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To have meaningful work that enables our independence and to live with dignity should be a basic human right

Tag: Work

Understanding Gen Y: Part 1

I recently came across an article written by a young man who identified himself as Gen Y (those born between the mid-1980s and 2000).  His article reflected on the life of his mother who had served her main profession and few employers continuously and steadfastly throughout her adult life towards the aim of enjoying a comfortable retirement.  As that time loomed near she had not achieved the financial security she needed for retirement.  Even a delayed retirement would provide her little more than a basic existence and the prospect of dependence on others as her health declined over time.

The writer vowed that he would never live his life in selfless service to employers to face the same late life insecurity as his mother.  His article provoked outraged criticism from many readers.  Comments saluted the mother as dedicated and selfless while he was branded ‘typical Gen Y’: entitled, ungrateful, insensitive and selfish.  Respondents compared their own parents who, like the writer’s mother, worked long and hard to provide for them but unlike the writer, they were proud of their parents who earned their pensions and they saluted their dedication.

The emotion of the responses seemed out of proportion to the sentiments expressed in the article.  For instance he was accused of having a sense of entitlement, yet nowhere did he write that he expected more than his mother.  He simply stated he wanted make different choices to his mother so he would have the opportunity to achieve a better outcome.  A look at the profile photos of the respondents suggests reactions could have had something to do with their ages and their own prospects for retirement in the years ahead.

Like this writer, I do not think we should call a system (economic, social or otherwise) that asks for compromises to be made during our working lives in exchange for freedom in future years, but then that freedom is unavailable, a success. Far from disrespectful, he was distressed that his mother’s financial situation did not do justice to the care she took of others during her working life.

What was typical of this writer as a member of Generation Y was his attitude that the system needs to be better. He reached out on social media so he and others can do something about it.  They think this way because we taught it to them.

As Gen X (those born between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s) parents, we have sought to do what our parents before us have done: give our children a better life than the one we had.  With experiences of relationship breakdowns, mortgage stress, complying with society’s expectations at the expense of our own fulfilment, job insecurity and social inequality guiding our parenting approach, we taught our children to never settle for less than they deserve.  We have given them the expectations of respect, equality, choice and that they can be anything they choose to be.  We denied them little and protected them from harm that often existed only in our minds.  “Why don’t you look it up yourself?” we would say when they asked us a question and we saw an opportunity to develop their independence.  We drove them from activity to activity week after week, and that was worth it because these activities developed their confidence and their collaboration skills.  Their sense of responsibility to the planet and to the disadvantaged is a credit to us because we told them it was important to care about people more than title, money and power.

And now they are in the workforce, and Gen Y – with the values we instilled in them – and the workplace are out of sync.


Since the modern workplace developed in the 1950s, a clash between the establishment and the new generation has always been the case.  Boomers in the 1960s fought workplaces fraught with inequality and patriarchy.  Gen X in the 1980s fought being ‘treated like a number’ and demanded recognition and career opportunity.  The difference with the entry of Gen Y into the workforce is the previous generations are working longer; they are staying rather than making way for the new generation.

It is far too easy to dismiss Gen Y as a self-absorbed generation that understand technology better than people.  To them, we the older generation can seem not self-absorbed enough – complying with employers for their benefit at our own expense – without fighting to change it.

Gen Y are an educated, caring, confident, connected, inquisitive, socially-minded, innovative and entrepreneurial generation.  Organisations need to harness these attributes not beat young workers into our old thinking that time served equals achievement.  It will not be enough to accommodate them; we need to actively engage with them.  We should learn how we can keep up with an automated, technology-driven and hyper-connected world.  As the world ages, Gen Y will not just be the talent that powers the organisation, they will also be the customers.

As parents we told them not to settle for something they felt was not right, and there is much about work that is not right.  Like them we should also feel outraged when after a long working life we are faced with the fear that our savings will not be enough. Like them we should assume that this is something we should do differently.  As managers we should not even have the time to be complaining about Gen Y.  The time should be spent developing a workforce model that better serves the organisation in the new world, and provides better prospects for financial security in retirement.

