Service Is Our Business chapter 10

NEVER is the need for confidence in the good faith of employers more keenly tested than in periods of great change. The evil done in the early stages of the industrial revolution lived long after that generation of employers. Conditions of employment in mine and mill spelled appalling misery and degradation for the mass of workers. Joy in craftsmanship was exchanged for slavery to the machine. Cheap products found reflection in commercial practices equally debased. Only after a century of bitter struggle was it possible to restore in part the standards that had been sacrificed on the altar of mechanized progress.

Vocational service as it has developed in Rotary can be seen as one phase of the effort to repair the human and social damages inflicted by the industrial revolution. And who can say that the task is completed?

Even now, it is said, we are on the threshold of a second industrial revolution. Whereas machines bound the worker to monotonous, repetitious jobs, new machines are emerging to replace him and to do those jobs better. Whereas the first industrial revolution substituted mechanical for muscular
power, automation substitutes mechanical for human judgment, and mechanical judgment is infallible. Robots will undertake the robot functions that human beings have performed, and human beings will be freed to exercise higher skills.

“Automation, well used,” a Belgian Rotarian told his club, “undertakes only what is not properly thought, but reflex. Therefore, we should rejoice in this economic progress which is also social progress.”

Well used. The qualifying phrase is all important. No doubt the first industrial revolution when it was launched promised as much, had it been “well used.” But the employers of that day were not conscious of the problems of transition. To them, the worker was just something for which a machine had not been invented: a robot. Has the present generation of employers a deeper understanding of the function of human beings in production that will enable them to surmount the problems of transition posed by automation—problems of upgrading and training employees for higher skills, of adjustment to new forms of competitive enterprise, and of distributing an accelerated production?

A British Rotarian writes:
“Nowhere can Rotarians make a more vital contribution in vocational service than by giving earnest and constant thought to this problem: How can I humanize my concern? How can I make every man, woman, boy, or girl who works for me realize that in a real sense they are my business family, sharing with me the toil, the ambitions, the achievements, the hopes, the sorrows, and the rewards of a joint adventure?”

On all sides, leaders in commerce and industry are pointing to human engineering as a new frontier. Said the heir to one great industrial empire, “If we can solve the problems of human relations in production, I believe we can make as much progress toward lower costs in the next ten years as we made during the past hundred through the development of the machinery of mass production’.’

These opinions were not conceived synthetically to beautify after-dinner orations. They were born under the compulsions of three shattering experiences, universal in their impact and of great practical consequence—the world depression, the world war, and the power struggle following the war. Each of these experiences demonstrated in different ways that the idea of “economic man” was too simple, that people could not be accurately denned as “something for which a machine had not been invented” that the supreme problem of this generation was to match progress in technology with progress in human relations. To state the problem is not to solve it, however. Human engineering has a long way to go before it catches up with mechanical engineering, and when business men contemplate this enterprise they may well recall the lines of Santayana:

Our knowledge is a torch of smoky pine That lights the pathway but one step ahead Across a void of mystery and dread.

Scientists are usually the last to dogmatize, for they know how often their most cherished theories are overthrown. One investigation by Harvard professors devoted five years to observing the same girls doing the same job. Every conceivable variation in their personal lives and the conditions of their employment was carefully correlated with their output. Everyone was happy with the results because improved working conditions seemed to improve the output and the earnings of the workers. But then one investigator proposed to restore the original conditions—the forty-eight-hour week without rests, lunches, etc. Output, instead of declining as expected, maintained its high level. The theory that improved conditions and absence of fatigue automatically increased output seemed discredited.

A world-famous manufacturer of electrical equipment experimented with the effects of different lighting on the productivity of workers. To control the experiment, a group of individuals with no discoverable personality problems was selected and every provision was made for their contentment. With perfect lighting for their work, production of this group soared. When lighting was reduced it made no difference. Finally, working under an illumination no better than moonlight, this group remained as productive as ever. Evidently, workers who are satisfied can over come physical handicaps.

What are these powerful sentiments in human beings that underlie and often supersede the obvious incentives of improved conditions and rewards? That is a question that must interest not only employers, but salesmen, teachers, doctors, and dentists, in fact, anyone whose work calls for a deep-down understanding of people. Answers vary infinitely and gain by being specific, but here is a general conclusion reached by the Labor and Management Center of Yale University.

The goals of the human organism, whether it house a floor-sweeper or the president of a company, are to gain-

(1) The respect of his fellow-men;
(2) Material comforts and as much economic security as the most favored;
(3) Increasing control of his own affairs;
(4) Better understanding of forces and factors at work in his world;
(5) A basis of integrity for living.

