Social Question

SmashTheState's avatar

Do employers have the ethical right to create "make-work"?

Asked by SmashTheState (9636 points ) May 31st, 2010

Many years ago, I started work at a convenience store, working the midnight shift. The boss had a simple rule: you are never permitted to sit down. His philosophy was, he was paying for your time, and therefore he did not see that you had any right to sit down for any of that period.

One night, I had finished all my work: floors swept and mopped, shelves restocked and cans priced, drink machine cleaned, milk rotated, and so on. There was literally nothing left to do—so I decided to sit down. The boss (who was in the store supervising) told me I was not permitted to sit, that I must find something to do, since he was paying me for my time. I asked him what he wanted me to do, and he began listing tasks, all of which I had performed. When he couldn’t think of anything else, he ordered me to mop the floor. Again.

I refused. I had just mopped the floor, and doing so again was nothing but make-work. I was fired on the spot for insubordination.

Who was in the wrong?

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34 Answers

Ltryptophan's avatar

If you wanted to keep that job you were in the wrong. In the grand moral scheme of what people ought to do and ought not do, he was wrong. It was his job to get the most out of your labor. They were paying you for labor. They were also paying a supervisor to supervise your labor and make sure of how it was done. You should have spoken with someone higher up…

Jeruba's avatar

This question makes me think of another member, now gone, who devoted a lot of questions to refighting past family battles and wanting to be told she was right. I understand feeling indignation over an old injustice, even when it’s too late to do anything about it. I’m just wondering if the question you asked is really the one you want the answer to—or in other words, how we can help with what’s really bothering you.

YARNLADY's avatar

Why on earth would anyone ever refuse to do what the boss asked? He pays you to work, and if that means he wants you to mop the floor every half hour, who are you to complain? The worker who won’t do as the boss asks is in the wrong and should not longer be working a that hob.

FutureMemory's avatar

I would have quit too. That guy was obviously a complete prick.

As far as if he had the “right” to tell you not to sit…he has the right to tell you what tasks to do, and if he chooses for you to do the same work you just completed (that requires standing…) then tough shit for you, basically.

SmashTheState's avatar

@Jeruba Obviously I think I was in the right. I mean, if I didn’t think I was right, I wouldn’t have done it. I’m not here looking for a pat on the back. Which is good, because knowing the politics of folks around here, I’m damned sure I won’t get one. I’m genuinely interested in discussion on the issue, since it’s not a question with an uninteresting answer in the sense of game theory (where there is an obvious best-case option). I’m inviting disagreement, and am not in the least afraid of being told I’m wrong.

Ivan's avatar

Well, he has the authority to do what he did, but he was in the wrong. He’s paying you to complete tasks that need to be completed. You had already completed them, and thus had already earned your money.

SmashTheState's avatar

@YARNLADY I’m a card-carrying wobbly and we have a long, proud tradition of telling the boss where he can get off. (By the way, we’re the ones who got you an 8 hour workday. You’re welcome.) The boss purchases our labour, not our soul. As long as all the work gets done—and wobblies work harder than anyone else on the job because we know the bosses will use any slacking on our part as ammunition against union organizing—the boss should get no say in it.

Silhouette's avatar

You both were. Him for acting like a turd and you for refusing to do what said turd who was paying your salary told you to do.

Ivan's avatar

@Silhouette

You’re being paid to do a job, not follow every order your employer gives you.

Silhouette's avatar

@Ivan Apparently not true in this case. Times are tough, if my employer told me to quack like a duck while I performed my duties, I’d quack like a duck. Quack, quack.

AmWiser's avatar

Your boss’ rule: “you are never permitted to sit down”. So when you finished all your tasks why didn’t you just stand around? You could have stood around and looked busy (that’s a job in itself).

john65pennington's avatar

Your first mistake was sitting down. you knew this person did not want you to sit down for any reason, other than fainting. i would have invented anything to do, just to keep him happy. jobs are too short and as long as it was not illegal or immorale, i would have counted the number of candy bars on one shelf over and over and over again.

jerv's avatar

And this is why I lost stripes in the Navy….

Jeruba's avatar

The terms of employment might have been ridiculous, but if you agreed to them, I’d say the boss was within his rights.

However, I would never take the position that a person should just mindlessly obey a boss no matter what he asks. Enron comes to mind. As does My Lai. “I was just following orders.” People are still responsible for their own actions.

