The American View: As We Work in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

One of the most pernicious claims that a recruiter or interviewer can make about their organisation is “we’re not like a traditional business; we’re more like a family!” If you’re ever sitting an interview and hear this line smile politely, thank the speaker for their time, and walk away. If you’re feeling charitable, assume that the person proffering the platitude is a gullible fool. Regardless, get up and leave. Nothing good can come of accepting a job with someone who misrepresents the incontrovertible nature of professional life: your co-workers are not your family and they never will be. They cannot be, by design. 

Oh, “management” (in the generic sense) would love for you to believe it. After all, we Americans crave the personal connections that we structurally and culturally can’t have. Our 75-year experiment with the isolated nuclear family [1] has left generations of Americans bereft of meaningful adult relationships and desperate for some sense of community. American businesses offer to satisfy that aching need by adopting a paternalistic, caring façade. “Join our team,” they promise, “and you’ll be so fulfilled by our culture that the work won’t seem like work.” 

You can lay a lot of the blame for this insane idea on Mary Parker Follett, the pseudo-philosopher who believed that corporations were group-minds and that humans could only transcend their frightening sense of isolation by coming together to form “superhuman unities of consciousness.” You can also lay some blame on Elton Mayo, the Harvard Business School guru who advocated for managers to act more as “therapists” than actual leaders, since work itself was sublime. Per Mayo, the only reason a worker could be unhappy was if they suffered from undiagnosed psychological problems. Both of these ostensibly earnest American business thought leaders convinced legions of MBAs that true personal salvation came from participation in the professional workforce. Not from, say, anything that existed outside of the office. [2]

As fascinating as the story of how we got this way is, I want to focus on why your co-workers are not your family. Obviously, your supervisors are not your real parents or other elder authority figures. You’re all workers; some of you are more powerful than others. Most of you are disposable. “The company” as a gestalt entity or a created consciousness doesn’t actually exist. The “company” is an entity that exists on paper according to some byzantine laws and there are a bunch of people operating under that entity’s brand to do some things that make someone money. That. Is. All. 

By design, the workers’ roles aren’t interchangeable. Some people need to dig the coal while other people need to sip champagne on a private jet whilst bribing a politician to scrap some pesky environmental regulations. 

Anyone who says different is trying to influence you. Maybe for your own best interests, sure. If you’re not already independently wealthy – and 95% of Americans are not – then you need work to get enough money to survive. A job that offers more money and/or better benefits and/or less abuse is a quality of life improvement. Persuading you that this job will be better for you in the long run is a common recruiting technique. That said, there’s a huge difference between well-intentioned influence and outright manipulation. “We’re a family here?” Nah, mate. You’re not. 

Despite all protestations to the contrary, a corporation cannot be a family because of the inherent and inescapable power imbalance between workers and management … upper management especially. This isn’t a matter of “evil” or an issue of leaders’ intent; it’s simply a structural factor that’s deliberately engineered into the core of every incorporated entity. It’s akin to how a typical suburban house or office tower starts with a structural frame: you can’t remove the core power imbalance without the whole entity collapsing. 

To be fair, a “traditional” American nuclear family has a strict power imbalance too. Parents hold almost all power whilst the children hold none. Kiddies do what they’re told or suffer coercive punishment: go straight to bed without any supper, no playing with friends, no access to television, etc. Children – who, by their nature, aren’t capable of acting like peers to adults – are to be mentored in how to grow into an adult role. That’s the adults’ primary function. Parents model desired behaviour, suppress deviance, and reward compliance. That’s the 1950s Leave It to Beaver model of parenting, anyway.

The thing is, the “family” model doesn’t work in the workplace for several crucial reasons. Most importantly, workers are adults, no matter how condescendingly parental their bosses treat them. As adults, workers are not just capable of exercising agency, they’re motivated to. Workers will quit once they’ve endured enough abuse. Forget the sitcom trope of a frustrated child “running away from home” to escape an unfair family; if a worker quits, a business can’t have the “friendly neighbourhood policeman” drag them back for a stern talking to. 

We haven’t had the “friendly neighbourhood policeman” character in the U.S.A. since the 1950s … and even then it was more of a TV trope than anything you’d find in real life. 

Similarly, the range of punishments that management can apply to a recalcitrant worker are much more limited than the options available to a parent. Imagine your boss telling you that you’re “grounded” for failing to accomplish an assigned task. “You’ll go straight to your bedroom after work and stay there. No seeing your friends or playing videogames for a week!” Sure, Jan. Unlike a parent who dominates the home and controls access to everything outside it, an employer has very little power over its employees once they leave the facility. 

Finally, there’s the notion that parents are supposed to hold the moral high ground by virtue of their adult wisdom. Children are to obey their parents in all things until they mature enough to govern themselves by adult rules. No such relationship exists in a workplace. At the office, workers often have great knowledge of critical processes than their bosses do! Managers are obeyed because they have the power to terminate a worker’s employment. The higher up in the chain of command the manager is, the more people they can terminate on a whim. The ultimate authority is the Big Boss … call them the CEO, president, senior partner, or whatever … the one person who can not only fire every other person in the organisation. The one person who can sell, merge, or dissolve the entire business entity. The Big Boss holds ultimate destructive power over everyone below them and you’d damned well better remember it!