This brief excursion along the frontier of human engineering may suggest the type of investigation that is taking place today. If it seems rather theoretical, Rotarians may recall the remark of Michael Faraday when he was showing his first experiment in electromagnet-ism. A member of parliament asked him of what use it was, and Faraday replied: “Well, of what use is a newborn baby? But you may be able to tax this some day.”

Rather more might be claimed for human engineering as it is being developed, not only in the study of employees, but in all phases of vocational service. Each business or professional relationship that involves people calls for careful examination of their goals, their sentiments, and their abilities. It calls for constant re-evaluation of personal attitudes and policies in the light of this examination. Each store, each office, each workshop, each factory is a laboratory of human engineering where living, vital knowledge is waiting to be organized.

From this viewpoint, the “recognition of the worthiness of all useful occupations” enjoined by Rotary’s Object, acquires an active significance. As eloquently described in a speech by the president of a Chinese Rotary club in the Far East, it involves humility, understanding, and leadership.

“The occupation of the cobbler,” he declared, “with his little rap-a-tap-tap stand on the street corner or the shoe-shine boy yelling to you ‘Shoe shine, Joe?’ along the sidewalk is just as worthy and dignified as the occupation of any banker with his office luxuriously fitted with paneled walls, telephones, cushions, and swivel chairs and all the fineries becoming of his occupation. However humble an occupation be, it is up to the man to make it worthy and dignified.

“Have you ever had the experience of taking a rickshaw ride without previous bargaining as to the price of the ride? Then, at the end of the journey, you give the rickshaw-puller a certain sum of money and he voluntarily returns to you some change without your asking? Well I have had that experience. More than once. Now what do you think of that rickshaw-puller? In my opinion, that rickshaw-puller has high standards in his business of rickshaw-pulling. He recognizes the dignity of his occupation. He feels that in accepting the whole sum of money you give him for the ride, he would be charging you an exorbitant price for his work. Ostensibly, he is trying to be fair to you. But subconsciously, he is rendering a distinct service to the community.

“These men, though they are not Rotarians and though their occupations are about the most humble in the social scale, are exemplifying not only the principles of Rotary, but are building upon the real foundation of all successful business enterprise—’business is service’. What these humble non-Rotarians are able to accomplish in their efforts to serve society, we as Rotarians should be able to do better; yes, in comparing the advantages we have over these men of humble occupation, we should be able to do thousands of times better.”

A confession comes from a Rotarian, so distinguished for his relations with his employees that he was selected as an employer-representative at the International Labor Conference. As the result of some unhappy experiences on the eve of his departure, he was feeling rather bitter about labor in general as he crossed the ocean. One evening in company with some fellow-delegates in the smoking-room, this feeling came to the surface in a somewhat vehement expression of misgivings concerning the whole picture of labor-management relations. In the midst of his lament, one of the delegates suddenly interrupted him. “Look here!’ he said, “I’m going to ask you a question. Don’t think. Just answer right away—quick! Do you like your men?”

As the Rotarian tells the story, he was considerably taken aback. “Do you know, I was unable to answer that question right away. If he had asked me whether I loved my wife or children, I would have said ‘yes’ without thinking. But when he put that question up to me and I couldn’t answer it, I knew there was something wrong with me. I should like to ask you— any of you—to go and sit down in a quiet corner and ask yourselves that question and see what your answer would be.

“The delegate’s advice to me was, ‘Go home and like them, and see the difference! “

Employees are people. Like all people, they like to be liked. It makes a difference that can be apparent in many ways. The visitor to a large plant where some marvelous new machines had been installed, commented to the president of the company: “They certainly are beauties, and I expect they cost you a pretty penny. But they weren’t what impressed me particularly. What struck me as we walked through those great shops was the look on the faces of your employees, the ready smile and the words exchanged with some of them. It showed that these people were glad to work with you and that even big business need not lose the personal touch!’

Treating employees as people involves inevitably the consideration of matters only remotely connected with their jobs. Tangible demonstrations of this friendly concern with the physical, social, and spiritual well-being o£ employees are legion. Provision of comfortable and healthy working conditions carries over naturally to the furnishing of free medical care and hospitalization for the employee and his dependents, economical housing, recreational facilities, paid vacations, and pensions.

“We try to make our workers’ lives worth living” was the simple explanation of one firm which had provided for the welfare of employees in all these ways.

