There’s a lot of attention in the media on job loss and unemployment these days, but very little attention is being paid to the people who “survive” downsizing, the workers who remain on the job after a lay-off. Over the years, I’ve done numerous studies in corporate America, focused on family policies in the workplace. In some cases, massive layoffs were taking place as I was conducting my research. I was even hired by one company to find out why people were leaving their jobs, and then they laid off thousands of workers.
Life before, during and after a lay-off is no picnic. Researcher Joel Brockner says that workers who survive downsizing are likely to experience more stress and less organizational commitment and motivation. In fact, while victims of downsizing lose their jobs, survivors of downsizing experience a loss of control over their jobs. They worry they might be next, and that feeling of uncertainty permeates the entire work environment.
In one study, I investigated the impact of flexible work policies in six large corporations. Five had significant “reductions in force” during the course of the study. In effect, I ended up studying the family policies in the context of downsizing, as it affected the remaining workers and the organization.
Brockner says that corporations can mitigate the negative reactions from survivors of downsizing, particularly if they are perceived as operating fairly, in terms of the criteria or procedures they use to lay off their workers (1995). Other researchers say that companies can avoid the wrath of their surviving employees if they subsequently create employee empowerment and job enrichment initiatives after the layoffs (Niehoff, Moorman, Blakely and Fuller, 2001; Spreitzer and Mishra, 2002). But in my experience, companies are very inconsistent about what the provide for workers after a major downsizing. Some make an effort to maintain the morale of the “survivors; and others tighten up and demand more from their workers.
Tension in the workplace
After a lay-off, the surviving workers are often burdened with doing the same amount of work with fewer workers. Moreover, opportunities for advancement are curtailed, which creates increased competition among the survivors for any opportunities that do arise. What develops is a “mentality of scarcity”, which produces more tension in the work environment, and more competition for special assignments. One worker told me:
“What I find is that my coworkers don’t share information as freely as they used to. They’re just more protective about information. I don’t feel like I can trust them like I used to. It’s because people are scared. Their future is up in the air, and there are no positions, so people get kind of competitive and kind of closed”.
In one company, I observed that this tension was also a set-up to exacerbate tensions around race, gender and work life issues. A substantial percentage of white males reported that they had experienced reverse discrimination, saying that they felt they had been passed over for jobs that were filled by women or African-Americans. Some even complained that mothers were given preferences for certain job assignments over them. These kinds of biases – likely unexpressed in the best of times – are more likely to manifest in subtle ways when there is economic stress. Because people don’t tend to express these negative feelings openly, where they could possibly be addressed (possibly…), they fester silently and affect the workplace climate.
Moreover, in a downsizing environment, people are afraid to speak out about problems in the workplace. Self-censorship is more likely; dissonance is less likely, and innovation may be discouraged.
Trust in senior management broken down
Some of the workers I have interviewed said they perceived downsizing as a breach of the psychological contract between the employer and employee, hoping – and perhaps expecting – that they had job security and opportunities for development. According to researchers Morrison and Robinson (1997), this belief that a psychological contract has been breached can lead to feelings of injustice, deception or betrayal among employees.
In some cases, I found that prior to a lay-off, companies doled out information irregularly, promising there wouldn’t be lay-offs or buy-outs. Some employees described an elaborate process of how they found out about an impending lay-off. First they heard the promise that nothing would happen, then the “news” that there would be lay-offs, but with no date, and then a manager would post a new organizational chart, with no details. That would be followed by a promise of more information. Later they were given some criteria for who would be laid off, with no names. At that point, people would be scrambling to figure out if they were on the list. Finally, after all of this time, some workers were given the news, and told they had to leave in a couple of weeks, or maybe a month or two.
In one department of a company that had major lay-offs, nearly every employee I interviewed “confessed” that he or she was taking Prozac and seeing a psychiatrist. None of them were talking to one another about how they felt. In another company, workers found out about a major downsizing through a video from the company president, which they all had to watch simultaneously. You can imagine the morale of the workers, including those who lost their jobs and those who would remain. Another company pulled all of its middle managers into a special, private meeting, and they had to sit with the information for many months before they could share it with their colleagues. One worker told me:
”With all these policy changes that are being made, people just feel like something big is coming. Even if they say it’s not going to happen, nobody believes them anymore.”
The job lost its meaning
For some survivors, the loss of co-workers and their fear of losing their own jobs is only part of the picture. Downsizing affects how work is done, and impacts individuals and teams. Often the work itself feels less meaningful, as workers recognize that they have less control over the product and the process. One worker told me:
“The entire process feels like paper pushing now. People feel like they’re just going through the motions instead of doing a quality job. The job satisfaction is just not there. People do not feel challenged. They just do not feel like they’re making a difference anymore.”
