Monday, January 19, 2015

Value Driven

I nearly made an HR person come today.

For a company that prides itself on being cost conscious, the folks at Umbrella Corp. sure spare no expense when it comes to cultivating the corporate hive mind. From day one, every one of us is subjected to a four day indoctrination session on our company's mission and values. This is repeated in yearly chunks to refresh our memory, should the myriad of posters, placards and video messages we pass each day fail at their task of doing so. From the parking lot to my place of employment, I encounter more propaganda than the average North Korean resident, and I'm just a glorified cashier.

Prospective trainee managers get the intensive treatment. They are shipped off to week long camps to partake in elaborate group talks about their innermost selves and those sacred company values, which I imagine is a lot like rehab. I can't know for sure because I've never applied to be a manager, but I have been institutionalized, and the rhetoric is eerily familiar. At least most mental hospitals don't revere their founder like he's L. Ron fucking Hubbard.

And it works. Our staff presents a healthy 30/70 mix between blind utter devotion and wishing they were anywhere but here. I'll leave it to you to figure out which is which, but it can be hard to tell one vacant look from the other at first glance. The tell-tale signs of each tend to somewhat overlap. The scary ones are those who actually believe that by selling crap made in sweatshops halfway across the globe they are somehow making the world a better place. These people tend to get promoted up to the level just below the one that requires being in on certain truths to do your job. This level isn't very far up.

I was trying to figure out where we got the idea that companies can have values anyway. After all, corporations aren't people. They are, as the saying goes, "an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility". The idea that such an entity can uphold any kind of philosophical virtue is of course ludicrous, which is why you are going to tell me that it's not the corporation that holds these values, it's the people who work there (or at least they go through rigorous reeducation to make sure they do). But those lines are blurred on purpose.

I got the following from the Mission, Vision & Values page of the Coca Cola Company:
"Our Roadmap starts with our mission, which is enduring. It declares our purpose as a company and serves as the standard against which we weigh our actions and decisions."
Further down it says:
"Planet: Be a responsible citizen that makes a difference by helping build and support sustainable communities."
Regardless of whether this is true, the usage of the word 'citizen' here is interesting. Yes, a company is a legal person which is a kind of citizen, but all properties that earn it that label are legal in nature. Being subjectable to legal action does not come with a set of human qualities. If you take out your anger on a customer service rep, you are yelling at an abstract entity that is by design incapable of giving a shit about anything but profit, but employs actual people to stand there and pretend that it does. It can't vote, it doesn't have feelings, and it isn't trying to chase its dreams of a better future for all of mankind. But the marketing guys sure would like you to see it that way.1
Your call is important to us.

Again, this works. Where halfway through the nineties Marge Simpson could still lament that "We can't afford to shop at any store that has a philosophy", today it is almost impossible not to.

The practice of making value claims as part of corporate branding is as old as advertising itself of course. What does seem new is the nature of these claims, and the life they have of their own. Value discourse is extremely effective at obfuscating the bottom line. I'll never forget the uncomfortable silence that followed during one of those long lectures on our "Green Mission" after a temp raised her hand and asked why we didn't simply start selling stuff that doesn't break after two years. Dealing in quality will no longer get you anywhere. What you're selling is quality perception.
Similarly, my boyfriend works for a "CO2 neutral" factory that produces tractor trucks. Their values include "energy", "passion" and "respect".

As multinational companies become ever further removed from the people who are supposed to be running them, their value claims are veering away from concrete business related virtues like professionalism and reliability, and towards vague and emotionally charged ones like "fun", "happiness" and "change".2 We keep needing bigger words to uphold the mirage.

It works on customers, too.
If you've never worked inside a factory, you still get to be amazed at how the price of fixing a thing can get you almost a dozen new things (and we get to be amazed at your amazement). This is how global mass production works. You never see the bins of discarded food behind your vegan health food store. You still get to wear your 10$ sneakers without smelling the blood on them. The entire system is designed to never let you peek behind more than one curtain at a time. For those working behind that curtain, well, there are those reeducation camps.

It all serves to feed into our collective Stockholm syndrome. As we are incessantly reminded, it's the same wherever you go.

I'm not entirely sure I believe that, but I'm too scared to find out. So I suck it up, nod my head, and pick out a button from a pile that, when combined, makes up our company's own unique version of buzzword bingo.
Like Indiana Jones, I choose wisely. So wisely in fact, as to make our HR rep squeal like a tween at a puppy show.

"Nobody ever picks that one," she tells me. "It makes me so happy to see someone display such genuine company pride!"

I smile back.

1 This is hilariously exploited in Community's Subway episode, which takes heavy corporate sponsorship and turns it into brilliant satire by having Subway, the "corpo-humanoid", engage in such unspeakable sexual acts (with Britta!) that his corpo-citizenship gets revoked. Man, I love Community.
2 Though you have to hand it to a company called Tom's Shoes, that counts among its values: "Identify communities that need shoes".

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