The Rise of Corporate Darwinism: How to Opt Out and Still Survive / Strategy / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

How can businesses get maximum value from employees without treating them like numbers on a spreadsheet?

The media frequently depicts the business world as, at best, dysfunctional (see the TV series The Office and any Dilbert comic).

More often, it’s seen as downright evil. (Wolf of Wall Street, anyone? How about Buy n’ Large, an obvious reference to Wal-Mart, that is the cause of worldwide environmental destruction in WALL-E, a kid’s movie?) Despite the garage start-up mythos, personified by Steve Jobs, there’s a reason why the Occupy Wall Street Movement got a sympathetic ear or two even from people who toiled in the very institutions under protest.

Businesses get a bad rap in large part because of reported cases of bad actors (see the financial crisis of 2008), not to mention companies that actually commit criminal acts. And while technology has fostered flat organizational structures and flexible work schedules that promote greater opportunities for individual initiative and creativity, the very same technology empowers companies to push employees in ways, while not criminal, border on the exploitive.

Case in point is Amazon. A recent New York Timesreport depicts a toxic workplace of social Darwinism gone terribly wrong in which underperformers are quickly culled while those who remain are held to exacting standards that exceed what you might consider humane treatment. It’s so bad, in fact, that Jeff Bezos himself says he won’t tolerate the “callous management practices” depicted in the report and asked employees to report any instance of “stories like those reported.” 

Assuming, of course, those employees aren’t so scared of losing their jobs if they report such behavior.

Corporate Pressure to Succeed

We come not to praise or bury Amazon. We do note that businesses striving to survive, let alone succeed, in highly competitive markets may need to push their employees very hard. And as David Streitfield notes, “a new generation of workplace technology is allowing white-collar jobs to be tracked, tweaked and managed in ways that were difficult even a few years ago. Employers of all types…are using an increasingly wide range of tools to monitor workers’ efforts, help them focus, cheer them on and just make sure they show up on time.”

Related Article: 14 Best Tools to Measure Employee Performance

Those tools, like any tool, are subject to misuse. Are employees just another piece of data that can be crunched to achieve the most value?

We hope you agree the answer is no. At the same time, business owners are not operating a charity. It’s not unreasonable to expect employees to do what you are paying them to do, and to employ tools and techniques that can help improve that performance.

How do you balance the two? Here’s what we think:

  1. Set reasonable expectations. You’ve got every right to expect people to do their jobs. If they don’t meet those expectations, everyone deserves a second chance, as well as a clear explanation of what they have to do and how you’re going to support them doing it. Not to mention how long you’ll give them before you have to decide it may be better to part.
  2. Don’t stress. Okay, that’s not easy. Business can be stressful. Sometimes that stress provides a high. Oftentimes, it leads to ulcers and unhappy people. One way to measure stress levels is to consider whether (see above) you’ve set reasonable expectations. Another is to consider whether the stress is the result of a particular situation, or is ongoing. Consider also whether you’re providing enough support in terms of resources and people that could affect stress levels.
  3. Use data as positive reinforcement. No one wants to be frightened that their boss might see a report that X amount of keystrokes weren’t inputted in a given day. Use data to look at the big picture: what was the goal, was it accomplished, was it accomplished in the time it needed to be accomplished? If not, use data to determine why it wasn’t and suggest what can be fixed.
  4. Treat people like human beings. They’ve got outside interests. (Okay, some people are only interested in work, and while you may be one of them don’t assume everyone is like you.) They need time away from work for family reasons and for their own personal mental health. Sure, sometimes we have to work weekends. The emphasis here should be on “sometimes.”
  5. Allow for flexibility. Does it really matter if that email you just received originated from a nearby cube, or from someone at home who needs to be there for a sick child? There’s a fear that if you don’t see people working, then they aren’t working. Of course, there are those employees who if they aren’t seen won’t be working. If that’s the case, it’s perfectly reasonable for you to take the necessary steps to have them not work for you at all.

Related Article: What Makes Employees Happy? 3 Ways to Make Your Business a Great Place to Work

There are a whole slew of reasons why people work. For the pay, for the fulfillment, for the camaraderie. Your business can provide all those things. The result of happier employees who feel respected and well-treated is a more productive, more loyal workforce. That’s a proven measurement of long-term success.  


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