As politicians battle over the best way to stimulate the economy, the priority of creating new jobs is imperative. We need to generate revenue to pay for new jobs, and I would suggest that the first place to start is creating a fair and equitable tax policy, in which the weathliest of Americans and corporations pay their fair share. Our political leadership should be looking back at the New Deal for how to create an interim jobs program; and forward to create a solid infrastructure that produces jobs that are well-paid and secure. Our government needs to increase incentives to the private sector to build jobs at home, rather than in search of cheaper labor elsewhere around the globe. And if we are to reduce poverty, we need to ensure that our education system and the social safety net are fully funded.
Listen to Senator Bernie Sanders’ perspective on a progressive jobs policy:
We’ve all had them, and maybe some of us are them! (No, not us!)As a sociologist who has spent many years studying workplaces, I am indebted to a number of bad bosses. Although some of them made my life miserable, they inspired me to understand why. So in the spirit of acknowledgment, I must first say thank you to the boss who told me I was destroying my life by leaving the job to pursue another direction. (Destroying whose life?) And thank you, too, to the psychotic boss who knew that I supported a particular political cause, and out of nowhere screamed at me, “Don’t ever let me see you on television with a sign in your hands supporting that Communist (crap).”Whoa! It hadn’t occurred to me, but now that you mention it…And thank you to the newly appointed manager who, in her first month on the job, falsely accused me of serious financial improprieties. (One month, and many sleepless nights later, I was vindicated.)
Given these experiences, it has been therapeutic to study the American workplace and to dissect some of the problems that contribute to “bad-bossism.” Despite having been “stung” by a few bad bosses, I still believe that people – including some bad bosses – are basically good. So what is it that leads some people in management positions to “behave badly?” Well for a start, the workplace is a microcosm of our larger culture and society. Societal problems that exist outside the office are likely to surface within it as well, playing out via power dynamics between and among employees, based on their occupational status, their gender, and their racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Political economist and philosopher, Karl Marx, laid the groundwork for understanding the intrinsic tension between labor and management (or, as he would say, capital), in which a capitalist system favors profit over people. In this system, he argued, management would necessarily exploit workers with long hours and poor working conditions, in order to get more productivity out of workers, which in turn would maximize profit. With the advent of laws that limit working hours in manufacturing settings, and the regulation of working conditions, Marx’s critique and analysis continues to provide a useful framework, even though it’s probably more relevant to manufacturing work in Third World countries, where many multinational corporations have moved their operations in search of cheaper labor.
In the U.S., our current economy has increasingly shifted to knowledge-based work and services, and the lines that are drawn between workers and managers are often painted as more subtle. Nonetheless, stratification of the labor force ripples through multiple levels of professional and managerial workers. How do these dynamics affect the contemporary workplace?
Studies suggest that a number of factors shaping workplace environments contribute to the “bad boss” phenomenon:
1. Male model of the ideal worker In this model, the “normal” trajectory of the worker is based on a “male model” of the ideal worker, a person who can work throughout his (her?) career in a continuous and uninterrupted manner, taking no time for non-work (e.g., personal, family) activities. Sociologist Erin Kelly, et al calls it a “masculinist work culture”, commenting,
“Working long hours is a sign that employees are readily available and eager to meet others’ needs; it further reinforces the ideal worker as someone – most often a man – who does not have, or does not attend to, other pressing commitments outside of work.”
With this model, work comes first. When managers perceive that’s not the case for one or more employees, it’s viewed as an affront to the company, a deviation from employee loyalty. Managers who “buy into” a “masculinist work culture” are likely to be critical of workers who challenge this norm. In a study I conducted on parental leave policy in a large financial services company, the norm was so powerful that men chose not to use the company’s generous parental leave policy, and women who used the policy took very short leaves, even though legally, all employees were entitled to longer leaves.
2. Structural issues that create a culture of competition in our current American workplace, where the bottom line rules, there are economic pressures to produce. In line with the prevailing capitalist ethic, a culture of competition is viewed by many managers as necessary to foster productivity, with long hours as the norm. In order to sustain productivity, managers feel pressure from above to push employees to produce more, even when they realize that it’s not humanly possible. In a number of the workplace studies I’ve conducted, I’ve learned that being in a middle managerial position is often isolating. This makes these managers depressed and grumpy. Most have little support to figure out a better way, and they realize quickly that too much empathy for their “subordinates” takes too much time. Ergo, they may “act badly.”
3. Poor economic times makes managers even more grumpy In our crisis economy, the financial pressure is even more intense, and some managers may exhibit more controlling behavior towards their employees. Managers are being more closely monitored on financial performance, and they may be even less likely to take the time to attend to employees’ feelings or needs under these conditions.
