Commentary

American working life: Incredible highs and lows, and plenty of barriers

Sep 03, 2015

Labor Day is almost here—and employment conditions for U.S. workers is as divisive an issue as ever. Most everyone, if for no other reason than it is illegal, agrees that on the far end of the spectrum of labor relations, slavery is wrong. But aside from that, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, we in the U.S. do not share a unified perspective on the rights of workers.

Every week, we encounter new evidence that companies from all industries have pushed their workers into uncomfortable, or even untenable, positions. On September 1, The New York Times published an editorial describing the corporate practice of on-call or no-notice scheduling among retailers. The editorial followed one in the New York Daily News two days earlier which covered the same ground as well as the recent National Labor Relations Board “ruling that will compel corporations to take proper responsibility for the people who work in their stores and restaurants—even if they are technically employed by third parties.”

Two weeks earlier, a New York Times article on Amazon’s white collar working conditions and subsequent stories by the e-commerce giant's past and present workers created a firestorm in some circles and a shrug in other cliques. Amazon is just one among several companies to be criticized for its labor practices over the past several years. In a letter to employees, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wrote that ”The NYT article prominently features anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems.” The spouse of a former Amazon white collar worker writing in Quartz explained the culture this way: “Our first years were heady and dazzling…. But little by little, the shine wore off…. When his pager went off, he was expected to respond within 15 minutes or risk blowback or a call from a manager.”

If a tech company can get away with such an unrelenting culture, how far will this go? Is this the future of work?

Worker disillusionment is not new. Some 250 years ago, Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments described this phenomenon well: The person “whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition … studies to distinguish himself in some laborious profession. With the most unrelenting industry he labours night and day.” But in the end, “in the last dregs of life, his body wasted with toil and disease … he curses ambition,” and all that he traded for it. You know the system is in serious trouble when such despondency is coming from workers in their twenties and thirties.

In his letter to employees, Bezos wrote, “Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy [like in the examples in the New York Times article] needs to be zero.”

So, how can empathy be enhanced? According to a 2010 Time Magazine article, “Research shows that simple exposure to other kinds of people in a friendly setting can increase your empathy toward them.”

But CEOs and board members at the largest companies are seldom in touch with other kinds of people in anything resembling a friendly setting. Economic segregation in the U.S. has become even more prevalent over the last 35 years, as wealth among the most affluent has increased dramatically while the rest of the working population deals with stagnant pay or worse. As a result, the United States' wealthiest are increasingly resembling President George H.W. Bush, who lost a presidential election in 1992 in part because he seemed to be out of touch with the realities of everyday life, like shopping in a supermarket. They're out of touch like Mitt Romney, who lost the presidency in 2012 and was widely criticized for saying at a private campaign event, “My job is not to worry about” 47% of the U.S. voting population. “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

The management guru Peter Drucker said that any CEO-to-worker pay ratio greater than 20 to 1 was bad for the company: in such situations, employee morale drops while resentment increases. And the pay disparities are increasing. Five, 10, 15 years ago, the board members I knew had two homes. Today, it is just as likely to be three or four.

Adam Smith was more optimistic. Again, from The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “The rich … consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness … are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society.”

I’ve been talking to board members and their advisors about the Amazon workers' stories. Some argue that it's the board's responsibility to ensure that a company has a good culture—tough maybe, but fair. In one recent conversation, one board member called the lack of societal compassion a deeply troubling problem. But that’s not typical. Most board members and their advisors I speak with are generally unconcerned about how employees are treated. Their interest is piqued only if harsh management practices run the risk of leading to one of two outcomes: an exodus of customers or an inability to hire workers the company needs. Then they care.

If we are to achieve a measure of harmony among workers and managers, we will need to demand further desegregation on the basis of wealth, race, and gender. This will not be easy. Despite the fact that we are 95 years out from the 19th amendment that gave women the right to vote, equality and desegregation in the top echelons of politics and business has not been achieved.

But such efforts can build bridges. Certainly, the fact that some politicians have discovered that their children and others they know are gay has helped to speed LGBT civil rights. It is important that we continue to integrate every environment we inhabit. If everyone did, maybe we would have less haranguing about deportations and lazy workers—and more awareness of what is most important.

Eleanor Bloxham is CEO of The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance (http://www.thevaluealliance.com), an independent board education and advisory firm she founded in 1999. She has been a regular contributor to Fortune since April 2010 and is the author of two books on corporate governance and valuation.

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