workplace

A Crisis of Confidence and A Triumph of Nonsense

Business is the most popular major at most universities and colleges around the world. In Canada, business-related programs enrol almost 20% of all post-secondary students. But business has always struggled to define itself as an academic discipline. Business schools started in the first part of the 20th century because of the need for managers in an industrial economy. It was assumed that scientific research could identify the qualities of a good manager, and that people could be trained to develop those qualities themselves.

Historians of management education have since pointed out that those assumptions were wrong. For one thing, the ideal manager in the early 20th century used a hierarchical “command and control” managerial style. But that type of management doesn’t work well in every situation or in every organization.  Collaborative and supportive forms of management can also be very effective, but most management training still assumes that managers have formal authority over the workers, and that managers should use that authority to control how the workplace operates.

There are some managerial skills that can be taught, such as understanding financial statements. But one of the most important skills of a good manager is being able to understand a situation and to respond appropriately – and that is mostly learned through experience. Even after nearly a century of research into management and organizations, we really can’t identify the “best” way to manage, or how to effectively teach that. And that’s a big problem for a very prominent and powerful academic discipline.

Two newly published essays have bravely spoken out in very blunt terms about the sad state of management education, along with suggesting some ways to start fixing it.  Both of these essays (more…)

…And More Change

In my most recent post, I summarized the recent “professional climate” report by the American Economics Association (AEA). This report surveyed the association’s members about sexism, racism, and other actions that were reflecting badly on economics on a profession and on the AEA itself.

There were many fascinating outcomes in the report, as detailed in the earlier post. But there’s one more set of results that I also want to mention. The report’s authors were curious as to how the “professional climate” they uncovered compared to the “climate” in other academic associations. So they identified similar surveys that had recently been conducted by similar organizations, and compared the results of those surveys to theirs.

The comparisons are presented in the report with the warning that the survey questions were not identical in every survey, that some of the guidelines for the surveys were different (e.g. the length of thetime period that the respondents were asked to report on), and that the characteristics of the respondents (such as gender and age distribution) were not consistent across the surveys.

However, even at a broad general level, the comparisons are very interesting. Here’s a quick summary, (more…)

Unions and Their Unions

A lot of people don’t realize that unions that represent workers in interactions with employers are also employers themselves. The union’s leaders are members of the union and are elected by the other members – but most unions, especially larger national or international unions and labour federations, also have administrative, executive, and staff employees. These employees keep the union running day to day, and might have special expertise, like researching or negotiating, that the union can use during its organizing campaigns or collective bargaining.

What a lot of people also don’t realize is that employees of unions are often unionized themselves. The employees don’t belong to the same union that they work for – that would be a conflict of interest. So they are members of a different union, usually one that includes workers in similar occupations. As an example, the employees of the union I belong to, at a provincially-funded university, are members of a local of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, a national union that represents many public sector workers.

A union’s employees being unionized also means that, like any other group of unionized workers, they negotiate with their employer for a collective agreement. And that is where things can get kind of tricky. (more…)

“Life Is Short and So Am I”

Although this blog is about work and organizations, regular readers might have noticed by now that I enjoy watching professional wrestling, and I enjoy reading books about it. Professional wrestling includes some very big organizations; World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), the dominant professional wrestling company, had revenues of nearly $500 million US in the first half of 2019. So understanding the experiences of workers in professional wrestling is as worthwhile as understanding the experiences of workers in any kind of organization.

People who aren’t familiar with professional wrestling often look at the characters that wrestlers play and criticize what they see as stereotypes that promote racism, sexism, and ableism. I agree with a lot of those criticisms, and former WWE performers have also told  disturbing stories of the company’s attitudes toward female and minority performers. So I was really interested in reading Life Is Short And So Am I by Dylan Postl, who wrestled in WWE from 2006 to 2016. Postl has a distinctive perspective on stereotypes in professional wrestling because he’s a midget (Postl says he’s fine with that term).

Professional wrestling has a long history of midget wrestlers, going back to (more…)

Business Schools Need More Women Professors

I wrote an article for the Gender Avenger website about the uneven numbers of male and female professors in business schools, and some ways to change that. You can read the article here.

Fifteen Paths

When I saw the description of David Weitzner’s book Fifteen Paths – “the work of a disillusioned business professor who gave up on old arguments and set out to learn about the power of imagination” – I knew this was a book I wanted to read. As the readers of this blog know, I am a business professor, and while I don’t think I would call myself “disillusioned”, I definitely have a lot of problems with the standard curriculum in business degree programs and with the negative effects of traditional business structures. ECW Press was kind enough to provide me with a review copy of the book, and I also had the opportunity to speak with David about how Fifteen Paths happened.

