Thursday, June 22, 2017

Employment Relations in a Post-Industrial Post-Democracy Era?

If one had to come up with a shorthand for the values of the field of employment relations, a strong contender would be “industrial democracy.” For starters, employment relations scholars seek to understand the rules of the workplace. Organizations are therefore seen as industrial governments that can be autocratic, technocratic, or democratic. The employment relations ideals of fairness and self-determination are best served by the democratic form of industrial government (“industrial democracy”) in which unilateral, unchecked managerial authority is replaced by orderly rules, participatory rule-making, checks and balances, and due process in dispute resolution. That (non-Marxist/critical) employment relations scholars see the employment relationship as analogous to a pluralist political society in which multiple parties (e.g., employers and employees) have legitimate but sometimes conflicting interests reinforces the preference for decision-making and dispute resolution processes that respect a diversity of rights and interests.  

The main vehicle for delivering industrial democracy has typically been labor unions  because imperfectly competitive labor markets and capitalist legal systems favor employers over individual employees. Labor unions that are legally and financially independent of management are the needed counterweight to managerial power, and are therefore necessary for giving employee voice legitimacy through the negotiation and enforcement of collective bargaining agreements. Consistent with this thinking, labor unions have a long history of promoting collective power as a way to bring democracy to the workplace, and to strengthen political democracy by creating independent and responsible rather than subordinate and repressed citizen-workers. 

We’ve already seen what happens to employment relations and labor unions when the “industrial” part of industrial democracy disappears. That is, the decline of manufacturing and traditional blue collar occupations have paralleled the steady decline in private sector U.S. union density. Though the relationship isn’t necessarily causal, it’s hard to deny that labor unions have struggled as the nature of the economy and the workforce have shifted, and probably not coincidentally, the size of the field of employment relations has simultaneously declined.  

But clearly there should be an important space for post-industrial worker voice as well as for employment relations scholarship. Unions are experimenting with different representation strategies, new institutions (especially worker centers) are emerging to give non-traditional workers a voice, and employment relations scholarship is broadening beyond a traditional focus on labor unions.

But perhaps a new challenge looms…the decline of support for democracy. In “The Democratic Disconnect” (Journal of Democracy, July 2016), Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk report disturbing trends from individual responses to the World Values Survey. For example, 26 percent of U.S. millennials characterize choosing leaders in free elections as unimportant and 24 percent indicate that democracy a bad way to run a country. These percentages are significantly higher than those reported by older generations. Similarly, 72 percent of Americans born before World War II say that it’s essential to live in a democracy, but among millennials that percentage plummets to 30 percent.

I incorporated these statistics into a presentation I made earlier this month entitled “Two More Problems Facing the Field of Employment Relations, and the Need for Inclusion” at the annual conference of the Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA). To be honest, I did this primarily to be provocative, and maybe we shouldn’t place much weight on attitudinal surveys. But other indicators keep popping up. In "Why Republicans (and Trump) May Still Win Big in 2020 —Despite 'Everything'," Grover Norquist outlines how the Wisconsin strategy to eviscerate public sector unions (via Act 10) provides a desired model "for Republican political dominance" because "if Act 10 is enacted in a dozen more states, the modern Democratic Party will cease to be a competitive power in American politics" (Ozy, May 28, 2017). In other words, Norquist is championing a blueprint for one-party politics. Other examples consistent with a decline in support for democracy include trends toward greater restrictions on free speech ("Under Attack," The Economist, June 4, 2016) and toward increased support for dictatorships ("America’s Foreign Policy: Embrace Thugs, Dictators and Strongmen," The Economist, June 3, 2017). 

The industrial change was a compositional one, not one in fundamental values. But if support for democracy is truly declining, this could be much more damaging for industrial democracy and for the field of employment relations. The tendency to defer to strong leaders in the name of efficiency and expediency is even stronger in business than in government. If democracy isn’t robustly supported in the political arena, it will presumably be even harder to generate support in the workplace. If achieving post-industrial workplace democracy has been a challenge, imagine the challenge of post-industrial post-democracy. 

So what's to be done? I don’t think there are any easy answers. We need to monitor these democracy-related trends, and if they are real, they need to be reversed. The industrial democracy values of employment relations continue to need champions. Whether post-industrial or not, the values and value of industrial democracy need to be explicitly recognized, not taken for granted.  

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Are More Stock Options the Answer for Target's Woes?

I’m no expert on stock options or executive compensation. So maybe you should stop reading, and I should stop writing. But here I go anyway…Target Corporation’s latest executive pay plans were revealed yesterday in its proxy filing with the SEC.

The CEO didn’t get an incentive bonus. Makes sense…Target hasn’t been hitting its financial performance targets. Some other top executives received bonuses for strategic initiatives. I have no basis for doubting that these are valuable strategic initiatives, so this makes sense, too.

But I became more confused when the Star Tribune reported the following in today's paper:

Target's board decided to offer more stock options to executives to help keep pay levels up since the company's recently lowered growth targets for the coming year would likely mean financial and performance goals previously used to trigger bonuses won't be reached in coming years.

So…executives are given incentive pay in order to push their performance. And when those performance targets are not met, the natural consequence is to not receive rewards. Hopefully my personnel economics students can tell you that that’s a fundamental principle of incentives. But what Target’s board seems to have done is to add more stock options so that executives don’t miss out on payouts when the performance targets aren’t hit.