4. “Deal with it; I did!” Some managers worked hard to get where they are, and along the way, they experienced a lot of pain themselves. When they get to the top (or close to it), some pass on what is familiar. While many of the managers I’ve interviewed worked very hard to respond to the needs of those under their supervision, some were less than understanding.
5. Lack of management training Some managers who are good workers are rewarded by being moved up to management positions. While some organizations prepare their workers for this type of promotion, others fail to prepare them for the pressures they encounter once they are in charge. Without adequate management training, some bosses make mistakes, even lots of mistakes. Sometimes they find themselves in positions of power and it feels uncomfortable. They’re being asked to do things with and to workers that they wouldn’t have liked themselves. They know that. But they don’t know how to challenge or work with the system without jeopardizing their reputation or losing their jobs. This can make for frustration and grumpiness.
6. Personality problems Some managers just shouldn’t be managing people. Their “management style” may look good to upper-level managers because it fits in with a culture of competition and drive. But they may be making the people who work for them miserable. Because of an “us” and “them” dichotomy, other managers may even side with them.
Perhaps we all have a story about the crazy or mean or incompetent boss. Are all managers bad bosses? No, of course not. But the problem is clearly pervasive: Google “bad boss” and you’ll find over 7 million citations, with countless workers publicly venting about their negative experiences, and experts offering advice on how to deal with that mean and disrespectful supervisor.
What is a good boss? There’s plenty written about good bosses as well. Google “good boss” and you’ll find over 14 million citations! Hopefully we’ve also had them (and maybe even are them!).
Here’s an excerpt (slightly tweaked) from an 10/10/10 article in the Chicago Tribute by Mary Schmich about what makes a “good boss.”
* A good boss understands that all power is fleeting and borrowed, and doesn’t take advantage of this moment. * A good boss realizes that her/his real power comes not from those above him, but from the rank-and-file. * A good boss listens, and can see a problem before it turns into a crisis. If it does turn into a crisis, the good boss works with an employee to resolve the situation. * A good boss understands that your time is important too. * A good boss is a good communicator, responding to your concerns and questions in person and via electronic communications. * A good boss treats employees with respect. S/he does not treat people differently based on their occupational status, gender, race or sexual orientation. * A good boss tries to make everyone feel special and included. * A good boss is self-aware and tries to understand how his/her behavior affects others. * A good boss has the courage to deal with problem employees, and does it professionally. * A good boss tells you when you screwed up and forgives you. * A good boss does not take credit for your ideas, nor does s/he demand credit when s/he gives you an idea. * A good boss is not afraid of people as smart as s/he is. * A good boss sees what you do best, matches your job to your talents, and gives you room to bloom. * A good boss remembers how s/he felt about bosses before s/he was one. * A good boss reveals just enough about her/his personal life to remind you that bosses are people too. * A good boss doesn’t take bonuses when the workers can’t get a raise.
* A good boss knows how to apologize and how to laugh, sometimes at him/herself. * And a good boss understands how much we all yearn for a good boss.
I just wrote the following piece for WorkplaceFlexibility.com.au, based in Australia. Thanks to Juliet Bourke from Aequus Partners for allowing reproduction:
After considerable debate, the U.S. Congress has finally approved the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010.
The Bill, which has passed both the House and the Senate, is now awaiting President Obama’s signature. Once that happens, federal agencies will be required to develop a policy that allows eligible employees to do at least some portion of their work outside of the office, with the aid of electronic communications. Agencies will also be required to incorporate this alternative arrangement into its operational planning for natural and other disasters.
Why it’s a no-brainer…
There is an abundance of research data demonstrating the positive effects of teleworking – or telecommuting – on employee well-being and on the employer’s bottom line. In a “meta-analysis” of 46 studies of telecommuting involving 12,833 employees, Pennsylvania State University psychologists, Ravi Gajendran and David A. Harrison, found that telecommuting was a win-win for both employees and employers.
Telecommuting gives employees a sense of freedom at work, which contributes to job satisfaction. It reduces stress and helps workers balance their work and personal responsibilities. Employees who telecommute maintain and increase their productivity. Having access to telecommuting increases workers’ loyalty; and working outside of the office for one or two days per week has no negative effect on employee relations with coworkers or managers.
Gejendran and Harrison’s findings reflect what I learned in a small qualitative study of women telecommuters who were employed in several major American corporations. Despite the dramatic influx of women into the paid labor force in the past few decades, they continue to be the primary caregivers within their families. With inadequate government family policies in the U.S., and the limited response within the private sector to employees’ family concerns, our society is experiencing an enormous care gap. Telecommuting provides women – and increasingly men – with a legitimate avenue to combine and/or accommodate their market work and caregiving responsibilities.
