In the aftermath of the video conference firings initiated by Better.com, Sephora, WW, and Williams-Sonoma, it’s hard not to wonder, “How does this happen?” How do educated, accomplished leaders in visible roles at public companies operate with so little compassion? What caused the leaders of these organizations to act with such callous disregard for people?
Dehumanization is the perception and treatment of people in ways that ignore and diminish their intrinsic worth as humans. In the workplace, dehumanization occurs when workers are viewed solely based on their role or functionality. According to Dr. Karen Fiorini, a researcher in humanistic management and organizational change, dehumanization is common and normalized in the workplace: “When a leader values the work and not the whole person, it becomes much easier to increase workloads and expectations because the person’s life outside of work is nonexistent.”
What Is the Myth of the Lazy Worker?
Years of dehumanization, in which companies regard employees as capital rather than people, have led to the persistence of a degrading, misinformed set of beliefs called the Myth of Lazy. This myth slanders employees who refuse to accept abusive, harmful employment practices as lazy or entitled.
Dehumanization and Its Consequences
Dehumanization leads us to think of employees not as persons, but as a commodity. We refer to our workforce as “human capital.” We rationalize that it’s acceptable to have people on our teams and not remember their names. We hear leaders say that “everyone is replaceable,” when literally no one is replaceable because no two people are the same. In organizations where employees say they feel like “just a number” or “cogs in a wheel,” dehumanization is likely involved. When we perceive employees as producers first, people second, we stop feeling compassion toward them; we stop caring when others endure hardship or feel pain.
Years of dehumanization have created a gut-wrenching reality across nearly all kinds of businesses: the normalization of inhumane employee treatment. We now live with a multitude of entrenched, normalized workplace experiences — many brought about by dehumanization — that create suffering, inflict harm, and reduce quality of life for employees.
Handing out work schedules only days ahead of time, as often happens in restaurants and retail workplaces, is inhumane. Similarly, telling employees that they must work for a year before accessing benefits or paid vacation is inhumane: expecting people to work for 12 consecutive months without needing a day off or health care is absurd. Expecting employees to stand for seven hours a day in their job is inhumane; it inflicts physical harm. Not paying employees a living wage — one that ensures access to adequate food, clothing, housing, transportation, and medicine — is inhumane.
The Myth of Lazy
As workers in greater numbers refuse to stay in jobs that perpetuate the kinds of suffering outlined above, some have come to describe them as being disloyal, not dedicated, or lacking grit. They are called greedy, selfish, or entitled. It’s a degrading, misinformed set of beliefs that I’ve come to call the Myth of Lazy.
Over decades, many jobs morphed into something bordering on unbearable. As revenue, profits, executive compensation, and shareholder value have skyrocketed, nearly every aspect of the employee experience has gone in the opposite direction. People have been forced to work longer hours with fewer resources, doing more demanding jobs for reduced benefits, less job security, and stagnant wages. In what amounts to a transactional relationship — the exchange of skills and effort (from an employee) for employment and compensation (from the company) — one side has been getting hosed for years. Yet the moment a worker dares to suggest that this exchange is out of balance and that they are worthy of something more or better, they get labeled by some as greedy, lazy, or uncommitted.
The only thing that is lazy in this equation is the accusation that “no one wants to work anymore.” It’s devoid of any insight or critical thinking. It’s certainly not backed up by data. At the time of this writing, unemployment in the U.S. is below 4 percent. There have only been three months in the last 50 years when it has been lower. The labor force participation rate for prime-age workers, 25 to 54 years old, is higher now than it was 10 years ago. Those who hold on to the belief that there is a population-wide character defect causing staffing and retention issues across industries are doing some serious mental gymnastics to put the blame on workers.
The Myth of Lazy is almost always hurled at a combination of younger (younger than the accuser, at least), lower-wage, and less-educated workers. It assumes that the only thing standing between you and prosperity is you, and so its subscribers declare to these folks, you need to “work harder” or “better yourself.” It ignores the circular constraints of many limiting factors — like poverty and access to childcare — that can be impossible to escape. And so, the Myth of Lazy not only inaccurately assigns character defects to those who are often doing the most and receiving the least, but it also disregards a multitude of social, economic, gender, and racial barriers to upward professional and economic mobility that have existed for generations.
Dispelling the Myth
In reality, people are willing to work hard under the right conditions. They just don’t want work to be excruciatingly hard all the time. Most people will be quite dedicated at work when their jobs allow them to use their talents, pay their bills, save a little, live a little, spend time with family, take the occasional vacation, and attend to needs at home when they arise. Is that really so much to ask?
Every employee’s quest for a job that allows for a better quality of life is also a search for a workplace that recognizes and honors their complete humanity. For some business owners and leaders, this will require a shift in mindset and beliefs.
We must do away, once and for all, with the Myth of Lazy. There is no data to suggest that there is an entire subset of the population whose work ethic has evaporated. When employees insist on better pay, flexible schedules, or clear boundaries between work and home, they are acting in the best interests of those for whom they are responsible. This isn’t a character defect. It’s character.
There are many entrenched beliefs about work, pay, and employee expectations that do harm to our ability to create environments that spark commitment. To get all the benefits, at some point, you must make a choice. You either decide that all but the most successful of people are lazy and selfish, or you decide that every person is, regardless of title or education, worthy of respect and endowed with worth — and that nearly all of them have the capacity for greatness if the right psychological buttons are pushed and levers are pulled. There is simply no way we will ever get an employee’s best if their job regularly inflicts pain. If you want devotion from employees, you must first devote yourself to them. If you want the highest level of commitment from your workforce, you must first and consistently commit to them, not just as employees but as human beings.
Excerpted from Employalty: How to Ignite Commitment and Keep Top Talent in the New Age of Work by Joe Mull. Copyright © 2023 by Joe Mull.