The Employment Trap: Part I – An Introduction

Posted on 6 September, 2012


Part 1 of a 2-Part Special Denunciation of Workplace Indignity

This is an introduction to get readers up to speed with my thinking on the subject of workplace control and dignity.  Part 2 discusses the important ramifications of skills for entry-level employment and how learning to answer phones, upsell customers, or wash dishes for low pay in a job you will likely quit or be fired from leads to a cycle of low-wage employment it can be difficult or impossible to extirpate yourself from.

Part 1 – Introduction and Background

It can be tough for a business to find appropriately compliant employees to fulfill their roles in the structure with rigor and self-motivation.  Even in these lean times, the facade can only last so long before the personable vapidity of a new recruit wears off, and a feeling of indignity accumulates in the employee, resulting in low morale and decreased work efficiency.  Turnover can be quite a frictional cost if a business is having trouble maintaining a sufficiently motivated employee base, especially if the work itself isn’t of the sort that comes naturally to people, or which is universally or near-universally found to be unpleasant (whether by the work itself, or the general workplace environment that work occurs in).  In that case, even seemingly desperate people, historically, cannot always be turned for long towards the shared goal of the business.

Smiling woman wearing telephone headset

“Thank you for calling, my name is Tammy, how can I be abused by you today?”

There are varying levels of poverty, and people have varying levels of tolerance for poverty.  One person may be content to eat bread and drink water for the majority of their meals, go without certain non-free amenities like an automobile, air conditioning, and so forth, happy to live simply.  Another person may find themselves in a panic without trivial conveniences, who finds the idea of a life without a television or internet access not worth living.  Of course, most people are in-between somewhere, but in dire economic times, people who previously had aspired for fortune might naturally come to find through circumstance that much of what they thought they needed, they don’t.  And if that idea sticks, it can be a real problem.

If you are looking to find people to fill positions in your business which are inherently demeaning but do require an amount of skill, but money can’t be reliably counted on to be a long-term motivator, my heart bleeds for the difficulties you must face.  Traditionally, the reinforcement to encourage appropriate workplace compliance was simply unemployment.  Being employed was central to someone’s sense of value and worth.  Unfortunately for employers, there is little social reinforcement of this viewpoint anymore.  The unemployed are no longer solely blaming themselves for their lack of employment, and therefore just getting fired doesn’t have the same corrective influence it might have had in the past.

The next in line for motivator of appropriate workplace compliance is poverty.  Attempts have been made to subvert this using entitlement programs, but they must not provide for even the minimum bearable level of poverty.  If you no longer necessarily have to live crushed on some street corner or die of some disease of poverty for the crime of not having the appropriate personality for the kinds of perfectly humane and definitely not soul-killing work available to job applicants today, and combine that with an increased situational capacity for people to live a (at least somewhat) dignified life within a tighter budget, that would mean that employers would have their greatest tools for building a compliant workforce blunted.  The twin punishments of unemployment and poverty would no longer carry the same impact they once did.

homeless dude

“Hey, it beats working for minimum wage at Best Buy…”

Much of the gains made in dignifying work come thanks to the eternal foe of the long suffering capitalist, organized labor, and the rights it fought and sometimes died for.  For employers looking to hire semi-skilled, literate, amiable workers to fill positions through which little human dignity is able to be expressed, this has seemingly created an intractably complex problem.  In countries in places like Latin America and East Asia where there isn’t the same history of labor successes, the answer was clear and was made manifest in the 20th century: You simply give people no other option.  As the power of organized labor declines in the US, we are seemingly gearing up for the same treatment through similar means, no less barbaric.

While I do and will try to stay away from being directly political, it seems self-evident that much of this is masked in the populist libertarian movement that has arisen in the United States.  Using the rhetoric of populist politics, politicians with clearly libertarian agendas move to reduce entitlement programs, subjecting the poor, unemployed, and under-employed to ever harsher punishment.  In a way, the rhetorical cry against entitlement programs, that people who receive assistance merely don’t want to work, is true, but it neglects an important second part to make it a complete clause.  People don’t want to work… in jobs with no dignity or autonomy.

Unfortunately, for those semi-skilled workers without the foresight or means to bring to the table skills necessary for jobs with upward mobility, only a certain subset of jobs are truly widely available.  These are mostly entry level jobs, reflected in their wages, and are semi-skilled in the sense that they do not require a high degree of specialized education.  They are jobs that people have to be trained for, and which provide and exercise a very limited set of skills.  Call center employees, retail sales clerks, dishwashers, janitors, and the like.  These skills are non-transferrable outside of the specific job, and they are entry level only in the fact that you don’t need previous experience to be trained to competence.

So, the difficulties of both employers and employees to be satisfied has been cursorily explored, as well as the various means historically which have been used to bring the situation to the favor of one or the other parties.  But the problem for employers remains, how to keep a ready supply of semi-skilled workers to either stem turnover, or make high turnover as painless as possible in those jobs where high dignity is unavailable?  With unemployment benefits making life increasingly unlivable for the unemployed (partly as a response to people finding dignity in poverty), another solution is presenting itself.  Whether it is just a convenient side-effect of employment practices, or a cynical contrivance, is not known, but it’s a situation that benefits any employer looking for low-cost, compliant semi-skilled workers.

The beatings will continue until morale improves.

Coming Soon: Part II – The Skills Deficit