The women telecommuters I interviewed claimed that the arrangement improved their work-life balance, allowing them to have more control over when and where they performed their work. At the same time, telecommuting helped them to maximize their productivity, serving the ultimate objective of employers. One telecommuter I interviewed for the study told me that she was able to maintain her work, despite dealing with a serious health problem.
“I’ve just been diagnosed with breast cancer, so about a month ago I had surgery and now I’m getting radiation every day, and in the summer I will start chemotherapy. So being a telecommuter is enabling me to work from home if I’m not well enough to come into the office.”
And a manager of a customer service department told me that telecommuting, while supporting employees’ needs, also benefited the company’s bottom line. Describing his rationale for implementing a telecommuting policy in his department, he said,
“People can do the same thing they can do in the office at home and save them the wear and tear of coming to work, the wear and tear of a long commute in many instances, maybe tolls… schlepping around with the kids trying to go to a child development center. The company benefits to the extent that every time we have a bad weather close-down, we have people on the phone at home instead of disruption of service. So it’s a win-win on both sides.”
Trial run in the States…
Indeed, telecommuting has been instituted in a number of U.S. federal agencies already, as well as in numerous corporations. In a 2004 study of 74 federal agencies, 43% of employees (323,292) reported that they were eligible to telework, compared to 35% of employees (625,313) in 2002, representing a gain of more than 20%. And in the overall U.S. labor force – including public and private employers – it’s estimated that more than 33.7 million workers telework at least one day per month.
Moreover, 22 states have already passed telework legislation. A number have implemented these policies to address environmental concerns or traffic congestion; some states encourage private employers to implement telecommuting programs; and others have statutes connecting employee productivity and efficiency to telecommuting, or promoting “a better quality of life.”
Historically, many federal policies in the U.S. are first implemented at the state level. This was the case for Social Security, health care reform, maternity and parental leave, and even civil rights legislation. The federal legislation was the culmination of pressure in smaller policy environments. But having a federal bill can also provide a model for more universal implementation. In addition to creating a mandate for federal agencies, hopefully the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 will provide encouragement for additional states and private sector employers to institute or expand their telecommuting policies.
Making the Bill real…
While the effects of telecommuting are positive for employers and employees, it is only workable for certain types of work and with certain employees, and therefore not a universal solution to problems in workplace policy. But it is particularly well-suited for those doing “knowledge work” that can be effectively performed in multiple locations with the help of electronic communications.
Even for those who have jobs that are conducive to telecommuting, the face-time culture of most organizations may undercut its utilization. It’s one thing to have a policy, and yet another to have employees use it. The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 requires training for employers and employees, which is a critical element to shift an organization’s culture.
In my telecommuting study, I found that even those who felt supported for their work at home felt it was a privilege, and in turn, worked additional hours to “prove” their loyalty. But when they did use a policy, it improved their quality of life.
The cost/benefit debate…
The sad fact is that Republican opposition to the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 is not based on what’s good for employees or employers. It simply affords Republicans another opportunity to say that less government is better. But that argument doesn’t make sense if the policy is administered with care. Representative Virginia Foxx, a Republican legislator from North Carolina, argued that with a high unemployment rate, it is a “travesty” that Democrats are “pushing this initiative to make it easier for federal employees – who already have it much easier than the rest of the country – to avoid the office.”
Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican legislator from California, said that the law adds a layer of bureaucracy into federal agencies, claiming that Americans want less government. Bolstered by recent elections of conservative Republicans to Congress, he says, “This will be the first vote after the American people said no to government waste, fraud and abuse, government growth and government spending.” Issa will undoubtedly try to amend or change this legislation when he begins his role as the new Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. According to the New York Times, Issa’s plans are part of a larger Republican agenda to vastly expand scrutiny of the Obama administration and aggressively push to cut spending and shrink the government, focusing on “excesses and waste.”
Democrats who supported the passage of the telework legislation provided evidence regarding its cost-effectiveness. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that implementing the bill will cost around $30 million over five years, but the return on this investment will pay off over time. Representative Stephen Lynch, a Democratic legislator from Massachusetts and my very own Congressional representative, said the long-term savings will provide an “excellent return” on this initial investment. And indeed, the experience of many private companies suggest that he’s right on the money. IBM has saved as much as $56 million annually and reduced office space by allowing employees to telework; Cisco generated an estimated annual savings of $277 million in productivity by allowing employees to telecommute. And IBM Canada currently saves $20 million in operating costs annually and over 500,000 feet of real estate with its telework program.
Let’s hope that sanity – backed up by plenty of data and experience throughout the U.S. – will prevail once this sensible piece of legislation is signed by the President, and that the resistance will be met with reason.