Engagement: masturbating employee satisfaction

Just over 100 years ago while much of the Western world was enjoying unprecedented growth brought about by the industrial revolution, the medical profession was treating women afflicted by a particular malady, female hysteria, that was thought to be caused by abnormal movements of the uterus.   By late 1800s it had become something of a crisis with an estimated 25 per cent of all women affected by hysteria.  It was easily recognised by many its symptoms including faintness, nervousness, erratic behaviour, anxiety, bloating, paralytic states, loss of appetite, irritability and a tendency to cause trouble (one physician who attempted to catalogue all the symptoms had to concede defeat after seventy five pages).  While it was not a new disease having first been described 2000 years ago by the ancient Egyptians, and also contemplated by such wise heads as the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, Socrates (who should know as his mother was a midwife) and his student, Plato, in the late 19th century relief was available through physician-assisted ‘hysterical paroxysms’, the manual stimulation of the patient’s genital area.  At a time when medicine was based on mysteries rather than science and consisted of primitive treatments such as bleeding, doctors were as likely to kill their patients as cure them.  Treatment for hysteria, by contrast, not only did not kill but the doctors were enjoying unprecedented success.  The invention of the vibrator facilitated a surge in their productivity – not to mention popularity (with the added benefit of the end of doctors’ work injury claims for hand cramps).   Some history writers even credit the boom in demand for hysterical paroxysms with helping to lift the status of the physicians from quacks to medical professional.  Hundreds of satisfied, repeat customers will do that.

Female hysteria as a diagnosed medical illness declined in the first decade of the 20th century, coinciding with the birth of the feminist movement and the growing understanding of psychology.  Rather than believing women were more susceptible to illness because they were the weaker sex, it was gradually recognised that depression, anxiety and stress were the product of the lack of power, independence, control and freedom forced upon them in a patriarchal society that expected women to be subservient, docile and of high moral character.  Families could avoid scandal by quietly confining ladies affected by’ hysteria’ to a sanitarium or an asylum.

Fortunately for workers suffering from depression, anxiety and stress, the history of female hysteria provides a precedent.  As it was for their 19th century medical counterparts there is a solution for employers struggling with unmotivated, intractable, under-performing and otherwise disengaged workers.  However, it seems that most HR professionals are yet to administer the ‘engagement program’ treatment that requires only some dextrous application to change people from melancholy to happy and satisfied.

In a recent report on the results of an online survey by cloud-based social talent management solutions provider SilkRoad, 781 HR professionals revealed their companies’ employee engagement practices. The survey tested for:
• the number of companies with explicit employee engagement programs
• the organisational impact of low engagement
• the ways professionals involve the C-suite in engagement
• HR professionals’ employee engagement ‘pain points’ and concerns
• which generations in the workplace are perceived as being more engaged
• the methods companies use to measure employee engagement.

“One of the most significant findings we uncovered is that a majority (54 per cent) of employers still don’t offer formal engagement programs,” said the director of product management at SilkRoad.  “While 73 per cent report participating in engagement programs on some level, only 38 per cent are offering formal programs.  This is problematic for a number of reasons, but top among them is the fact that informal programs lack clear goals and accountability.”

As any director of a company that sells HR software would tell us, we have a modern-day employee engagement equivalent of the vibrator.  Software designed to solve the engagement malady with financial, value-affirming, communicational or professional developmental paroxysms is available.

A pity that history has yet to catch up with the workplace which is still legally based on the feudal master/servant relationship.

Peter Hall-Jones in his 2008 article, Of Masters and Servants, posits:

“In this relationship, the servant works at the direction of the master and engages in work for the benefit of the master. In return, the master compensates the servant for his or her labour.”

“It appears that servants are not so thrilled about the conditions of their servitude.  And they are even less impressed with the behaviour of their masters.  Could it be that the two are linked?  Could it be that the master-servant relationship itself is creating all this alienation?”

“Make no mistake—this is not an airy-fairy ivory-tower kind of an issue.  Problems arising from workplace culture (depression, stress and anxiety) are now the primary cause of workplace absence in most developed countries.  Some 420,000 cases are reported in the UK each year.  Estimates put the cost to business in the US alone at about $44 billion per year.  And we do know that job satisfaction, engagement and productivity are somehow linked.”

While on one hand HR looks for the cures for employee disengagement, it continues to reinforce systems and structures that create the problems.  Employee disengagement is not an ailment to be ‘treated’ with a ‘program’ but has the same root causes (no pun intended) as female hysteria: having to live in a controlling environment in which she was totally dependent on the master and where she was expected to perform her duties, fitting into her rigidly-cast role.

