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.

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