Imagine how your home dynamics would have changed as a child if your head-of-household not only acted like a petty tyrant, governing according to their whims, but also murdered anyone that displeased them. Or bludgeoned, tortured, humiliated, or otherwise traumatized the people subject to their unrivalled and unrestrained authority. If this were a real family, the law in most U.S. states would consider it an “abusive” environment. Government officials might attempt to forcibly remove the children (and, sometimes, the non-abusing adult) from the home and place them in some sort of protective custody to prevent their abuser from harming them any further. Abusive behaviour is widely seen as morally and legally “wrong” when it happens in the home … not, strangely, when it happens in an office environment. 

Of course, it’s extremely rare to see a middle manager take off their belt and deliver a physical spanking in the cubicle farm. HR would likely have something to say about such nonstandard corrective action. That, however, is not the kind of abuse baked into the standard American workplace. It’s subtler than that … and also potentially much more lethal. Literally lethal. 

Statistically, at least one of the four characters in this stock photo couldn’t actually afford their own health insurance if this were an American Emergency Room. 

There are – with limited exceptions – only five ways to get healthcare in the U.S.A: 

  1. You receive a health insurance plan through your employer. The best jobs “subsidize” these insurance plans by paying some or all of the monthly premiums. 
  2. You can purchase your own private health insurance … assuming you can afford it. You’d need to have or make over £30k a year to afford this and live on your own.
  3. If you’re indigent, you can apply for bare minimum health insurance through a government program like Medicare of Medicaid.
  4. If you’re a dependent child, you can be covered by your parents’ health insurance.
  5. Or you can go without health insurance entirely, and simply queue at the A&E (the “emergency room” at your nearest hospital) and gamble on being bankrupted by the obscenely high bill afterwards.

Over half of all adults rely on private healthcare. It’s the best option of the five, as it controls out-of-pocket costs. A single A&E visit that might cost £80k for an uninsured person might only cost £1k to £5k out-of-pocket under a good health insurance plan. That’s still godawful expensive, but it’s not “go bankrupt and lose your home” expensive. The thing is, private health insurance plans in the U.S. can be cripplingly expensive before you need treatment … the premiums for a typical family plan (i.e., one covering the insured worker, their spouse, and more than one child) run between £1k and £2k a month.

This is why a subsidized high-quality health insurance plan is the most important perquisite an employer can offer. Without it, millions of Americans have only two terrible options: apply for Medicaid and hope to get care eventually, or else go without and pray you don’t get hurt. Even without being high-risk for some condition or other, that’s a terrifying place to be. [3]

And that, right there, is the ultimate coercive power employers hold over their workers: the right and the ability to strip away a worker’s health insurance by terminating their employment. At will. Sure, a good HR department might insist on some mandatory “process steps” first, but the end result is the same. Anger your boss one time too many and they’ll throw you to the kerb … If you can’t find new employment, you’ll instead find yourself staring down the twin barrels of medical bill bankruptcy and preventable death. Not just for yourself, but for your spouse, children, and/or other dependents. 

Not enough challenge for you? America’s got you covered! Your “special needs” family members likely aren’t covered by your health insurance even if you can find a provider willing to see them. It’s not a cruel abuse of the most vulnerable among us; it’s our core economic model working exactly as intended: if you really want to keep your kids alive, you’re incentivized to work harder and become rich. Problem solved!

This is normal in America … even without a freaking pandemic upping the difficulty factor. COVID-19 has (at time of writing) killed 191,000 of us and the numbers won’t stop rising until we get competent leadership. Imagine being told that you can choose between dying alone from COVID now and surviving COVID via the A&E only to have your family left bankrupt and homeless after you’re “cured” … assuming you didn’t infect anyone else in the process. 

This is also why no office culture can ever truly resemble a “family,” at least not one that we’d actually want to be a member of. Our collective model of a functioning “family” doesn’t include the head-of-household arbitrarily and capriciously murdering their children for not eating their peas. Such a power imbalance is so destabilizing that there can be so semblance of a healthy, constructive relationship so long as the existential threat remains on the table. It’s alwaysthere, lurking in the background in every conversation and encounter, like a bloodstained guillotine in the family room. You can’t un-see it … you can’t will it away … and it’ll show back up every time you join a new “family.” Different boss, same threat. 

So, yeah. You want to impress me during an interview? Don’t tell me how much your office culture is “like a family.” Instead, explain how your management caste employs professional restraint with their inherent power to destroy people’s lives. Offer examples of how your organisation employs checks and balances to prevent abuse of power and arbitrary action. Explain to me your commitment to leadership with integrity, to transparency and accountability. Show me the harsh-but-real war correspondent’s view of real life inside the company, not a sterilized, idealized, thoroughly aspirational, black-and-white interpretation of who you’d like to be. Tell me the hard truth, not the easy lie … or I’ll walk. 


[1] For a short explanation of this, see my 2015 column “The Drapes of Wrath” as re-printed in Lost AllusionsFor a longer explanation, read Stephanie Coontz’s fantastic book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap.

[2] Both of these corrosive celebrities are explained in their own chapters in James Hoopes’ brilliant book False Prophets: The Gurus Who Created Modern Management and Why Their Ideas are Bad for Business Today

[3] For a much longer (and funnier) explanation of why the concept of “Medicare for All” is so divisive in America, check out the February 2020 long-form video essay on it from Jon Oliver’s Last Week Tonight

Pop Culture Allusion: Joe Connelly, Bob Mosher, and Dick Conway, Leave It to Beaver (1957 iconic TV series)

© Business Reporter 2020