Beyond the cheers of activists and friendly politicians, there have been two responses to the new Civil Rights Act against job discrimination--fear and uncertainty among managers, indifference and ignorance among workers. The same thing happened last year to the Americans With Disabilities Act.
What most managers and workers failed to see, then and now, is that these two laws are pieces of a sweeping transformation of the American workplace.
The transformation is happening faster than anyone could have predicted. When it is complete, the American workplace will be a healthier, fairer and more democratic environment for workers and a more productive and profitable enterprise for everybody.
In the transformed workplace, even the most controversial mandates of the new Civil Rights Act--including its tougher stance on sexual harassment--will be routine. The new workplace will be resisted, but it will come. Its greatest obstacles are three myths that pervade American business in the 1990s:
-- The myth of quality. Quality has become a mantra in American corporate life--quality awards, quality circles, quality months. But the word is applied only to products and services, never to people and the quality of their lives.
As companies from Levi Strauss, the jeans maker, to Steelcase, the largest manufacturer of office furniture, have found out, quality begins with empowered workers. Workers aren’t machine parts; their loyalties can’t be easily bought. But when workers’ lives start to make sense, performance and productivity begin to soar.
-- The myth of leadership. It’s an old temptation, in troubled times, to look for great leaders to bring us out of the mess. We almost conferred sainthood on Lee Iacocca and several other CEOs a few years ago, only to see them go down in the recession like the rest of us. We have to look less for leaders and more for the leadership qualities within everyone.
-- The myth of hierarchy. Most American corporations are run by white men in their 50s and 60s who got their training and prejudices in a world that no longer exists. To them, the corporation is a pyramid, with everything pointing toward the top.
In a world of grueling international competition, the pyramid is a lot weaker than it looks. Workers are getting tired of playing subordinate roles. It’s not that hierarchy is immoral; it just doesn’t work anymore.
Every corporation that has seriously challenged these three myths has found them largely expendable. Steelcase began an experiment several years ago with self-managed worker teams. Now it has 400 such teams and a corporate development center with no executive suites at the top, because most space is for the teams.
Business leaders must take seriously their rhetoric about democratic and family values. Some do now. About 4,000 employers offer some form of child-care aid, a 400% increase during the past decade. But there are 10 million mothers of preschool children pursuing carers in this country. Where are all the other employers?
Child care alone isn’t enough, because workers’ lives are more complicated than that. Levi Strauss has a Family Task Force chaired by its CEO. PC Connection builds homes for its employees and sells them at cost. The Body Shop pays its people to do community service. We need more such examples.
The way we pay our workers also is ripe for revolution. Virtually every American business that takes such steps as pay-for-performance and profit-/equity-sharing reports greater worker satisfaction.
But, although money talks, the transformation of the American workplace isn’t primarily about money. It’s about a work force that’s diverse in race and gender and sexual preference, and increasingly forceful concerning its wants and needs.
The workers who yawned at the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 will soon begin to pay attention to the issues it addresses; Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas were just the beginning. There will be more congressional hearings, more laws, more court decisions. Workers will come to expect that they won’t be harassed and discriminated against, but will be treated like human beings. Corporate leaders should anticipate this change not in fear, but with satisfaction. It will lead to worker productivity beyond anything yet seen.
How many times have we heard a CEO justify a new employee benefit with some variation on the line, “It’s not just altruism; it’s good business”? Such talk reflects ignorance. As the new American workplace will teach us, altruism is good business.