edwards Deming, was adamant that human resources are the most important resources a company can have, and that ineffective management could almost always be traced to systems that abused human resources. 


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