I used to work for a large organization. One afternoon, all the staff in my department were herded into a giant conference room, and informed that due to budget cuts within the year over half of us present would lose our jobs. Fresh from a leadership course at the University of Corporate Doublethink, our bushy-tailed manager "reframed" the concept for us. "Don't see this as a negative" he advised. "We like to see this as us empowering you to take on new opportunities."
Over the last decade or so, a growing disconnect has developed between the bizarre and almost cult-like rhetoric and practices that companies use with their staff, and the increasingly grim reality of being an employee in modern day Corporate America.
For example, anyone stumbling upon the Walmart careers website might be forgiven for thinking that Google had malfunctioned and directed them instead to the Scientologists, whose recruitment site features a collection of testimonials virtually indistinguishable in their tone of robotic devotion.
Over at "Walmart People," Lois Givens, Personnel Manager at store number 992 assures us: "If you live your whole entire life according to the Walmart culture and three basic beliefs, life becomes a lot easier." Shana Bailey, Director of Store Operations emotes: "To this day, I continue to grow and learn, and the Walmart family is always there for me every step of the way," while Patricia Graham of the Distribution Centers adds: " Walmart is my Life (capitalization her own). When I think about it, it's amazing how many aspects of my life are touched and made better by Walmart."
For those of us whose lives have yet to be touched by the transformative miracle of the out of town superstore, these testimonials may seem a little excessive. But these are not rogue sycophants in the company ranks. According to Michael Bergdahl, former "Director of People" for Walmart's Headquarters, and now an international speaker and consultant on the company's practices, the creation of "cult-like commitment" and devotion to the so called "Walmart Way" among its employees is the explicit aim of the company's intensive staff training program for new recruits. And lest employees forget what they have learned on the course, loyalty is reinforced daily in stores with the "Walmart cheer," a compulsory devotional chant.
It's not just Walmart. Corporate songs are common, "reframing" disappointment for those whose lives have taken the road marked "middle manager" rather than the one marked "rockstar." "We built this Starbucks on Heart and Soul," "Blue Box Values Are the Best, I Work For American Express" and perhaps most uplifting, Big Four accountancy firm Ernst and Young's reworking of gospel anthem "Oh Happy Day" which replaced the lyrics: "When Jesus washed my sins away" with the competing message "When Ernst and Young showed me a better way."
Once they have whipped their staff into a frenzy of corporate sycophancy, employers are increasingly expecting them to turn their whole selves over to the company's message and aims, and are employing a range of sophisticated psychological and practical techniques to achieve this.
Silicon Valley firms encourage their employees to work ever longer hours by turning offices into playgrounds, complete with slides, graffiti walls and foosball tables. Free dinner and on site dry cleaners, dentists and hairdressers are standard ways of ensuring that staff never leave the building. Facebook made the perfect metaphor for the overworked American employee into a reality with their flagship 'Insanity Wolf' treadmill desk, which allows employees to keep running to a never materialising destination while they continue to work. I met (a rather tired looking) Facebook employee recently who was thrilled to be provided with pizza and "allowed" to work overnight on a company project of his choice at no extra pay.
The boundaries between self and company are further blurred as employers increasingly encroach onto personal territory in order to keep their staff firmly in the workplace and not outside it. Biotech firm Genetech will organize babysitters for its staff rather than have them take time off to stay at home with a sick child. Consulting firm Deloitte offers backup care for an elderly parent or grandparent. Human Resources philosophers have ditched the mantra "work life balance" for the more sinister (and employer friendly) "work life integration."
Corporations now aim to identify and satisfy employees' emotional needs as well as their financial ones. Major white collar employers such as UBS, American Express, KPMG and the law firm Goodwin Proctor have instituted "happiness training" for staff, drawing on a combination of psychological research and ancient religious traditions. Other employers sponsor their staff to go on courses such as the hugely popular Landmark Forum series, several full days in a group setting in which former participants claim that bathroom breaks are discouraged and participants are invited to share personally disturbing life events such as relationship problems and family breakdowns with the group and then go through a signature process to "heal" these issues and find lasting peace.
But while loyalty to an employer and pride in one's work can be important planks of self esteem, the increasing merge of self and company is a cultural shift that poisonously favors the employer over the employee. The more the relationship is characterized by unswerving devotion rather than genuine bargaining power, the more employers are able to encourage staff to work harder and longer, and the more they are able to suppress any meaningful dissent.
It's a strategy that's working. For all this cultish rhetoric, the power balance between employer and worker has not been loaded further in the employer's favor since the second world war. Executive pay and profits have skyrocketed while wages have stagnated and vast numbers of blue-collar workers are living below the poverty line, dependent on food stamps and government assistance just to get by. These two facts are not unrelated -- a JPMorgan economist calculated that the majority of increased corporate profits between 2000 and 2007 were the result of "reductions in wages and benefits."
Despite all this talk of "empowerment" American workers have now lost any real bargaining power they once had with their employers to change these conditions. Union representation, with its promise of better wages and benefits for workers, has reached a record low. The Walmart workers' strike comes after decades of methodical discouraging of union membership by their employers. They are not the only ones. Among others, Starbucks ("we're called partners because it's not just a job, it's our passion") lost in Federal Court after being accused of illegal union busting efforts and firing baristas for union activities.
White collar workers are affected by this trend too, with punishingly long hours at no extra pay now the norm. The average American employee spends a staggering month longer on the job each year than their 1969 counterpart and vast swathes of companies including Bank of America, Starbucks and IBM have been implicated in lawsuits for failing to pay their office staff appropriate overtime. Easy for bosses to dismiss as a necessary pulling together in tough economic times, this is a trend that long predates the recession and one from which those at the very top have only benefited.
It would seem that the more Corporate America demands cult-like devotion from its employees the worse it is able to treat them, and the less likely they are to complain. Yet given that the vast majority of Americans stand to lose rather than gain from this type of relationship, it is worth injecting a bit of healthy scepticism back into our assessment of our employers' motives. Now that really would be empowering.