Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Indignity of Work

Mitchell here.

May 1 is the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, where by Joseph's example we celebrate the dignity of human labor.

Unfortunately, for many in Corporate America, dignity is the last thing one finds, in an environment that sees work not as a reflection of God's greatness, nor as something to be offered to God, but merely as a tool to generate profit. Likewise, the employee is seen not as having been made in the image of God, but as a statistic, to be manipulated in whichever way possible in order to improve the bottom line.

From the
Our Word blog, here's a 2004 piece on an all-too-common situation: the indignity of work.

*****

One of the challenges of being a conservative is being expected to defend the occasionally indefensible idiocy of Corporate America. A case in point is this entertaining Human Resources document given to me. For obvious reasons, both the employee and the company will remain nameless. Anyway, what we have here is a manual on career orientations, specifically a section regarding being a “balanced-oriented” employee (meaning, I suppose, that you have a life outside the workplace). The following paragraph is called “Entitlement Mentality:”

Work/life balance is not their birthright. Sorry, but the company’s shareholders probably aren’t concerned about their hobbies or outside interests. To carve out a job role that doesn’t interfere with their other life needs, they should find a way to achieve their balance that has positive (or at least neutral) impact on business results. Encourage them to be a top contributor, to stay at the cutting edge of their profession. This will give them some bargaining chips for the flexibility they crave.
Well. I’m not quite sure what bothers me most about this paragraph – the condescending nature of it, or its sheer stupidity. After trying to figure out just how to address this mess, I finally decided the best way was simply to go step-by-step.

Work/life balance is not their birthright. Sorry, but the company’s shareholders probably aren’t concerned about their hobbies or outside interests.

There is such an arrogance about this statement. Oh, I suppose technically they’re right. In my pocket copy of the Constitution I don’t see the right to a balanced life anywhere (unless it’s next to the right to privacy that guarantees you the right to an abortion).

But look at what the words are saying. You don’t have the “right” to a balance between your home life (hereinafter referred to as “real” life) and your work life. We all suspected that most employers felt this way, but you seldom get to see it printed in black-and-white like this. The Catholic Church has always affirmed the dignity of work, as far back as “Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labor)” by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. And yet it’s hard to see how, when you’re confronted by an attitude like this, you can find much dignity in what you do.

For an opposing viewpoint, let’s take a look at what Pope John Paul II said regarding the dignity of work in his 1981 encyclical “Laborem exercens (On Human Work)”

But above all we must remember the priority of labor over capital: labor is the cause of production; capital, or the means of production, is its mere instrument or tool. (#12)

Yet the workers' rights cannot be doomed to be the mere result of economic systems aimed at maximum profits. The thing that must shape the whole economy is respect for the workers' rights within each country and all through the world's economy. (#17)

As Pat Buchanan once said, America needs to worship at a higher altar than the bottom line. When an employee is viewed merely as a statistic, an economic commodity, rather than a human being, then the system loses moral credibility. I’ve often thought that one of the turning points in capitalism came when we started moving away from “Personnel Department” towards “Human Resources,” turning the employee away from his personhood and instead into a resource, like a roll of Scotch tape.

To carve out a job role that doesn’t interfere with their other life needs, they should find a way to achieve their balance that has positive (or at least neutral) impact on business results.
First of all, it’s clear that in the mind of whoever wrote this atrocious paragraph, “other life needs” are optional – something that only a few of us have. Furthermore, it’s a pretty distasteful thing to have other needs, isn’t it? How dare you! Don’t you know that you should only live to work? Again, the Holy Father writes:

We must pay more attention to the one who works than to what the worker does. The self-realization of the human person is the measure of what is right and wrong. Work is in the first place "for the worker" and not the worker "for work." Work itself can have greater or lesser objective value, but all work should be judged by the measure of dignity given to the person who carries it out. (Laborem exercens, #6)

Not to this company, apparently. Let’s look at that last sentence again:

“To carve out a job role that doesn’t interfere with their other life needs, they should find a way to achieve their balance that has positive (or at least neutral) impact on business results”

Hmm, that’s what I thought it said – your work life takes primacy over your personal life, and your personal life must be adapted to cause the least possible interference with your work life.

