Rage Within the Machine

Bosses are using digital technology to monitor workers as never before. And as never before, workers are striking back.

The e-mail message--or "The Manifesto," as it came to be known--spread like a wildfire. On this mid-September afternoon, the worker bees at American Express Financial Advisors' Mutual Fund and Certificate Transaction Line were manning their assigned stations on the seventh floor of the Peavey Building in downtown Minneapolis. But one of the Tran Line agents didn't have his headset strapped on to answer the usual barrage of investors' queries about the status of their holdings. Nor was he otherwise engaged in company business.

Instead, with a click of his mouse, he announced his resignation, dispatching to his colleagues and bosses a not-so-fond farewell: a 3,500-plus-word screed, part earnest capitalist critique (a lambasting of AmEx CEO Harvey Golub, who "made 450 times what I made last year"), part metaphysical hokum (a quote attributed to a character from "the truly outstanding film The Matrix" that goes, "They have created a prison FOR your mind"). The author, who titled his opus "Some final thoughts..." and signed himself "Seth Jones," concluded with a woozy call to arms: "Pleasure is a feeling that you can take with you no matter what happens. Whether it is a behind the barbed wire or in front of the computer. It is your secret, the feeling of your dream. Let nothing stop that feeling. Nothing. Nothing. Neti. Neti. Neti. The Path of NO. FIGHT THE FUTURE. WAKE UP YOU ARE NOT DREAMING. THIS IS NOT A TEST. WALK IN THE MYSTERY AND WONDER OF HER BEAUTY."

According to Tran Line staffers (who wish to remain nameless), the missive was the stuff of instant legend. "We couldn't stop talking about it all that day. We still can't stop," recalls one. Like many of her colleagues, she was wowed by the Manifesto--for one thing, she'd never imagined the secret passions harbored by her fellow cube dweller; for another, the things Jones wrote made sense to her. She too had come to resent the intrusions into what she regarded as fundamentally private matters, including the recent issuance of a questionnaire asking employees to disclose what they do during breaks.

John Pritchett

"I always said, 'The day I quit, I'm throwing paper in the air,'" says the woman. "But that guy--he went companywide! He was hard-core. It totally disrupted work that day." She estimates that 800 to 1,000 people received Jones's densely worded tract. Even after company managers reminded underlings (also via e-mail) that forwarding the document electronically was a violation of corporate policy, the note purportedly continued to circulate in the form of hard copies delivered by the internal courier.

The episode highlights an intriguing departure from the old-school method of showing one's disgruntlement on the way out the door--flipping the bird, hollering at the top of one's lungs, or, in extreme cases, "going postal." It also provides a sharp counterpoint to employers' increased use of technology to track workers' productivity and behavior. According to a 1999 survey conducted by the American Management Association, 45 percent of major U.S. corporations engage in electronic monitoring of employees. News reports now regularly feature tales of workers who get disciplined or dismissed as a result. Earlier this month, for instance, the New York Times fired 20 staffers at a payroll-processing center for e-mail transgressions. But the very same technology that would seem to give Big Brother the upper hand allows the peeved proletarian to disseminate his own message.

And not just through company e-mail. American Express, for example, ranks tenth in the number of postings on Vault.com's corporate-employees' message board. Like much in the realm of Internet chat, postings on the two-year-old business Web site's "Electronic Watercooler" range from the mundane to the practical to the hateful, obscene, and absurd. While it's tempting to view the message board as nothing more than a fount of unfettered cyberbabble, there's no denying that such innovations have transformed what once were private ruminations or hushed office gossip into very anonymous, very loud shouts.

Predictably, business-minded pundits are denouncing the Web site on precisely those grounds. "How can you build a culture of accountability in an ecology of anonymity? You can't and you shouldn't," concludes a recent editorial in Fortune magazine, which also notes that some corporations now block Vault.com from their staffers' Internet browsers.

Why all the fuss? For your edification, we've assembled a cross-section of current Vault.com postings that provide a sampling of the invective that workers at some of Minnesota's most prominent corporations are spewing forth about their employers, their customers, and one another.

A note of caution: It's not always pretty. And while it's verbatim, it may well not be accurate; we offer no endorsement of the views represented. Read it and weep.

 

FROM THE AMERICAN EXPRESS BOARD:

Author: Who's listening?

