Codes of control: brand managing our humanity

What is it like to be a human being? It’s a question that each of us should be able to answer with some confidence – we each, after all, have the benefit of a unique longitudinal case study at our disposal. With sufficient self-awareness, one could in theory provide a reasonably accurate summary of their life: one’s strengths and weaknesses; one’s fears and desires; one’s interactions with other people, both positive and harmful.

Such an honest account would not always make for easy reading: unceasing virtue, needless to say, being an unknown human character trait. Nevertheless, perceived virtue has become a valuable commodity — brand management no longer only being about what a company produces, or how it acts, but increasingly about the character of the people it employs.

This has not always been the case. Labour became increasingly disconnected from home and community with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, while an employee’s value became more closely tied to what they could produce. In the absence of government regulation and a strong trade union movement, workers faced gruellingly long work hours and often abysmal conditions. This was in no sense a free contract: employment was a requirement for survival and one had no choice but to accept whatever they could get in order to maintain a functional life.

A natural consequence of such power imbalances was dehumanisation. To treat an individual as nothing more than a work unit is an act of distortion; a gradual scrubbing away of all of the characteristics which do not serve the narrow ends of production. Dehumanisation is a selective denial or suppression of elements of a person’s whole nature; a paradigm that seeks to justify mistreatment and social stratification. Companies that take too much from their employees – prioritising workers’ productive capacity too far above their personal needs – are guilty of this.

Until now, labour struggles have mostly revolved around pay and workplace conditions. Today, it is no longer uncommon for businesses to place regulations on their employees’ behaviour beyond the workplace. Such provisions will now often form part of an employee’s contract; sometimes couched in terms of a specific social media policy, or else as a general exhortation against bringing the company into disrepute.

The arbitrary quality of this latter clause makes it especially far-reaching. If it is perceived as possible for a company’s brand to be negatively impacted by an employee’s behaviour off the job, then a wide range of ‘disreputable’ non-workplace actions become punishable. As we see in cases both here and overseas, these can include anything from genuinely antisocial and illegal acts to drinking alcohol or expressing political dissent. We are lectured uncritically on the increasing blurring of our professional and private lives and the need to more carefully regulate what we say in public – suffice it to say, this blurring does not come with an hourly pay rate attached.

That companies would seek greater control over their employees’ lives should not be surprising. What is alarming is how little social resistance this has provoked. Indeed, not only do many people believe that a company has a right to exert this kind of control; in many cases, it is seen as a duty.

When a petition was pitched to Immigration Minister Peter Dutton in September last year requesting that an international performer with a history of domestic violence be banned from Australia on character grounds, concerns were raised within the Left that the progressive-led campaign was only serving to entrench the perceived legitimacy of the minister’s office. These fears seem to have been warranted: the use of such capricious character tests for explicitly racist purposes has only escalated in the twelve months since, with migrants being deported or imprisoned for traffic offences and less.

Such concerns can be applied equally to the use of workplace codes of conduct as means of regulating behaviour. Given the horrific, often anonymous abuse directed at minorities online, the desire to teach a racist or misogynistic internet bully a lesson by getting them fired is perfectly understandable. However, the long-term consequence of this approach is normalisation: a reinforcement of the principle that this is something companies can and should be doing.

Some will contend that the threat of discipline can reduce unethical behaviour. More likely, however, it becomes an incentive to become better at hiding one’s own failings – precisely the sort of response that acts as a barrier to self-reflection and positive behavioural change.

It seems hard to believe that the thing our society requires right now is more punishment and more vectors of power. The idea that the solely profit-driven commercial sector – the world’s most persistent barrier to progress – ought to further police our lives should be troubling to anyone with progressive political inclinations.

When the ability to stay in a job becomes contingent on personal virtue – on not having said or done anything that might, for whatever reason, be considered detrimental to the ‘brand’ – then an untraversable gap has opened up between what we are and what our jobs demand us to be. It is a gap that can only be filled by lies of omission. It is one thing to aspire to be a professional, ethical and competent employee; quite another to submit one’s moral character to a system that is only capable of measuring it as a financial asset or liability.

Human beings are not perfect. They are flawed, inconsistent, often ignorant, not always ethical and not always calm or reasonable. We should continue to strive for a society in which individuals treat each other better, and inequalities and injustice are eradicated. But if we must work in order to survive, as capitalism dictates, then we must demand to be treated like human beings. This entails a clearer, better-regulated distinction between the private and professional. Like any fundamental workers’ right, it will need to be fought for.

Image: ‘Escaping the Dome’ / Wikimedia

David Heslin

David Heslin is an essayist and film critic living in Melbourne. His work has appeared in Senses of Cinema, The National Times and New Matilda.

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