June 04, 2005

Business Non-Sense

business ethics is fast becoming an oxymoron. the gradual development of the western work ethic has side-lined any genuine recognition of the individual in favour of ever reducing incentives for the employee. if you feel that your work environment is a 'carrot and stick' situation with very little carrot then you're not alone. i have listed my top five techniques that the modern management team will utilise to keep you underpaid and undervalued.

if there's one thing i learned from my undergraduate sociology lectures it's to recognise the short lived nature of current historical events. while i didnt realise it back in the 90's, there's something very buddhist about sociological study of history - the idea that everything changes. the simple lesson is to avoid treating the here and now as though it has been forever. with that in mind let's journey into the murky realm of business ethics.

there was a time when the success of a business was measured by the social standing of the company. how many people do they hire? how many graduates do they accept from college? how well off is the average employee? a big company was a respected company, because it grew on the basis of good people and strong ties with the community. this view is increasingly old fashioned and unpopular. if i had a dime for everytime someone told me "it's good business sense" i'd be rich. the suggestion is that somehow it's morally acceptable to f*ck your employees over. well i'm here to tell you that it's not only unacceptable, but it's bad business too.

with that in mind i'd like to run through my top five ways that a company will screw their employees.

let's start with 'salary bands'. the funny thing about management decisions to restrict pay levels is that the people making the decision are usually earning a lot of money. the application of salary bands is a classic piece of double speak that leaves even the most earnest of employees confused and betrayed. the company will typically sell the idea as beneficial to all staff, because it brings everyone into the same scale of remuneration and ensures that people are paid equivalent salaries for equivalent work. your friendly human resources team will joyfully explain to you how they assess where in the scale you sit, ensuring that your skills and contribution have been compared against other staff within the organisation and external industry rates. in fact, countless external consultants have been paid very large sums of money to help ensure that you aren't! the trick here is not with the bands themselves, but in how you are assessed to fit into the bands. the subjective nature of such assessments leaves ample room for minimising company expenditure on your salary.

the next trick follows closely from the first. the application of bands not only reduces the size of the kitty you are bargaining for, but the bands themselves suddenly become paper ceilings to your remuneration growth. anyone who finds themselves anywhere near the top of a salary band will find themselves impeded from salary rises on the basis that they need to leave room in their band for future rises. did you catch that? let's do that again because it can slip past you without so much as a blink! people are denied wage increases on the basis that doing so would remove their opportunity and motivation for the next increase. if this logic seems like a cynical piece of manipulation then you're probably right. those clever people who point out that the solution is to 'move me to a higher band' are often met with the shocking news that doing so may actually *reduce* their salary, not increase it. this is no accident. bands are not exclusive as you might think, rather they overlap. moving up a band requires re-assessment of your skills and you may sit low on the new band to the point of getting a pay reduction. how convenient.

the third trick is bonuses. the language alone is clasic double speak. companies remove a portion of your base salary and offer it back to you as a bonus. brilliant! except the rules governing bonuses are hazy and mystical and never seem to favour the employee. only the HR gurus can really assess fully what your likely bonus outcome will be. sneaky little clauses are placed into your contract which allow the company to exercise discretion over the payment of any bonus. the upshot is this - any failure to meet the full set of criteria for bonus assessment will result in losing a large part, if not all, of your bonus.

no discussion of 'performance bonuses' would be complete without a mention of 'key performance indicators' - KPI's. the most obvious failing of modern management techniques is the wide spread use of KPI's. my first issue with KPI's is the manner in which they are invariably implemented. far from providing clear targets to assist an employe to focus their efforts, most KPI's establish metric targets which by themselves are not sufficent measure of the employee's worth - they merely distract staff from doing their job properly and act as a deterrent to people who may otherwsie show initiative in their work. KPI's can only grade events and targets which are known before hand - they have no bearing on changing environments and unforseen opportunities that are common for many if not most roles. the most objectionable reality of KPI's however is the manner in which they reflect a *lack* of management. any manager worth their salt already knows what their team members are doing and how well they are doing it. they need not resort to mickey mouse number massaging to assess performance or to define targets. it is no wonder then that sloppy managers derive little quality improvement from the application of equally sloppy KPI's.

all of this double speak is currently the realm of human resources. let's stop and think about that term - human *resources*. we no longer think of our staff as *people*? they are merely resources. this is no small part of the bigger picture, the de-personification of employment. the catch cry of the 90's was "it's not personal, it's just business". well here's a news flash, for the employees (or 'human resources') who spend all day working for the betterment of your company it is personal. it is their *lives* that are being played out in your job opportunity, it is their children waiting at home wondering where dad is, and it is their spare time that is taking the brunt of the unpaid overtime that is expected but not remunerated.

that brings me to my forth nugget of corporate deception. the idea that anyone who doesnt stay back and put in a bunch of extra hours will be penalised. in spite of legislation which protects a workers rights to fulfill their contract and nothing more, at every level of our society there exists pressure to 'go one better than the next guy'. we live in fear that someone else will get the promotion if we dont do the extra work. it's a nice little trick. most managers will go to great lengths to avoid saying 'you must come in to work this weekend', as that may have legal implications. but they dont need to spell it out, the work culture is sufficiently tainted with the expectation. your own boss is probably a 10 hour a day worker or worse, and so leads by example to ensure you get the message. just try leaving work at a reasonable hour and listen for the murmours of shock and dismay as you head for the door. word will soon get back to you that maybe you're not pulling your weight. subtle checks are made to verify that you have worked the full 40 hours that week, the inference being "do a little extra just to make sure you dont do too little".

the fifth and final item on my list is loyalty. this is the one which makes me really mad - for corporations to invoke such an emotive term is the height of deceipt. loyalty to the company is demanded on many levels, and it's origins take us back to that era of history when companies rated themselves by how well they took care of their workers. but the fact is that modern companies demand a level of loyalty from their employees that the company itself would never return. cutting staff levels and making redundancies is regarded as 'good business'. loyalty has nothing to do with it. protecting employee entitlements is the least priority when a company goes belly up - debitors and shareholders get their piece of the pie first. and then there's the four items listed above. put them together and what do you have?

let's have no illusions about the philanthropic nature of modern business. the contemporary definition of business sense has little room for compassion or morality. the question is, however, where does it end?

what kind of society are we building as we committ our communities to the immoral pursuit of profit? we create an environment where it's ok to stomp all over the human spirit because "it's not personal". what message does this send to our mum's and dad's and hence to their children? how do people learn to differentiate between a business decision and real life? since when are the two mutually exclusive anyway! employee relations is turning into a real-life game of 'survivor', where the value of friendship and human respect is instantly discounted with the excuse "i'm just playing the game". once the rules of the game define people as resources and reward deception with respect then we are undermining our entire society to the detriment of all.

it is a shallow and pitiful existence for those who play this game for their own advantage, and for them my compassion wears thin.

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