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Recently I attended an international meeting, and while trying to find suitable recurring web-meeting dates for future interaction among the members, I motioned to block as few nights in advance as possible. My motivation for this motion was quite simple: I have a private life and I want to keep a maximum of evenings open for plannable leisure-time activities. The second I had uttered my request, I got a reply that was only partially meant to be funny: “You have a private life?”

Well, in the end we settled for a compromise (two nights each week), and that might be the end of this little anecdote. But, as usual, to me there is more to this story than immediately meets the eye.

The reason for why I share this little “hap” in my life is that it belongs to a type of experience many of my acquaintances have made during the course of their professional lives. Here are some few examples.

  • A PhD student is told by his advisor that setting aside two evening hours a week for learning a “useless” language is unacceptable. After all, the student could produce more papers during this time.
  • A corporate researcher is bluntly told that his career is over after he has taken paternal leave.
  • Another corporate researcher, after a burn out, is told by his superior that he either works 90 hours per week or that he will face the consequences.
  • A researcher who garners disbelief from some her colleagues when she tells them that she does not work during her holidays.
  • An acquaintance and his co-workers, who refer to the site where they work as a penal institution.

Hearing these anecdotes and experiencing something at least partly related made me think: maybe there is a bigger pattern here?

The plural of “anecdote” is not “facts”

But what is the evidence for this really being a pattern? Well, it turns out, such evidence is actually hard to come by, since “incidents” of this kind usually are not publicised or made part of official labour statistics. OECD data, for instance, indicates a worldwide decline of average weekly hours, and even the percentage of those working long hours seems to have declined. However, this picture is, already at first glance, deceiving. While, for instance, OECD data reports an average US work week of slightly less than 40 h, the true average is higher, since the OECD data does not seem to reflect paid overtime; and this is not only to be the case for the US. Furthermore, even the “true” figure of 47 h per week and more in the US most likely errs on the low side since, among other due to modern telecommunications, the amount of unpaid overtime outside the official work hours seems to increase at a brisk pace.

So much about overtime. What about “retaliation”, about not being promoted due to paternity leave and the like? Well, at least one study seems to support what had been reported to me.

I know that the above does not qualify as overwhelming evidence, but for within this blog post let us assume that the incidents reported to me actually represent reality fairly well. The next question is of course: what is the cause of these types of incidents? Or are is there maybe more than one cause?

A Weberian explanation

Let’s get back to the above list of incidents. What do all these incidents have in common? First, the recipient is often signalled that she/he does not have the right to a private life. This might not always be spelled out, but the message is always “there”. Second, these incidents seem to reveal an almost religious zeal among the “perpetrators”. It is almost as if there was this semi-secret gospel of the worker bee: work, until you die, or else!

My impression of a religious foundation for the above incidents is not merely based on my feeling. Rather, as Max Weber already pointed out at the beginning of the 20th century, the success of capitalism might be based on a Protestant work ethic. In short, Max Weber tied secular success to its heavenly counterpart: if you are successful here on earth, your entry into heaven is almost guaranteed. Readers interested in a concise summary and thorough discussion of the Protestant work ethic are recommended to have a look at Himanen’s The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age.

If Weber’s idea was true, it could explain the almost religious fervour my acquaintances experienced in the above situations. It could also explain why no discussion can be had in such situations; after all, the behaviour criticised indicates a lack of righteous believe in rewards in the hereafter. Why would the “perpetrators” argue with someone who so obviously has fallen from faith? Yes, I know, few people, if any, subscribe to this religious narrative. However, despite secularisation, work as the warrant of an abstract, transcendental reward, might have remained a part of our culture. This could actually explain why no discussion can be had in such situations, because there is no explanation: the religious foundation of the Weberian argument has evaporated and nothing else is left. Notice that even if a discussion is had, the “perpetrator’s” arguments usual have an existential dimension: instead of demanding something that should not be demanded, praise your luck for having a job after all!

Well, while Weber’s explanation seems to carry some water, and while it does a good job at explaining the fervour behind the “perpetrator’s” arguments, Weber’s explanation might just be yet another case of correlation fallacy and confirmation bias. There seems to be some correlation between Protestantism and the fast rise of capitalism in Europe, but evidence for direct causation is lacking, and other explanations, like the increase of literacy due to Protestantism and the positive impact literacy has on entrepreneurship, seem to fit the observed rise of capitalism in the Western World at least equally well. For a summary of relevant criticism please have a look at the pertinent Wikipedia page. So, in summary, since there is little direct support for Weber’s explanation, and since alternative hypotheses are solidly bolstered by empirical evidence, we have to abandon Weber’s explanation despite its attractiveness.

But it is not just an illusion!

However, although the veracity of Weber’s claim is more than doubtful, it is hard to escape the impression of fundamentalism at work when looking at the dynamics of how work-life-balance-related disputes pan out. In order to put a finger on why it feels like this, let us have a second look at the above arguments, and why the counter arguments (praise your luck of being employed …) and actions (termination of career …) come across as missing the mark and as being grossly disproportional.