ItalianPrincess1217's avatar

He might have been an asshole but you refused to listen, so you were fired. That’s life. My job requires that I never sit either. I would never even think of sitting down on the job. I make myself look busy even if it’s pointless, meaningless work. Of course, I actually care about keeping my job.

jerv's avatar

Unfortunately, right now it really is an employer’s market, so if you are not 150% perfect for minimum wage, they can (and often will) toss your ass to the curb.

It may be argued that slavery ended almost 150 years ago, but the truth is that it restarted during the Bush-43 administration, right after the economy went to shit, and shows no real sign of ending any time soon.

Silhouette's avatar

In all seriousness, I can’t see why you couldn’t have mopped the floor one more time. If it were me, I’d rather stay busy. Makes the hours go faster and really what convenience store wouldn’t benefit from a second moping. Had anyone washed the windows? Part of any job is looking for unfinished business to attend to.

YARNLADY's avatar

I have to say, that in my own house I can offer an example of doing the same work twice. Someone dropped a bottle of soda on the floor in the kitchen and then proceeded to clean it up, so I wouldn’t see it. The obvious evidence of the spill was removed. But, when I walked in the kitchen with my bare feet (I don’t wear shoes) I stuck to the floor. There was no sign of the spill, at first, but on further inspection, I found splashes all over the cabinets and the bottom of the refrigerator, and of course the floor – which had no visible soda on it!

When is “clean” really clean? Don’t you ask any of my kids or grandkids, because they don’t have the foggiest idea.

FutureMemory's avatar

@YARNLADY But, when I walked in the kitchen with my bare feet (I don’t wear shoes) I stuck to the floor.

How long were you stuck for?

lifeflame's avatar

I think @SmashTheState is trying to probe at the bigger question of whether it’s wrong to create “work for the sake of filling up time”. I don’t know if it’s ethically wrong, but I do know that it is inefficient. I’d much rather pay people to complete the task than to hang around for a set amount of hours; and I know as someone on the receiving end—who incidentally was much faster than everyone else in doing tasks, it wasn’t fun at all. I ended up creating a lot of “projects” to do—“I think the company would do to update the website, let me figure out how to code” sort of thing, which ended up to be good news for all of us, but well, it required a lot of creativity on my part. I’m sure there are studies that say it is much more efficient to cut people’s working hours if there is nothing for them to do than to sap their energy having them hang around.

I think it comes down to really, what you consider “work” as for. If it is purely for paying the bills, then what the heck, you should do whatever is needed, blindly following orders, making the boss happy. But if, however, you see work as a vocation, then it would be wrong to do something that is meaningless to you. You would then quit mindless jobs and find a way—no matter how hard it is—to earn money and do something meaningful at the same time.

YARNLADY's avatar

@lifeflame Ha, Ha, I got my laugh for today, thank you. I was only stuck as each foot came up and went down, not permanently – although, sometimes I wonder.

beancrisp's avatar

You could have went to the bathroom and sat down.

augustlan's avatar

I once worked in a Hallmark card store that had the same rules. No matter what, we couldn’t sit down. We had to straighten cards in our down time, even if they were already perfectly straight. I, too, thought it was ridiculous… we used to hide in between the racks, sitting on the floor! I sort of understand why this is common in retail environments, though. Even if you’ve finished all of your tasks, you still have to be there for your entire shift and a customer can walk in at any moment. In that setting, a sitting employee can appear to be a lazy employee… or at least give the impression that the customer is interrupting their leisure time.

Worse, to me, is making busy work in an office environment. I worked for a man as his second full-time office manager (he ran two businesses out of one location). The other manager and I were the only office employees, and we were routinely done working by lunch time, or 2:00PM at the latest. In fact, I could have done both of our jobs by myself, in the time allotted. He would not consider letting one of us go altogether, or even switch to part-time. Basically we sat around and twiddled our thumbs for hours every day. So boring! So stupid. But, hey, it’s his business and his money.

YARNLADY's avatar

Probably it would make a lot more sense to simply have a plan to pay you for the work you actually perform at one rate, and the time you simply ‘sit’ there at a much lower rate.

jerv's avatar

@YARNLADY In that case, those that earn the most right now would take a big cut in pay unless they were already on salary and thus made it irrelevant what a person did.

One of the arguments used a lot in the Navy was that many of us earned less than we would working 4 hours a day at McDonalds and thus our employer got what they paid for. (Before you argue about the benefits, the real value of the non-wage compensation isn’t much; you’d be better off at 40 hrs/wk at minimum wage until you hit E-5.)

YARNLADY's avatar

@jerv I was referring to the specific OP, not all employment in general

In the military, there is a lot of non-salary compensation that is not taken into consideration.

