Monday, June 15, 2015

Thoughts on an Earlier Book, Just Work

In my previous post, I reviewed a new book called "Just Work." The funny thing is, this isn't the first book that I've reviewed with this title. Here is my earlier review of Russell Muirhead's book Just Work (Harvard University Press, 2004).

The clever title of Dartmouth government professor Russell Muirhead’s book reflects the tension inherent in the nature of work. On the one hand, there is the societal pressure on individuals to “just work”—don’t complain, don’t fight it, just get to work. Work is a necessary evil to support consumption, others, or God. On the other hand, there is the demand of individuals on society to provide “just work”—work that fulfills principles of justice and respects the dignity of workers as human beings. Just Work therefore tackles the centuries-old issue of the meaning of work: “What should we expect from work? Should the promise of work be restricted to its instrumental value—to the wages it brings? Is it right to invest work with the deeper promise of fulfillment?” (p. 3).

The powerful and thought-provoking central theme developed in Just Work to address these questions is “fit”—just and meaningful work is work that fits. As a political theorist, Muirhead’s first task is to justify fit rather than freedom as the standard for just work, especially against the backdrop of the liberal market ethos of the 21st century. The author argues that a liberal political regime provides freedom while requiring citizens to work. The fact that we must work then necessarily gives legitimacy to questions about the quality of that work. Furthermore, democracy is premised on self-determination and equality. Work that degrades the human condition or provides rewards to a lucky few runs counter to these democratic principles. Fit better than freedom also captures the common associations between work and human dignity, and also better recognizes that freedom in the world of work is often imperfect. The quality of work—fit—is thus a legitimate subject for modern democracies; freedom alone does not suffice as the standard for work. These arguments provide the basis not only for a richer conception of just work, but also for re-introducing the subject of work back into political theory. If justice is simply choice, then there is nothing special about work in political theory. But if fit defines work in a democratic society, work deserves special attention by political theorists (and politicians).

So what is fit? Muirhead defines fit through two dimensions, social fit and personal fit. Social fit captures the extent to which individual abilities match what society needs done. Personal fit considers the extent to which work is personally fulfilling. A key contribution of Just Work is exploring the tensions between social fit and personal fit which have characterized visions of work back to at least Plato and Aristotle.

In Plato’s simple city, jobs are all focused on contributing to the common good. Strong but simple individuals are laborers, smart but weak individuals are merchants. Social fit is maximized, but at the expense of personal fit—what if someone doesn’t want to be a laborer, or a merchant? Aristotle, in contrast, elevates the importance of human capacities and by extension personal fit—even if a job serves the common good, it should not be allowed to stunt an individual’s personal growth. The parallels with the liberal market economy of the 21st century are surprisingly striking. The political system of ancient Greece has been replaced by the invisible hand of the market, but the end result is the same. Markets are very powerful for channeling individuals and resources into their socially-optimal uses, albeit with a narrowly-defined construction of social value rooted in consumerism and marginal productivity justice. But what happens when markets produce sweatshops and assembly lines that degrade human capabilities? This again is the tension between social fit and personal fit, with personal fit unjustly dominated by the demands of social fit in today’s global economy.

So instead let’s structure work to be personally fulfilling. Not so fast warns Just Work—a wholesale focus on personal fit is equally problematic as a wholesale focus on social fit. Muirhead shows how Betty Friedan, by largely ignoring the realities of the full range of good and bad jobs that society needs completed and by inflating work to be the single source of human fulfillment, raised the standard of work so high that it was impossible to fulfill. And in her later writings, Friedan abandoned the personal fulfillment element of work and focused instead on pay. Just Work therefore advocates a more nuanced middle-ground—work should contain elements of both personal and social fit. In other words, what’s needed is a balance—consistent with my contentions in Employment with a Human Face: Balancing Efficiency, Equity, and Voice (Cornell University Press, 2004). That the competing dimensions will only be partially satisfied is better and more stable than the extremes.

In this way, Just Work provides a reality check for all sides of the employment debate. To the aristocrats of old and the free market advocates of today, the reality check is the issue of personal fit. It is not acceptable to let markets and political systems structure work solely for good of others without consideration for the human effects on individual workers. To social reformers and other advocates of fulfilling work, the reality check is the issue of social fit. The “stinginess of nature” means that unpleasant jobs will always need to be done. We cannot survive by only doing pleasant tasks that are intellectually stimulating and fulfilling. These are very valuable reality checks that we all ignore at our own peril.

What’s murky, however, is the extent to which we have to accept the reigning vision of social needs instead of re-shaping this vision to be more just. This is particularly problematic in the area of traditional work standards. Muirhead forcefully focuses personal fit on the non-material aspects of work. In fact, the evolution (or degeneration) of the Protestant work ethic to the current pecuniary emphasis on work as supporting consumption is roundly criticized for losing work’s intrinsic purpose. It’s unclear then where standards like minimum wages, health insurance, and nondiscrimination emerge—standards that Muirhead admits in passing are also critical for just work. Along these lines, for a book so firmly rooted in the intersection of human dignity, political theory, and the employment relationship, the omission of human rights instruments from the analysis is also surprising.

