Saturday, March 21, 2009

Corporate wrongdoing, and exercising your "right" to quit

Jack Welch, former CEO at General Electric, writes a management column with his wife and/or daughter(?), Suzy, in every installment of BusinessWeek.

A recent piece entitled, "An Employee Bill of Rights," deals with the "expectations" employees can "reasonably" hold vis-a-vis their employers, as divined by the "Welchway."

Because corporate culture frequently adopts progressive, democratic language to mask the powerlessness of its human material, real "rights" never enter into the equation. Employees do not have "rights" except to accept or reject a contract of employment, as laid out on the employer's terms. Simply put, this is the situation that arises when one group owns what everyone else requires for survival: people sell themselves to others for a wage.

Whatever rights employees otherwise enjoy are rights that have been imposed on employers by force, through the coordinated activity of employees in their own self-interest, in either the political or economic sphere, as with laws and unions.

But where the law cannot reach, or sleeps unenforced; and where the cooperative spirit of self-interest has been gradually whittled down over time to reveal the easy target of self-promotionalism, the employee is asked to pay the highest price -- to family, leisure, education, art, and other free pursuits -- for advancement, respectable compensation, or even just to keep a job.

Under the terms of any dictatorship, no human value is sacred. Jack and Suzy raise, for example, the issue of "integrity" -- timely, one might suppose, in light of the kinds of corporate fraud which have precipitated the collapse of the world economy. Here is their program for advancing "integrity" in the workplace as a "right" of employees:

[I]t's reasonable to expect a boss who demonstrates integrity. It's awful to go to work each day wondering if your boss is shading the truth, adding spin to his real beliefs, or violating company values. So hold tight to this expectation. And if you feel it ebbing, you may need to ask yourself if it's time to move on.

Clearly, this is something the world could use a lot more of: people who recognize what's wrong in their organizations, but never bother to say, or do, anything about it. Integrity is best served by preserving one's deference to power -- and changing your life around if you fear you're not up to it.

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