The interview changed the way Dodson talked with other supervisors and managers of low-income workers, and she began to find that many of them felt the same discomfort as the grocery store manager. And many went a step further, finding ways to undermine the system and slip their workers extra money, food, or time needed to care for sick children. She was surprised how widespread these acts were. In her new book, “The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy,” she called such behavior “economic disobedience.”
I’m perplexed as to why Prof. Dodson is so surprised by this. Looking back over the jobs I’ve worked in the last ten years, ranging from hourly work just above minimum wage to a family owned business to the corporate world, every company I’ve worked at has seen managers or owners making reasonable exceptions for people in order to help them out: Letting people leave early without clocking out; not officially making someone off work when they’re home with a sick kid; giving left over food, supplies, etc to people who are known to be hard up; etc. This happened at least as much at the small, family-owned company I worked at for a couple years, where it was clearly not a case of managers “subverting” a system in order to help people out, since it was the owners themselves granting exceptions and giving people extras.
What the supervisors here are doing is, technically, breaking the rules of giving away resources that are not theirs. Too much of this kind of thing can be bad for the company, and if a manager is constantly putting people down as working hours they didn’t work, upper management will probably eventually notice and be upset about the waste of resources. (So might be the workers who actually work all their hours.) However, it’s fairly normal for managers to assume, rightly or wrongly, some of the prerogatives of owners in regards to granting exceptions and handing out favors. And indeed, it’s arguably not just good for the workers but good for the company if managers make reasonable exceptions at times. The working mother who’s given unofficial time-off to take a sick kid to the doctor is likely to be a harder and more loyal worker as a result than she would be if her boss refused her time off or held back wages for the time missed.
Good supervisors know that if they take good care of their workers, their workers will be more likely to watch out for the good of the company, putting in extra hours when necessary and letting them know when they see problems or things that could be improved. Contrary to the populist imagination, being an inflexible jerk is generally not good for business.