Reading all the comments from readers who think sick children and their mothers have the right to demand our time and attention, no matter what our own needs and responsibilities may be, made me think again about a persistent issue in the workplace. What constitutes a reasonable and fair request from an employer to his employees, other than to do their jobs diligently, honestly and well?
I have encountered this issue several times in my career, and it impeded that career, such as it is, more than once. For example, I do not believe that an employer can tell you, or even ask you, to participate in a charity of the employer’s choosing. He, she or it cannot demand that you spend your weekends painting the houses of the poor, either. Nor is it ethical for an employer to make you play softball or climb mountains under the bizarre conviction that these activities improve office performance.
Employers can’t tell you not to smoke or drink in your home, or that your avocation as an actor, singer, weasel-tamer or circus geek is too undignified or time consuming. They can’t make you take up running marathons or swimming. They sure as hell better not ask you to date the firm’s top client, or to “show him a good time.”
If they try to make you do any of these things, whether you might want to do them or not, you have an obligation to tell them to back off and remember that you are an employee, not a child or slave. IF you submit to this wholly abusive use of power, your agreeability will embolden them, and undoubtedly increase the pressure on others to similarly submit to demands no employer has a right to make.
They all are demands, by the way…even if they are phrased as requests. When an individual or a company holds your livelihood in their hands, there is always implicit coercion, and where there is coercion, there is no autonomy or true consent.
With all of this in mind, consider this: Can an employee who works at a pinball company be required by his employer to play pinball every day?
I’m not making that up. The 150 employees of the Chicago-based Stern Pinball Company, the nation’s last pinball machine manufacturer, must all play 30 minutes of pinball every workday, per order of CEO Gary Stern. (It is amazing the things you read in airplane magazines). I understand that this is another dubious Seventies-style corporate psychology tactic—forcing employees to establish an emotional bond with the product, making them empathize with customers, and allowing the company’s marketers to say, “All of our employees play pinball every day—we know pinball!” I know that the employees are being paid to play, which is significant. But if this demand wasn’t made an explicit requirement of employment when they were hired, I think it is no different from the CEO insisting that they talk in Southern accents, do 20 push-ups a day, dress in Armani suits or read the Huffington Post. It is unfair and demeaning to use economic power to force staff to do anything that unreasonably interferes with their autonomy.
Maybe I am biased by the fact that I hate playing pinball, but the command is just as unethical when given to pinball lovers. This is an abuse of authority and power.