Just Work simultaneously reveals the power and the frustration of scholarship on work. Scholars from many disciplines work on questions of work. This can be very stimulating as we learn from others with very different perspectives. But with different frames of reference and terminology, communication and cross-fertilization can be difficult. To an industrial relations scholar, Just Work’s omission of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, John R. Commons, and others who championed the moral element of work and analyzed the importance of employee voice and self-actualization misses a rich opportunity for the further development of critical ideas. Yet to an industrial relations scholar, the book’s reliance on Plato, John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, Betty Friedan, and Alasdair MacIntyre is freshly provocative and provides new ways to look at traditional employment issues. Just Work is poised to re-insert work back into political theory scholarship, but I hope this future scholarship is increasingly integrated into other perspectives that study work.

Some readers might also be frustrated by Muirhead’s lack of direct discussion of solutions to the dilemmas of work. The disapproval of assembly lines, sweatshops, the hyper-flexible workplace, and a lack of living wage is clear, and the natural next step is to take the author’s framework of personal and social fit and translate it into action for policy makers, unions, human resources professionals, and other actors. For example, one implication seems to be that unions should better promote a balance between social and personal fit. This might be achieved by what I call “employee empowerment unionism” in Employment with a Human Face in which unions negotiate the parameters and provide support for increased individual decision-making in the workplace. Many such implications lie just below the surface of Just Work but drawing them out is not its purpose. Rather, Just Work is successful at fulfilling a more profound goal by showing the fundamental importance of personal and social fit for understanding the meaning of work in modern democracies.

While well-written, Just Work is not an easy read. Nor should it be. Muirhead’s analysis of the tensions—some might say contradictions—inherent in the nature and meaning of work is very thoughtful and realistic. As I also argue in my book The Thought of Work (Cornell University Press, 2009), work is complicated. Freedom can promote fit, or restrict it. Personal and social fit both support and undermine each other. Work should be valued highly so that human dignity is respected, but not so highly that dignity only stems from work. This is not the place for slogans, rhetoric, or simplistic one-size-fits-all solutions. The persistent reader will be greatly rewarded. Just read Just Work.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Thoughts on a New Book, Just Work

Forty years ago, Studs Terkel published his famous book Working in which over 130 individuals provided their own narratives of their work. By letting workers speak for themselves in their own words with their own emphases, Working was and remains a powerful and influential testament to the multi-faceted nature of work that affects nearly everyone in deeply personal ways. Like many others, Working clearly impacted Grant Michelson and Shaun Ryan, two Australia-based New Zealanders who have written about varied aspects of work, and through their book Just Work they seek “to celebrate the significance of, and broadly continue in, the traditions established by Working” (p. 2). Just Work therefore parallels Working in presenting a variety of worker narratives about their work in their own words. Specifically, 30 individuals from a diverse set of occupations in Australia voice the good, the bad, and the ugly about their work in accounts that are nothing if not authentic, right down to the Aussie slang (which is “grouse”). 

A useful aspect of this narrative approach is that each reader can make their own interpretations and identify themes of interest. The diverse meanings of work, not only across but also within individuals, resonated with me based on the multi-faceted conceptual nature of work that have written about. As I argue in my book The Thought of Work, work is not a source of income or fulfillment or stress or identity, it can be a complex source of income and fulfillment and stress and identity and more, in practice and in theory. Beyond this, it was striking that the best and worst things at work are all of us. When relationships with co-workers, managers, subordinates, and customers are good, these are frequently cited as the aspects of work that individuals found the most rewarding and engaging. In the words of Robert the migration agent, “any job is a good job if you are working with good people” (p. 115). But when these relationships were poor, they were frequently cited as the elements of work that were the most frustrating. David, a phone salesperson had just quit his job the day before his interview because he “was starting to hate people” (p. 72). Scholars and professionals in employment relations and human resources have long asserted that people issues are of central importance in the workplace, and these accounts bring this to life. But they further underscore the impact that each of us as individuals can have on others in the workplace, whether as workers or as customers.

Another theme I saw is that how work fits with a worker’s life situation, goals, and values at a particular time is very important. This goes beyond the well-recognized issue of work-family balance to become a recognition that personal goals, whether they be around schooling, family, community, or other spheres of life, fundamentally shape how individuals think about work and influence what they see as work that is fitting. So even individuals in the same job can view their work differently (Gordon Cooke, Jimmy Donaghey, and Isik Zeytinoglu  recently identified this same phenomenon in their 2013 Human Relations article, “The Nuanced Nature of Work Quality: Evidence from Rural Newfoundland and Ireland”). Australia also provides a rich context for understanding immigrants’ experiences with their work, and the multiple narratives from those born outside of Australia reveal many of the same influences, hopes, and frustrations. I’m sure other readers will find other themes that speak to them.

