Thursday, June 28, 2007

97. Are peons really least valuable?

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, wrote "If you treat an individual as he is, he will stay as he is; but if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be." Corporations are defined in many ways, but I believe one of the most revealing is a simple analysis of how it treats its employees. When I say employees, I am of course not referring to how it treats its chief executive officer, or senior management, rather I am referring to how it treats what is regarded as its least valuable employees. For non-profit organizations, this might even, surprisingly, include its volunteers.

The question is, do corporations view, and treat, their least important employees as uneducated, interchangeable necessities, or do they treat them as well as they treat all other employees- from middle management up? You will often hear from very dedicated employees that they feel like they are just a "peon." (To digress for a moment, the term peon is used colloquially to mean a person with little authority, often-assigned unskilled or drudgerous tasks; in this sense, peon is often used in either a derogatory or a self-effacing context. It is widely thought that a peon is so named because they are so low in standing as to be urinated upon, hence pee-on. This is a false etymology and has no factual backing. Source: Wikipedia).

More than just assumingly, "peons" feel, as exemplified in its self-effacing, that they do not matter. They believe that their work does not matter, that their opinions do not matter, and as already mentioned, that they can easily be replaced. In the age of the fallacious ideology of "employee empowerment," many corporations offer lip service more than a coherent change of action. The worst do not even discourage this feeling among their employees, a fact most evident by the lack of investment.

To be sure, the issue is about money, and corporations invest in those that will make them money. They will invest in new technology or in the hiring of those executives who are perceived as the most talented or have significant financial or political influence. The corporate culture, and more to this discussion, the treatment of the least important employees, is regarded as a business expense. Business expenses also include sick days and company picnics. The recent trend has been toward the use of temporary employees, those obtained for service without the investment of benefits, such as healthcare. Furthermore, these employees work "on call," absent of unemployment insurance, to be added and discarded as needed. On the opposite side of the spectrum, many executives, even after failing, ride away in "golden parachutes."

Unfortunately, a similar analysis can be made with not-for-profit organizations. The "red carpet" is rolled out for those that make large donations, while others are largely ignored- regardless of the effort and passion. While grassroots supporters might be offered a dinner or two at national events, the premise of the event is the mobilization of a fund-raising machine. Passionate pleas and informal appreciation might be expressed only so far as it inspires a rededication to the task at hand.

For those that make large donations, organizations often engage in social pampering. This egotistical petting includes special meetings, networking opportunities, public recognition and, of course, private business meetings. The wealthy have developed an array of behaviors and considerations in which the end result is money being passed back and forth.

My wife and I once attended a leadership conference with several volunteers from the Cleveland area, including a past president who had consistently made large financial donations. This particular year, we had donated significant amounts of time, essentially serving as president and secretary. While at dinner, the organization's well-known founder approached our table, assumingly for a moment of appreciation. However, without even making eye contact with anyone else at the table, he picked out our previous president and escorted him away. When my wife made mention of his rudeness and lack of gratitude, the past president, who should have said, "Wait, let me introduce you to some very dedicated volunteers," quickly defended the action by noting how much money he donates. Later, in discussing the issue, the past president again defended the well-known founder by noting his age. As elderly as he was, he was not so senile as to not know which of us at the table made the most significant donations. I do not know which was more pathetic, being shunned by the organization's founder or the egotistic defense made by the past president in light of his apparent expectation for the "red carpet" treatment.

Those corporations and organizations that incorporate a social hierarchy within their structure ought to be ashamed to know that many employees feel like "peons." Often these peons are the most loyal employees and dedicated volunteers within the organization, that is, they are the few that are not driven entirely by their financial status. They are often responsible, caring individuals, who sometimes work two or three jobs to support their families. Sometimes these individuals even offer a refreshing bit of integrity- apart from the shallowness that accompanies those looking for special treatment and the arrogance that manifests from the executive suites.

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