Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Inhuman Side of Enterprise

Ah, the human side of enterprise
Has long been taught in schools
Where love for work is a prize
And slackers are but fools
Except in the mind of the “employers”
Who do not accept humanity
And become the destroyers
Of life and limb and sanity
To prove that men are but cogs
Without worth or soul
Except to cut wood from the logs
And to spend time on parole
In jobs that are becoming the dregs
Yet without which a grown man begs

Back in the dark ages of 1960, a fresh voice supported by research and understanding proposed a new concept for the workplace. His theory of work and motivation was that people did not have to be coerced to work and that work itself is inherently satisfying; that work was as natural as play and that systems for production should recognize this essential humanity. McGregor postulated that managers and employers held basic assumptions of their employees. Those who held “Theory X” assumptions felt that work was not natural and that people had to be coerced to work or given extrinsic rewards that paid them directly for their efforts; that they had to be watched and monitored by systems and supervisors to stay on task and get work done. Those managers and employers holding “Theory Y” assumptions held beliefs that work itself had intrinsic rewards and that it was as natural as play; that if people were trusted with work tasks, they would monitor and manage themselves to get work done and that they resented coercion. McGregor was a product of Detroit and understood the stress of assembly line production. He also worked at several levels from senior management to gas station attendant when we had such work. Although he began studies in Detroit, he initially left college for the world of work and then resumed studies at Harvard where he got an MA and a PhD. On graduating, he moved to MIT, a matter of a few hundred yards, and began serious work on motivational studies with some of the best minds in the nation. He later was President of Antioch College at age 41 and he then returned to the Sloan School of Management at MIT. He died relatively young at age 58.

Essentially, McGregor was the first serious and qualified manager and educator who postulated that the assumptions a manager makes actually affect the outcome of production and the support of workers in the cause of production. How you, as a manager, feel about workers affects the way that workers respond to your style based upon those assumptions. Apparently some in Congress have not read McGregor or still feel that business ownership includes total control of employees as in the days of Charles Dickens. Allow me to relate the story of a close friend who experienced the real results of management under the conditions of mistrust and arbitrary leadership.

The curtain opens in an office of a property casualty insurance company in the Northeast that was, at the time, a subsidiary of CIGNA (Connecticut General). In its early days, this company wrote insurance on slaves just as Aetna Life and Casualty did during the mid 1800s. The major difference between these two companies, besides size, was that Aetna Life and Casualty wrote life insurance on slaves. “Little Aetna,” unrelated to AL&C, wrote property insurance on slaves. To call Little Aetna conservative is hyperbolic understatement. Little Aetna was a reactionary throw back to the 19th century. As a single point of reference, when the women of Little Aetna petitioned to change the name of the “Aetna Girls Club” to “the Aetna Women’s Club,” the women were rebuffed, and this is in the late 1970s. One day early in my friend’s tenure at Little Aetna, his boss called him in to his office for a confidential talk. “I believe that trainer “Susan” spends too much time in the ladies room. I want you to log in all her time in the restroom and to put a stop to her lazy habits.” Now, “Susan” is black and also the most productive of five management trainers. My friend is in a quandary because of the possibility that monitoring her toilet time might backfire as a productivity issue as well as a racial sensitivity issue. He chose to talk with “Susan” who claimed that she brought her work into the restroom because one of the other trainers was a total distraction and that she could not sit by her and avoid constant conversation. Her professional work bore that out. Things then got worse. My friend’s secretary reported to him that management was rummaging through his desk drawers after hours looking for something (union affiliation evidence/my friend was not a union member). Finally, they brought in the company attorney and fired him alleging lack of output. My friend then filed an Open Line complaint to CIGNA. The CIGNA investigation showed that his unit had higher productivity than the technical training unit and recommended rehiring only to be told that Little Aetna would rather risk lawsuit than concede.

My friend left the company and went where he was wanted. No surprise there. A few years later at Christmas, the Little Aetna President resigned without warning. On the first business day of the following year, all 4,000 employees were fired. For two years prior to that calamity, CIGNA had touted the property casualty job opportunities that awaited Aetna employees at INA in Philadelphia, but failed to hire or transfer any employees. When queried by the press, CIGNA simply stated that they did not want the employees to let down their efforts or conduct sabotage. Instead, they created a fiction that opportunities would be greater rather than eliminated. It was like the movie line from “A Few Good Men.” “You can’t handle the truth!” Employees were not told the truth that might have allowed them to get jobs. There were record heart attacks, suicides and strokes among the 4,000 because a company applying clear Theory X assumptions assumed that the employees were like destructive children who had to be protected from the truth, lest they sabotage Aetna. Many employees were older and deprived of their pensions meaning that they might not find work for months if at all. The trump card was unemployment insurance. Aetna was still liable for that compensation along with the employees (for 180 days). Is this beginning to sound familiar? Now what about those who were unable to find work after 180 days? Were they lazy as the company assumed? Does the government owe them anything to protect their homes, health and families? Just what happens to a breadwinner (man or woman) who cannot find work and has the responsibility to feed, clothe and house a family? Is it simply another day when their self-image, health and identity as well as that of their families are destroyed?

Today, this nation is experiencing record unemployment, record corporate profits along with the monetary and human pain and suffering that comes with extended periods without living-wage work. The House political extremists want to cut off unemployment compensation saying it is a counter-motivation for people to find work. I have personally known hundreds who have lost work and have yet to find one that so preferred it that way so as to stop searching for work. That is a serious Theory X assumption about people that will cause further pain, displacement and grief for them and all their friends and family. Work is what keeps body and soul together. To do what the extreme right threatens will damage our nation as well as the psyche of the workers directly affected and those who depend upon them. Enterprise cannot be permitted to be inhuman without catastrophic and long lasting results.

By the way, that friend of mine was actually me. How does it feel to have been treated as a mushroom (kept in the dark and fed bullshit)? Lies are never for the good of the employee or the reader. Lies hide the people from knowledge and actions they might take to improve their lives. Don’t let the House lie about employee motivation or extending unemployment benefits. Write them for your own good and the good of the hard working people of this great nation. Do not let them diminish us all by being inhuman and ask them to demand that jobs pay living wages and do not get exported for an extra buck to go to executive bonuses. These are the executives that have disowned McGregor. They now maximize short-term profit by exporting jobs to venues with cheaper labor, destroying protective laws and unions and millions of families in the process. All the Right’s horses and all the Right’s men can’t put these people together again.

George Giacoppe
1 October 2011

1 comment:

Steve Wilheir said...

While I'm sure their management was abusive and horrible -- subscribing to Theory X doesn't necessarily mean larcenous. There are plenty of people who are great to everyone else, but make fraudulent insurance claims, cheat on their taxes, or speed to work. One "crime" doesn't implicate another, necessarily. I have to say, these folks sound horrible... but which came first? How did the company get into that situation?