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The line between boosting staff performance and exploitation

The line between boosting staff performance and exploitation

Productivity is the Holy Grail of performance for management experts. Sadly, if not managed wisely, it can be a key ingredient in sweatshops.  However, there are plenty of ways to raise engagement and productivity without taking advantage of your staff. 

 Theory X and Theory Y

In the ’50s, a popular performance management idea emerged. Theory X saw staff as unruly automatons. Micromanage them. Feed them a fish for doing tricks (like you would a trained killer whale). Zap them if they try to bite the hand that feeds them.

Theory Y was the kinder, gentler path. Make a job intrinsically fulfilling. Teach staff caringly to fish, and they’ll do as asked with less supervision.

Today’s manager motivates with a combination of techniques from the X or Y sides. Either can be exploitative when applied unfairly, without balance, or cruelly.


Legal Barriers To Exploitation

Even with the hard-fought labour and human rights laws, the pressure to goose productivity, and squeeze out results without raising costs. As a result, this can lead to shortcuts. Exploitation occurs when regulated obligations are breached, such as:

  • Not paying minimum wage where required
  • Refusing to compensate for earned overtime
  • Allowing staff to be bullied, harassed or victimized by violence (physical or psychological)
  • Preventing people from taking their allotted holidays, including religious celebrations
  • Retaliating against whistleblowers
  • Ignoring workplace health and safety standards

Because of this, it isn’t OK to make summer students do dangerous work. Or reduce someone’s pay yet demand they do the same job as before (that’s constructive dismissal). Serfdom was abolished for a good reason.


Taking Advantage Of People Lawfully

In labour relations, employers tend to have more power than individual employees. Don’t be rubbing your hands gleefully over this like a greedy Gus. With power comes responsibility, even if not enforced by law.

It’s still a legal grey zone in Canada to insist staff answer emails and texts after work hours. There’s also a risk the employee could sued for overtime. Morally and morale-wise, though, pressing people to forego their freedom smells a lot like exploitation.

The same can be said for downsizing someone as a way to scare those remaining. Also, for setting unreasonable performance goals to make workers perspire. Fake rush deadlines, unreachable numbers that have to be achieved, not paying for adequate training…it’s abuse, plain and simple.


Catch More Flies With Honey Than Vinegar

“The flogging will continue until morale improves” is one way to coerce performance, a temporary (not sustainable) upswing. As such, good people quit preventively. The rest burn out and grow resentful. Consequently, it results in post noxious notes on employer review sites.

Why not shelve the whips and trust in Theory Y more? Try seven simple ways to cultivate a happy workplace. Introduce a bunch of inexpensive perks that can motivate employees. Entirely stop treating people like peasants.