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Labor Café fosters discussion on management

| Monday, January 25, 2016

Last Friday, the Higgins Labor Studies Program hosted Labor Café, an event held multiple times throughout the semester to promote discussion on work-related social justice issues.

Daniel Graff, director of the Higgins Labor Studies Program, opened Friday’s Labor Café discussion.

“The Higgins Labor Program … is an interdisciplinary unit on campus that sponsors research, teaching and conversation on any aspect of the labor question, which is at the root of every society,” Graff said.

This particular discussion was focused on the issue of abusive management, and Charlice Hurst, assistant professor of management in the Mendoza College of Business, served as the discussion’s facilitator.

“What I wanted to facilitate today is discussion around the culture of work, especially in the United States and sort of exemplified by what we see in Amazon,” Hurst said.

Amazon, Hurst said, was featured in a New York Times article that highlighted business practices that have promoted high levels of burnout among employees and an exceedingly competitive culture that undermines employee well-being and leads to high turnover rates.

Hurst said these practices may “disproportionally affect people with family obligations … and negatively impact gender equity within the company. Additionally Hurst highlight the fact that Amazon is the only major tech company in that area that doesn’t have any female executives.

While some companies believe that their employees thrive in a highly competitive environment, Hurst said, the emphasis on employees conspiring against one another, forced ranking systems and the idea that “conflict breads motivation and creativity” can create a culture with negative effects.

“You hear a lot about the great HR practices of companies like Google and Facebook with paternity leave now, and video games at work, and they give you food, but at the same time, the people who work there are still working 80 hours a week. They’re still living for their jobs to a great extent,” Hurst said.

The discussion then shifted to the culture’s effect on the managerial side of businesses.

“One of the things we kind of know from the literature is that abuse cascade down,” Hurst said. “If you see abusive supervisors in the warehouse, it’s because of the pressure they’re getting from above them, and the pressure they’re getting. … There is really not much an employee can do to stop abusive supervision because it’s really part of the culture.”

The discussion then broadened to the American culture as a whole and its emphasis on the need for hard work, competition and data-backed results to attain success. Colleges and universities were cited as an example.

“Our students work, all the time,” Hurst said. “We create this mentality where they come to see it as normal. We pile a lot of work on, and we also expect them to do lots of extracurriculars, and I know in the business school, we have sort of a forced ranking system where they have to get a certain average.”

“It’s almost like we’re creating this context to train people in the mindset that will lead them to accept these working conditions without question,” Hurst said.

The questioning of the culture then led to a discussion on the topic of passion.

“I question how we define passion. … Even in academia, passion is how many hours people put in basically and how many vacations they don’t take,” Hurst said. “If you’re 50 and have kids and an elderly parent to care for, does that mean you still can’t be passionate about your work? So I think we have to redefine how we define passion, and everybody can bring these different gifts to the workplace.”

Looking to the future, the discussion then focused on data and data’s place in company management.

“Data itself doesn’t tell a story; People tell a story around data,” Hurst said. “We’d like to believe, those of us who study management, that a company that treats its employees well should be able to be competitive … I don’t know why there is this disconnect here; it’s almost like a race to the bottom.”

The Higgins Labor Studies Program will host a variety of events this semester, including Lunchtime Labor Research, Advocacy and Policy Series (RAPS) discussions and the next Labor Café, which will take place Feb. 5.

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