I telephoned my sister one morning at her office. She was working in the credit and collections department of a small medical equipment rental firm. We had been speaking for less than a minute when she told me that she had better hang up. She had just received an e-mail message from her supervisor sarcastically asking her if she was on break. The next day she found out that her boss was actually reading her private e-mails and listening to her private telephone conversations. Needless to say, she was outraged. But what could she do? The company had a legal right to spy on her and she desperately needed the job. She felt like a slave.
Employment is a form of slavery. This is a provocative analogy and may be offensive to some, but it is key to understanding why employees are often unhappy.
Merriam Webster defines a slave as, "a person who has lost control of himself or herself and is dominated by something or someone else." This is precisely what happens in the workplace. Many employees, shackled to their jobs with little freedom to control their day-to-day work or career, feel like slaves.
Employees are "dominated" because their employer controls what they do, when they do it, and where they do it. In return for pay and benefits, employees must conform to set work hours, dress codes, and work rules. They must dutifully follow management's orders and maintain good relationships with their supervisors and coworkers. Many have very little say in how they perform their work. In short, they are like slaves because their employer controls their time, their space, and their actions.
Like masters of slaves, management often doesn't listen to employee suggestions or value their opinions. Indeed, they often don't even communicate directly with their employees. They communicate instead through middle managers or supervisors. Like slaves, employees are subject to the whims of management. Promises made by management are often broken with little explanation or remorse. It is not uncommon for employees to experience layoffs, salary reductions, increases in what they must pay toward their benefits, and the loss of their hard-earned pension benefits. It is also not uncommon for the senior managers (the "masters") to at the same time take home large salaries for themselves.
Employees who are treated like slaves begin to feel and act like slaves. They live in a state of perpetual anxiety about not pleasing management and losing their jobs. Our research shows that 43 percent of all employees feel insecure about their jobs. These anxious employees typically lose self-confidence and are not the best performers. They become reluctant to express their useful opinions or to develop innovative approaches to their work.
Technically, of course, unlike slaves, employees are voluntary workers and are legally free to leave whenever they please. In practice, however, for many this is not the case. They may feel trapped. They don't want to leave their work friends or the "security" of their jobs. They are intimidated by the prospect of finding other employment. They silently resent management for their predicament.
Becoming a benevolent master is not enough. Unshackling employees requires breaking the cycle of management control and employee acquiescence by respecting employees and giving them more control. Here are a few suggestions for how to emancipate employees by breaking the cycle of the master-employee relationship:
1. Respect employee privacy.
Masters feel they have every right to invade the privacy of slaves. Management should never, under any conditions, spy on employees. Legal or not, reading personal e-mails and listening in on personal telephone calls is a terrible invasion of privacy. You must have a clear business rationale for monitoring communications of an employee and you must do so openly. If you don't trust your employees, document their performance issues and take appropriate actions. But don't treat them as if they are your possessions and assume you can infringe on their privacy whenever you like.
2. Treat employees as valued business partners.
Masters have a dim view of the capabilities of slaves. Management should go out of its way to respect the advice and counsel they receive from employees. Many times managers who hired me to help them better understand how employees feel about working for the organization have confided to me, "I have told senior management many times about the problems here, but if you, an outside consultant, tell them, they might believe it." It is common in organizations for senior management to not respect the middle managers they hired to advise them.
3. Be honest with employees.
Masters feel it is within their rights to lie to slaves. It is not within the rights of managers to lie to their employees.
A 500-employee research organization with a long history of growth and prosperity had run into some financial difficulties. The Board of Directors put a new management team in place, and shortly thereafter the new president implemented a 10-percent layoff. He then met with employees in small groups to explain why it was necessary and to promise there would be no further layoffs for the foreseeable future. The very next week four more employees were laid off. The president said it was a restructuring and not a layoff, but the employees didn't buy it. His credibility was crushed and the morale of the organization took a tailspin that will take many years, and perhaps a new president, to reverse.
Honesty is always the best policy when communicating to employees. Of course, there will be times when managers cannot share certain information, but lying is never justified.
4. Encourage employee independence.
Masters tell slaves that this is just the way it is, like it or not. Slaves remain silent for fear of losing their lives. Employees may not like what management tells them to do, but they don't complain or question out of fear of losing their jobs.
To break the perceived bonds of slavery, encourage employees to be proactive and assertive. Support rather than reject out of hand employee demands for better work tools, more information about the direction of the organization, and increased decision-making authority.
5. Provide more opportunities for employees to control their work hours.
Slaves have no control of their work hours. Many employees don't either.
I have consistently found that many of the happiest employees are those who work part-time. Why is this? They typically make less money, receive few if any benefits, are less involved in organizational decision-making, and are less connected to the people in the office. They are happier because they perceive more control over their own time. Even though they abide by the normal working hours on the days they are scheduled to work, they do not feel like slaves to the clock. Instead, they feel they have control over when they work. They therefore feel more independent (and less slave-like) than those who work full-time.
Some jobs, of course, require someone to be at their desk full-time. A customer service representative has to be near the telephone during all the organization's normal working hours. However, ask yourself if it would be more beneficial for you to have one employee at the station half the week and another, equally competent person at that station for the other half.
Offer employees who convert to part-time work the opportunity to maintain their health benefits.
If you hire more part-time workers, you will have a happier and more productive workforce. Besides, when given the opportunity, many salaried employees can complete a full weeks' worth of work in less than a week. Let them do it. After all, are you paying for the work to be completed, or for hours logged on the time clock?
6. Provide more opportunities for employees to control their work space.
Slaves, like employees, have little say about where they work. Many organizations have discovered that employees can be just as effective, if not more so, working from their homes rather than reporting to the office. Employees who report to the office waste valuable time and energy commuting and chatting by the coffee pot. Most business today is transacted by telephone and e-mail anyway. Employees can do this just as easily from their homes.
Employees who work primarily out of their homes are more satisfied with their work life than those who work in an office.
Although these home-working employees are less involved in organizational decision making and less connected to their colleagues in the office, they feel they have more control. They don't have to be sitting at their desks or beside the phone projecting a compliant image to their boss. They are in control of their "space."
7. Support professional development.
Masters do not allow their slaves to escape, but employers should. Support employees in their efforts to develop professionally and perhaps leave the organization for a better opportunity. If employees believe their current job is just one temporary stop in their chosen career, they will feel more in control of their work life. Managers should actually encourage their employees to keep an eye out for their next job by always maintaining an up-to-date resume, attending professional networking groups, maintaining relationships with former coworkers, and keeping in touch with search firms. It's also a good idea to provide career counseling and professional development opportunities.
Such support for employees is not merely altruistic. It will further the goals of the organization by keeping a cadre of highly motivated, accomplished, and upwardly mobile employees who refuse to become complacent slaves. It will also be attractive to potential new employees to know that the organization supports employee growth and development.