Honest work: A look at the role of our work and our employers in our lives

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In The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work (2001), Joanne Ciulla takes readers on a journey through history to explore the nature and meaning of work, the evolution of the work ethic, and the role of work and leisure in our lives.

The author weaves in cultural perceptions of work, an overview of popular management theories, and a psychological analysis of our need to work. Ciulla ultimately tackles the most challenging philosophical questions of all: What is the meaning of life? What is the relationship between meaningful work, a meaningful life, and happiness?

Ciulla begins by exploring four psychological values that shape how we make choices about work: meaningful work, leisure, money and security. At various points in life, each value carries a different weight and trade-offs are necessary to give priority to those values most important to us at a given point in time.

Joanne Ciulla

Within the context of trade-offs, Ciulla also explores the opt-out syndrome among high-powered career women and the reasons why these women leave these positions, from “women can’t hack it” to the “maternal instinct is calling them home” to “the workplace doesn’t meet the needs of working moms.”

Authors, such as Tischler (2004) suggest that women “don’t compete as hard as men do.” However, Ciulla thinks that because women as a whole are newer to the workplace, they may more readily see that the emperor isn’t wearing clothes, as the old tale goes, and that these positions don’t fit into their value systems when life outside of work and the ability and the ability to spend more time with their families watching their children grow has greater psychological rewards.

Perhaps part of the context of the struggle for women who choose to opt-out is that for many in our culture, work is a central part of our identities. Throughout history, work has evolved from a curse to a calling, as the activities we can work and our attitudes about work have changed over time. Ciulla traces the rise and evolution of the “work ethic” as work moved from being a morally neutral activity to one that was association with religious values to an activity that is central to our lives. This ethic is the notion that hard work, dedication, self-reliance, and frugality and its clear definition of success or failure came to define the moral foundation of modern capitalism and marked an entire era in the history of the western world (Jackall, 2008).

This ethic was epitomized by the farmers, entrepreneurs, craftsmen, and small business owners who characterized the American cultural ideal of independence and held the notion of the work ethic (Ciulla, 2001; Jackall, 2008). The industrial revolution and the emergence of large corporations changed both the ethic that defined work and the nature of the work itself. Corporations, such as McDonald’s, mechanized work by reducing jobs from skilled work to tasks that could be performed by anyone, thus devaluing the nature of work (Kenner & Schlosser, 2009).

These changes were intertwined with management trends that evolved from a scientific management approach with an emphasis on task efficiency in the 1920s to an interest in developing a corporate culture in the 1980s that embodied an organizations core values, language, beliefs, and rituals. These large companies listened to workers—but the individualized work ethic diminished as employees were now expected to integrate their personalities and values with those of their employer (Ciulla, 2001; Solomon, 2008). Today, success in the upper echelon of an organization is socially defined, not individually achieved, and has little to do with mastering the job or with values that characterize the work ethic, but is related to the employee’s ability successfully network, maintain self-control, and be a team player, among other qualities (Jackall, 2008).

Large corporations blurred the boundaries between employee’s professional and social lives, requiring mastery of the corporate social realm of coffee breaks, corporate parties and lunchtime book clubs. These organizations also offered wellness programs and onsite daycare, and by fulfilling a wide range of needs that would otherwise be filled outside of work, these companies increased employee’s dependency on their jobs and employers.

And then companies betrayed workers by breaking an unwritten social compact that if employees were dedicated to the company and performed well, they would be rewarded with material benefits and longevity with the organization. In the 1990s, large corporations began to downsize, laying off legions of stellar employees. The loss of employment meant not only the loss of income, it also meant the loss of an identity, social network, support services, and sometimes their life savings as company pension plans evaporated (Spruell, 2002). The top brass, whose salary was 430 times the pay of the average worker (Cascio, 2006), walked off with a golden parachute.

The breach of this social compact calls into question the role of work in our lives and how we want to live. Modern work not only claims a greater part of our lives emotionally, it demands more of us because we are always tethered to our employers through electronic devices. The advancement of telecommuting and technology means that work can be done anywhere, anytime, and any place. This offers a level of convenience—the ability to work in the quiet of one’s home in the comfort of one’s pajamas, undistracted by co-workers requesting impromptu meetings, and phone calls.

However, telecommuting and technology mean that work claims more of our lives. It is not unusual to wake up in the predawn hours and find that colleagues have sent an email at 11 p.m. or 2 a.m. on weekdays or during the weekend. There is also the expectation—implicit or explicit—that they will receive a response within 12 to 24 hours. Colleagues respond to emails at all hours of the day, when they are walking the dogs in the morning, at the health club in the evening, with their relatives in the hospital, and on the beach for vacation. For wired employees, the bright line between work and leisure is blurred; because work is never left behind physically, work encroaches on leisure and is enmeshed with our values, making it difficult to separate our personal and professional lives and selves.

In one of the most tantalizing chapters, Ciulla explores leisure as the antithesis of work and as activities that “bring out what is best and most distinctive about being human.” Taking a rather Aristotelian and Utilitarian view of leisure with an emphasis on higher pleasure capacities if intellect and imagination (Gustafson, 2008), she defines leisure as intrinsically rewarding activities that require reflection, learning, or the development of skill. Work shapes and influences our leisure because the type of work we do may influence our leisure activities.

