Go to Top


Faustian Pact With Your Pay Slip

Should firms demand your soul as well as your labour

Take a look around some of the employers regularly cited as good companies to work for, and you see that some of their most striking characteristics can be traced back to American psychologist Abraham Maslow. His journal about observing a Californian factory over the summer of 1962, Eupsychian Management, never became a bestseller but it is arguably one of the most influential management books of the 20th century.

He talked of 36 ‘assumptions’ that underlie ‘enlightened management’: ‘Assume that the person is courageous enough for enlightened processes, i.e. has stress tolerance, knows creative insecurity and can endure anxiety; assume that everyone wants responsibility, prefers to be a prime mover rather than a passive helper; assume that we all prefer meaningful work, a system of values, of understanding the world and of making sense of it.’

Nowhere are these assumptions more evident than in Microsoft’s Reading headquarters. Here, beside a beautifully manicured lake and nature reserve, the 1,600 employees are famously driven and hard-working.

Microsoft employees talk with great enthusiasm about ‘making a difference’, and many have a missionary zeal about the role of technology to change the world.

Fifty five per cent of employees are under 35 and the ratio of women to men is three to one. There are only 23 part-timers. The average employee lasts three and half years at junior levels; seven years in senior management.

Steve Harvey, its head of human resources – his title is director of people and culture – laughs when asked whether work-life balance is an issue for the company: ‘What a stupid question! We hire very driven people who try to balance work and life over a life[time]. The difficulties come when you try to balance it on a daily or weekly basis.’

The organisation is in a constant state of flux; ‘re-orgs’ have affected 300 positions in the previous five months, says Harvey, and he adds that management is ‘always keeping an eye on the bottom five per cent – constantly testing them and asking: “Is it time to move on?” ‘ He smiles: ‘There’s constant pressure to perform. You know where you’re going in life; it’s up to you how hard you push yourself.”

This is the kind of work culture that successful companies have tried to create. They don’t offer a job for life, they offer a way of life (for a limited time). These employers want an exceptional degree of effort, emotional investment and commitment. They try to create a work culture that is fun, and offers the kind of individual affirmation people want. Meaning, purpose, a sense of community, even a world view, are part of the package.

This marks an unprecedented invasiveness as managers seek to reach parts of the employee’s personality that have hitherto been considered private. Richard Barrett of the World Bank put it succinctly: ‘The only way to develop long-lasting commitment is to tap into an individual’s mental and spiritual motivation. Our mental needs are met in the realm of personal and professional growth. Our spiritual needs are met when we find meaning in our work.’

To some this licenses a re-engineering of human personality to suit the ends of the corporation. To others it is evidence only that work is taking on the roles of other declining social institutions such as churches and political parties. One survey found that 46 per cent of men and 37 per cent of women said they were looking for a job that would provide meaning.

What makes the deal between employer and employee look lopsided is that, just as the demands of the workplace for our emotional investment and commitment have escalated, so job security has declined, with downsizing and reorganisation rife.

As American sociologist Joanne Ciulla concludes in her book, The Working Life: ‘ Of all the institutions in society, why let one of the more precarious ones supply our social, spiritual and psychological needs? It doesn’t make sense to put such a large portion of our lives into the unsteady hands of employers.’

To read the full article click here