Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Research: You don't have to be stupid to work here...

One of the great parts of being a professor is that my job can sometimes be to take a widely accepted idea and test it to see if it is true. This is very similar to what workers do around the lunch room when they roll their eyes at the latest employee engagement efforts, but just a bit more thorough.

The point of this style of research is to suss out ideas and approaches that don’t work as advertised in the hope of sparking change. A recent essay by Andre Spicer entitled “Stupefied: How organisations enshrine collective stupidity and employees are rewarded for checking their brains at the office door” is a good example of this kind of research. It is well worth the read.

Spicer examines the rather common experience of new graduates who are hired to exciting job descriptions based upon their skills only to find that their actual job is low-level paper pushing and that no one is interested in their ideas for change. The result of this false promise tends to be cynicism, learned passivity, and/or staff turnover (which continues until a suitably cynical and passive worker is found).

Bureaucratizing work is a key mechanism by which organizations stupedify their workers. Complex processes and forms (often enacted under the guise of risk management and quality control) limit workers’ scope for innovation. This happens in at least two ways.

First, creating a set process means that when a worker has a good idea, there isn’t a way to express and advance the idea (i.e., “there isn’t place for this on the form”). Second, advancing an idea outside of the existing norm tends to be slow, labour-intensive, and subject to multiple points where the idea can be shut down.

Underlying this approach is a Taylorist model of organizations as machines where all parts are expected to work in lock step towards making a single product )”you can have your Model T in any colour so long as it is black”). This logic is often unspoken (and sometimes exists below the level of consciousness).

Smart employees quickly get the idea, though, and then check out—either psychologically or physically. Management efforts to re-ignite engagement (e.g., buzz-wordy stuff like strategic planning, rebranding, and adopting best practices) typically fail because they don’t attend to the root the cause of the disengagement (i.e., the absence of opportunity to meaningfully shape work.

The opportunity cost of these sorts of behaviours is huge—both in wasted effort and in developing a culture of “three bags full, sir”. The costs of such behaviours are rarely borne by organizational leaders, who move onwards and upwards.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, January 12, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Industrial Strength Tranquilizer

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Industrial Strength Tranquillizer” by the Austin Lounge Lizards. The Lounge Lizards are a satirical folk-rock group (think Weird Al with a mandolin).

This song narrates the kind of hopelessness common in many jobs:
There's a lot of wisdom here, amongst the employees
Some of us are street smart some have PhD's.
We're all bored and tired, but we've all found ways to cope.
Some of us drink after work, the rest of us smoke dope.
One of the more interesting labour issues that employers, unions and governments will confront in 2018 is the legalization of marijuana. While news stories have recently focused on the (in)ability of the police to address impaired driving due to the lack of a good drug test, the real battleground will be the workplaces.

This University of Calgary study suggests that some blood and urine tests currently used can result in a false positive for workers who had 15 minutes of exposure to secondhand smoke in a closed environment. This certain raises all sorts of difficult questions about whether discipline enacted based on such tests will ultimately stick.

I couldn’t find a video for this song except this one. So instead, I give you another Star Wars video.



Every morning when I punch my timecard at the plant
I try to be a pleasant guy but lately I just can't.
Overwork and under pay are poisoning my mind.
Until I'm on the bar stool I don't believe it's quitin time.

I need industrial strength tranquilizer
A shot of Old Crow and a glass of Budweiser
To help survive inflation with falling pay.
It takes industrial strength tranquilizer
A shot of Old Crow and a glass of Budweiser
To help the working man through the working day.

Bosses in the board room talk of productivity
But they just mean to put the screws to working stiffs like me.
If we're good and work real hard and save our pay until
We're able to afford the kind of crap they make us build.

[chorus]

There's a lot of wisdom here, amongst the employees
Some of us are street smart some have PhD's.
We're all bored and tired, but we've all found ways to cope.
Some of us drink after work, the rest of us smoke dope.

[chorus]

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Research: Family and friends as barriers to inter-provincial labour mobility

It is axiomatic for many right-wing commentators that the unemployed should just pack-up and move for a job. Often this suggestion underlies demands for reform of various income support programs, such as Employment Insurance.

For example, consider this 2013 proposal by the so-called Canadian Taxpayers Federation, then fronted by now former UCP MLA Derek “Fildepants” Fildebrandt.

This demand for hyper mobility is often framed as unrealistic. Statistics Canada just released some interesting research about the (un)willingness of unemployed Canadians to migrate for work that may bear upon this policy argument.

The crux of the findings are:
  • Approximately 1% of working-age Canadian migrate inter-provincially each year, a lower level than in past years. The aging of the workforce does not fully explain this decline in mobility.
  • About one third of unemployed Canadians 15-64 reported no barriers to inter-provincial migration for employment. The other two-thirds indicated they would not move to another province or territory to take a new job. 
  • Half of non-movers cited a desire or need to stay close to family and friends as the key barrier to mobility. This reason included a need to take care of relatives and/or consider the wishes of spouses and children.
  • Other barriers included financial and housing barriers. Few unemployed workers (1%) reported credential recognition as a barrier to work-related geographical mobility.
  • Slightly more unemployed Canadians (43%) would accept a job offer in other cities within their home province. The same pattern of barriers appeared for intra provincial migration as did for inter-provincial migration.
  • In both scenarios, men, workers under 40, and unmarried workers were more likely to consider moving than their opposites.
This data supports the assertion that labour mobility is constrained by both economic and social reasons. It also suggests that policy prescriptions that ignore social factors are unlikely to be particularly effective.

