Netflix was in the news last month. The company announced that employees can take a year of maternity or paternity leave during the first year after having a child. Sounds great. Most people hear this and think, “what a great company to work for. They must really care for their employees, think of them as family.”
Awhile back (5 years?), one of the company’s orientation presentations “went viral.” It went viral because it described a culture. I can only imagine that this is the culture of Silicon Valley. I’m not in the valley, so I can only imagine. But, since Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg called it “the most important document ever to come out of the Valley,” I am fairly certain that it is representative.
Slide 22 reads “adequate performance gets a generous severance package.” Later, the presentation also states that the company values honesty. “Honesty Always – as a leader, no one in your group should be materially surprised of your views.” I admire that. I don’t admire the culture of disaffection, but I do admire the honesty. The company is clearly stating what we have known since Jack Welch, but we’re afraid to admit it – the company does not care, has not cared, will never care. The world has changed, you’re on your own, move on.
On slide 33 you read, “unlimited loyalty to a shrinking firm, or to an ineffective employee, is not what we are about.” The door swings both ways. And so we have a clearly delineated understanding of the relationship between company and employee. Work hard, do well, gain maximum benefit, move on.
This is the reality. This is the way it is now, and the way it has been since GE in the 80’s.The company, as a modern entity probably started in the 18th century. Of course, there were guilds before, and paying people for work has been around since the beginning of society. But the company, as such, is a relatively modern thing. Benefits, insurance, dental, paid vacation, workers comp, maternity leave – all of them, are modern constructions, designed to make working at that “company” attractive. We are seeing the end of that good run.
The problem is, most people want to be cared about, cared for, taken care of. We also want to take care about and for others. We are at our best when we work as a team. We need trust to do that. People produce more when they care. Loyalty to the company is not what I’m talking about, but loyalty to each other. People, and I’m generalizing here, people want to contribute, they want to belong, to care, and be cared for. That’s why we have families, and friends, clubs, associations, and organizations.
We might not do well when we, as a group, exceed 150 people. That seems to be the number we hear for village-sized groups, the number of people whose names we can remember. This is where we get engagement. It is a buzz word in most companies that means making people care so they’ll work longer, harder, better. But it only works if you really do care. Just saying the words won’t cut it. It’s like approaching someone romantically when you already have a wedding ring, kids, and a mistress. You might be able to sweet talk them, and there might be some short term benefits to both. But if you really only want to use the person for personal gratification, well that won’t work unless you have an equally callous partner. Once you know how they really feel, well, it just doesn’t work.
Part of me thinks, “OK, I get it. I have to get with the program. I’ve been an adult throughout this entire period,” the period in which GE lays off tens of thousands, even when profitable. The period of employment-at-will. The period of every man for himself. Part of me says, that’s the way it is, so deal with it, move on.
Another part of me says, “Ah, no.”
That’s the part of me that believes that you don’t live to work, you work to live. You have loyalty to the people you work with, because we are all humans, and I’d rather work with than against. I’d rather feel like I’m helping John the forklift driver buy his son the G.I. Joe with the Kung Fu grip for X-mas. I’d rather hang around in the cafeteria at lunch and listen to people talk about their kids getting into college, or going to beautician school, or playing soccer. I’d rather try to reduce overtime, so everyone can go home on time, and not have to miss dinner with said soccer players, beauticians, and students. And there is one more reason.
The pendulum will swing.
I don’t believe that it will swing back, but it will swing. I don’t believe that the future will be like the past. We progress. We change. A company in 1815 doesn’t look like a company in 1915. It will look very different in 2115. We have had our Dickensian eras, our Great Depressions. We have also had our Labor Movement, Gilded Age. The pendulum will swing.