In Himanen’s book, Linus Torvalds discusses three levels of work motivation: food, family, fun. At the basic level, we work for sustenance (food, shelter, etc.). Once these basal needs are covered, family comes next. The family level not only encompasses one’s own family, but also friends. Work should foster family life and flourishing friendships instead of diminishing it or making it impossible. The fostering here is often indirect. For instance, by being paid enough to outsource some of our daily chores (ironing, car repair) we have more time at hand for communing with friends and family. Third, work itself needs to be fun. This is not to be understood as work as a party, but work fuelling and sustaining one’s passion(s). Note well that the family argument is invoked by the recipients in some of the examples I gave. Also notice that the standard come back some of my acquaintances got (“be happy that you have a job after all”) does not operate at the same level, but resorts to the basic level (food). Instead of addressing the desires of the different workers on their own terms (family, fun), basic fears are kindled by resorting to only thinly veiled existential threats (food). It is this resort to a more basic, fundamental threat that creates the impression of fundamentalism that I wrote about earlier.

However, since Weber is out of the picture, what alternative explanations do we have for this mismatch in communication and the seeming fundamentalism behind the above replies and reactions?

Work as “play” – an explanation based on decision theory and game theory 

Instead of resorting to explanations that are based in a common culture let us see whether a transaction-centric explanation might be more successful. In this approach, we look at individual encounters and then generalise based on these individual cases. The tools I will use for this analysis are decision theory and game theory. Let me illustrate this kind of analysis with example three from the above list: a worker is pressured to work extra hours “off the book” or otherwise “pay the consequence”. How do we analyse this situation given the tools of decision theory? Well, this theory emphasises the importance of utility: a strategy incurring a higher utility is usually favourable above all others. Utility is usually been taken to be the product of the outcome of a strategy times the likelihood of this outcome. Note well that utility usually comes across as a somewhat unintuitive concept. For instance, if a lottery jackpot is one hundred million dollars and the the likelihood of winning said jackpot is one in then million, then the utility is ten Euros. Those versed in statistics know utility by another name: expectation. What utility eludes to is the average outcome. In the lottery example, if I buy ten million tickets, I will, on average win once, i.e. get one hundred million Euros. So my average win per ticket is one hundred Euros divided by ten million, viz. ten Euros.

Let us have a look at the available strategies and the related utilities from the employee’s point of view. The utility matrix in this case can look as below. (No worries, explanations are provided below.)

\begin{tabular}{l | c | c} & \textsl{Get fired} & \textsl{Do not get fired}\\\hline \textbf{Work unpaid overtime}& Wage loss & Loss of potential wage due to unpaid overtime\\\textbf{Do not work unpaid overtime}& Wage loss & No wage loss, but some uncertainty\end{tabular}

The first column represents the strategies available to the employee. The first row (italics) represents the “state of the world”, i.e. the potential outcomes independent of the choice of the employee. For instance, the employee can choose not to work unpaid overtime and get fired (“state of the world”). In this case, she would suffer a loss of income due to unemployment and the prospect of not earning as much in her next employment.

Note: I know that employees usually do not fired for obeying their employer’s request, but the outcome matrix does not reflect the likelihood of this event. Even if this event is astronomically unlikely, the outcome (wage loss) still would be incurred in the very unlikely case that this event materialises.

The utility of a decision is the sum of the utility over all possible outcomes (here: “fired” and “not fired”). Admittedly it is not readily obvious which of the above strategies has the higher utility. In order to make this clearer let me rewrite this table a bit. This time I show the sum utility for each choice.

\begin{tabular}{l | c } \textbf{Work unpaid overtime}& wage loss * likelihood of getting fired\\ \textbf{Do not work unpaid overtime}& wage loss * likelihood of getting fired \end{tabular}

Both strategies seem to have the same utility, but since the likelihood of getting fired after rejecting the order of a superior (second row) is higher than when obeying the order (first row), the strategy of obeying the order and working unpaid hours comes with smaller loss and is thus favourable as long as not obeying orders increases the likelihood of getting fired even a little bit.

So much about the employee. How does the decision matrix look like for the employer?

\begin{tabular}{l | c | c} & \textsl{Employee does not obey, leaves} & \textsl{Employee obeys \& stays}\\\hline \textbf{Request unpaid overtime}& Cost due to rehiring & Net win due to lower hourly cost \\\textbf{Do not request unpaid overtime}& Rehiring cost & 0\end{tabular}

Notice that the the scenario “no request, but employee leaves anyway” is not impossible, since the employee might have other reasons for leaving the company. However, in the following, I assume the likelihood of this happening to be much smaller than the employee leaving after having been asked to work unpaid overtime. This argument is similar to the one used when discussing the employee’s perspective.

In the employer’s decision matrix, the strategy not to request unpaid overtime always comes with a net cost, however with a very small one, since the related likelihood is very small (see above). For simplicity, let us assume the utility of the strategy not to ask to be zero. However, the strategy to request overtime (first row) can come with a net win for the employer depending on the rehiring cost. Let us, for instance, assume that the rehiring cost is half the regular annual salary of the  employee (including the opportunity cost), and that the employer asked for 20% unpaid overtime. In the case of a 50/50 chance for the employee leaving, it is rational for the employer to pressure the employer into working more if the employee can be assumed to stay at least two and a half more years. So, the only thing an employer needs to do is to make the utility for unpaid overtime (expected win) larger than the rehiring utility (expected loss). Realistically, the likelihood of employees quitting their job is rather unlikely due to high general unemployment, so even “modest” overtime requests can quickly pay off.

