Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

What Will It Take for Bosses to Do Better?

June 7th, 2006 | Paula Brantner

A recent blog posting from leading workplace commentator Bob Rosner got me to thinking. Entitled “Revenge of the Employees,” Rosner talks about bosses who are now forced to suck up to their employees in order to keep them on board in a tightening labor market. In thinking about all the ways that employee advocates now work mightily to transform the workplace, by providing information to make employees better informed, to promoting unionization, to filing lawsuits when all other measure fail, it makes me wonder whether shifting demographics will one day cause all of those other kinds of efforts to pale in comparison. Probably not, but it’s a fantasy worth exploring.

Bob Rosner, author of the column “Working Wounded,” and the Working Wounded blog, tells the oh so sad tale of a boss (one of Rosner’s readers who e-mailed him) who was told by his boss when he started at the bottom of the workplace food chain, “It’s my way or the highway.” So he had to do exactly as his boss said and was treated like “crap.” Just like those who were abused children are statistically more likely to become abusers themselves, Rosner’s reader couldn’t wait to ascend the corporate ladder, so that he too could treat his employees like crap. But unfortunately for him (and fortunately for his underlings) a talent shortage intervened, and he had to “suck up to his employees” instead. Rosner’s reader wondered, “When will it be my turn?” referring to when he can be abusive again.

But as Rosner pointed out, that day may never come. There are 76 million baby boomers and only 44 million Gen-Xers, which according to Rosner, “means we’re going to have to run an economy with 32 million boomers who are starting to think more about weekends and Winnebagos than work. Unfortunately for the boss who wrote the e-mail above, the practice of sucking up to employees is likely to only increase for bosses and companies interested in keeping their best talent.” We’d like to think that treating employees with enough respect to retain their loyalty would just be a good business practice, regardless of the numbers, but perhaps only a massive labor shortage, brought about by major demographic shifts, will ultimately transform the balance of power in the workplace to create more worker-friendly environments.

Rosner says, “As we go from a buyers’ market (the employers have most of the clout) to a sellers’ market (where employees have more leverage), we’ll have a remarkable opportunity to create a better workplace….Call me an optimist, but I believe that corporations will be more motivated than they have ever been to create healthy, sane work environments for workers.” However, he acknowledges that he’s analyzing a long-term demographic shift — not one that is going to happen overnight — so we’ll all just have to “wait and see how it plays out.”

In the meantime, our efforts at Workplace Fairness using the Internet to educate and mobilize workers continue, as our website is visited around 200,000 times each month. There are so many situations where you can only stand up to your employer if you know what your rights are, and we hope that our site’s “Your Rights” section, with over 150 pages of content, provides valuable assistance in that regard. There are also thousands of lawyers and other advocates who advise and counsel workers, and represent them in lawsuits when necessary, to ensure compliance with the laws that protect workers, that all too often are ignored by some employers.

And regardless of their philosophical differences, the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win Coalition and their member unions, as well as groups like American Rights at Work, realize that reversing the decline in union membership we’ve seen over the last several decades will also make a difference in how workers are treated, and how much “crap” they’re forced to endure. Whether it’s stagnant wages in blue-collar jobs or the loss of pension, healthcare and other benefits, unions are fighting on the front lines to preserve good jobs and good wages for many workers who would otherwise have little leverage against their employers.

So perhaps our sons and daughters won’t have to worry so much about being mistreated by bosses or having livable wages, and many of the policy debates featured here in this blog or in discussions of workplace conditions in the early 2000s will one day seem quaint. But in the meantime, there’s lots of work to do to ensure workers aren’t treated like crap, just because it’s possible when there’s a surplus of those who need jobs. “Revenge of the Employees” may be a long day in coming, but there’s plenty to do now so there’s no need for future revenge.

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