Unacceptable Workplace Conditions
When is enough enough? The modern work is inherently stressful, with some four out of five reporting workplace stress and close to the same percentage saying stress has increased over the course of their work lives. And that’s for workplaces overall, presumably mostly “normal” and legally operating ones.
On top of ordinary stress, some workplaces are additionally toxic in their own special ways. Here are a few of the culprits, with a sprinkling of well-known names. And no, we’re not talking about working conditions in some of the industrial hellholes of the world that produce our shiny new consumer goods (*cough*Apple*cough*). Urgent as it may be to address those problems, we also have flourishing forms of worker abuse right here in the U.S.A.
Verbal abuse, and other forms of workplace bullying
By verbal abuse, we don’t mean the occasional outburst of profanity, or even the salty speech of some ex-military now in the civilian workforce, or the almost cadenced vulgarity of some fields of manual labor, or even the frank sexual metaphors indulged in by both sexes among the young – although the latter can be problematic as the workforce becomes increasingly multi-generational. Verbal abuse needn’t be vulgar, profane, or suggestive at all, although such forms are common. Rather abuse is defined by its belittling, antagonistic, or dismissive intention, and is classed as a form of workplace harassment, and under the latest thinking, as a kind of bullying.
Victims of workplace bullying are often diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – in some cases much like that of battered women and victims of child abuse. Co-workers who witness bullying may suffer from stress, fear and emotional exhaustion. Morale goes down, absenteeism and sickness goes up – the IT industry and the health professions both show such a pattern – and workers are driven from work, costing probable billions in health expenses, lost productivity and worker replacement. Bullying sometimes seems to go viral within an organization; a pattern that can persist after the original bully moves on and may hinder constructive group dynamics for years. Turnover stays high, as newcomers are subjected to a kind of institutional hazing by the self-congratulating “survivors”.
There is a movement to pass anti-bullying laws in the U.S., as has been done in some other countries. Such laws seek to define an “abusive work environment,” modeled on the notion derived from anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws: the “hostile work environment.” Since bullying does not necessarily involve animus against the characteristics – race, sex, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, etc. – “protected” by such laws, the proposed legislation instead treats the behavior as a threat to public health.
With legal protection uncertain, workers may have to deal with the problem on their own. One union of IT workers suggests that a victimized worker directly tell the manager the effects of his or her behavior (or if such a meeting seems impossible, describe the behavior and its effects in a memo). Although bullying — and business success — are linked to several psychopathologies, it is also thought that some bullying behavior may simply arise from top-down pressure that increases as it moves through management’s ranks down to the front-line managers who end up “kicking the dog”. With either psychopathology or poor stress management skills — whether the bully is simply uncaring or genuinely ignorant of his or her effect on employees — the initial conversation puts the offending manager on notice and offers a chance for correction. It also, if done in person, removes the charge of the worker “sneaking around behind the manager’s back” in some of the subsequent steps:
• Doing a reality check with coworkers — do they experience the same thing?
• Keeping a log of all instances of bullying.
• Keeping copies of written references, and notes on any oral reference, to the inability to do one’s job.
• Avoiding being alone with the bully so that any untoward incident has witnesses.
• Seeing if colleagues will join a collective complaint.
• Checking any new responsibilities against one’s job description.
• If nothing changes, reporting the problem to HR.
• We can only suppose that the direction to think of Human Resources as a last resort comes from the union’s probable experience that HR would be unlikely to be helpful before the previous steps had been done.
As reported by Harold MacNeil at BuffaloNews.com, in retrospect, Sherron Watkins wishes she had closed one chapter of her life earlier than she did. In 1993, she started at Enron, reporting directly to Andrew Fastow, the company’s high-flying chief financial officer: “I realized he lacked a moral compass…In a perfect world, I would have left Enron in ’96 based on what I saw happening.”
