Jill Andresky Fraser

Jill Andresky Fraser

Photo by Andrea I. Burtman

Jill Andresky Fraser has just published with Norton & Company the book White-Collar Sweatshop – The Deterioration of Work and Its Rewards in Corporate America. She has also written The Best US Cities for Working Women. She has written on business and finance for The New York Times, the New York Observer, and Forbes magazine. She is currently the finance editor of Inc. magazine and a general editor of Bloomberg Personal Finance.

White-Collar Sweatshop – The Deterioration of Work and Its Rewards in Corporate America is a searing indictment of corporate management in the roaring ’90s which has shattered the future of the white-collar worker. If you look at the stock market, or at the corporate bottom line, it seems the best of times. But look into the lives of average middle managers, and we are living in the worst of times. Media attention has focused either on the horrors of massive layoffs or on episodic explosions of corporate violence. But for those millions of Americans who have neither been laid off nor “gone postal,” life at the office has become a corporate nightmare: seven-day-a-week work loads; reduced salaries, pensions, or benefits; virtual enslavement to technology; and a pervasive fear about job security. What has happened to the American dream? With facts, figures, and trenchant case histories, Jill Fraser chronicles this catastrophic sea change in industry after industry: telecommunications, the media, banking, information technology, Wall Street.

She lives with her husband and two children in New York City and Montauk, New York.

This interview was conducted by Haym Benaroya and took place between March and June 2001.

Resonance: When I started to read White-Collar Sweatshop, I was expecting to read a well- researched, but “business” book, meaning the dry exposition of some nefarious business practices. Rather, I found myself reading a well-researched exposé that centered on the declining personal and professional fortunes of real people. This is an excellent and important work. While I had some knowledge of these declining fortunes, this knowledge never sank into my psyche. Reading about these case studies actually took a toll on me. It really made me very sad, not only for these people, but for our society. When you wrote the last parts of your book, you pointed to the market volatility. Now that the market has gone back in time about two years in its price indexes, will there be a re-thinking of the brutal management styles of the past decades? Is there a silver lining, at least for the employees of large corporations?

Fraser: I’m sorry to report that I don’t see a silver lining, at least for now. This past year of stock market volatility and poor corporate earnings has, if anything, resulted in even tougher conditions for many white-collar workers. It’s almost impossible to pick up the newspaper without reading about another layoff, even by companies whose own results remain strong. (A good example is General Electric, which announced its plans to eliminate nearly 20,000 jobs at the same time that it reported an increase of 16% in its quarterly net earnings!) A growing trend among many large employers lately has been to set up ratings-and-ranking systems, which Intel has relied upon for years, to help target “under performing” employers (often the first step in positioning those employees for a layoff). So jobs at these large corporations are becoming, if anything, even more precarious.

Resonance: You point out in one chapter how executive compensation is not only excessive, but has been decoupled from performance measures. One reason mentioned is that it seemed to work for a while if we use stock price as an indicator of corporate success. Could another reason be the incestuous relations between corporate boards, where many of the same people sit on a variety of such boards?

Fraser: There are lots of reasons to criticize the boards of directors at many large corporations and “incestuous” relations is certainly one of them. But there are other problems as well: These jobs are often viewed as cushy, well-paid sinecures where board members are expected to go along with whatever “program” is recommended by the CEO and internal managers. Board members are also, often, compensated through similar stock deals from those that motivate CEO’s and their key executives. So, despite the fact that these people should be focused on longer-term considerations and long-term planning, they’re often as preoccupied as chief executives are about what’s happening with the company’s stock today and tomorrow.

Resonance: Many of the processes of our society today are based on short-term thinking. The reliance on quarterly profit reports has driven CEOs and those around them to ignore anything further out than one or two quarters. Some exceptions may be the high end of the technologies. Look at energy policy. In 1973 we had cold water thrown in our collective faces by OPEC. And yet, in 2001 we haven’t a coherent policy to reduce our reliance on foreign oil. The gas consumption rates of our SUVs are at least as high as those of the monster cars of the sixties. Our homes are on average two to three times as large and contain a whole host of electricity- consuming devices that did not exist a couple of decades ago. This leads me to my point. While I would agree with you that the “bad guys” here are the CEOs and their Wall Street enablers, weren’t we all playing the same game? Some were pawns and some kings. All of us were in it for the money, for which we were willing to give up peace of mind, time with our families, for years or decades at a time. The only difference between the employee and the CEO was the level of compensation, not the frame of mind or willingness to sacrifice. It is true that some would have preferred the corporate life of the fifties, but many were taken in by the mirage of future riches. What do you think?

Fraser: Your question is an interesting one, but I’m convinced that — for all those people who might have accepted our culture of overwork and overstress because they were either addicted to a high-consumption lifestyle or were simply workaholics — the vast majority of white-collar workers have had no choice. My book documents the fact that many of the same people who are putting in 10, 12 or more hours each day (and then taking their jobs home with them) are the ones with paychecks of $30,000, $40,000, $60,000 a year. Most of them never saw anything resembling a stock option in their compensation packages. If they own stock at all, they do it through their 401K plans (and it’s worth pointing out that large numbers of companies are cutting back or eliminating any type of pension or retirement-savings plan). So I don’t really accept the notion that we’re all to blame for our current corporate environment of overwork and under- reward.