From a game-theoretical perspective, there is a stable solution to this situation, since it is always beneficial for the employee to work more and the strategy of the employer to request unpaid overtime can readily be made beneficial.

Is it really that simple?

The analysis of the employer strategy to demand overtime seems to be a bit unrealistic. One caveat is that employers cannot be expected to work a lot of overtime without, for instance, getting sick. Well, there are two answers to this caveat. In case sick time is a cost for the employer, she could just request a work time increase that does not make the employee sick. What if long-term sick-leave costs are not paid by the employer, but are diluted due to, e.g. single-payer insurance schemes? Well, in that case it is actually worthwhile for the employer to push employees as much as possible, given that the short-term efficiency gain (lower hourly wage) outweighs the cost of rehiring once the employee is “burned out”. This of course assumes that an adequate replacement can be found, but this is rather a mild concern in a world characterised by high unemployment.

In summary, a decision- and game-theoretical analysis of one interaction in my list of examples reveals that it is in the self-interest for the employer to resort to existential threats. Note well that the outcome of such an analysis is in principle the same if the employee is not fired but demoted or simply not promoted.

This analysis also explains why doubling down and threatening the employee is a winning strategy. As long as the existential threat does not significantly increase the likelihood of the employee leaving the company over staying and giving in, existential threats directly “cash in” due to the productivity gain. So, according to decision and game theory, the above examples of employer “despotism” are anything but unexpected.

A threat strategy can of course be a short-sighted strategy, as the productivity of employees can also be enhanced by investing in better work climates, but the pursuing the threat strategy now and then is very attractive to employers since this it does not require any initial investment besides simply making the threat.

No end to “despotism” at work?

The above analysis showed that a Weberian explanation does not hold much water and that a simple, rational-actor based analysis does a fair job at explaining the seeming prevalence of single-sided threats at the work place. However, one might retort that the rational-actor theory falls short at predicting why work hours have decreased at all, and why we only see some of the work force putting in unpaid over time and not all the work force.

But even in this situation one can make an argument based on decision theory. The countries and professions that are characterised by strong worker unions seem to be those that experience overall work-hour decreases and a somewhat controlled increase of overtime. The power of unions stems from collective actions. “Bad” employers can be directly punished through strikes, or fines for “despotism” can become part of a labour contract. So, if an employer threatens an employer and the union becomes aware of this happening, retribution can be doled out by the union. In this case the employer decision matrix looks as follows.

\begin{tabular}{l | c | c | c | c} & \textsl{Employee leaves} & \textsl{leaves \& complains} & \textsl{complies \& stays} & \textsl{complies, stays \& complains}\\\hline \textbf{Request unpaid overtime}& Rehiring cost & Rehiring cost + "union retribution" & Productivity gain & Productivity gain - "union retribution" \\\textbf{Do not request unpaid overtime}& Rehiring cost & rehiring cost &0& 0\end{tabular}

Whether it is still lucrative for a employer to threaten the employer depends of the likelihood of each of the employee actions, and also on the retribution cost. Let us, for instance, assume that the employee will stay with the company (for instance, due to a high overall unemployment in the country), but that the likelihood of her complaining to the union is non-zero. In this case, a mathematical analysis shows that the threat scenario becomes lucrative when the productivity gain due to unpaid overtime divided by the likelihood of the employee staying with the company (but complaining anyway) is larger than the fine. For instance, if there is a 1/9 chance for the employee to complain, the retribution cost needs to be nine times larger than the overtime gain in order to be an efficient deterrent against employer “despotism”.

So, while decision and game theory might be rather simplistic and while they can have low explanatory power in situations of irrational behaviour, they seem to be very powerful concerning “despotism” at work.

So sociological explanations ain’t any good?

The above analysis seems to imply that sociology does not offer sound and satisfying explanations for the observed “despotism” at work. But that is only because I singled out the Weberian account. Michel Foucault, for instance, presented a revised formulation of power in the second half of the twentieth century, and the above decision/game analysis actually fits very well into Foucault’s framework. According to Foucault pretty much anything social is sated with power dynamics, and the execution of power is often rather tacit and internalised than open and oppressive. This observation fits well with the introductory anecdotes. The reported incidents were not the result of institutionalised patterns, and the threat and power execution is sometimes rather subtle. Also, as in the case of the employee not working during the holidays, the hegemonic power is actually executed by colleagues, i.e. proxies, and not by the employer. A Focaultian approach also explains why hardly any employer consults outcome matrices before engaging in “despotism”; such decision often are carried out subconsciously, but the manifest strategies are those that comply with established power dynamics.


Thanks are due to Miranda Bruce at the Australian National University for directing my attention Foucault’s inquiry into power and for sharing her ample knowledge with me.


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