Hopefully when the workplaces in which most people have to work are reformed so that workers can focus on how best to do the work, not on what will keep them the job, the good engagement programs can also go the way of the vibrator – no longer a treatment tool but used because it gives a little extra to something we like.

Moral blindness

The day following the blog post, “HR: Morally Culpable?” an article appeared in the business publication, In The Black, entitled Are You Guilty of Moral Blindness?    Article author, Eva Tsahuridu, writes:

Generally, when we assess unethical behaviour, we tend to see it as rational and intentional. Sometimes it may not be so because of the specific frame we use to see the issue….  Failing to identify the ethical content of an issue leads to moral blindness, which is potentially more concerning than deciding to behave unethically. Moral blindness prevents us from considering the moral consequences of our actions….  Workplaces develop their own frames, which are shared and affect how people generally perceive situations. For example, framing something as an opportunity is very different to seeing it as a bribe. Frames can make something desirable or undesirable. They blind us to some aspects of the issue while emphasising others. They may make things that we would see as unethical and wrong outside the workplace seem appropriate and right.

Frames are necessary because they enable us to deal with the complexity of living. But they pose ethical risks that we must mitigate. One way to do this is to use multiple frames and make sure one of them is an ethics frame. … Failing to see the ethical content of issues increases the risk of unethical behaviour. Remembering that ethics is an inherent part of every business decision can help us avoid moral blindness.

The organisational prerogative to meet targets and/or maximise profits creates the frame through which employers are entitled to treat people as the human resource; to repeatedly quantify workers until they are defined as the sum total of their most desirable parts.  They know which of their inputs (competencies) will produce the required measurable outputs (KPIs – key performance indicators).

Within this frame the objective of employment is to analyse what perfect combination of procedures, activities, skills and knowledge  will achieve optimum productivity.  The typical HR approach applies processes designed to separate work from the workers and workers from the people who enter into the employment relationship.  This objective approach to managing performance using data enables decisions for selecting, managing, training, promoting or reducing staff  to be more accurate and therefore the workforce more effective.  Equally employees, knowing what is expected of them, can leave their employers and find more suitable employment elsewhere, a natural selection process to achieve a workforce ‘best fit’.

The rationale for this approach goes further, that an objective focus on work creates fairness; because the evaluation processes are evenly applied, all employees have an equal chance of success (when people are withing this system they are staff or employees, another indication of the system’s impartiality).  Having their performance measured using set criteria they will thus know which skills should be developed and being successful in these they will experience greater job satisfaction, increased job security and improved career prospects. The increased confidence and morale that follows leads to even better performance and the employment relationship should be long and mutually rewarding.

The narrow frame of ‘competency-based’ employment systems creates the very moral blindness Tsahuridu describes.  Firstly the criteria used to evaluate workers is not applied equally.  People are no more able to be separated as workers than research in behaviour and brain functions show that their workplace assessors are able to be impartial.  Further the criteria the employees are informed affect their employment usually do not mention the technology, changing business/organisational direction, stakeholder interests or outsourcing options, for instance, that are also evaluated for achieving targets and profits.

The frame used to create fairness is possibly responsible for the majority of the unfairness that exists around employment.  The separation of the person from the performance is a significant factor in the rise of workplace bullying.  The ability to justify actions that produce results help managers turn a blind eye, if not actively protect, those whose actions push the boundaries of ethics.  Those who have been involuntarily out of work for any amount of time know full well that no matter how strictly applied a process for evaluating their merit against a pool of other applicants, age, nationality, any visible disabilities and appearances are just some of the other factors that will play a part in the hiring decision.  It is ironic (if not breathtakingly hypocritical) that organisations responsible for assisting the disadvantaged/unemployed to find work, who actively encourage employers to look beyond the exterior and give untapped potential a chance, are as likely to be the most avid proponents of deconstructed work, quantifiable criteria and measuring  performance.

The rights of employers to prioritise their desired results and for people to seek work that suits their abilities and preferences are not the issue.  It is the rational economic frame that people can be dealt with as productive resources that is so morally dangerous.  Dealing with workers as complete people who can contribute beyond the job description will not only potentially result in more ethical employment practices, but in the knowledge economy where work cannot be mechanised, employers stand to gain substantially (future blogs will deal with the hows and whys).  While HR that has built an entire industry around the fallacy that humans are rational resources may have little incentive to dismantle the system, employers have much to gain from increased emphasis on people as contributors to organisational objectives.

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