Apparently Watkins reconciled herself to some degree of imperfection back in 1996, when the sharpest business graduates from the most prestigious schools were flocking to Houston to touch the magic of Enron, which seemed to be able to pull profits out of thin air.
Besides the lure of the carrot, there was the stick. A “yank-and-rank” performance review system showed the door to those not competing on Enron’s terms — or who were asking questions about Enron’s way.
Although Watkins initially saw the CFO’s office as a kind of safe haven, it brought her up against evidence that the fishiness she’d already observed extended to — or from — the core of the company’s fictitious finances: “It was cooking the books to almost 50 percent of our earnings in 2000.” Two weeks after that realization, and her raising the specter of its risk to high-flying CEO Lay, the house of cards collapsed.
MacNeil reports that Watkins is dubious about the effectiveness of whistle-blower protective measures in last year’s Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. She sees the WikiLeaks model as “the concept [that] will prevail” for disseminating evidence of wrongdoing.
Watkins now uses her own history as a cautionary tale, advising those entering business to go beyond what she did or failed to do, and to stop fraud “in its infancy”. She offers the “make sure it’s comfortable” criterion for judging entry into doubtful schemes: would you be embarrassed to discuss participation in such a deal with someone you admire and from whom you hope for respect, or to have the details published on the front page of the daily news?
Suppose you were counting microbes on various surfaces people touch in the workplace. You might not be surprised at the relatively low 49 per square inch on the toilet seat, given that it’s cleaned each work night. And if this was your profession, you wouldn’t be taken aback by the 69 bugs per square inch on the photocopiers. Any mice scurrying around the kitchen will check in at the standard 1700 or so microbes/sq. in. — a bit more than half the density of 3,300 invisible creepy crawlies that inhabit each square inch of your keyboard. That of course pales in comparison to the 21,000 microscopic bacteria, viruses, yeasties, and even parasitic beasties per square inch of your (actual) desktop. And about the 25,000 microbes per square inch on your telephone, we maintain a tactful silence. Hey, can I use your phone for a seccChhCHHh…! Oh, and lemme grab this pen, huh? You get the picture.
Now disease bugs can travel around the office pretty efficiently with all the things like keyboards, doorknobs, hand tools, faucet taps, elevators and banisters people put their washed or unwashed hands on. We can quantify this during cold and flu season. And a few environmental reactions like contact dermatitis can usually be traced to their source irritant or allergen. Somewhat harder to trace are longer-term health effects as cancer and diabetes that can also have an environmental component. In the middle sits asthma. Its most common irritants are known, and they include both dust mites and such critters and the cleaning materials used to control them. Asthma that develops in the workplace even though it doesn’t manifest itself until after employment ends follows a predictable enough arc that it can be verified. So watch out, folks, when employers – as many as two out of five, in some markets — cut back on cleaning schedules and other maintenance, or have to indulge in more aggressive cleaning once problems develop. Either way, there’s a good chance we could see follow-on cases of asthma for years to come.
Some dozen people a day are fatally injured on the job — an obscure statistic, not catching the attention, imagination, or press garnered by the oil rig explosion or mining disaster that may claim plural dozens of lives at one time and in one place. Still, it adds up to some 4300 deaths as of the latest data year — a figure paled by the 3.3 million nonfatal injuries and illnesses that can be directly attributable to workplace conditions.
And though when we hear those numbers we may think of the dangers of mining, drilling, construction, and possibly even of driving, what corporation turns our inquiring minds to the hazardous employment of suburban retail?
What is it with WalMart? The business of America is business? Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb? It’s our company and we’ll do what we damn well please? Could Ayn Rand be behind it all? Oh, just don’t worry your pretty little head about it!
The largest and most profitable corporation in the U.S. likes to get its money’s worth out of every deal it makes – and then some, apparently, when it’s dealing with its own employees. It has a well-established history of frequent violations of labor laws and standards: locking staff overnight in stores, for example—where they have suffered heart attacks, been unable to join wives in labor, weathered hurricanes, and been effectively unable to get medical care when suffering on-the-job injuries, except at the risk of their jobs. Apparently WalMart doesn’t think much of child labor laws, either, at least when it comes to illegally letting minors operate chainsaws and other hazardous equipment.
