This is my last American View column for 2021; this space will be quiet until the first week of January. Not because I won’t be working; only because most Americans rarely get to take time off at the end of the year. We’re usually expected to work until we drop. “Vacation” is only grudgingly allowed when project milestones align like obscure celestial bodies. Even then, an American “vacation” doesn’t look much like a European “holiday.” We’re expected to cut our “down time” short on-demand, attending to work injects even when we’re supposed to be focusing on our families. This is normal. Not good. Not just. Certainly not healthy. Just normal.
This isn’t a complaint about any specific employer, mind. This exploitative expectation is baked into modern American culture. Every organisation I’ve worked at has manifested this to some degree. Even when company policy forbids it, individual supervisors still enforce it. It’s like a religious obligation, in that we’re terrified that we’ll be wrathfully struck down if we aren’t seen by our boss front and centre attending the corporate liturgy. Only instead of Zeus chucking a thunderbolt, our “smiting” will come in the form of some HR functionary signing off on our redundancy notice.
Of course, that’s the normal state of affairs at the best of times. The American workplace rarely makes allowances for awful happenings or competing obligations in one’s private life. There has been a grudging acknowledgement of the accommodations required to mitigate the pandemic. That said, American bosses still expect that workers will keep their private lives from unduly interfering with their duty shifts. Why? Because that’s how we’ve all been conditioned to act for decades. Work comes first; anything that intrudes upon one’s work is an unacceptable moral failing.
Obviously, this expectation is enormously corrosive to employee morale, productivity, and retention. When people work themselves to the brink of exhaustion, it inevitably leads to preventable errors, burnout, and illness. It’s akin to always driving one’s Civic to and from work at maximum possible speed: all that time spent pushing the engine to its limits is going to end in an accident (unless the car completely breaks down first).
I’ve had several European friends accuse me of exaggerating when I share stories of this phenomenon. “That can’t be real,” they say. “You have legal protections to prevent that sort of thing,” and my favourite “Just take a long holiday and recharge!” They can’t believe that an industrial nation with labour laws would allow such abusive and exploitative behaviour. HA! As if “laws” would ever favour the worker over their employer.
In response, I always share one of my most treasured anecdotes about my first year with a (then) Big 5 international consultancy firm: my article Christmas Miracles (In the Cubicle Farm) from two years ago. TL;DR if you don’t have time to catch up: my then-supervisor in the firm insisted that every consultant work no less than 92% of the possible billing hours in the year if we wanted to stay employed. He then pushed us to go to work sick and to ignore competing family obligations to maximize our parasitic extraction of taxpayer money from our client’s budget. This line in particular has always the one that horrifies my non-Americans readers:
“When I got terribly sick with the flu, I didn’t stay home. Instead, I spent a week feverishly shivering in my cubicle. I despised the company and everything about my life, but I got my bloody hours billed.”
Did all that completely unnecessary suffering help? Yes and no. As expected, I didn’t get the huge annual bonus that Bob had promised us; he kept most of his team’s bonus pool for himself, as was traditional in the firm. All in all, based on the standard bill rate, the company made $730,800 off the client from my labour alone … at a 93%+ profit rate. Back-of-the-napkin maths suggest that my boss Bob made boosted his personal “leadership” bonus by more than my entire annual salary. Bob never contributed anything to my work, mind you. He never gave me any equipment, training, advice, or support. He only threatened me with termination if I didn’t maximize my potential billing hours … and it paid off … for him. Priorities!
That said, the gruelling exercise did count as a success in that I was retained for another year and received a cost-of-living raise. So … hurrah?
I bring this cultural imperative up to emphasize two points that I feel are crucial to predicting how 2022 is going to play out in the American business world. First, American work culture strongly emphasizes extracting every possible ounce of labour out of one’s employees. Short term productivity is always more important than long-term sustainment. Employees have been treated like fungible commodities since at least the 1980s: burn one out, and a hundred more are queued up to take their place, so only the most difficult-to-replace talent is given humane treatment.
Second, this motivation to extract maximum value from “human resources” inevitably motivates some leaders at all levels to apply coercive pressure against their vulnerable subordinates to achieve said short-term productivity goals even when their corporate culture and policies forbid such action!
This is normal over here. No, it’s not omnipresent; there are excellent leaders who refuse to give in to this temptation. Rather, the behaviour is so common that it rarely warrants a mention. People are accustomed to it to the point that it’s no longer questioned.
So, why does any of this matter? Aside from being a generic leadership topic about “don’t be a complete *#&$ to your employees?” … It’s about COVID. Specifically, it’s about how American business culture is going to keep dragging out this pandemic unnecessarily because of our stubborn refusal to change our profit-at-all-costs mindset.
To be blunt: Americans are going to continue to go to work while sick. We’ll keep gestating new variants and super-spreading them at conventions, concert venues, theatres, malls, and check out counters. It’s what we do! It’s what we’ve been conditioned to do for as long as most American s have been in the workforce. We’ve been doing this for decades with influenza and the common cold, so it’s what we’ll continue to do with SARS-Cov-2. So long as we have neighbours who refuse to get vaccinated and bosses who threaten their workers’ economic survival unless they show up to work, we’re going to keep spreading this plague and making it worse. This isn’t a theory. We have demonstrated this behaviour long before the current pandemic started.
Sure, there will be a ton of companies and private organisations that craft and mandate comprehensive public health measures. In the spirit of the season, God bless‘em every one. That won’t matter, though, if those measures aren’t rigorously enforced. It only takes one confused, greedy, or ideology-poisoned supervisor ignoring the rules in the pursuit of a bigger bonus pay-out to undermine an entire corporate safety programme.
Remember all those mandatory safety videos insisting “y9ou’re only as strong as your weakest link”? Every company has these people. The folks who take unauthorized shortcuts. The folks who cut corners even when there’s no compelling need to. The folks convinced that the company’s rules don’t apply to them. It’s not hard to find them. Go into any American business and look for the employee wearing their mask under their chin … So long as those people are allowed to violate one public safety requirement, you can be damned sure that they’ll be pressuring their workers to come in while sick. It’s “how business gets done” here and always has been.
All that said, as we limp exhaustedly towards New Year’s Day 2022, it’s worth considering: how far is our organisation willing to go in our pursuit of ending this bloody plague? Are we committed to be draconian enough, consistent enough, and impartial enough to hold everyone accountable to do what’s required to halt the spread of COVID? Or are we going pay lip service to public health measures in public and then ignore dangerous and egregious violations when we think no one is paying attention? Because we’re either committed to victory, or we’ve capitulated to our fate.
So, think it over. Get together with your executive buddies. Hash it out. Make your decision and live with the results. Or, you know, die choking to death on the Rho variant if you’re not up for the challenge. Just don’t tell the victims’ next-of-kin that “nothing could be done.” We know how to deal with this … it just seems that we just don’t want to.
Maybe the survivors will do better in 2023.