Another firm which supported an exclusive country club for the recreation of its employees and their families proclaimed: “At the heart of our plan is the belief that the healthy worker will out-produce the sickly one, and that a happy worker will do more work and do it better, than a discontented one’.’

Nor are these efforts to treat employees like people confined to large and wealthy corporations. The small organization with its intimate first-name relationships can and often does plan extensively for its employees’ welfare. A Canadian employer told his vocational craft assembly at a Rotary convention how “we organize our workmen’.’

“We have bowling leagues in the wintertime’/ he stated, “and we give a banquet for them at the end of the season. We have picnics for them in the summertime. We have hockey games. Many of them go fishing and they bring back pictures of their catch. We give a prize for the biggest fish caught. They get a great kick out of it. You have got to work for those fellows because they are working for you. Pay them back in something besides coin, because coin won’t buy everything in this day and age!’

In a pamphlet called, “Firm Foundations,” issued by the Rotary Club of Capetown, South Africa, small business is advised how it can help its employees through savings plans, group insurance, and the guarantee of loans. A medical-aid society in which firms with only a few employees can participate was launched in Rhodesia. And for those who may doubt Rotary’s influence in vocational service, it should be noted that the impetus for this scheme came from the vocational service chairman of a Rotary club.

Employers who like their workers and think of them as people do not lack inspiring examples of tangible ways to express their sentiments. The list of benefits and welfare projects is inexhaustible and, in some ways, bewildering. Questions arise. Do employees appreciate what they are getting? Are these costly gratuities justified in terms of heightened morale, increased productivity, reduced labor turnover and less-frequent absences from work? Or are these typical replies taken from a recent poll of employees an indication that treating them like people may sometimes misfire?

“I thought the government paid for it!’
“They take it out of our pay!’
“I didn’t even know there were such benefits!’
“It’s paternalism!”

Such comments are not at all uncommon. As a response to a friendly gesture they are sometimes hard to take. Yet they do illustrate the dangers inherent in all social undertakings. That enlightened despot of Prussia who carried his concern for his subjects’ welfare so far that he went around dipping his linger into their cooking pots to assure himself that they were getting the right nourishment, is a warning to all of us. The self-conscious philanthropist with “an overpowering air of doing good” is generally resented and often suspected.

The mistakes of paternalism and all its disappointments can he avoided if common sense is mixed in liberal quantities with sentiment. A frank and objective recognition that the money spent on these benefits could be added to the workers’ pay may lead to the decision that they should be consulted about the project being planned. Or the individual employee can be left completely free to decide without stigma to his reputation as a “good fellow” whether he wants to participate in activities sponsored by the firm. In this way the concept that “employees are people” can be stretched to include the realization that they are “persons” too, with freedom of choice, and therefore more likely to join in where they have complete liberty to refuse.

On the other hand, enlightened self-interest should never be masked under a spurious benevolence. General statistics show that absenteeism costs as much as the average company’s net profit. Labor turnover in many plants runs as high as 50 per cent a year; and the cost of recruitment, placement, and training, even of an unskilled worker, averages close to a hundred dollars. Accordingly, there is ample justification of expenditures that help to keep employees healthy in mind and body, free from worry and happy in their jobs,. The benefits that produce these results can often be made available to employees as a group far more economically than they could be obtained individually. Frank explanation of these facts to employees can help remove any suspicion of paternalism.

Robots or human beings? In the last analysis, is it not a question of self-esteem? Happy is the worker who prides himself in the importance of his function. A Rotarian happened to sit next to a passenger on the bus who seemed completely wrapped up in his own thoughts. Every so often a
smile flitted across his face.

“You seem to be enjoying this ride, friend,” the Rotarian ventured to remark. The man started; then relaxed and smiled. “I must have looked silly,” he said, “but I have a good reason. I was just checking up on my engine.”

“What do you mean, your engine?” came back the Rotarian. “I though it belonged to the Blank Bus Company.”

“Oh, sure,” he answered, “but it’s still my baby. I’ve just put in two solid days on that power plant, and now listen to her, will you. Purring like a contented cat. Look,” he went on, “I hammer and measure and grind and adjust these motors for months at a time, and when I send them out on the road, they’re right! But the greatest enjoyment I get is when I sit here with thirty other passengers and see how the bus performs. It gives me a lift,” said he, “when I remember that the work I do in the shop is safety insurance for hundreds of people who ride these buses.”

In what ways can a Rotarian employer help to revive the spirit of craftsmanship?