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Demystifying the Myth of Sweatshop Mentality

Fourth in my “how-not-to” series looks at the myth of harsh employee oversight and is based on my more than 35 years of work in mainframe IT, reviewing mistakes I’ve seen or participated in and helping others to avoid them. It’s my third “Demystifying the Myth” article. My first article, “End Users: A Programmer’s Best Friend and Worst Enemy,” can be found here. The second article, “Demystifying The Myth of Measuring Programmers With Metrics” can be found here. The third article, “Demystifying The Myth of Multitasking” can be found here.

I’ve been blessed to work for a wonderful employer—IBM in the ’70s and ’80s—and have worked with and for some IT departments (who will not be named) that treated employees poorly. I’ve seen good and bad, and what amazes me is that bad often thinks its way is best. Having seen both sides, I know that’s false because, with IBM, I worked for the most motivated, most productive, most creative, highest-quality people I’ve ever known. In the bad situations, management operated according to a creed I call “sweatshop mentality.” Here are sweatshop mentality’s 4 primary components.

Desocializing: The Importance of Relationships

To some managers, the sight of employees chatting—whether at a desk, water cooler or hallway—means time wasted in gossip, sports chat, family tales or other useless unwarranted topics. These managers firmly oppose socializing; they believe it’s counterproductive and helps them identify slackers and underperformers. They’re opposed to work-at-home options unless mandatory, believing employees will malinger and waste time—employees need someone to crack the whip.

Just as with multitasking, what seems obvious and logical—make sure employees are working every second of every shift—is wrong. Treating people right gets right results. A study summarized in “The Advantages of Socializing in the Workplace,” Monica Patrick of Demand Media persuasively argues the value of employee socializing:

  • Knowledge Sharing. Informal discussions often address esoteric but important project aspects that emails overlook, different perspectives come out in confabs that meetings or emails miss, one-on-one discussions provide the most effective training, constructive criticism is less embarrassing in informal settings.
  • Socializing New Employees. Informal discussions often put a new employee at ease, personalize the employees they meet, ease reluctance to approach someone who would otherwise be a stranger.
  • Encourages Teamwork. Informal discussions cement bonds between team members, instigates mutual encouragement (high-fives, praise, attaboys) of attaining a common goal, boosts team spirit.
  • Builds Alliances. Informal discussions forge bonds between persons of differing skills by allowing them to find common ground—sports, family, community—and this merging of skills synergizes solutions neither party (or parties) could create alone. In IT, for example, programmers and users—often strangers until a project unites them—find common ground through shared interests, enhancing cooperation.

Slave Driving: Treat People as People

I once attended an employee meeting with a human resources department. During Q&A, an employee asked: “I’m salaried and I know I’m paid to do a job, not put in hours. If I’ve had a really busy week, put in 60 hours by Friday noon and am all caught up, is it OK to take Friday afternoon off?”

“Absolutely not,” asserted the vice president of human relations. “We pay you to do a job; that includes nine hours a day onsite. So you work Friday afternoon, regardless of hours.” The message was clear: It’s never enough.

This same company evaluated its employees at three levels: One described as “you walk on water” (virtually never awarded); two meant “acceptable”; and three meant “unacceptable,” an improvement plan was coming, and termination was likely. Recognition was rare and having a manager who did so was precious.

Slave-driving means demanding more than can be achieved, with scarce recognition. People are numbers, not individuals. Efficiency is everything and relationships are irrelevant. Family life, outside interests, participation in altruistic activities, none of these are important.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Slave-driving is counterproductive. Treating people as people pays big dividends. In “Designing a Happier Workplace”, productivity improved 15 to 20 percent and turnover was reduced from 40 percent to 12 percent when call center operator teams were allowed to take breaks together. Simple change, huge payback.

Jim Schesvold can be reached at

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