Amazon and some of its workers are going through tough times right now. News coverage of Amazon’s labor problems often refer to the company as being “at war” with its employees.
It’s like an auto-immune disorder in which the mechanisms designed to keep the body healthy attack it instead.
The company’s leadership needs employees in order for the business to function, and employees need jobs to live. When one fails, so does the other.
Of course, Amazon is only the most recent example of labor strife—it’s certainly not the only one.
So why, in some companies, can’t employees and leadership co-exist peacefully? Why is it so hard for them to focus on their common interests?
Easy. An employment relationship needs three things to thrive: respect, trust, and the presumption of integrity. When a company’s managers fail to provide all three, the relationship is headed for the rocks.
Some Amazon workers claim they face unreasonable demands and have to follow overly strict rules. They say they are electronically monitored and denied breaks, including bathroom breaks. They complain of being disciplined harshly and ignored when they try to ask the company to make changes.
When managers believe they need harsh rules and strict enforcement in order to keep their people in line, it’s because they don’t trust employees to act with integrity on their own. They seem to believe all employees are inherently lazy and dishonest, so they go to extreme measures to control them. They treat them as suspicious adversaries, not as respected partners.
Outside of work, that’s not how we treat these people. We encourage them to become parents and homeowners. The state issues them driver’s licenses. We welcome them into our stores and banks and neighborhoods. We don’t believe they’re too shady to do any of these normal things. We assume, correctly, that most people can be trusted to do the right thing most of the time, in the home, on the road, and in society.
But too often, when they go to work, all that changes.
What’s different about the workplace? Why do some companies think those same trustworthy citizens turn into swindlers and cheats when they arrive at work?
It’s certainly possible that a small number of employees are lazy or dishonest, but the vast majority of them are not. Yet, we make draconian rules to prevent abuses we imagine will happen, subject the entire workforce to those rules whether or not they deserve it, then monitor, measure, and discipline with abandon.
We think that makes more sense than rooting out the bad eggs while treating the rest of our employees with the trust and respect they deserve.
But it makes no sense at all. No trustworthy person enjoys being treated like a criminal. And the result is a workforce that feels marginalized, abused, and angry.
It just gets worse if employees try to work through the company’s own processes to address their concerns and they are rebuffed or ignored. Then these marginalized, angry people also feel silenced.
So, they protest, organize and talk to the press. Everyone involved spends massive amounts of time and money on something that doesn’t move the business forward one bit. Reputations suffer, lawsuits abound, regulators get involved.
And it all could have been avoided by managers who treated employees with trust, respect, and the presumption of integrity.
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