My first reaction was that this seems to be a confused understanding of incentives. It’s not really an incentive if there aren’t consequences for failure (alternatively, a lack of rewards for a lack of performance). So is executive compensation really just a game to give executives lots of pay, and the talk about incentives and performance is just a nice public relations spin?

I’m not sure. So I looked up Target’s proxy statement online. In that document, the compensation committee explained that Target has now committed over $8 billion in store and customer-experience investments. These are likely to reduce profitability in the short run, thus making long-term incentive performance targets unlikely to be achieved. So to make up for the presumed lack of long-term incentive plan payouts, additional price-vested stock options were granted.

The principle here seems to make more sense than I initially thought. Those investments are likely important, and it’s important that they be done well. But why not change the performance targets to reflect new realities? And more puzzling (to me, the admitted non-expert on executive pay), why the continued obsession with stock options? Wall St. is notoriously short-term focused. If these store investments are meant to have long-term payoffs, why magnify the linkage between compensation and stock options? And doesn’t this just further reinforce the incentive for executives to buy back shares rather than invest in the business? This latter phenomena is a major issue with our increasingly financialized world

Admittedly, designing effective incentive systems are harder in practice than in theory (that's why I teach the theory!). But new approaches beyond stock options seem to be needed. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Thoughts on Uber and Its Psychological "Tricks"

Earlier this month, a New York Times article “How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks to Push Its Drivers’ Buttons” received a lot of publicity for revealing how Uber is using “behavioral science to manipulate [drivers] in the service of its corporate growth.” A company trying to get workers to act in the interests of the organization? Shocking.

The point of managing workers is to get them to do things that benefit the organization that is issuing their paychecks (or not even issuing paychecks as with diverse forms of slavery and unfree labor throughout history). I can’t be the only one tired of an “everything in the sharing economy is new” mindset. Sure, some of the specific tools might be different in the sharing economy, but the tools for managing workers have always been changing. In the industrial revolution, workers were organized together into factories to be watched more effectively. The famous Hawthorne experiments in the 1920s uncovered the importance of social factors in shaping worker productivity. I’m sure there are examples of various workplaces with real-time information on production goals displayed on a chalkboard for all to see long before there were LED or smartphone displays.

But back to the New York Times article: Good news for industrial relations, bad news for human resources. Why good news for industrial relations? “Underlying the tension was the fact that Uber’s interests and those of drivers are at odds on some level.” There you have it, a central industrial relations premise that employers and workers have some conflicting goals. And when employers have the upper hand (“Uber is continuing apace in its struggle to wield the upper hand with drivers”), we need to take seriously the need for various mechanisms for looking out for workers' interests and well-being, whether through unionization, laws, or other supports. More on this in a minute.

And why bad news for human resources? An MIT Technology Review article followed up the New York Times story with its own headline: “Uber Is Engaged in Psychological Warfare with Its Drivers.” Here is part of what's labeled as psychological warfare: “To stem that tide [of many new drivers leaving before completing 25 rides], Uber officials in some cities began experimenting with simple encouragement: You’re almost halfway there, congratulations!” That’s right, Uber is “exploiting” that well-known human “weakness” of responding to encouragement toward a concrete goal. When encouragement is seen as manipulation, that can’t be good for human resources.

This begs the question as to what people think human resources should be doing. Do we want human resources to simply be an administrative function that hires and pays people? Human resources can and should be doing more. For at least a century, the leading edge of human resources has been trying to take what we know about human behavior (at that time) to find hopefully win-win ways to benefit employees and employers. Can ethical lines be crossed? Certainly. But the principle of using the science of human behavior--rooted in economics, psychology, sociology, and beyond--to design human resources policies that create mutual gain is longstanding and worthy. 

I’m not intending to be an apologist for Uber. The rise of Uber and other sharing economy arrangements raise serious issues—too many to address here. As just one example, an academic paper “The Taking Economy: Uber, Information, and Power” by Ryan Calo and Alex Rosenblat discusses a number of ways in which Uber could potentially exploit its drivers. My interpretation of many of these is that they boil down to intentional or unintentional wage theft. For example, a driver may think they accepted 100% of ride requests, but bugs or manipulation may lead Uber to report a lower number, leading to negative consequences for the driver. Or a driver may wait the required 5 minutes to get a cancellation fee, but Uber doesn’t pay because its data shows a lower waiting time, again either due to intentional programming features or unintentional problems with connectivity and the like.

So how to address serious issues that arise out of the gig economy? Meaningful debates over the role of behavioral science in shaping managerial practices should be welcomed. Though rhetoric around "psychological warfare" probably isn't very helpful. Additionally, everyone can probably agree that Uber drivers should be truly free to sign off when they want, though there are different perceptions of what "truly free" means in this context. 

And is this freedom enough? Certainly not for issues like wage theft that truly reflect unequal power and asymmetric information (what did you expect an industrial relations scholar to say??). Calo and Rosenblat argue for updating consumer protection laws for the digital age. That might be a good idea, but from an industrial relations perspective, we also should be talking about updating labor law. Rather than relying on government regulation to specify standards, identify violations, and remedy them, let’s figure out ways to empower workers—broadly defined to include Uber drivers and many others in the gig and contracting economy. Then they can act collectively with adequate power to give a meaningful voice to the material, psychological, social, and other concerns they identify as the most pressing in their own particular work arrangements.