Workers Deserve Dignity

Look out below, Chainsaw Al Dunlap is at it again. You may remember him from his job-slashing post at Scott Paper Co., where he showed how amazing he is in the cleanup department. I'd love to let him loose on my basement. But apparently he's busy these days. In his new CEO post at Sunbeam Corp. in Miami, Dunlap announced Nov. 12 that he's going to lay off half the company's employees, and double revenues.This rip-'em-up -- cutting 6,300 jobs out of a workforce of 12,000 -- is even more drastic than the 40 percent cuts analysts expected. And the guy's fast. He arrived at Sunbeam only in July, and says he'll have the job cuts done 45 days from now. But admittedly, the doubling of revenues to $2 billion could take three years. What a relief. Employees will have time to practice sprinting down the halls, and training to endure sleeplessness, before they have to quadruple their output. What a guy Al is. He'll probably let the laid-off folks smoke a cigarette before they face the firing squad.If I was a shareholder in Sunbeam, I would be very happy right now. Al plans to raise operating profits from their current 2.5 percent, to an astronomical 20 percent. If I was a Sunbeam employee right now, I'd be weeping and gnashing my teeth and rending my garments. And I would be asking myself: Who invented the comforting lie that a rising tide lifts all boats? Sunbeam is more like a lock-and-dam operation these days: Let the water out of the employee compartment, and raise the boats in the stockholder compartment. Push quality of life down for employees, in order to push it up for stockholders.So much for the theory -- popular among business ethicists -- that "In order to serve stockholders well, you have to serve all other stakeholders first." What we're seeing in corporations like Sunbeam today is a refutation of that squishy, airhead idea. The theorem at work goes more like this: "In order to serve stockholders well, you have to squeeze the living daylights out of employees."In too many corporations today, employees are being treated as tools, not greatly different than equipment: Something that has no intrinsic worth, only an instrumental value. Something to be used to create wealth for others, and to be discarded when no longer useful.Al and his buddies must have missed history class in eighth grade, because word of the Enlightenment apparently hasn't reached them yet. I'd advise them to set aside their "reengineering" texts (which already seem dated after, what, five years?), and acquaint themselves with some ideas others have revered for two hundred years. They're ideas that have the lifespan of a mountain, while reengineering has a lifespan more like a mosquito. Look it up in your encyclopedia at home, guys: "Enlightenment." No, it's not a New Age term.It was in 1795 that Immanuel Kant uttered this truth, still very much alive today. Every man, he wrote, "exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means for arbitrary use by this or that will." He expressed this principle as a simple imperative: "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity ... never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end." He called this principle "the supreme limiting condition of every man's freedom of action."We might also call it the supreme limiting condition of the free market. Yes, we are all free to go out and get as rich as we can -- but not by picking someone else's pocket. Yes, we are all free to climb as high as we can -- but not by pushing someone else's face in the mud.The ideal that Kant expressed is one of the founding ideals of America: that no person is a tool for another person's aims -- even if that other be the king. Each person is an inviolable end in himself -- even if he or she is a commoner.Stockholders may well have a "right" to expect higher returns, as Dunlap says. But employees have a right to something more sacred. It's called human dignity. It's the right to be treated not as a tool, but as a human being.


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