Corporate Hierarchy, Job Security, and Political Identity
My first job in a real sales capacity was in the employ of a behemoth Fortune 500 company. Of all the companies with whom I have ever had a professional association of any kind, it is by far the largest. For many reasons (some of which I have noted elsewhere) it was the worst job of my adult life.
I worked on the outside sales team, and our job was to go out in the field to cold call on prospects and try get them agree to let us bring out a “free” copier for them to use for one month, an experience which would then be turned into an aggressive sales pitch. However, we only had a couple of hours a day to do this because for reasons that were never clear the corporate culture frowned on people being away from their desks, regardless of their job descriptions. Our acting manager (who was located in San Francisco) would call several times a day and ask to speak with people in an effort to ensure we were in the office working, and not out playing golf or something. But since there was no actual office work for us to do, this invariably meant we spent most of the day not working so we could be there by the phones if he called.
It was astoundingly inefficient in other ways as well. The proprietary computer system was astonishingly bad. For each bit of data collected on a prospect you had to input that data in the computer system so that Home Office could access the information. You were then required to retype it on an electric typewriter using old forms and forward those forms along to Home Office – because they couldn’t actually access the data we input on the network. The huge potential cost of a new system was the reason giving for not changing; the huge sunk costs of the current system was the reason giving for needing to do the pointless data entry.
The organization’s sales projections were always wildly off. This is not surprising, as each sales person would be “overly optimistic” about what they would sell in any given month. The sales managers would aggregate those numbers and add a little extra to make themselves look good to their superiors, the regional sales VPs – who would do the same with their aggregated numbers, whereupon the division president would fudge upward one last time before delivering projections to the corporate officers to whom she reported. The first week of every month was spent scrambling to make excuses as the demand to explain the failure to hit the projected numbers cascaded back down the hierarchy.
In the ten months I was there I sold three things, which in retrospect was pathetic. It was, however more than all ten other sales people save one sold in that same time period. If memory serves, only one person that I knew of was fired during my tenure – and that was because that person was a manager who was the focus of multiple sexual harassment claims that the company knew they were going to lose.
The funny thing was that although my company was thought of as a manufacturer, it didn’t actually manufacture anything. It had years earlier contracted out the actual manufacturing to its main competitor in Japan. So when we competed against our main rivals, the truth was that we were each selling machines that were identical in every way – even the factories from which they came – save the plastic logo glued on the side of the machine.
You could make the argument that the only reason our Fortune 500 company existed was to provide jobs to the tens of thousands of employees, managers and officers it employed. You could also make the argument that it existed to take a certain amount of wealth that already existed in the marketplace, and through a series of highly complicated marketing, sales and public relations efforts redirect some of that wealth to the company’s shareholders. What you could not make an argument for, however, was that the Fortune 500 company existed to create any kind of product or service, or that it in anyway enhanced the products or services associated with the industry of which it was a part.
In James Hanley’s post on political identity, MaxL talked about the employee manual for the software company Valve. Not being a gamer, I confess I had never heard of Valve – though I had certainly heard of both their Half-Life and Portal game franchises. Predictably, conservatives hated Valve’s concept. Valve is a flat organization that looks to be entirely self-directed:
Since Valve is flat, people don’t join projects because they’re told to. Instead, you’ll decide what to work on after asking yourself the right questions (more on that later). Employees vote on projects with their feet (or desk wheels). Strong projects are ones in which people can see demonstrated value; they staff up easily. This means there are any number of internal recruiting efforts constantly under way…
How does Valve decide what to work on? The same way we make other decisions: by waiting for someone to decide that it’s the right thing to do, and then letting them recruit other people to work on it with them. We believe in each other to make these decisions, and this faith has proven to be well-founded over and over again.
The company claims to pay people more than industry norm, yet maintains profitability per employee greater than behemoths Google, Microsoft and Amazon. And, unlike the Fortune 500 company I worked for, it actually creates new products and sets them free in the marketplace to live, die, or thrive. It appears to eschew the kind of institutional bureaucracy that conservatives so rail against, and its internal employment structure looks to be as close to a true meritocracy as a corporation might hope to be.
Why is it, then, that conservatives so hate companies like Valve?
In my experience, I have to say this is not a League phenomena; this is actually a pretty common reaction from self-described conservatives toward companies like Valve. Given the choice between working for (or even acknowledging the inherent worth of) an organization like Valve or the Fortune 500 company I worked for, for most conservatives it’s not even open for debate. The company I worked for is a blessing, and Valve a joke to be openly mocked. In fact, in my experience conservatives don’t simply disrespect companies like Valve, they are downright hostile toward their very existence.
What the hell is that all about?
Tom Van Dyke offered at least one theory, which is the “fix the toilet” theory – which is if no one in an organization is forced to fix the toilet when it breaks, toilets will go unfixed. Because of this, Valve was compared to the Occupy Movement by conservatives in the threads. This explanation seems to be too well thought out to explain the knee-jerk reactions I hear from conservatives about similar business models, however. (FWIW, in the smaller more entrepreneurial ventures I have worked for, people just do grunt work that needs to be done without being told to do so. It is in the larger and hierarchical ventures that people point to their job descriptions to “prove” they don’t have to do jobs they find “below” them.)
At first blush, Valve should actually be the poster child for the modern conservative movement. People within the organization have the freedom to start or work on whatever project they wish to, and this freedom comes at the expense of their project’s and their own job’s security. Their ability to earn wealth at their position is directly related to the degree with which they are able to bring a desired, quality product to the marketplace. Why is it, then, that conservatives tend to view the Valves of the world as the enemy, while liberals generally applaud the concept (but by and large still refuse to work for such organizations)? My working theory is that one of the most common desires in human beings is security.
One of the reasons that many liberals vote for safety nets, I believe, is the concern that they might one day need one. Likewise, one of the reasons I think conservatives prefer the Fortune 500 model of employment over the Valve model is that it greatly reduces the potential risk/reward spectrum. Sure, those people that still work at the Fortune 500 company I worked for will never become independently wealthy on stock options. But they have pretty great job security, and for almost all of them their ability to retain their job is pretty unrelated to job performance. Under some circumstances, they will lose their job if they are not senior enough; in others, they will lose it if they are senior enough that they are on the high end of the “pay scale” their job description is allowed. And of course, they can be fired for gross incompetence, but in my experience the larger the organization, the harder it is to be fired for this – and the longer it takes for the axe to eventually fall.
Conservatives might prefer the free market model in a conceptual way, but in my experience people – conservative or liberal – don’t like change of any kind in the work place, even change from which they themselves might benefit. The Valve model appeals to me in a way that the Fortune 500 model did not, but that has little to do with my view of marketplace conceptualizations. I’m hardwired a bit different than most; I’m competitive, sure, but I’m also inherently optimistic, and I enjoy myself more in a changing work environment than a stable one. These things, I have learned, make me more the exception than the rule in the workplace, and I think it is this that makes the Valve model the exception as well.
For reasons that I suspect have more to do with partisan machinations than anything else, liberals distrust corporations while conservatives distrust government. But just as each side treats the other side’s shibboleth as boogyman, it clings to its own as security against both change and the unknown. One of the central truths I have come to believe in my old age is that there is more that connects us than that separates, despite whatever narrative we choose to tell ourselves. And my first-blush theory here is that even in the question of order vs. freedom conservatives and liberals are not as far apart we tell ourselves we are. Rather, we just gravitate toward different Gods of bureaucratic security.
As I say, it’s a working theory.