How Management Contributes to Toxic Workplaces — Marnie Dobson Zimmerman, PhD

“Working on Empty” (WOE) is a multimedia project on how the U.S. workplace is making Americans sick and what must change to protect the health of our workforce.

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When Miranda arrived to work her swing shift at Walmart — from late afternoon to late evening — she often found there were not enough staff to manage the number of customers lined up, expecting service. She would find herself rushing between the two sides of the deli counter, unable to meet the demands on her own. She explained that it was always stressful, but she was afraid to ask the managers for help, because it would only result in being yelled at for something else. She said they were often threatened with being fired or replaced.

“If you had any kind of emergency or if you had to take time off…you have to put in for time off — but when you do, they won’t approve it…they are always letting you know — ‘well you know there are people who will take your job.’” — Miranda, Walmart Employee

The stories about the low-pay and abuses of Walmart’s front line (mostly women) workers are well-known.[1a, 1b] Insufficient hours and lack of job security, a chronically overly-demanding work pace because of insufficient staffing, unsupportive or even disrespectful supervisors and hostility from customers, create an unhealthy and “toxic” workplace.

But toxic work cultures are not isolated to Walmart and similar low-wage workplaces. Some of the largest technology and financial corporations in the U.S. have recently faced exposés in the media, which reported abusive “workplace cultures.”

With headlines such as:

[2]
[3]
[4]

After interviews with many employees at these corporations, journalists revealed systematic abuses, not just by particular managers, but abuses that flowed from the ideas of the top levels of leadership, particularly their high-profile CEOs. Employees at Amazon reported an unrelenting work pace with “emails arriving way past midnight” expecting to be answered, colleagues being instructed to report secret feedback to one another’s bosses, annual culling of staff and the edging out of those who were sick. The Wells Fargo scandal resulting in 5,300 staff being fired, occurred because of unrealistic performance goals and employees fear of losing their paychecks if they didn’t meet those targets. Those voices from Wells Fargo talked about overwhelming pressure from management to open new accounts. Managers kept a tally of each tellers’ sales and called them out in front of colleagues at the end of the day. Some employees reported panic-attacks and hiding in the bathroom crying or feeling like they were going to have a heart attack. Even tech companies are not exempt. Uber’s “aggressive, unrestrained workplace culture” has pitted employees against each other, vying for their bosses’ jobs, and has resulted in discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuits by employees.

Why do CEOs and their management teams do this?

When you put these stories together, you begin to see a pattern. These companies, exposed by the media, are not the only ones that encourage an aggressive work culture, where your work (and overwork) is valued above all other parts of your life, because all that matters has to be your job and the company. Many of these CEOs have built a corporate culture based on a set of “core values or principles” which are ultimately meant to drive everyone — from the frontline worker to the highest-level manager — to feed the pressure to expand, grow and increase profits. As publicly-traded companies, they must always do more with less, spend less on labor (both blue and white collar workers, tech-workers and cashiers) in order to ensure their investors constant growth. America’s market economy is heavily influenced by a “Social Darwinist” philosophy of dog-eat-dog competition: grow or die, encouraged by the need to show quarterly profits to stockholders. These values are reflected often in corporate management styles and can explain why many middle managers might treat working people with disrespect, demanding unrealistic, “superhuman” efforts that ignore family responsibilities and even health and well-being. These corporate management values have also begun to invade the public and human service sectors, including healthcare, education, and government — which are fundamentally not about profits or stakeholder investment, but about caring for people — especially the sick, children and lower income people.

But is this all we can expect?

Working on Empty speaks to the drain on people’s minds and bodies (and families) resulting from toxic workplaces. Yes, these kind of values — the “dog-eat-dog” competition of aggressive workplace cultures — are pervasive and resilient — they have withstood a powerful labor movement (which brought us the weekend), and that took back some of the power for working people between the 1930s and 1970s. But if these news reports say anything about toxic workplace cultures at some of our most powerful corporations, it’s that working people deserve better, healthier work. It won’t happen unless we hold those that establish these “values” to account.

On Tuesday June 20, 2017, Uber founder Travis Kalanick resigned as CEO after a revolt by Uber’s largest investors demanding he step down, citing it was “time to move Uber forward.”[5] Does this mean that Uber’s aggressive, toxic workplace is now healed? Only time will tell. There are examples of positive corporate leadership that appear to value its employees in different, perhaps healthier ways. Costco, a profitable, publicly traded company, serves as an excellent example of a big box retailer which mostly supports its unionized workforce and pays much higher wages (a standard wage is $17/hour) resulting in much lower worker turnover and potentially a healthier workplace.[6] On the other hand, Walmart’s leadership and poor treatment of its frontline workers (mostly young, women and mothers like Miranda) has been the target of a well-organized and publicized grassroots campaign for family leave policies for all Walmart workers and of the “Fight for 15” minimum wage movement to raise wages. Greater public support for Walmart workers’ grassroots efforts will help to secure better, healthier conditions for all.

Achieving healthy work needs to be a collective effort. One individual working person, in a large corporation, has very little say over the culture that dictates their work tasks and deadlines, their paid vacation time (if they even have it and whether they can actually take it), the 40 hour work week that is actually expected to be more like 50–60 hours, the emails that must be responded to at all hours, interrupting time with your child/wife/partner, the mandatory overtime, or the ability to report a supervisor for sexual harassment or bullying without fear of reprisal. Collective bargaining contracts give people a say, including protection against workload and work hour abuses, and a way of having their grievances heard. Legislation making sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying illegal, and protecting whistleblowers, are further important steps towards making workplaces less toxic, and healthier.

If you want healthy work to become a viable reality for all in the U.S., check out our Healthy Work Agenda for a framework for achieving healthy work.

To support the WOE movement:

With your help, we will have created more than hope — we’ll have cemented lasting, positive change in the name of healthy working conditions.

Marnie Dobson Zimmerman, Ph.D., WOE Associate Producer of Research and Associate Director of the Center for Social Epidemiology, is a medical sociologist and a work stress researcher for more than 15 years, studying the effects of work organization on worker stress and health. She has worked to give voice to many worker populations, interviewing and conducting focus groups with firefighters, bus drivers, hotel room cleaners, communication workers, publishing academic research articles and co-editing the book Unhealthy Work: Causes, Consequences, Cures. (Baywood, 2009) (LinkedIn, Twitter)

1. http://www.bravenewfilms.org/about_walmart & http://changewalmart.org/

2. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/technology/inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-in-a-bruising-workplace.html

3. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/21/business/dealbook/voices-from-wells-fargo-i-thought-i-was-having-a-heart-attack.html

4. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/22/technology/uber-workplace-culture.html

5. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/21/technology/uber-ceo-travis-kalanick.html

6. http://www.ufcw.org/2013/10/30/costco-an-example-of-the-union-difference/