Coercive Control In The Workplace

Quite rightly Coercive Control in the personal realm is now a criminal offence but surely in the workplace ‘coercive control’ is the norm?

Some of the characteristics of the crime of Coercive Control are listed as….

  • Isolating you from your friends and family
  • Controlling how much money you have and how you spend it
  • Monitoring your activities and your movements
  • Repeatedly putting you down, calling you names or telling you that you are worthless
  • Threatening to harm you
  • Threatening to publish information about you or to report you to the authorities
  • Forcing you to take part in criminal activity

To me that sounds like what happens in many workplaces on a daily basis.

Okay, I’m exaggerating for comic effect… but am I really? If threatening to sack you is viewed as ‘threatening to harm you’ and reporting you to your boss or to HR is viewed as equivalent to “publish information about you or to report you to the authorities” and “Forcing you to take part in criminal activity” is viewed as forcing you to purposefully deceive clients and customers, then frankly this IS what happens in most workplaces on a daily basis.

It has always amazed that people put up with this kind of totalitarianism at work in a way that they would never put up with it in the domestic or political domains. And its not just that they ‘put up with it’ most people seem to think that is entirely reasonable to be ruled by a dictatorship at work. Few people ever really challenge this idea. Even when the despotic rule becomes unjust, cruel and vindictive many people take the few that ‘it’s work’ and that ‘the boss’ can basically do anything they want and order any employee to do anything they want.

But why do we accept this?

Work is an exchange. The employer pays wages or fees for specific and defined labour to be provided by the employee. Other than monitoring and confirming that the defined labour is completed to an agreed standard in an agreed time frame, what controls over the employee does the employer think they should have? Well, in many workplaces it seems employers think they should have complete and coercive control.

In May last year Elizabeth Anderson published Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It) a book based on the prestigious Tanner Lectures delivered at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values. In the book she points out that one in four American workers says their workplace is a “dictatorship” and she raises the question of why we are willing to put up with this tyranny in the workplace.

“In many workplaces, employers minutely regulate workers’ speech, clothing, and manners, leaving them with little privacy and few other rights. And employers often extend their authority to workers’ off-duty lives. Workers can be fired for their political speech, recreational activities, diet, and almost anything else employers care to govern.”

We can add that in many workplaces CCTV cameras monitor absolutely every space, including restrooms. In many workplaces taking or making a private phone call during working hours is a sackable offence. So in such a workplace a worker is being expected to abandon any and all domestic responsibilities they may have outside the workplace during their working hours. This isn’t ‘efficient’; its psychopathic! Human beings have literally been reduced to ‘human resources’ to be exploited to the maximum. In the cotton plantations of the South and the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, slaves were seen entirely as expendable (sub) human resources and were worked until they dropped dead. They had no rights and were owed no consideration because they were simply units of slave labour rather than ‘persons’ in their own rights.

It seems to me that the principles of ‘scientific management’ and the ‘engineering of processes’ that emerged in the 20th Century are taking us back to the conditions of ‘wage slavery’ that dominated the 19th Century industrial revolution.

There is no moral reasoning that can justify tyranny in the workplace anymore that it can be justified in the political or domestic domains. Tyranny is tyranny and no man has the right to be a tyrant whether he be a king, CEO or middle manager.

In the workplace, just as in the political and domestic domains, we need to assert the principles of democratic governance and the human rights to autonomy, security and dignity.


About I Am Not A Number

I Am Not A Number is written by Chris Jury. For 30 years Chris Jury was a TV actor, director and writer best known for playing Eric Catchpole in over 60 episodes of the BBC’s antique classic, Lovejoy, and for directing over 50 episodes of Eastenders. In 2008 he was appointed as the Senior Lecturer in Recorded Media in the School Of Music & Performing Arts at Bath Spa University. He currently presents, Agitpop, a pop & politics radio discussion programme on North Cotswold Community Radio He is currently the Communications Officer for UCU at Bath Spa University and a UCU SW Regional Rep at SWTUC.
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2 Responses to Coercive Control In The Workplace

  1. Sean Will says:

    While I agree with you, I can’t see it changing.

    Any attempt to regulate corporate behaviour would result in less economic growth. The Tories are desperately trying to grow the economy and are more likely to decrease regulation (leading to more unfairness in the work place). If they don’t turn the economy around, they will lose the next general election.

    The core problem is that workplace coercion is hard to define and monitor (the managers that do it, know how to package it so it seems like a sensible corporate policy). This means it’s hard for governments to regulate.

    The only solution I can see is changing the dynamics from an employer’s economy to an employee’s economy (having more roles than workers) which would force employer’s to be nicer to employees. This would have the downside of less tax receipts which is why the government would never support it.

    • Mmmm. I’m not talking about ‘abusive’ behaviour in the workplace, I’m talking about the whole idea that ‘bosses’ have the right to ‘boss’ workers. Managers fulfil necessary tasks but why should ‘managers’, essentially bureaucrats, have the right to ‘order’ workers about the way they do and be rewarded so disproportionately well for doing so?

      Why do we accept a de facto tyranny during the activity that takes up most of our working lives and often defines our sense of ourselves and our worth?

      Strong unions and workplace democracy can change the dynamic in the workplace and improve sales, productivity and morale.

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