Subject: Eavesdropping

Don't use amex lan servers or computer systems to utilize this forum. If you think the Amex systems can't pick up key words or addresses that are sent out to the internet through their own system you are naive. The management is becoming aware of this site, so think about how you send stuff up here to vault.com

 

Author: Silver Teamer

Subject: I saw manager surfin'

I saw a manager surfing vault.com

 

Author: John Q. Customer

Subject: Good Company

American Express employees in the field do a great job. I am a customer of American Express Financial and have received excellent service that I recommend to others. Bad news is that when I dealt with Minneapolis, I got trashed by rude people in client relations. Overall, a good company with good people and products.

 

Author: Honest Abe

Subject: Watch out Mr. Consumer

I cannot believe the transparency of the 'john q public' propaganda. There is no truth in his words....

 

Author: Tacky is what I think, when I think of AMEX

Subject: When I worked there

When I worked there, they didn't pay for anything. The employees did. We paid for all books, and testing fees. We paid for leads, and what I hated most was the way they referred to potential customers. A soon to be retired person or someone in need of real help was known as "low hanging fruit."

 

Author: Ben Dover

Subject: Low Hanging Moon

When you used to work here? That says a lot pal. I've known many folks that couldn't make it with their company so they left and then cried about how tough it was or how mean the company was. Stand up and take responsibility for the fact that you were unable to be self-motivated, self-disciplined, hard working and successful. Not everyone can be their own boss. By the way, how are things at Wal-Mart?

 

Author: Bend this, asshole!

Subject: Real understanding

Real understanding message!! Just because everyone can't be an almighty AE financial advisor, don't rag on them because they can't hack it. It's not for everyone.

 

FROM THE CARGILL BOARD:

Author: KC

Subject: The Cargill Environment

Everyone at Cargill is very nice and cordial, but so serious! It's hard to picture them having lives outside of work. I think that's true with a lot of professional people...they get so used to acting a certain way at work that they no longer have any other side to them. That's true at Cargill. Can't we all just lighten up

 

Author: Jim

Subject: Cargill Work Culture

Reading the messages on Cargill culture, I believe the message is skewed by the fact the writers are specialists in the Minneapolis headquarters. There are a great many of Cargill Alumni who started with Cargill right out of college and then left to join other companies where a life outside of work is possible...In the position I held, I was the sole corporate spear chucker for a huge chunk of company assets in the middle of nowhere. Pay was lousy. Taking vacation was disloyal and almost impossible because no one was there to take the responsibility handoff.

 

Author: Former employee

Subject: I would have to concur.

I would have to concur with Jimbo...You're not going to find anything inventive or cutting edge. They're staid, conservative and boring. This is a company where the never discussed kiss-of-death in the Wayzata corporate office for males is to have facial hair. It's a sign that one's career is going nowhere....

 

Author: Current employee

Subject: Cargill Culture

The descriptions I've read here are very different from my experience...There are some great places to work in Cargill. I'm in one of them. P.S. I don't know what the facial hair comment was about. Two vice-presidents in my division have mustaches, as do about 15 percent of our staff.

FROM THE GENERAL MILLS MESSAGE BOARD:

Author: Ravishi Kavish

Subject: Prestigious-Yes!

I heard thru the grapevine that General Mills is in fact super prestigious. I guess the Pillsbury Dough Boy's got some clout....

 

Author: Sara A. Parker

Subject: correction

Pillsbury created the Pillsbury Dough Boy, not General Mills. Kind of logical, right? The only thing the two have in common is a competitive streak and a homebase in Minneapolis.

 

Author: KAB

Subject: GIS vs Pillsbury

Pillsbury doesn't exist anymore, [it is] only a marketing division of a larger co. GIS is growing and healthy and has eaten Kellogg for lunch.

 

FROM THE PILLSBURY MESSAGE BOARD:

Author: Ex-employee

Subject: Some thoughts

As a former employee, I would say whether you choose to work for Pillsbury depends on your interests. If you are a marketing or operations guy, Pillsbury is definitely the place to be in....But if you're a finance guy, double check your idea.

 

Author: Ex-Summer MBA Intern

Subject: MIS is horrible at Pillsbury

I would categorize Pillsbury MIS as trailing edge with poor management and lack of structure. The entire recruiting process was very unprofessional. Don't expect competitive salaries either.

 

Author: Joe

Subject: Terrible Place

This is a terrible place to work...from my own experience and those of others. If you can, go somewhere else.

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