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The Sadly Authoritarian Nature of the Modern Workplace

We need to reckon with the control work has over our lives

By Alex Mell-TaylorPublished 9 months ago 9 min read
CIPHR Connect: Flickr

People often glamorize the life of a boss. This was the appeal of Donald Trump's reality TV show, The Apprentice (and for some, his presidency in general). He had people present to him their ideas, and ultimately, with his infamous catchword, "You're Fired," he got to decide if they were worth his time.

People loved that show, and its successor Celebrity Apprentice, with it consistently garnering millions of views. There has been a lot of speculation for why, but to theorize, I believe it's because people love the idea of being a boss, and the show allowed them to do that vicariously. Many Americans report wanting to be their own bosses in survey data, and that makes sense because most jobs suck (see “Bullshit Jobs”), and at least on top of the workplace pyramid, things seem more manageable.

Yet that centralization of power that many of us covet comes with it the right to lay down the law for all those working beneath you. When someone works for a business, it's the boss that has the ultimate say, and that lack of freedom is a dynamic underpinning most of our working life.

The authoritarianism of the workplace

Do you think that your workplace is fair?

I am not referring to the more abstract answer of whether, philosophically, the nature of work and existence is fair. We are born into a random universe, and shit happens. I am talking about how your boss, your leader in the workplace, governs.

When your company's executives make decisions, do they have to factor in your wants, needs, or suggestions at all?

When they have wronged you, are there any mechanisms within the organization (i.e., not outside like the courts, your union steward, or a lawyer) that allow you to receive proper restitution? Entities that prioritize your needs rather than the companies (so not HR)?

The answer for many is no.

For example, there is a common trend in businesses where management tries to make situations so intolerable that they force employees to quit (see "constructive dismissal"). If you are hourly, a company may cut your hours (or your store's hours in general) or make scheduling shifts and time off in advance more challenging. A boss might tell one's employees they are unwanted and deny them essential resources such as air-conditioning during the height of summer — all to make their employees' financial, psychological, and material situation at work so terrible that they "decide" to part ways. As someone posted in one workplace horror story:

“I discovered my boss was stealing around $8,000 of my salary a year. She was classifying my position and pay differently in budgeting reports to the federal and state government, and that difference was going directly to her salary. I confronted her, and after much resistance, it was corrected, but it didn’t come without retaliation. I was also denied the back-pay she had stolen from me. She retaliated relentlessly and gave me a poor performance review. My coworkers were also asked to review me and provided high scores that didn’t match hers. I was also monitored every hour and given frivolous tasks.

…HR did nothing to help me and was only there to protect the misconduct of management. Remember this — corruption is a chain. On my last day, they also tried to audit me. All I did was try to fight for what I was worth and avoid exploitation. My boss was embezzling money and faced no punishment at all. My advice to anyone facing these issues at work is to leave immediately. I spoke with lawyers who told me that there is rarely any accountability when it comes to workplace misconduct from management. It makes me sick that I was gaslit and treated this way for fighting for correct compensation.”

This scenario sounds like a fringe case, but elements of it are shockingly common. One 2017 study indicated that one in five American workers believed they worked in a hostile environment. A 2021 study showed that just under half of all respondents indicated experiencing harassment at work.

There are laws, of course, that are meant to stop such discrimination (as well as many others), but these are typically imposed from outside the organization (e.g., laws, unions, etc.), not within, and they are not always enforced well. For example, workers are terminated all the time for union organizing — organizing that US citizens are legally entitled to do — but that doesn't stop companies such as Starbucks and Amazon from conveniently laying off workers that just so happen to be agitating for unionization. The insecure and one-sided nature of many jobs means that if your boss (or the company leadership higher up the chain) doesn't like you, they can fire you quite quickly under some other pretext, such as being late for a minute after your shift starts.

These outside-the-workplace rights also require resources for an employee to assert them in the first place. If an employee needs to hire a lawyer to go toe-to-toe against their employer, an entity with multiple people at its disposal, then increasingly, those rights will belong only to those who can afford to utilize them. Winning an employment lawsuit is statistically a tough feat to accomplish. A study out of Cornell Law School analyzing claims from 1979 to 2006 found that employees in an employment discrimination lawsuit only won 15% of the time (as opposed to 51% in non-employee cases). It's not any better in the current decade.

