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Why Employees are No Longer A Company’s Most Valuable Asset: The Dehumanization of the Workplace

January 18, 2010

Updated March 15, 2016

1387667149000-cubiclesDilbert’s character is not just hilarious but very poignant when we look at the evolving workplace. Why? Because after three decades of existing in what Pamela Slim calls Cubicle Nation, I finally escaped (through retirement). However, tens of millions of employees across North America must cope every day by existing in cubicle farms.

We can laugh at the Dilbert cartoons: the effects of downsizing, outsourcing, stupid bosses and organizational politics. Laughter does indeed reduce stress and helps us deal to some extent with the uncertainty around volatile change. It’s one thing, however, to realize the impact this has on people; call it the Micro Effect. But what has been taking place now in companies across North America is no laughing matter and has big long-term repercussions on our standard of living. This is the Macro Effect.

Nortel, before it finally descended into the sewer over a decade ago, steadily offshored its workforce. Work was offshored, for example, to contracting companies in Turkey, Vietnam and India. That IBM, a once-proud American company, has almost three quarters of its workforce outside of the U.S. seems to be the accepted new normal; no one is really making much of a fuss. I recall an executive from IBM stating baldly at a conference I attended a number of years ago that “anything can now be outsourced,” including government services. Unless you have to touch someone physically, your job is at potential risk. If you’re a firefighter, police officer, nurse or paramedic, you’re safe–unless you get whacked by municipal budget cuts.

There’s a very long list of companies that have been outsourcing their work to other countries. At one time, not too long ago, the mantra was: “Sure, offshore all the crappy low-wage jobs to India, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Honduras, Turkey, Bulgaria etc.; we’ll keep the knowledge jobs.” The problem is that these emerging economies are steadily climbing the value chain, no longer content to produce low-end products or services. If anyone believes that South Koreans, Chinese or Indians are dumb and uninitiated, then you’re living on another planet. China, indeed, has lost tens of millions of manufacturing jobs in recent years to lower wage developing countries.

Art Petty of Management Excellence blog wrote a post based on BusinessWeek’s The Disposable Worker. This may be a blunt expression, but if the shoe fits… Petty provided some insightful reflections on the effects for management; be sure to read his post.

Here are a few highlights from the The BusinessWeek article:

• Alan Blinder (a respected Princeton economist) forecasts that between 22 and 29% of all American jobs will be offshored within 20 years.

• Even when the U.S. economy recovers and employment begins to grow again, it’s expected that this will be the consequence of Americans accepting lower wages and salaries.

• Compared to 1973, wages for production and non-supervisory work (accounting for over three quarters of the labor force|) is 9% lower, when adjusted for inflation.

• In 1953, unions composed 36% of workers in the private sector; that fell to only 8% in 2008.

• GM was America’s biggest employer in the 1950s; it’s now Walmart.

So what do we make of this growing trend, which is not just radically altering the practices of management and leadership but how we as human beings function in bureaucracies and make a living?

What often gets lost in the debate on free trade, outsourcing, etc. among economists is that as real wages continue to fall and as credit remains tight (the driver of North America’s economy over the past few decades), aggregate demand will suffer. With consumer spending accounting for about two thirds of the U.S. economy, a sustained drop in aggregate demand will eventually devastate the country’s economic well-being.

dilbert-30-06-1999 When we look at what’s occurring within corporate America, the dehumanization of the workplace is accelerating. People are increasingly being viewed as commodities, sold to the lowest bidder, where productivity and output are king, where medical and other benefits are something that grandchildren won’t believe ever existed, and where our collective standard of living is steadily going down the tube.

Your correspondent doesn’t have the solutions to help people with their dilemmas when it comes to job loss, diminishing finances or organizational dysfunction. However, here are some useful suggestions, in part drawing upon the works of others, to assist you.

1) Get your personal finances in order: pay down debt.

2) Be a minimalist (as Zen Habits’ Leo Babauta would urge, see below).

3) Learn new skills, keep on top of technology, stay informed.

4) Be open to outcome, not attached to it. Seek new opportunities.

5) Continually build new virtual and face-to-face relationships.

6) Share what you know and learn openly with others.

7) Maintain your sense of humor: watch Jon Stewart, Conan, Stephen Colbert, or whatever makes you smile. Laugh a lot.

8) Stay grounded. Help out a Veteran. They helped build America and Canada and protected our freedoms.

In addition, here are some posts to read and reflect upon. First off, Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits is the first link. Leo’s an amazing guy who’s a true inspiration to us all. Check out his The Power of Less a simple yet amazing book. Buy it, read it, reflect upon it.

Here are three more leadership posts that may also be of assistance:

The Cluetrain Manifesto

Paddling in Organizational Whitewater

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Take a moment to share your thoughts, experiences and suggestions so that we can all benefit.

Don’t give up. The sun always rises!


seagullClick here to download my complimentary e-book Creating Order & Meaning during Organizational Chaos.


Jim Breakwater 3Visit my e-Books, Resources and Services pages.

Take a moment to meet Jim.

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