For bald-faced cynicism, though, the prize may go to Safety Bingo Inc, which markets its eponymous product along with Safety Poker as lowering worker compensation costs by offering game-based incentives for lowering accident rates. Actually, what the games do is create peer pressure among workers to lower injury reporting. A neat trick, at least for a while — till the game gets reset by an unavoidable injury report, and all the workers who have been hiding their injuries come out of the woodwork. Amazon and Costco, among others, lap it up. It must net out.
Wage theft was known in the Middle Ages as “a sin crying to Heaven for vengeance.” Despite the crying, the theft goes on. The greatest number of forms of wage theft are inflicted on the lowest wage workers, about two-thirds of whom get short-paid an average of $50, about 15 percent of their earnings, each week. Businesses in just three American cities studied rack up some $56 million in ill-gotten gains from that theft, again each week, according to the most comprehensive survey. Despite nominal legal protection, forget the minimum wage for immigrants, whether undocumented or credentialed “guest workers” — over a quarter of them are paid less. Report early or stay late off the clock? You betcha! Legally required statement of earnings and deductions for employees? Nah, better not – understandable, in a criminal kind of way, since many supposed “deductions” are illegal charges for tools, uniforms, materials and transportation all required by the employer or the work, or dockings for spurious “damage or loss” charges. Think you’re helping food service workers make ends meet when you leave a tip on the table or drop it in the jar? Well, yes, you are — especially if management doesn’t even meet their obligation to cover the minimum wage when tips don’t – and provided that management doesn’t just flat out steal the tips.
OK, in a large corporation, with higher visibility and more fiscal accountability, such things don’t happen, right? Wrong. WalMart, for example has a history of not being very punctilious about paying for overtime. Remember those locked in workers? Too bad for them if they get stuck at work off the clock because the manager who was supposed to spring them at the end of their shift overslept, or had a flat tire.
All right, all right! Still, minimum-wage abuse affects mostly those who would be happy to be actually getting minimum wage. Professional workers, though, the better educated ones? They get and demand their stubs, and their overtime…
Well, maybe not. With overtime, the social dynamics may be different; the power relationships may seem to be different; but the effect can be the same. Technical or creative workers employed in production shops may not go hungry if they don’t collect their statutorily guaranteed wages, but a perverse amalgam of craft pride and elitism, underbudgeting, peer pressure and corporate culture may keep workers compliant and silent in the face of underpayment, through unspoken “off the clock” requirements.
Cases have even been reported in companies with a thousand or more employees where HR departments, nominally charged with worker protection and legal compliance, collude with management to retaliate against workers who even raise questions about illegal practices. And if you see the writing on the wall anyway, are you going to go out of your way to piss off your reference?
And all that is IF you get can land yourself an employer operating with enough good faith to admit that you’re an employee.
Besides the classic dodges of short-paying workers, paying them under the table, or simply stiffing them after otherwise abusing them — as has been reported by about half of day laborers — traditionally more circumspect businesses are in a frenzy of “misclassifying” employees as independent contractors, typically along with manipulation of schedules to realize the same number of person-hours from a larger, more dependent staff at lower cost.
Meanwhile state and federal governments are losing billions in revenues each year in income tax and employer-funded programs for workers.
The IRS says misclassification costs $54 billion a year in employment tax and $15 billion in Social Security and unemployment insurance taxes.
As just one example of a state study, Ohio numbers misclassified workers in the hundreds of thousands, and estimates that unemployment compensation payments, workers compensation premiums, and state income taxes suffer losses of tens to hundreds of millions of dollars for each fund each year, thanks to tax-cheating businesses. A pretty good setup for corporate mouthpieces in governors’ offices to blame “worker entitlements” for busting the states’ budgets!