October 15, 2021

This afternoon I saw this WSJ quote on Twitter:

In case the tweet dies (and the tweet always seems to die eventually if I embed it in something I write), it’s basically an anecdote about a woman who worked for a long time in a hard, pretty thankless job for a big corporation until the pandemic broke out. She was then furloughed, and shortly after, laid off.

She’s in her early sixties, and has some health issues, but she’s retiring with less money from Social Security rather than go back to the work force, and one of the main reasons is that feels betrayed by her old employer — that she was always told that work was a family, but as soon as it was financially challenging for her “family” to help her she was thrown out and discarded.

“Family” and Work

Because I’ve worked at often idealistic technology startups for the last fifteen years or so, I’ve often sat next to debates about whether work is a “family”, or a “team”, or whatever. It’s a fine debate, and various companies with PR departments have exposed various slide decks with different thoughts about it that you can go find and read.

I do find it interesting that we’ve landed (in many cases) on “family” or “team” as our ends of the acceptable spectrum. Nobody is saying “here at Widgets Inc., we are proud to support our collection of revenue-generating cogs until their productivity drops below replacement value” because that seems obviously out of bounds even if it’s pretty accurate in things like sales. Instead we say “team”, where the team really needs to win and therefore will be patient with you if you start being bad at your job in a way that indicates you might become good again.

While the “family” idea of work was always too high of a bar for most organizations to ever seriously approach (I’m sure there are some privately run places that actually take this seriously), it was attempting to capture something that really is important, and really is missing from how we think about employment and labor in general.

That something is decency.

“What is decency in a largely capitalistic society” might seem like too vague a question to ever really answer, but a lot of our problems seem to stem from our hesitation to do so. When everything is fine, or about people in the abstract instead of you, someone you know, or someone you hear about, a lot of us accept a pretty performance-heavy definition of decency. You know, the whole “team” thing. Dave works here, Dave used to be at least nominally useful, but now Dave kind of sucks and we’d make more money — sorry, “better achieve our mission” — if Dave was gone and we replaced him with someone better. So Dave goes, and we all generally accept that, since this example includes no real perspective from Dave because I made him up.

But why does Dave suck? Does he suck because he’s sick? Because his Dad got in a car accident? Because he’s 50 and his marriage is not going great? Or is it not even really Dave at all — did Dave spend a long time selling a product that’s no longer profitable, and is struggling to sell the new stuff? Or was there a global pandemic that left Dave with very little to do after 35 years of doing a lot?

Given how important work is to things like personal identity, our social lives, survival, and other stuff, it’s entirely understandable when someone is sad after they lose a job. There are many things they may miss, including (for many of us) the ability to pay for non-optional things like food and a place to live.

That being said, they don’t necessarily have to feel betrayed. That only happens when people feel like they were lied to.

What makes people feel betrayed?

The woman in the example above feels betrayed because of the implied “family” nature of her job that turned out to be fraudulent. Not unlike the equally enraging “privatized gains, socialized losses” concept, this was a classic case of “you treat us like family, we treat you like an operating cost”. Being treated like an operating cost sucks, but being told you’re family first, and holding up your end of that implied bargain for years is a recipe for feeling betrayed — because you were betrayed.

It doesn’t help that this is all avoidable, and everyone knows it’s avoidable. It’s avoidable by simply aligning what you tell people with what you’re willing to do to back up what you told them. The HR department shouldn’t write checks the Finance department can’t (or won’t) cash.

For instance, there’s no reason something like an employee handbook, or an offer letter, or whatever, couldn’t include conditions that would result in layoffs, pay cuts, or other horrible things. Not from a legal compliance perspective (“YOU ARE AN AT WILL EMPLOYEE” lets you do whatever you want but does nothing to prevent feelings of betrayal”), but simply from an expectations alignment perspective. Marriott (or whoever) could say — listen, once we have less than 50% capacity for more than two months, we’re going to start cutting people. That’s the nature of this relationship. We are telling you that now, when we WANT you to work here, but things like terrorist attacks and pandemics and such do happen, and we are unwilling and/or incapable of being your Mom and giving up everything to give you the best future we can. And frankly, private business could adjust those thresholds to anything they’d like to provide the balance of protecting their workers and protecting their profits that they are comfortable telling everyone. Everyone would be a little pissed sometimes (investors when “unproductive” workers were paid for “no reason”, employees when the terms of their forcible removal were discussed and/or implemented), but nobody would feel nearly as betrayed.

Because decency is optional…

Of course, very few organizations do this. Why align expectations when you can, in most scenarios, tell everyone what they want to hear without any negative repercussions? Workers will think they are family — and sometimes commit accordingly! — while things are humming along, and when they aren’t, those workers will be gone. Current (remaining) and future employees might be angry for a while, but eventually someone will need a job and you will have a job for them and they will come and do it literally like nothing ever happened. And eventually there will be robots.

Except… shit! No one is taking this job! And there are no robots, because they were all 3D renders made to trick VCs into pumping billions of dollars into pretend companies that don’t make anything. Decency — or rather, the lack of decency — has never had a cost, because people need to work to eat. Right?

There’s obviously a lot at play here, and no one reason why the labor market isn’t snapping back like it would in a computer simulation. But at least part of it is that at least some people really were working in part due to the expectation of decency, and that expectation has not been met. Sometimes it’s not met by employers, who instead of really dealing with how crappy and painful working 10 hours a day in a warehouse is, are throwing temporary, short-time bonuses and perks at people that probably come out of the marketing budget. Sometimes it’s not met by customers, who are crueler and more demanding and less empathetic with basic human suffering than ever for a bunch of reasons that could definitely take up an entirely different post.

Plenty of people have no choice. The true engine of American productivity — the fear of dying alone in a gutter — will propel most of us back to the salt mines of e-commerce or food service or in-home Boomer care or whatever else can’t be done by a large collection of cloud-computed if/then statements. But — hilariously, in a dark way — there may not be enough of those people to maintain the current profit margins of our most successful corporate overlords.

And that is why… we need to cut taxes.


… but that’s probably what we’ll do.