Fifteen Paths is an unusual business book. Unlike most business books, it doesn’t have (more…)

Un-Cooperative

The co-operative business model is intended to be an alternative to the traditional capitalist business model, in which the business’ owners or their representatives (managers) run the business and receive the profits from the business’ operations. In a co-operative, the customers of the business are also the owners of the business. Customers usually have to purchase a membership in the co-operative to use its products or services. The members elect a board of directors which is responsible for overseeing the business’ operations, and profits from the business are returned to the members in the form of dividends or reduced prices.

Many co-operatives were formed in areas or industries that traditional businesses refused to serve – either because they did not think there was enough of a market, or because they did not think they would make enough profit. So the co-operative business model is not only an alternative to capitalist business; it’s also a direct challenge to that model. As such, you would think that co-operatives would also challenge the traditional top-down relationship between managers and workers, and treat their employees fairly and respectfully. But workplace disputes at three different co-ops are showing that unfortunately this doesn’t always happen.

In Saskatchewan, unionized workers at the Saskatoon Co-op, (more…)

Unionizing Comics

I probably stopped reading comic books in the middle of my teens (although I love comic strips in newspapers), so my knowledge of the comics industry is pretty outdated. However, I’m always interested in unionizing campaigns for any type of worker, so I was intrigued when I came across the Twitter account Let’s Unionize Comics. Sasha Bassett runs that account; she is a Ph.D student at Portland State University and a self-declared “all-around pop culture junkie”. She has also conducted a survey of workers in the comics industry about their working conditions and their workplace concerns. Sasha graciously agreed to be interviewed via email about the comics industry and her vision of how it could become unionized.

Fiona: For readers who may not be familiar with how the comics industry works, can you describe its structure? For example, is it dominated by major companies, or is there a significant number of independent firms? Do comics artists work on their own and then try to sell their work, or are they usually commissioned to do specific projects?

Sasha: The structure of the comics industry is complex and fairly non-standardized. The market is absolutely dominated by (more…)

LabourWatch is Back

The Canadian LabourWatch Association claims that it exists to “advance employee rights” and to provide “balanced” information about unionization in Canadian workplaces. However, this group’s real intention is to undermine Canada’s labour unions and Canadian workers’ legal right to choose to be represented by a union in their workplace.

In recent years, LabourWatch was one of the main supporters of Bill C-377 – a proposed federal law that would have required much more stringent financial reporting from unions than from other federally-regulated organizations. LabourWatch has also lobbied against mandatory union dues, and has been used as a resource by companies with unionized workers on strike in encouraging those workers to decertify their unions.

After the defeat of Bill C-377, and after the Conservative party lost the 2014 Canadian federal election, LabourWatch gradually became much less visible. The last newsletter posted on its website is from February 2017, and despite initiatives such as a review of federal minimum wage rates that would seem to be relevant to a group allegedly promoting “employee rights”, LabourWatch has been all but silent.

Until now.

On June 24 and 25, LabourWatch is (more…)

Human Resource Management and Mistreated Workers

Jobs in “human resource management” – the part of organizations that manages employee-related functions such as hiring, training, and pay  – are becoming more professionalized. Professional designations such as Certified Human Resource Professional, which require human resource (HR) practitioners to demonstrate specific HR-related knowledge and skills, are becoming more common among HR staffers. But at the same time, working conditions for many employees are becoming worse.

This doesn’t make sense, because most human resource management (HRM) professional associations have codes of practice that explicitly state HR professionals should promote ethical and fair treatment for workers. For example, the guidelines of the US Society for Human Resource Management’s code of professional responsibility include “strive to achieve the highest levels of service, performance, and social responsibility” and “advocate for the appropriate use and appreciation of human beings as employees”.

Also, the concept of “socially responsible HR” has emerged as part of discussions of corporate social responsibility (CSR) – the idea being that organizations have responsibilities to society as well as to their stakeholders, and that HR practices within the organization should align with an overall CSR strategy by encouraging fair treatment of employees. So if organizations have publicly committed to making positive contributions to society, but at the same time are allowing their own employees to be disrespected and mistreated, why aren’t HR practitioners doing something about it?

Two research studies – one from 2013, one just published – have explored that very intriguing question. The two studies (more…)