An important limitation on this research is that it is based upon current economic conditions. If there was a significant worsening of the economy in a respondent’s region, respondents’ answers might change.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, January 5, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Superstore on staff meetings

To start the new year of Labour & Pop Culture, we return to NBC’s comedy Superstore. Last year they had an interesting storyline about strikes. This year, there is a recurring bit about staff meetings that is just a touch too real. Here are some clips:

Staff made training videos about improving efficiency during bathroom breaks.


Staff debrief a workplace tornado.


Staff debrief a workplace robbery.


Honestly, it is hard to watch stuff that so bitingly accurate.


-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Research: Job-loss and geographic mobility

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m involved with a large Canadian research project examining employment-related geographical mobility. My own interests have been centered on temporary foreign workers in Alberta. Other research clusters have examined intra- and inter-provincial migration

One of the benefits of involvement has been exposure to other disciplines and their way of looking at the world. I’ve become fairly interested in geographical research which seeks to map phenomenon (and changes) spatially. This approach often reveals nuances that are hard to “see” when looking at data.

For example, we might look at the effect of an economic downturn on a population on where people live and find that most people continue to live in the same city in which they were most recently employed. A more nuanced analysis, though, might examine where in the city they live.

Not every part of a city is the same. An recent article in Canadian Public Policy entitled “Leaving Work, Leaving Home: Job Loss and Socio-Geographic Mobility in Canada” compared residential changes of employed and involuntarily unemployed Canadians from 1996 to 2010. Its findings included:
  • involuntary job loss is associated with both short-distance residential mobility and long-distance migration,
  • short-distance residential mobility is the more common response to job loss,
  • this mobility typically entails movement from a non-deprived neighbourhood to a neighbourhood with high material deprivation (this is particularly the case for workers who identify as visible minorities; the reasons for this pattern are not clear).

This pattern after job loss suggests numerous possible knock-on effects. Workers may experience different and potentially constrained labour-market opportunities. Children may see their educational progress interrupted and their educational options constrained. Families may face a higher risk of criminal victimization.

One implication of this analysis is that job loss may set the stage for the accumulation of various forms of disadvantage. It is unclear if existing income support programs (e.g., employment insurance) are adequate to attenuate this effect. None of these effects are immediately visible when one just looks at high-level statistics about employment-related geographical mobility.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, December 29, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Growing mockery of austerity

There has been a shift in public policy debate over the past few years away from consensus that austerity is a viable economic strategy. There was never full consensus but certainly media coverage privileged austerity.

Now there is legitimate (sometimes even informed) debate about issues such as the minimum wage and government deficits. One interesting development is the increasing degree of public mockery aimed at (1) austerity fan-boys and (2) biased media reporting. Often this takes the form of fact-checking memes like the one on the right.

An example, although not the funniest one I’ve seen, is a recent Beaverton spoof of a news-segment debating Ontario’s minimum wage increase.

The pro side is represented by a reasoned and articulate poverty activist while one of the hosts curries favour with a Joe-Sixpack guest who is given equal airtime despite having clearly stupid opinions. It is chillingly like watching local news. Here is another, funnier article along the same lines.

While I couldn't find any research on the topic, my impression is that when your talking points become punch-lines (e.g., tidewater, war on Christmas), your side is losing.

Greater debate is also occurring in more reputable alternative news sources. The magazine Alberta Views has recently commenced a new feature (“dialogues”) to trigger meaningful public policy debate. Two authors are given a topic, write opposing position pieces and then short rebuttals. These are then sent to a panel of interested readers for analysis.

These dialogues will run every issue of 2018 and include topics such as the rightful role of government, the pros and cons of debt, urban vs rural virtues, the right to strike, costs vs benefits of local food, and oil sands: expand or shrink.

The two that I have seen so far have been interesting: when traditionally leftist and rightist arguments are pitted against one another, the leftist argument clearly and decisively wins. I’m not sure this kind of debate will affect individual’s opinions. But transferring into biting satire, such debates may shift the public discourse and opinion. 

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Research: Laid-off oil-patch workers in Kelowna

The Journal of Rural and Community Development just published an interesting article on the experiences of laid-off oilpatch workers who reside in BC’s Okanagan Valley. Many of these workers commuted to jobs in Alberta’s north prior to layoff.

Relative deprivation vs. transition: Rehabilitating laid-off young oil workers in Kelowna and beyond” explores the impact of unemployment on these workers and their families.

Among the notable findings are the significant financial impact (both real and perceived) of unemployment. These effects are compounded by poor financial planning (sometimes compounded by substance abuse) and limited skill transfer to jobs available in the local economy (which was oversupplied with workers).

This paper makes a useful contribution to the literature on mobile work by looking at the effect of mobile work on sending communities. It extends research that to date, has largely focused on Atlantic Canada, such as Nelson Ferguson’s article on Cape Breton. It also extends our understanding of the culture of oil-and-gas workers, building upon Dan Houser’s chapter on rig-hand culture and safety in Alberta.

-- Bob Barnetson