See how easy this is? Let’s continue:

Encourage them to be a top contributor, to stay at the cutting edge of their profession. This will give them some bargaining chips for the flexibility they crave.

Boy, you have to hand it to the author – writing something like that really takes guts. The best way to achieve a balance in life is to become a workaholic! That may not be what it actually says, but let’s read between the lines. How many companies are enlightened enough to realize that “top contributor” is not synonymous with “long hours”? In response, let’s look at an excerpt from the Labor Day 2001 Pastoral Message of Bishop Michael Saltarelli, Diocese of Wilmington:

Workaholism is a specifically American form of spiritual lukewarmness rooted in the consumerism of our culture. Seeing our careers and work life as a way to holiness prevents us from turning our work into an idol that alienates us from our faith, our spouses, our families and ourselves. Workaholism results in a damaging fallout. Marriages fail or are strained. Children do not receive the attention and nurturing they need. Families experience little or no time together. Family meal times rarely occur. Family celebrations are few and far between.

Ironically, I heard of a company that recently had an internal promotion asking everyone to make a commitment to spend one day eating dinner with their family. This while the same company specializes in producing food products designed to make it as easy as possible to eat on the run without being bothered by such annoying things as “family time.” This chicken-and-egg question – whether companies are responding to or creating such needs – is something we can pick up another time.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course, and there’s encouraging evidence that some companies are breaking out of this mold. Best Buy is in the process of rolling out a new way of looking at productivity and the workplace, as was pointed out in a November 8 Minneapolis Star Tribune article about ROWE, which stands for Results-Oriented Work Environment.

"Most employers should be able to say, 'All right, this is your job. This is the value created by your job. It is a full-time job, but if you can get it done in 25 hours well, mazel tov, congratulations,' " said Paul Rupert, a workplace flexibility consultant in Washington, D.C. "But the number of companies in which that scenario happily plays out could be counted on one hand.”

According to the author of the article, ROWE came out of Best Buy’s attempt to answer the question: How can we be the employer of choice?

Workers responded with a chorus of "We want to be trusted to do our work the way we feel is best for us, that can get the best results," said Cali Ressler, who leads work-life programs at the consumer electronics retailer. "They also said, 'We want to be able to balance our personal lives with that work.' "

This coincides nicely with the following comment from the Holy Father:

Workers not only want fair pay, they also want to share in the responsibility and creativity of the very work process. They want to feel that they are working for themselves -- an awareness that is smothered in a bureaucratic system where they only feel themselves to be "cogs" in a huge machine moved from above. (Laborem exercens, #13)

Don’t get me wrong – the employee has definite obligations to the employer, many of them found in the Ten Commandments. When you’re at work, your time belongs to the person who’s signing your check. If you’re getting paid for work you’re not doing, that’s stealing. As the Pope says, “Work remains a good thing, not only because it is useful and enjoyable, but also because it expresses and increases the worker's dignity.” And therein lies the rub. The employer has responsibilities to the employee as well, the responsibility to treat him with the dignity befitting a person, not simply a resource. Part of that dignity is to create a workplace in which the employee can deal with what it means to be a person – problems at home, problems with loved ones. Even, heaven forbid, problems in maintaining the proper balance between work and home. Bishop Saltarelli:

By contrast, workers find the connection between faith and work more difficult to make when they feel that management lacks integrity or does not respect the opinions and ideas of the workers. In those cases, people are more apt to see work as a means of economic survival and not as God's gift.

Well, why shouldn’t they? I had a boss tell me once that the only thing the company owed you was a paycheck, and that if you weren’t willing to play by those rules you were free to leave, because that’s all you owed the company as well.

In conclusion, there’s an important message here, one that, however unintentionally, this particular Human Resources document brings up: Just because the company owns your time, it doesn’t mean it owns your life or your soul. That’s a message all too often lost on Corporate America.

For the complete text of the Holy Father's encyclical, click here.
Post a Comment