Those in sedentary occupations may choose sedentary leisure acidities, or leisure may compensate for skills, creativity or autonomy we cannot exercise in our employment. As Matthew Crawford (2010) asserts in “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” that we may take enjoyment in the independence, creativity, and physicality of making things or fixing things if our work is primarily intellectual. What Ciulla doesn’t always consider is that leisure is influenced not only by our work but also by our personalities, as researchers have long hypothesized that personality type and values may influence leisure (Melamed, Meir, & Samson, 1995).

Work also imposes challenges in engaging in leisure when work is always physically or mentally present, which supports the separation—not integration—of our work and life. Ciulla views amusements, such as television, with some disdain. She says there is something wrong with work when we are so sapped of energy at the end of the day that all we want to do is turn on the TV or it is all we can think of to occupy our time. As a society, we fail to engage in leisure activities that bring happiness and rejuvenation. The end of work is typically exhaustion and sleep, not leisure.

All too often, leisure is intertwined with consumption, creating a vicious cycle of earning, spending, and debt that tie us to our jobs and create the need for “earning power” to match our consumerism and consumption. Instead of engaging in leisure activities, we may be shopping for them, or we may use leisure consumerism to signal wealth and stature, or simply use our earnings to purchase rewards for the prodigious amount of time spent working.

Ciulla explores the tension between our working lives and our lives outside of the office. Since the 1950s, work has claimed more of our lives by requiring an integration of our personality with the workplace corporate culture and demanding more of our time and energy through electronic communications. While Solomon (2008) makes the case for integration and harmonization of business ethics and personal ethics and the integrity of people, Ciulla argues for greater separation between our working lives and our lives outside the office.

Ciulla advocates for honest work. In an era in which there is no longer job security, she extends the concept of managing for stakeholders (Freeman, 2008) and asserts that corporations have a social responsibility to employees to provide a just work environment. Corporations have a moral responsibility to honestly share information about corporate finances and to provide truthful feedback about performance that allows individuals to exercise the age-old work ethic in modern workplaces to achieve success through work for multiple employers. Corporations have a fundamental responsibility to provide just compensation and a work environment that allows workers to achieve work-life balance and find individual, intrinsic meaning in their lives inside and outside the office.

Although the book’s title promises discussion of modern work, the book plunges into a lengthy and broad overview of the history of work from ancient times to modern-day organizations, highlighting significant events such as the rise of labor unions as well as the social context of work as told in stories and theater throughout the times. Ciulla also reviews trends in management theories that have influenced American culture as well as other countries around the world.

The historical big picture provides a panoramic backdrop and bolsters Ciulla’s arguments; however, readers may be more interested in the second half of the book in which she addresses the challenges and issues found in the modern work environment. In the epilogue on “Honest Work,” Ciulla competently restates some of the major questions of the book and then responds to them, using the history as a guide and offering the reader a glimpse into her perspective on work.

Ciulla’s views on honest work and reexamination of the work ethic in this context are convincing and are neither overly cautions or stridently optimistic. The epilogue is one of the most interesting chapters, but all too short, leaving the reader thirsty for more insight. The one unsupported assertion is a focal point of the book—the four values shape how we choose our jobs. This assertion has common sense appeal, but no rationale is provided for the selection of these particular values, expect for a single reference that promises a somewhat different discussion of these values.

The book provides a broad-brush picture of issues, rather than exploring specific topics in depth, although Ciulla cites other books that are devoted to particular topics. She sometimes falls back on the journalistic technique of using extreme example to support a broad assertion, such as describing the Merrill Lynch telecommuting lab in 1998 as an example of the move by companies to impose structure and supervision on work at home. At Merrill Lynch, clerical workers had to spend a supervised day in a specialized lab, submit to a home inspection, and provide specific documentation prior to receiving permission to telecommute. This example may well be an outlier among the 1 in 5 workers around the globe who telecommute as the practice goes mainstream (Reaney, 2012).

One disappointment is that the author discusses work primarily from the perspective of the dominant experience of the majority. Much less attention is given to the historical context and issues of work related to women, and very little attention is given to the work history or experiences of people of color, or people with disabilities.  While Ciulla strives to offer a cultural context to her discussion of work, the book focuses predominantly on American culture.

In the introduction, Ciulla also offers the reader a glimpse into her own diverse work background in the early years of her career, in which she subsidized the first nine years of her teaching career as a waitress, bartender and cook, and her interactions with her students as a college professor, all of which have influenced her perspective.

In the end, Ciulla offers no blanket prescriptions or answers for many of her questions, but instead assists the reader by providing a perspective for their journey. She paints a realistic picture of contemporary work as a way to engage the reader in thinking about the role of work and the meaning of work in our lives given the new employment realities—and the choices and trade-offs that we must make.


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Crawford, M. B. (2010). Shop class as soulcraft: An inquiry into the value of work. New York: Penguin Press.

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