07 February 2010

The Case of Thornley-Fallis: "We Own You" (or so we claim)

My friend, Leigh, posed a question on her Facebook profile asking what people think about PR agency, Thornley Fallis’s, new “online communications policy.” Essentially, it is based on the premise,
You’re always one of us
Each of us represents the company to the world and the character of the company is defined by our beliefs and actions. We must be mindful of this when participating in social media and any kind of online communications.
You may be active in social media on your own account. That’s good. But please remember that whether you are on your own time or company time, you’re still a member of our team. And the judgment you exercise on your own time reflects on the judgment you exercise at work. There’s only one you – at play and at work.
It goes on from there to provide guidelines like, “cause no harm to any person,” be civil, respectful, and transparent, and so on. Not bad things, right? Personally, I think borrowing from the doctors’ Hippocratic Oath is a cute touch, if a tad unoriginal (which raises the question, do you really want a PR agency that speaks in “borrowed” clichés?, but I digress…). There is some emerging conversation on Leigh’s Facebook wall that equates the notion of “you’re always one of us” with 1984-ish groupbeing, and the tacit assertion that the company claims ownership of its employees. This being Canada (and the company being Canadian), such is not the case in law—unlike our neighbours to the south, our labour laws are enlightened beyond employment-at-will. Nonetheless, this idea of “you’re always one of us,” a.k.a., “we own you” is an increasing – and increasingly problematic, if one-way – construct in the contemporary workplace.

I have written about this before, regarding the case of Professor Colin Wightman at Acadia University. And, I discuss a similar example that occurs in one of my participant organizations in my research. This premise is further evidence for me that Identity-valence has become dominant in the UCaPP world. It is easy to interpret this from the ground of a sort of indentured servitude—we pay you, therefore we own you. Given the centuries during which Economic valence (that is, fungible-Economic valence) has been dominant, it’s easy to understand this reading. Additionally, and especially in BAH organizations, the reciprocal nature of f-Economic valence has not been recognized as balanced: the cliché of “fair value for money” is rarely recognized and practiced by corporate entities. There is, of course, a corresponding resistance from the members of the organization seeking to make such an ownership claim. From the traditional “separation of work and life” perspective, these sorts of claims are as repugnant as they are intrusive. However, in an ironic sort of way, an employee protesting the intrusiveness of an ownership claim is, in effect, reinforcing not only the ownership claim itself, but also the dominance of an imbalanced f-Economic valence as the structuring force of the organization. Both of these, I submit, are obsolesced constructs in the UCaPP world.

When an employee says to their boss (organization), “what I do when I’m off the clock is my business, not yours,” they are also essentially saying the converse: “when I’m on the clock, yes, I agree, you own me.” The employee constructs themselves as no more than a mercantile service, defined in strictly f-Economic terms. All other considerations are secondary. If their mercantile service expressly does not include, say, providing insight on policy, or creating new inventions, or improving the efficiency of the operation, or reporting on quality of service lapses, any contributions made in these areas are strictly voluntary contributions to the wealth and wellbeing of a privileged few (see Marjorie Kelly’s book, The Divine Right of Capital, for an excellent treatment of these sorts of issues, and why U.S.-style capitalism is a contradiction in terms). Employees who separate their identities in this way accede to the “rightness” of hierarchical privilege, arbitrary imposition of policy, and exclusion from decision-making in their organization. This, to me, is highly problematic and anachronistic in ways that I discuss at length (in the section on “The Natures of Organization”).

However, when viewed in terms of Identity valence (even fungible-Identity valence), the nature of Thornley-Fallis’s claim of “you’re always one of us” becomes ever so much clearer. Both individuals and organizations reciprocally construct their identities in relation—in relation to their employees, their customers, their sister, parent and partner organizations, and ultimately, to the communities of which they are a part. When Tiger Woods decides to practice his putting outside of his home course (sorry), the identities of those organizations for whom he is a (paid) spokesman are equally sullied. Naturally, they quickly distance themselves from the golf superstar. Perhaps less famous, but no less connected, each member of an organization is the organization. But equally, the organization is its members. It is not sufficient for the members to take on their organization’s espoused values (let alone its in-use values). The organization must respect and embody the collective values of its members. Those in the organization with legitimated hierarchical status must understand that they cannot legitimately impose unilateral policies in a UCaPP environment and expect their members to accept them without critical conversation, no matter how reasonable the sugar-coating may sound. Indeed, in imposing a “we own you” policy (admittedly, well sugar-coated), Thornley-Fallis is causing harm to the persons who are their members by requiring that they unilaterally give up their values if not aligned with those of the organization. And, I would go so far as to guess that there has not been an explicit conversation among all members as to just what those collective values might be, or whether dissent becomes a firing (or constructive-dismissal) offence. Identity valence must be a two-way relationship in an organization that purports to be consistent with contemporary times.