SmashTheState's avatar

@YARNLADY Since I was making minimum wage, they couldn’t pay me less. And they certainly weren’t about to pay me more.

It never fails to amaze me that the people expected to work hardest are precisely those who are paid least, and the ones permitted to loaf all day are those who “earn” the most. This is exactly the opposite of the system Plato proposed in The Republic, where those who do the least desirable jobs are paid the most, while the so-called “Men of Gold” who rule the society are paid a pittance and live in dire poverty, doing the job only out of ultruistic desire to serve the community.

reverie's avatar

If you don’t mind, I’m not going to comment on the specifics of your situation, because I think it could get into a tedious discussion about whether floors really were clean, whether there were any other tasks that could have been done, and so on.

I think this discussion highlights the huge distinctions between paying for someone’s time, and paying for what that person actually does. I think the latter is much more desirable and sensible, since it involves paying people for their skills and what they actually produce. I think the former, at best, can be open to abuse by people who work inefficiently, or deliberately work slowly on tasks (whilst being paid the same as fast workers). At worst, I think paying for time can be horribly degrading to the employee, and result in situations like the one you describe.

I understand that paying for time is a necessity in certain situations (e.g., someone has to be on a checkout till in a shop even if there are no customers), but at other times, I think employers can and should exercise discretion, and ask themselves whether or not their employees respect and dignity is worth more than getting every last bit of their money’s worth of that person’s time, just because the contract gives them that “power”.

Generally speaking, I’m often surprised at the number of people who consider an employment contract so holy that they would be prepared to be degraded or humiliated in the name of being an obedient worker. Clearly, I understand the importance of a pay cheque in the monetised society that we live in, but I think people should draw the line somewhere (i.e., when they feel degraded, that’s probably over the line). I’m not a unionist, and in fact, disagree with a number of things that prominent unions do in my country. Having said that, if there is genuinely no benefit to be had in asking someone to repeat a task, I think it is insulting and degrading to insist upon their doing so just because you can.

YARNLADY's avatar

The military uses a similar method to get recruits into the habit of taking orders. I once observed a group of 5 men being ordered to polish a statue, followed by a second group and then a third group. Every one of them polished the same statue within ½ hour of each other.

jerv's avatar

@YARNLADY Free medical that you get in trouble for if you use it unless you are carted in on a stretcher doesn’t count. Trust me; I had to undergo a psych eval almost lost a stripe because some Lt. thought I had too many visits. (Most of them were either me being hauled in for heat exhaustion or follow-ups that the medical officer ordered me to go to, so I basically got in trouble for a combination of stuff beyond my control and following orders.)
Dental? I only got to see the dentist three times in 5–½ years; entrance physical, exit physical, and getting my wisdom teeth yanked in Boot Camp (which they screwed up and I wound up with four days bed rest instead of two.)
Housing? Substandard. Lead paint, asbestos, etcetera. I can tolerate being stacked three or four high and sharing a bedroom the size of a Uhaul truck with 20–30 other guys, but I at least like it to be safe to breathe in.
Free food? Maybe for other branches and those on shore duty, but my watch schedule was often at odds with mealtime, forcing me to spend my own money to eat out of the ship’s store.
GI bill? Well, there are restrictions and limits on it. I suppose I could’ve paid for three semesters, but after that I would’ve been on my own.

Overall, definitely not as good a deal as people think it is. The only good benefit really is the full pension after 20 years, if you make it that long. Unfortunately, when I was in, some ratings were closed enough that you couldn’t advance to a rank that would allow you to stay in that long due to the “up or out” policy.

It may be a little better nowadays after there was a stink raised about how many active duty servicemembers qualified for public assistance like food stamps and/or welfare, but it still isn’t as great a deal as they make it out to be. I didn’t feel it worthwhile to do 60–100 hrs a week for $13K/yr with worse benefits than I got for working “only” 40 hours a week when I got out.

Sure, it may have gotten better if I had stuck around long enough to hit E-5 or above, but that would’ve been at least a couple more years if I was lucky.

The one plus side that I won’t debate is that it’s hard to get fired.

YARNLADY's avatar

@jerv yet not totally impossible – my son managed to get fired from the Navy

jerv's avatar

@YARNLADY True. But I know people who tried to get “fired” and yet were kept in.

Yetanotheruser's avatar

I got laid off from the Navy. I was three years into a six year obligation, and was released from active duty due to an authorized reduction in force. This was in 1970, when we were starting to wind the action down in Viet Nam.

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