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Employee abuse is a structural problem
 

The conditions for sexual misconduct are baked right into the operation of most businesses.

click to enlarge Karen Foster is associate professor in the department of sociology and social anthropology at Dalhousie University. She teaches and researches in the sociology of work and rural Atlantic Canada. - SUBMITTED
  • Karen Foster is associate professor in the department of sociology and social anthropology at Dalhousie University. She teaches and researches in the sociology of work and rural Atlantic Canada.
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In the wake of every big #MeToo story, from Hollywood to Halifax, there is a temptation to figure out what went wrong. Who knew and did nothing? What psychological defect caused the perpetrator to treat others with such disrespect? What problematic culture exists in Industry X that allowed such abuses to grow and fester?

Granted, #MeToo represents an acknowledgement that sexual misconduct is not an interpersonal, psychological or localized problem. It's as if we flipped a switch to finally illuminate the invisible web created by and sustaining men's historical domination over women. We can't unsee the strands connecting the lewd comment in the elevator to the gendered pay gap, or women's public safety after dark to the economic devaluation of care-work in the home.

And yet we still regard workplace sexual misconduct as if it happens when something goes wrong in what would otherwise be the smooth operation of business. But what if the conditions for sexual misconduct were built right into the operation of most businesses from the start, in ways that are only partially gendered?

Last week, Zane Kelsall, part-owner of Two If By Sea and Anchored Coffee, stepped away from both companies after numerous women came forward with stories of unwanted sexual advances, and other employees corroborated, adding testimonials of manipulation and intimidation at work.

One unlikely detail from this story caught my eye: In the process of moving forward, the remaining owners decided to post caféeemployee schedules one month, rather than one week, in advance. This may seem to have nothing to do with women's safety at work. But lessons from the sociology of work suggest that it's inherently connected.

In a 2013 article, the sociologists Korczynski and Evans set out to analyze customer abuse of service industry workers. Most available explanations—lay and scholarly—fell into two camps: Psychological explanations that zeroed in on customers' brains, and "contingency" explanations that pinpointed the mistakes in workplace processes that triggered customer abuse—orders taking too long to arrive, or employees not trained to respond to complaints politely.

The authors argued that neither type of explanation sufficed because customer abuse is a structural problem rooted in the way the service sector is organized and positioned in society, and the power relations between workers and customers. In other words, it's not that things have gone wrong when customers abuse workers; rather, the system is working exactly as should be expected. I think the same is true when employers abuse their employees.

Korczynski and Evans identified two structural factors that also seem relevant to #MeToo in the workplace. The first is "the enchanting myth of customer sovereignty"—the idea that the customer is always right, always in control and at the centre of the earning and spending universe. In real life, when this "myth" breaks down, consumers are powerless and frustrated, and they lash out at employees.

The second factor is the weak power of labour. Anyone who depends, for rent and grocery money, on a combination of their own exceptional productivity and the benevolence of employers, is weak. This is especially the case wherever workers are non-unionized and in "precarious" non-permanent, part-time, poorly paid positions. Most importantly for #MeToo, weakened workers are not empowered to walk away, to demand change or to protect themselves.

Taking these lessons to our present context, we can ask ourselves: What "enchanting myths" allow employers to disrespect their employees? How about the myth of the brilliant, brave entrepreneur? Or the myth that employers are uniquely gifted while employees are unskilled and expendable? Is either myth gendered? Regarding labour's weakness, we can ask ourselves how we've come to believe that knowing one's work schedule more than a week in advance is a perk rather than a basic right. At the very least, we can stitch together two seemingly disconnected matters: worker autonomy and security, and their safety and empowerment at work.


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