More so, many of these inadequate, external laws meant to make workplaces a little fairer are actively chipped away by more conservative (and corporatist) interests. One of the main reasons unionization has dipped dramatically is because of a campaign to pass anti-union efforts such as "right-to-work" laws across the country — many pushed by leaders heavily financed by corporations. We can say the same with employment cases, with Congress consistently underfunding the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the chief body meant to enforce the prosecutions of such violations.

Any business that works hard to remove external advocates and resources from its workers is not one that ultimately respects them. Not all businesses were behind these legislative efforts (the business community is not a monolith), but in truth, there isn't an opposing force from the business community trying to expand worker rights either. At best, many are indifferent and, at worst, actively trying to undermine the bargaining power of their employees.

This imbalance relates to how contract labor is inherently structured. A worker — due to requiring resources to secure housing, food, and healthcare — must often sell their labor to a business to live. Unless one has a union to help negotiate prices or is tremendously privileged, they are already at a disadvantage negotiating an employment contract independently. An individual will always have fewer resources than a collective, especially one able to contract its own legal team.

Furthermore, a worker's highest level of negotiating power happens before they are an employee because that's when one can truly walk away and pretend they are equals (although that might not be a genuine possibility depending on their financial situation). It's that transaction that dictates an employee's power inside the business, and decision-making is rarely provided, and certainly not significant decision-making. Ask yourself the last time you could vote on any important decision as an employee that your company was making.

Once an employee agrees to a contract, the power differential between worker and boss only increases because they now rely on their employer's resources to subsist. If they were not able to secure power in that initial round of negotiations, then outside a very tenuous managerial track, it is doubtful appeasement to internal management will help there. And even if that is successful, it certainly cannot be for everyone (note: this is your friendly reminder that only a handful of people can ever be managers).

As a result, most employees essentially don't have a say in day-to-day decisions — and few have ways to file grievances and push for reforms that don't prioritize the company's needs first. Overwhelmingly one's boss only factors in their employee’s feedback if they believe it's a good thing to do. And even then, it's usually about the productivity and value that that leader can extract from their employee.

From dictating one's attire to, in some cases, one's physical appearance, bosses have tremendous control over what an employee can do at work — i.e., the place the latter spends most of their working hours residing within. If an employee disagrees with that decision-making or feels wronged by it, but their boss doesn't think it's valuable feedback, then that's tough shit for their employee.

All things considered, that feels quite authoritarian.

Conclusion: we need democracy in the workplace

None of this is how a fair exchange should work. Given everything we have mentioned, we can make the case that the modern workplace is anti-democratic. Democracy is about all participants having some say in decision-making. The entity wants to do X, and you get some (not total) say on whether that happens. The modern workplace is a strictly dictatorial structure where you are told to do X regardless of whether you think it's a good idea — and can sometimes be removed from your organization for providing that feedback.

In other words, authoritarianism.

Now you may agree with preserving the strict hierarchy we have described for “efficiencies” sake, but we shouldn't pretend these institutions are egalitarian. Workplaces aren't a democracy. They aren’t a family. They aren't really even a community as much as a strict chain of command where you are hired to do X, and your needs will always be secondary to X.

The natural question for some is, ‘How does one turn workplaces into real democracies?’

Ultimately, decision-making needs to be expanded to the people who work there. Unionization (i.e., electing an outside firm run by workers to help negotiate contracts and facilitate disputes) is often floated as a solution to this, but as much as I love unions, they don't solve the fundamental problem we are discussing. They are necessary, but they are still an outside mechanism putting constraints on your place of work and not redistribution of who owns what. They can fall victim to the same problems we have discussed. Companies coopt and sidestep union regulations all the time (see “employer-dominated unions”).

To change the incentive structure, we again need workplaces themselves to be democratized. This can come in the form of companies electing workers to sit on their boards (see “worker boards”), literally dividing up the ownership of the company to everyone that works there in an equitable way (see “worker coops”), internally electing executive functions like your CEO, CFO, etc., and many, many more. There are countless different (and not mutually exclusive ways) to democratize a workplace (and union power can help achieve them).

Knowing that workplaces are authoritarian, will you defend this structure or work to change it? Because the one thing we know about democracy is that it's not a given: it must be fought for.

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About the Creator

Alex Mell-Taylor

I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.

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