Today’s Plantation Mentality

I bet you expected a DACA article today. It’s coming (scheduled for Sunday) and with a different twist than anyone would have expected. Today I wanted to talk about a disturbing trend in employment reinforced by federal court rulings that enable and strengthen it. Let’s explore.

Too many employers look at their employees as 24/7 possessions. They view themselves not as employers but sovereigns in their own fiefdom. They don’t see much difference between themselves and the master in the big house back in the plantation days. To them everyone on their “plantation” is their possession and should be under their constant control. They see little difference between a machine they purchase and a person they hire.

I certainly understand that an employer must have substantial control over their employees during working hours and “in the shop”. When it extends well beyond that, in my mind, we have breached an employee-employer relationship and entered into something more akin to servitude. I am not begrudging an employer the opportunity to run their business, choose who represents them or protect the future of their business.

The larger the business most often the more control they desire. This is not only limited to their employees; in many cases (and with Supreme Court support) they desire to control their customers as well.

I want to touch on a few common abuses today.

The one that is getting a little bit of noise these days is the non-compete clause. Basically an employee gives up their right to seek employment with an industry competitor for a period of time if they quit or are fired. I understand why this is necessary in certain cases. A senior marketing employee could leave and take your entire pricing and advertising plan with them to your largest competitor. Think GM and Ford. The problem is this has gone way too far down the line. Many pizza delivery people are forced into a non-compete clause. Do you really think Papa John’s needs that protection at that low level? The auto executive leaves with a generous separation package; the pizza delivery person doesn’t.

While pizza delivery is not a specific trade, what about a sales rep in an industry where product knowledge, (along with possible customer relationships), can be crucial. The (often) terminated sales rep is effectively blackballed in the industry where they can make the most money.

Arbitration is another all too common “benefit” companies are offering lately. The pitch is that if you have a dispute with the company that management and/or HR cannot work out to your satisfaction the company will pay for the matter to go to arbitration. In exchange for that “benefit” you sign away your right to sue.

Now let’s examine this for a moment. The company is paying the arbitrator who is supposedly a disinterested third party that will provide an unbiased ruling. I’m going to assume this arbitrator is not a total idiot. If they consistently rule in the employees’ favor how long do you think they will retain the company paid contract? This is like taking your basketball team on the road and before the game the opposing coach approaches you to tell you the regular officials couldn’t make it tonight so his three brothers-in-law will take their place. Are you comfortable with either deal?

A company I worked for decided to offer that new “benefit’. Existing employees had to sign up for it. They sold it as a great new free benefit they were giving the employees because they cared so much about them. My direct boss and I were the only two people in the company who refused several “requests” to sign up. Despite the fact that we were each the highest paid (in a commission based pay structure) employees in our job classifications our chances for advancement ended with our refusals. This was no fly by night outfit; they were the global leader in their industry.

Many major corporations are not content to box employees in with binding arbitration, they are doing the same with customers. If you look in the fine print of your cell phone contract (and many other services) you will see that you were forced to opt for arbitration and often lost your right to be part of a class action suit. In the minds of too many companies you are their customer. Just like their “team members” (as they euphemistically call them) are their employees.

Another abuse is that many companies, as a condition of employment, are requiring employees to turn over the passwords to their social media accounts. This is the scenario: you were offered and accepted a job. You may have already quit your previous job, relocated, made arrangements for child care or bought a new wardrobe. The bottom line is you are already “invested’ in this new job. As part of the new employee orientation these other demands are put to you. Are you really acting in accordance with your own free will or are you coerced?

Looking at the other side of this “coin” the courts and legislatures, (very much including the Supreme Court and Congress!), help protect major corporations not only by the too big to fail doctrine but with unrealistic statutes of limitations. Without getting too far into the weeds, white collar crimes take a long time to investigate and are difficult to prosecute. Consider that generally the statute of limitations on money laundering is only five years. Don’t be surprised if this doesn’t come into play in the Russiagate investigation.

Is it any wonder that the decline of the middle class in America traces back to the Reagan administration and the decline of labor unions? Can you really strike a better deal individually than you can collectively? Before you answer take a look at the plantations.

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