Corporate Myth Busting

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 12 – July 29, 2005

Have you seen that TV show Myth Busting, where two nerdy guys conduct experiments in the California desert to test the accuracy of long standing myths such as whether a ceiling fan can really decapitate you if you jumped up into it? The show has endless resources to experiment on such pressing issues, money well spent I’d say. What is more important curing cancer or knowing the true danger of letting your kids jump on the bed?

This show has inspired me to do some myth busting of my own, the myth to investigate today is the one about work life balance. Does this really exist; do companies really care about you or your life? The first area of investigation will be standard work hours. As you may know the French have recently voted not to join the European Union, according to the New York Times this is a short-sighted attempt to hang on to a 37 hour workweek. The Times explains that if they were to become a part of the union, the Bulgarians and Romanians who are willing to work longer hours, would rush in and that would be the end of their café sitting, wine drinking culture.

It is true that that economic globalization has had a great impact on the hours we work. In Japan 63% of the workforce now works an average of 50 hours, they are slackers compared to Hong Kong where 70 % of the workforce works 50 hours a week. According to Washington Post Op Ed columnist Thomas Freidman, in India they would work a 37 hour day if they could. Work hours in America have risen steadily over the last three decades, but that just gives them something else to brag about.

This evidence goes against the predicted trends that we would be working less due to industrialization. Futurist Alvin Toffler predicted that by 2000 we would have so much free time we would not know what to do with it, and you may remember that in the television show The Jetsons a standard workweek of 3 hours was mandatory.

The Nobel Prize winning economic historian Robert William Fogel has done studies on what is called the efficiency of the human engine. The studies find that the size, strength and stamina of the human body have evolved equal to mechanical advances in the industrial revolution. As you read this your body is adapting to the increased hours we work, apparently this evolution will mean that the more work you do, the more you are able to do. If we find we are unable to deal with the greater work load we can turn to drugs to help enhance our performance, antidepressants, anti anxiety drugs. New drugs such as Provigal, will allow a person to stay up and alert for two days without sleep, this is currently being tested with helicopter pilots in the army. The Defense Advanced Research Project is also testing drugs with solders that will allow them to will themselves not to bleed and to function efficiently for up to a week without food or water. You would recognize how helpful this could be in a war, but may also explain why there are so many ‘black hawk’ crashes in Iraq. In addition, it will not earn smiley faces in the work life balance category

Many companies go to great lengths to promote work life balance by providing gyms, day-care, pool tables, masseuse, health food in cafes and rooms of all sorts from prayer rooms to sick rooms. However, in the Silicon Valley, there is an increasing feeling that such spaces are a “cosy face on white collar sweat shops” A debate is currently being waged over whether these fringe benefits are a means for technology companies to exploit workers, who they should really be paying overtime to. The pressure has become so great that employees of games company Electronic Arts sued the company in July; they now offer overtime pay to some employees.

The issue continues to escalate, this month several hundred video game makers met in San Francisco to discuss work life issues, giving them something else to talk about besides the fact that they can’t get a date.  The prospect of creating a gaming union is being considered, but companies are well aware of the impact unionizing will have on efficiency, which in the gaming industry is measured in revenue per employee. The opportunity for such companies to drive more jobs overseas is a real fear, and like most large publicly owned companies, they are driven by shareholder return.

The reality is that when you or I fill out our Superannuation forms, we don’t much care whether the company our fund invests in is good to their employees or not. We care how much money we are going to make. This drive for profit, and the complacency of shareholders, has had negative impacts. In the article “Is Your Boss a Psychopath” Alan Deutschman outlines the similarities in behaviours between psychopaths and many CEO’s . “The standard psychopath is a callous, cold – blooded individual who does not care if you have thoughts or feelings they have no sense of guilt or remorse. Top executives are charismatic, visionary and tough but they can also be callous, cunning, manipulative & deceitful verbally and psychologically abusive, remorseless, exploitative, self delusional, irresponsible and egomaniacal”.

Due to the large number of mergers, acquisitions and restructures in business, the climate is particularly suited to the corporate psychopath who thrives on power and control and who ruthlessly seek their own self interest in the form of shareholder value. Personalities like Andrew Fastow of Enron, ImClones Sam Waksal and our own Steve Visard from Telstra are examples. While they lack the chronic instability and anti social defiant lifestyle of the unsuccessful psychopath, they are cut from the same cloth.

Corporate misbehaviour is alive and rampant in Australia and America. An example of the lenient attitudes toward these activities is displayed in the AICD Boardroom Report from the Australian Institute of Company Directors. In the report former CEO of Tyco, Dennis Kozlowski was described as “not a criminal but a victim of the excesses of the time”. On the other hand, in Europe new antibullying movements are beginning to address psychological abuse and manipulation in the workplace. These behaviours are less common in Asia as their businesses are based on community bonds rather than glorified self interest. At least in Australia and the US the CEO’s are finally being held accountable for their crimes, Kozlowski, Fastow, and Waksal are all going to jail even though the AICD do not consider them criminals.

So is this myth busted? Do companies really care about what happens to their people; is there a sense of work life balance? You make the call.

FYI – To find out if your boss is a psychopath go to fastcompany.com/k/w/mailman/fasttake/20050713/open boss-quiz

to take their quiz.

 

Sources –

“Is Your Boss a Psychopath” by Alan Deutschman  Fast Company July 2005

“The Way We Live Now; No Rest for The Weary” by Charles McGrath NYT published July 3, 2005

“Fringes vs. Basics in Silicon Valley: by Matt Richtel NYT published March 9, 2005

AICD Boardroom report July

 

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