Who’s The Commodity Now?

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


I think we’d all agree that pretty much since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, too many companies have used ‘their’ employees as input, as a cost of production, as a commodity. They would hire people when they needed them, fire them when they didn’t, not show them very much loyalty, and certainly not give too much of a damn about their personal welfare. Fair’s fair, you can’t ask companies to keep people on the payroll when there is nothing for them to do, nor can you reasonably demand (at least not in the private sector) that employees be kept on regardless of their level of competence or attitude. But still.

It’s pretty easy to see how labour unions achieved such status in society, not to mention a vast body of employment law protecting both employees, but also employers from capitalism’s worst tendencies.

Just to be clear, I buy into the obvious creation of much higher living standards and wealth across society that the free enterprise system has delivered. I’m also globalist, let’s trade freely and raise our own and everyone else’s living standards at the same time. Just the same: It’s hard to see how you can aspire to build a really great corporate enterprise when you treat your employees like a number (with apologies to Bob Seger). Why would you expect anyone to give their best effort to a company when the company treats them as a unit cost?

More recently of us – myself certainly – have been very worried that the digital revolution would make this imbalance a whole lot worse with very many of the manual labour jobs, relied upon by so many, eliminated by laptops and robots.

But at least for the time being, and in my industry for the foreseeable future, the shoe is suddenly on the other foot. There aren’t enough qualified people available to do very many jobs, from straight up manual labour to the most highly paid professional positions. Suddenly, it seems, it’s the employees with the power to set terms. And you could argue that they are responding with the same kind of short sighted immediate self-interest that they used to be the brunt of. Give me what I want, now, I’ll worry about the longer term when the longer term comes.

In other words, after very many decades of resenting being treated like a commodity, I see many people – younger mostly, but of all ages – defining their professional existence in exactly those terms, auctioning themselves off to the highest bidder, while the getting is good. How much are you offering right now? Sold.

I’m sorry, but I just don’t see how the illogic on one side justifies the illogic on the other. If you don’t give a damn about your employees, how can you expect to build a great company? But if you don’t give a damn about your company or the people you work with, how can you expect to build a great career?

Just asking. I’d be happy to see if anyone has thoughts on this, born of something other than resentment of course.

Thanks for reading.