Paying workers with positivity

What kind of wage-cutting schemes can they dream up behind these doors?/ Brett Nielsen

What kind of wage-cutting schemes can they dream up behind these doors?/ Brett Nielsen

U of R gets to research more ways on how to avoid giving workers raises

When I think of research labs, I think of chemistry beakers, test tubes, petri dishes and all sorts of other scientific paraphernalia. Imagine my surprise and curiosity when I learned that the U of R Faculty of Business would also be getting a research lab. The name of this lab, according to the Leader-Post, is the Laboratory for Behavioural Business Research. This alone should be of some concern. According to the article’s paraphrasing of U of R business professor Dr. Lisa Watson, the lab will be used to research and study “counterproductive and anti-social behaviour in business settings.” When I read this, my curiosity turned to dread. The most powerful and influential corporations already operate on an unspoken premise to manage their employees without actually improving their conditions; this would just allow them to fleece their employees more efficiently.

If you open a business section in the news today, you’re bound to hear news about how employees are facing precarious futures and how wages and benefits are under attack. What sort of behaviours do you think you could expect from employees in such a climate? Anti-social probably: if your future is precarious, would you really be in a socializing mood? And, would you really be in a place to be productive if you had to survive on low pay? I know I wouldn’t. Given all this, why is the Business Faculty choosing now as the time to invest in a behavioural research facility?

In his book, Empire of Illusion, American commentator and general misanthrope Chris Hedges describes the experience of a FedEx employee at a company retreat in Fresno, California, in 2006. This employee said that a company spokeswoman tried to make the employees feel cheerful about working for FedEx, but veteran employees felt embarrassed that they had worked there for 20 years. However, neither he nor others wanted to speak out for fear of being denied their 25-cent pay raise.

This is an example of the spin and hypocrisy that occupies business circles today. I remember when I attended a business dinner (I had been invited by a former boss during a Co-Op term), the main speaker talked about such business-coping strategies as hiding your problems from your family. Hers was one of the glibbest speeches I have heard, and yet it was very dangerous.

The core message within was that you must suppress all your emotions and focus on your work. Of course, this is important for many places in life outside of work. However, if you have concerns about your workplace, will a smile simply wash all the problems away? I would say no. Try telling the U of T Teaching Assistants that they only need to approach their work more positively and see how far ignoring the rising cost of living in Toronto goes. Even better, try improving the conditions of fast-food workers in the U.S. by studying their “counterproductive behaviours” rather than simply giving them $15 per hour as they want. It’s pretty hard to be happy if you can barely survive.

We are currently living in a time when there is reason for the next generation to fear for their future. And, despite concerns over whether students would even get jobs, the U of R’s business faculty seems set on researching psychological deviances that occur within businesses. Of course, there might be side benefits to the research done at this new business laboratory, but I am not seeing it. Rather, I see another tool that will educate otherwise decent students into the methods of lying and bullshitting others while they cut jobs and restructure companies in the name of profits.

Business has ceased being about entrepreneurship and innovation a long time ago; it’s all about quick and easy profits. The strongest obstacle to profits is the human brain. Wouldn’t it be great for businesses if were temporarily subdued by means of happy thoughts?


  1. Sandeep Mishra 19 March, 2015 at 18:08

    As the project leader on this grant, it is utterly amazing to me that the author of this op-ed reached these conclusions. Clearly the author did not read the actual grant, nor contact the researchers before writing this unbelievably misleading piece.

    My research program is dedicated to understanding how social and economic inequality facilitates affects health and well-being outcomes, including gambling and problem gambling. What part of my research is the most evil — the part where I study grass roots social ills like inequality? Or the part where I’m trying to improve people’s health and well-being? Maybe it’s trying to reduce gambling or problem gambling?

    I would suggest actually investigating what members of the Faculty of Business Administration actually study before pretending to understand and translate for a larger audience.

    It is beyond embarrassing that this passes as journalism.

  2. Sandeep Mishra 19 March, 2015 at 18:19

    I am the project leader on the grant that the author of this so-called piece of journalism has painted as unmitigated evil. It is eminently clear that the author did not read the actual grant, nor contact any of the researchers for information. I won’t get into the fact that the author completely mischaracterized the nature of “antisocial behavior” that we proposed to study in the grant — I’ll leave that to an op-ed response that is (hopefully) forthcoming.

    Rather, let me tell you what I research, for a start. My research program is dedicated to understanding how social and economic inequality affects health and well-being, with a specific focus on understanding risky behaviors like gambling and problem gambling. Which part of my research program do you find to be evil or offensive? My focus on grassroots social and economic issues like inequality? Maybe it’s my seeking to improve health and well-being? Perhaps it’s that reducing gambling and problem gambling is offensive to you?

    I would strongly suggest to the author that in the future, before posting such an inflammatory, clearly un-researched piece, doing some actual background research might be useful.

    It is beyond embarrassing that this counts as journalism. Airing one’s personal prejudices about a whole field of research without even bothering to take a look at what people in that field actually do is offensive.

  3. Pamela Moore 21 March, 2015 at 12:55

    To the Editor – regarding Paying Workers with Positivity (read on line)
    While it is understandable that Sandeep Mishra would feel the need to defend his Grant and his research plans, Mr. Matkovsky’s article did not strike me a being a criticism of the researcher or his intent.
    My perception was that it was a commentary on the idea of yet more invasive categorizing of employee behaviour for business.

    Mishra’s intent seems to be to try to define parameters of social and economic inequality contributing to problematic behaviour such as gambling.
    A noble goal.
    That isn’t what the concern expressed by Matkovsky’s article is regarding from my reading. He doesn’t criticize any one researcher or proposal.

    The concern lies in behaviour research methodology for purposes of businesses using it to control their employees even further. Personality “typing/character” is already used extensively and taking it to this level raises concerns about the information gathered and how it will be utilized. Establishing a “laboratory” to study anti-social and even more “counter-productive” behaviour takes it to a different level.
    How will it be used to define whom to hire, fire and evaluate and control?

    It seems to me Mr. Matkovsky is just stirring up those questions.

    Pamela Moore R.Ac.
    (Former Registered Nurse, Former Pharmaceutical Rep., Currently an Acupuncturist for 14 years)

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