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Study: Modern managers mimic slave owners

A Harvard historian discovered what many of us suspected: Today's corporations use many of the same management techniques plantation owners used on their slaves.

The legacy of slavery can be seen in aloof corporate managers (McKesson's CEO John Hammergren, for example.) They see workers as interchangeable units of production instead of human beings. They collect data on their work force, move workers around, demand speed-ups and liberally mete out punishment.

That, at least, is what Prof. Caitlin C. Rosenthal discovered, according to a story, titled "The Messy Link Between Slave Owners And Modern Management," in a pro-business magazine Forbes. Forbes' take on the historian's research was that it could be seen as a justification for slavery. Leave it to a business magazine to miss the point that it's an indictment of modern corporate management.

Here's what Rosenthal found when she set out to investigate the history of modern business practices:

Slave owners were able to collect data on their workforce in ways that other business owners couldn’t because they had complete control over their workers. They didn’t have to worry about turnover or recruiting new workers, and they could experiment with different tactics—moving workers around and demanding higher levels of output, even monitoring what they ate and how long new mothers breastfed their babies. And the slaves had no recourse... 

Tracking this information allowed planters to determine how far they could push their workers to get the most profit. Using the account books, slave owners could see how many pounds of cotton each slave picked and compare it to their output from previous years—and then create minimum picking requirements based on these calculations. 

This led owners to experiment with ways of increasing the pace of labor, Rosenthal explains, such as holding contests with small cash prizes for those who picked the most cotton, and then requiring the winners to pick that much cotton from there on out. Slave narratives describe how others used the data to calculate punishment, meting out whippings according to how many pounds each picker fell short. 

Similar incentive plans reappeared in early twentieth-century factories, with managers dangling the promise of cash rewards if their workers reached certain production levels. 

Planters also used group incentives to encourage honesty, doling out a barrel of corn to each hand with the caveat that if anything was stolen from the farm and no one turned in the thief, double the value of that corn would be deducted from each of their Christmas awards. Collective penalties would later be adopted by salesmen and companies like Singer Sewing Company to encourage workers to police one another.

Weove noted in the past that technology is allowing corporations to bring employee surveillance to a new level. At the British grocery chain Tesco, warehouse workers have to wear armbands so their bosses can monitor how hard they're working.

Rosenthal said her research led to a question:

If today we are using management techniques that were also used on slave plantations, how much more careful do we need to be? How much more do we need to think about our responsibility to people?

One commenter put it more succinctly:

Slavery never ended, it just shifted to a different form.

Actually, it hasn't shifted to a different form in a lot of places. There are 30 million slaves in the world. Click here to see where they are.

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