Valley Voices

When employer power reaches into our private lives

Lars Maischak
Lars Maischak

The recent online uproar over Lars Maischak’s inflammatory tweets about President Trump and his administration crystallized around two views:

▪  demands that he be fired for his online behavior

▪  statements that his behavior was protected speech and, therefore, not an offense for which he can be dismissed.

I would like to interject a broader question into the debate in hopes of moving us beyond polemics. What aspects of an employee’s life should an employer be permitted to regulate? Should behavior outside the workplace impinge on how the employee is assessed and treated in the workplace?

Managerial practices in the contemporary labor market make it difficult to figure out the boundaries of the workplace. Corporations describe employees as family members. The professional managerial class enjoys employer-sponsored wellness programs, gyms and after-hours events.

Pink collar workers are inundated with employer-sponsored material that stresses the benefits of adopting their employer’s media savvy identity. Such symbolically-rich practices are strategic: they build loyalty among employees even as benefits, job security and wages have contracted and working conditions have worsened.

Employers across industries have begun to demand more and more access into employees’ personal lives as extending their control of workers. Some employers have been caught monitoring Facebook accounts to see if employees are organizing to counter draconian workplace changes.

Other employers warn employees about making political contributions to particular candidates or causes. Some have forced employees of the same workplace who date one another to sign “love contracts” that are meant to insulate employers from legal actions if the relationship sours. One university fired then was forced to reinstate a professor who moonlighted as a dominatrix.

Such practices make it seem normal for an employer to be able to demand that an employee conform to employer-specific standards in their private lives when they have no bearing on how an employee performs in the workplace.

Does a worker’s participation in a religious group that she relentlessly documents through social media affect her ability to wait tables? We all know people – even teachers – who participate in all sorts of activities that they never mention at work. Why do we suddenly see political speech as a suspect category of behavior that threatens to undermine the workplace even when it is not expressed there?

We should be worried about employers reaching into our private lives. And we should be even more worried about expecting that employers should do so. Both signal creeping authoritarianism disguised as “good business.”

To counter this shift, it would be well worth us remembering our shared past. We need to think about how worker’s political viewpoints have limited or expanded access to jobs and to consider the implications of such filtering for the broader political environment. It seems to me that we need historians who are attentive to these issues. Maischak is one of them.

Kathryn Forbes is a professor in the Women’s Studies Program at Fresno State. Connect with her at kathrynf@csufresno.edu.

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