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Jun 24 2013

Poll suggests US workers less motivated to work hard

Tim Egan has a nice piece up commenting on the newest Gallup Poll on US workers. The poll found workers have accepted they won’t receive raises or promotions no matter how hard they work or how good their performance, and have settled on simply doing the minimum necessary to keep the job. But I’m not completely on board with this part of his article:

NYT — You would think the usual suspects were to blame for this sea of seething in the cubicles of America. While productivity per worker has soared over the last two decades, pay has remained flat or gone down. The gulf between those at the very top and those who do all the heavy lifting has never been greater. Too many corporations, especially in a tight job market, promote a view that everyone is replaceable; the workers are mercenaries with bottom-of-the-bin benefits. Take it or leave it.

All of that is certainly at play. But here’s the surprise: the main factor in workplace discontent is not wages, benefits or hours, but the boss. Yes, that cretin from Kentucky Fried Chicken, in countless forms. The survey said there was consistent anger at management types who failed to so much as ask employees about their opinion of the job. Ever.

“The managers from hell are creating active disengagement costing the United States an estimated $450 billion to $550 billion annually,” wrote Jim Clifton, the C.E.O. and chairman of Gallup.

I believe this misses the point by miles. The usual suspects are absolutely to blame as this is one and the same phenomenon.

First and foremost, managers and especially a direct boss is “ma authritah” incarnate. Unpopular policies and growing income inequality leaves workers resentful at management in general and the most immediate representative of that is the nearest boss. It’s one and the same, anger over the very thing Egan downplays.

The second point is the recession has resulted in glaring imbalances between low-level management and workers regarding skill and experience. A low level veteran at a company that happened to do better during the recession will tend to move up some, while even the most skilled and educated workers at the one that downsizes or goes belly up are suddenly desperately looking for work. Some of those laid off will end up at companies that did better where they will now be supervised by the former veteran employee. The imbalance results: highly qualified new workers who can run rings around their boss and their boss’s boss getting paid a lousy wage with little or no chance of ever being in charge, earning a living wage, or able to bring their expertise to bear.

When you’ve overheard a 24 year-old high school drop out try to coach a veteran sales executive on how to handle people on the phone, or try to make helpful suggestions in tech support to a former network admin with a masters in software engineering, this all becomes crystal clear. The twenty-something managers may be competent, they may even have some innate skill, but they’re completely outclassed, blown out of the water, by a flush of laid off, skilled, educated workers with decades of experience in complex, professional fields taking years to master suddenly coming aboard.

There comes a point — especially when some of those workers hail from the more underpaid cube CSR and support jobs feel completely free to speak — that they’ll voice resentment at the entity which ignores them and often actively intimidates them, pays them shit while playing games with raises and promotions, keeps having the same problems over and over and over, even though they were identified and solved long ago in more mature organizations that faced them, and has seen to fit to place a lucky kid, at times seemingly almost at random, in charge of their economic fate.

It may not be fair, but those criticism along with some resentment can spill over onto the kid in charge and/or the kid in charge of the kids in charge. This is especially true when reinforced by a wage imbalance, where the  younger long time staff employees  make enough to comfortably live on and veteran pros who can run rings around them struggle on pay barely above minimum wage.

5 comments

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  1. 1
    lanir

    That’s one scenario, the younger person in charge of a bunch of older, more experienced people. You can actually generalize it a bit more though. Economic instability has generated conditions where untalented people are put in positions of power over employees who are vastly more experienced and knowledgeable than they are. Some of them react very poorly to this and initiate a course of action that’s very detrimental to the workplace. The lower the pay of the workers involved, the more likely management as a whole is to delude themselves into thinking these sorts of awful policies are actually an improvement.

  2. 2
    Usernames are smart

    Oh man, THIS:

    ~ highly qualified new workers who can run rings around their boss and their boss’s boss getting paid a lousy wage with little or no chance of ever being ~ able to bring their expertise to bear.

    This puts to words an attitude of fear I’ve run into over the past few years: shops DEATHY afraid of different technologies or even newer versions of their current technologies. And this is stuff that would make them more efficient, save a ton of $$$ and make many folks’ jobs easier.

    I have the skills and experience to implement tons of money-/effort-saving solutions, but am stymied by inane policies and vetoes from above. Hell, if my boss, his boss, and his boss would just get out of my way, I could do so much to help them, but they won’t, so why should I bother? Answer: I shouldn’t.

    ~ keeps having the same problems over and over and over, even though they were identified and solved long ago in more mature organizations that faced them, ~.

    Yup. And the companies don’t care. They’ll happily eat from that shit pie and ask for seconds, paying twice as much for half as much.

    So, here’s how the game is played: I keep the company around long enough to reach my goals and then I dump them like last year’s underwear. My goals are generally to get a certain amount of experience in a certain field/with certain tech. The only security I have is my skillset, nothing else. I’ve seen (and been subject to) many companies lay off many long-term employees without a care and no concern for the people they’re letting go.

  3. 3
    caseyboucher

    Very well written (as most of your stuff is, I just have never actually commented on your blog before, so I wanted to give praise where praise is due)!

    I think you hit the nail on the head. For instance, when I was in high school (7 years ago) I worked as a swimming instructor for $12.75/hour (up to $25/hour for private lessons–I had found a niche market in catering to kids with disabilities). Needless to say, I loved my job and I worked hard every day, including lesson planning and purchasing equipment not provided by my facility, to make sure that the kids loved their swim lessons as much as I liked teaching them.

    So, searching for some extra money, I applied for a part time swim instructing job last year. While the ad said that I would start at $11.50 an hour, my interviewer told me that I would be working for minimum wage.

    Add to that the cost of getting to the pools, the lack of proper equipment (no barbells, only 3 kickboards to spread between 12 kids, etc.), and a boss who demanded that I be on deck 20 minutes prior to each lesson (without pay, of course), and it was a bad scene. When I told my co-workers about the easy money I had made just 7 years ago, they were shocked; minimum wage was apparently the going rate for handling a group of kids who can’t swim yet in deep water.

    The punchline is that I went out of my way to get fired (I just stopped showing up) because I could neither do my job effectively under those conditions nor make a profit (travel to the pools ate up most of the money I was making).

    Like a lot of my former co-workers, I turned to teaching swimming as an auxiliary option with which I had some experience. But, unfortunately, that meant that the market rate for those skills had depreciated to the point of meaninglessness; nevermind the cost of renewing all of my certifications, only to end up making minimum wage.

    Welcome to the new economy.

  4. 4
    Stephen "DarkSyde" Andrew

    Even if you could implement those ideas Username, why would you? Those that are implemented half ass with no authority or power behind them, or which don’t work out as well as you hoped, those are all your babies. What does work will be your manager’s idea: they will happily bask in the praise of upper management and enjoy perks, either of which you’ll never get.

  5. 5
    lpetrich

    Seems like a version of “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us” — that’s from the Soviet Union.

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