Given the prominence of Working, both in the field and in this book, comparisons are inevitable. Like in Working, Just Work brings workers’ voices to us in authentic, powerful ways. Working, however, has four times the number of interviews. While this makes Just Work more accessible than its 700-page predecessor, it does limit the scope of the occupations represented. In particular, while I applaud the authors for the explicit recognition that work can be unpaid, all of the interviews, by the authors’ own admission, pertain to paid employment. The inclusion of some narratives by unpaid workers could have helped reveal similarities and differences between paid and unpaid work.

Being written by academics, I appreciate that, compared to Working, Just Work devotes more effort in the beginning and end to providing frameworks for thinking about work and the themes that emerge from the narratives. But I think the concluding chapter could have dug deeper. While the authors discuss that the nature of work has changed since Working was published, less attention is devoted to the extent to which worker’s reactions to their work has changed, or not. The authors do note that the narratives generally seem at odds with the theme of work as “a Monday through Friday sort of dying” found in Working. But is this because of differences across time, across space and culture, or other factors? Of course, these are big questions and there are no easy answers. Ultimately, we’ll need to draw our own conclusions, but the authors experienced these interviews firsthand and it would have been nice to hear more of their overall thoughts.

Lastly, the authors also include their own personal narratives about work, though they modestly relegated them to an appendix. Given the personal nature of the 30 interviews, it was nice to see the authors put themselves in this same position. These reflections thereby further add to the feeling of authenticity of the entire book. Indeed, the authors’ own stories have inspired me to make my next blog post consist of my own narrative reflecting upon my own work experiences. Perhaps it will inspire you to do something similar?

Grant Michelson and Shaun Ryan (2014) Just Work: Narratives of Employment in the 21st Century (Palgrave Macmillan).

Sunday, April 12, 2015

‘We’re All in This Together’: The Multi-Stakeholder Imperative for Healthy, Balanced Employment Relationships

Last month I had the pleasure of participating in a European Union (EU) Presidency event in Riga, Latvia, organized by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) in cooperation with the Latvian Saeima (Parliament). Eurofound is an agency of the European Union whose mission is to provide information, advice, and expertise that helps create better living and working conditions in Europe. Visiting Riga was a fascinating cultural experience, and this was magnified by being the only full-time academic on the event’s program and the only non-European in attendance.

The event marked the launch of Eurofound’s 3rd European Company Survey Overview Report. Consistent with this and with the “Competitive Europe” priority of the Latvian EU Presidency, the theme of the day was “Workplace practices: Creating win-win arrangements for companies and employees” (in Latvian, “Darba organizācija: Uzņēmumam un tā darbiniekiem piemērotu modeļu meklējumos”). Videos are available in this Saeima news release.

The theme of my remarks was “‘We’re All in This Together’: The Multi-Stakeholder Imperative for Healthy, Balanced Employment Relationships.” Trying to create win-win employment relationships has been going on for at least 2,000 years. This suggests that it’s important, but also difficult. Otherwise, we either would have given up by now, or figured it all out! So why is this so important? From my perspective, it’s because the best employment relationships will be win-win-win: they serve workers and their families (win #1), organizations (win #2), and society (win #3). Moreover, the benefits from healthy employment relationships are far-reaching, and include economic gains, physical and psychological health, civic and political participation, and social inclusivity. This requires balances multiple objectives in the employment relationship (objectives that I simplify as efficiency, equity, and voice).

But why is this so hard to achieve? The event participants indicated a number of reasons, but as the lone academic on the program, I highlighted the importance of ideas. Creating win-win employment relationships, designing effective human resources practices, and crafting supportive public policies are not just about the specific practices involved in those important actions, they are also about the mental models, frames of reference, or ideologies that support those practices. And not all ideas about the employment relationship support the pursuit of balanced relationships. Approaches that are firmly rooted in whatever the market will bear are more about organizational interests; approaches grounded in critical thinking prioritize worker interests. We need HR professionals, worker advocates, and policy makers to embrace ideologies that seek to align employer and employee interests while respecting both sets of interests as legitimate. So again, we don’t just need the “right” practices, we also need the right ideas behind them.

I’m also beginning some research with colleagues from the University of Newcastle in Australia as to why it’s so easy to deviate from the “right” practices and mental mindsets. It requires hard work to avoid slipping away from these ideals, but I’ll save that for another posting.

In conclusion, the parties to the employment relationship need to work hard to make it healthy, win-win, and balanced, and to sustain these win-win-win employment relationships. So they need support from many sources, including insights from Eurofound’s European Company Survey. And they also need to be mindful not only of their practices, but also about their ideologies.