Resonance: In you final chapter, A Path Out of the White-Collar “Sweatshop”, you point to certain developments that signal coming changes to corporate life as we know them: the rise of unions and the willingness of white-collar employees to join them, and investor activism to name two. Another could be the bursting of the bubble of NASDAQ and the biological impossibility of obtaining more work from less people. A point of diminishing returns has been reached. You have pointed this out, that society has paid a high price for the complete domination of employees’ time. These employees’ children are growing up in a way we, as a society, might not have wanted. Community groups no longer have the participation of local residents. In a sense, society has subsidized the growth of corporations without much of a rate of return. Can this problem be placed in a framework that acknowledges the need for shared benefits derived from shared risk/cost?

Fraser: It should be placed in that framework, but I’m not sure how that’s going to happen, without some kind of external push — either from government regulations (not the likeliest of scenarios in our current political environment) or from white-collar unionization efforts (which still show only sporadic signs of occurring). One of the things that I talk about in my book is that way that corporate employees can use the internet as part of a grassroots informal organizing strategy in which, even without a union, they begun to communicate across department lines and swap stories, share strategies and, most importantly, publicize internal conditions to the outside world, including large institutional investors in their companies.

Resonance: Is there a larger societal cause for the lack of concern shown by corporate managers and Wall Street for the employees that support such organizations?

Fraser: During the 1980’s and ’90’s, it seems to me that there was a fundamental shift in our social priorities. Regardless of how much lip-service (and newspaper headlines) we devoted to issues such as education, teenage violence, teenage drug use, and other social problems, we were preoccupied with the economic boom and our prolonged bull market. We began to lionize America’s CEO’s — which usually meant people like Jack Welch of GE, Andy Grove of Intel, or Al Dunlap of Scott Paper, who were closely identified with the overwork movement. And we didn’t seem willing to ask ourselves the tough questions, including: How much of our economic boom has depended upon inhumane work conditions and excessive demands that have exacted a large and costly toll upon our communities.

Resonance: How would you, or do you, protect yourself from the kinds of practices that you describe?

Fraser: I, personally, have not worked on the staff of a magazine for about 15 years now, since my son was about 2 years old. That’s because I wasn’t willing to make the necessary tradeoffs in my personal life, including leaving home by 8 a.m. and often not getting home before 9 or 10 p.m. But my choice to work as an independent contractor has carried with it its own costs, including the heavy tax penalties that our government imposes upon self-employed people like myself, and the burden of paying for benefits for myself and my family. (My husband worked for a corporation for many years, but when he decided to switch to independent-contractor status himself, for quality of life reasons, I could scarcely blame him!) But that choice, obviously, isn’t for everyone. So I think that people need to be very aggressive, when it comes time to search for a job, about looking for employers who are willing to honor their own priorities (whether that means not having to take work home with them, or being able to schedule work-free vacations, or leaving the office every day at 5 or 6 p.m.). It is possible to find jobs like these, especially if your skill set is in demand. So it’s important not to give up before trying.

Resonance: How long did it take you to conceive, research and write White-Collar Sweatshop?

Fraser: I came to this book through my life as a business journalist. I became aware, back in the mid-90’s, of what seemed to be a very great discrepancy. When I would interview CEO’s, or the people at top jobs at large corporations, they were relentlessly upbeat about how strong their companies were and how well-positioned they were to dominate the increasingly global economy. But when I’d interview other people, at all other rungs of the corporate ladder, I heard very different stories: They were burned-out by excessively demand workloads and demoralized, they were cynical about management’s lack of long-term vision, and they felt that all these great corporate results depended upon a very unfair culture of overwork and under-reward. I wanted to make sense of that “disconnect.”

Resonance: Has there been, or will there be, a backlash from corporations on “being exposed” in this way, especially those that are named?

Fraser: I’m not aware of a backlash from the corporations that I “named” in my book — other than general denials of unhappiness or problems in their workforces. But for independent observers, the evidence behind my case is everywhere, including on many of the websites that I talk about throughout White-Collar Sweatshop.

Resonance: Speaking to a young person of about 13-14 years old, just entering High School, what advice would you offer?

Fraser: My advice to a high school student would be this: Your future work life can be a sense of intellectual challenge, emotional gratification and enrichment on many different levels — or it can turn out to be something quite different, as many of the stories in my book reveal. I’d urge you, as you complete your education, to think about your own priorities when it comes to matters of career development and quality-of-life issues and then to pursue those priorities aggressively once you enter the job market. You, and your generation, can help press for change in corporate America and for a return to a fairer, more humane approach to work and its rewards. Don’t settle for less.