And by making the claim that they are “hip” with social media, Thornley-Fallis must either be truly consistent, or admit to social media hypocrisy – not hip, but a wannabe hipster. So, Joseph Thornley, which is it? (Here’s a hint: brandishing the title, CEO, ain’t hip with being UCaPP.)

(Thanks, Leigh!)

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Joseph Thornley said...

Hi Mark,

Thanks for the post. You've put a lot of thought into it. And I appreciate it. We all need to see and hear how others perceive.

I was taken aback by your leap from "you're always one of us" to "we own you." That's definitely not the way I think of things. In fact, as an employer of very smart, creative people, I'm always aware that I have to earn their desire each and every day to get in the elevator and come to work with us. They have many other choices. And so we have to work hard to create a work environment and provide them with career and personal growth that is better than the competition.

I think you come to the heart of our position in your penultimate paragraph. "each member of an organization is the organization. But equally, the organization is its members. It is not sufficient for the members to take on their organization’s espoused values (let alone its in-use values). The organization must respect and embody the collective values of its members. Those in the organization with legitimated hierarchical status must understand that they cannot legitimately impose unilateral policies ... and expect their members to accept them without critical conversation..."

I agree. And in this case, I posted our policy on our Internal company Wiki and called attention to it on our company Present.ly group (Twitter behind the firewall.) And I received comments that caused me to change the draft.

Over time, I expect to receive more comments and input from team members. Just as we started with a simple policy four years ago that evolved into this policy, I'm sure it too will continue to evolve. Not just because I want it to, but because our business environment, our employees and their needs will also change. I've found in the past that they don't hold back from telling me what they think and I'm counting on them to do that in the future.

Finally, if you were to come to know me you'd know that I am not hierarchical in my approach. I think of all the team members I work with in terms of who they are and what they do. Having said that, I identify myself as the CEO as a statement of both responsibility and accountability.

Thanks again for your post. It gave me much to think about.

Mark said...

Joseph, I truly appreciate your response, and am heartened by the authenticity of your approach. Part of the problem that many of us collectively share - and specifically the problem I seek to address in my research - is the problem of discourse, that is, language. Those who are embracing what I identify as a UCaPP ethos (like you, it seems) are limited by the existing language of business, and hampered by a collective cynicism among many who have lived with the collective dysfunctions of most 20th century business corporations, governments and institutions (e.g., some of the comments on Leigh's Facebook posting are less than generous).

If you truly invite and thoughtfully incorporate honest participation (without regard for rank or status) as well as dissent in your environment, then you have an advantage over many other businesses, as you will be able to sooner notice what others are not able to. And speaking about language, I invite you to have a look at my next post on the TTC with respect to those two, very problematic words, "responsibility" and "accountability."

Leigh said...

Hi guys,

Just to clarify, I also made the comment on FB that I thought the intentions of the policy were completely genuine.

What is at issue is what Mark identifies which is the usage of language and how that language can be interpreted both positively and negatively and it is in fact that ambiguity in a Corporate policy that can be so problematic.

Joseph Thornley said...

Hi Leigh,

It sounds like you have a good conversation underway on Facebook. I tried to get to your Facebook profile using the link in Mark's post, but it would not connect for me.

I think it would be interesting for you to port the Facebook conversation onto your blog. I'd love to have a chance to read the discussion and to weigh in with a comment.

Leigh said...

Well to be honest I think the conversation tapped into something much bigger than what your company was doing which is the public vs. the private lives of people.

I will however, write a post about the broader conversation as I think it has relevance for what many companies are currently struggling with from an HR perspective particularly around Social Media.

(and by write a post I mean after my trip to NY tomorrow :)