We Will Not Go Quietly

A riot in China and new feedback software show dignity is on the march. And it is shaping workplaces around the globe.

I’ve been struck in the past several days by seemingly disparate events. A worker riot in China, news that labor’s share of income in the U.S. has dropped sharply in the past three decades and the launch of a new employee feedback software brand.

I think, though, that these dots can be connected. Just what is the link? Dignity. Some fundamental human desire to be heard and be treated decently. It’s on the march. And it is shaping workplaces around the globe.

The ravings of a hopeless idealist? Maybe. But look at the dots individually and taken together.

* In China, employees at a giant factory owned by controversial electronics manufacturing company Foxconn confronted security guards who allegedly attacked a pair of drunken, fighting workers. The melee morphed into a broader riot, with workers smashing windows and setting fires. Behind the conflagration, though, was worker frustration with harsh security guards, long hours and repressive living conditions.

As the Wall Street Journal put it: “The riot raises questions about the sustainability of China’s vaunted manufacturing machine. And it poses a challenge to the government that is struggling to satisfy the soaring expectations of a new generation of Chinese workers who came of age in an era of double-digit economic growth and are less willing than their parents to make personal sacrifices for their country.”

This incident is not isolated, moreover. It is part of a series of labor protests over the past few years as younger Chinese have tapped technologies such as mobile phones and social networks to demand better of employers.

* Back in the United States, a recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland finds that “Labor income has been declining as a share of total income earned in the United States for the past three decades.” That is, earnings from wages, salaries, and other work-related compensation are shrinking relative to “capital income,” which includes interest, dividends, and other investment returns. And this trend has contributed to income inequality in America.

The report is another sign that since the 1980s owners and management have had the upper hand over workers. That shift began symbolically with Ronald Reagan breaking the air-traffic controllers union. But it also has encompassed trends including technology advances and globalization—allowing those very Foxconn workers in China to compete against U.S. workers and leading to stagnant or declining wages for many American employees.

American workers may not have fought back or rioted against this gradual loss of ground vs. capital. But in significant ways, they have pushed back against greedy employers and bad bosses. Armed with tools like Facebook, Twitter and Glassdoor.com, they have been speaking out about their workplaces. Millennials especially are demanding that organizations look out for their career development and progress.

* That brings us to the last dot. At the Salesforce.com conference last week, the company announced the new brand name for the social performance management firm it bought earlier this year. Rypple has become Work.com. It is one of several software tools that aim to tap the power of people collaborating in informal ways and satisfy employees’ hunger for feedback. With Work.com, for example, employees can recognize each other for a job well done, and managers can provide rapid coaching comments and track goals.

Rypple co-founder David Stein, who has moved over to Salesforce.com, sees his software as fitting into an emerging “employment deal” in which organizations have to address the way workers today see themselves as “CEOs” of their own careers. “A lot of what a company needs to do to retain people has shifted,” he says.

To me, that shift boils down to treating people with dignity. Workers from China to San Francisco to Berlin want to have a voice and be treated well. Expect a ruckus—a real-world or virtual one—if you don’t heed that demand.

Ed Frauenheim is senior editor at Workforce. Comment below or email efrauenheim@workforce.com.