The Blog

Has 'The Apprentice' Shaped Corporate Culture?

I met a friend in London recently for a few drinks and a chat about what he has been up to recently. He is a professional working in sales and said that for the past few months he has not even been able to come up for air because the pressure to succeed at work was so great.

I heard a similar story when I met another friend for lunch and heard that he was facing extreme peer pressure at work to put in more hours. Being a creative type in a central London communications company clearly doesn't mean that life is one long swirl of gin and tonics. He told me that a typical day is 8am to 6pm, but even these daily ten-hour stints are considered part-time.

Then today I read how Amazon is using shock videos on big screens in their warehouses to show current employees how their surveillance systems trapped former employees attempting to steal stock from the company. As a retailer with an enormous amount of valuable stock there is a justifiable concern about theft, but to my mind this shock approach steps over a line where there is supposed to be some goodwill shared between the employer and the employed.

The BBC News website quoted Matthew Gwyther, editor of Management Today, saying: "What sort of an organisation has got to the point that it thinks this is a satisfactory or commendable way to be behaving? It reminds me of Ben Hur with them standing over the rowers with a whip."

Gwyther's comment made me smile. That's exactly how it feels to be working in a modern corporate environment. I know that I'm lucky. As a professional writer I don't have to commute to work each day, I don't need to deal with office politics, and I don't have to impress a boss I don't like. I do need to maintain good relationships with my clients though, so although I have much more flexibility than someone in a corporate role, I still need to work, but by removing myself from the enterprise I can be judged solely on what I deliver and not how many hours I spend grafting in the office.

This is what I find strange. Both the friends I spoke to are intelligent professionals in senior jobs where they can directly affect the success of their company. It makes no sense to grind them down so much that they resent their boss, or the company. If they are feeling good, creative, and happy, then they are going to earn the business more cash than if they are resenting the fact that their colleagues expect them to be in the office on a Friday evening.

The team packing Amazon parcels cannot have the same direct impact on the success of Amazon, but nevertheless I'm sure that some flexibility and friendliness from the management would go a long way to making them work more efficiently - and to be less inclined to steal. You don't steal from an employer you respect.

When I studied for my MBA I remember exploring the psychology of trust between different companies and between employers and the employed. In almost all cases it was possible to identify a real cash value to the business if the connections have established greater trust, but anecdotally it seems that we are moving away from these ideas of building better companies that nurture their employees and hurtling towards dog-eat-dog as the only way of doing business.

A friend closer to my home in São Paulo recently explained how her boss wanted her to take a training course. It was an important course if she wants to get positioned for a future promotion, but it also meant giving up a month of Saturdays to attend a training course. I said that if it were important to the company then why would they not schedule the training during the normal working week? She replied that the company sees the training as valuable to her career - she could just leave for a new job once qualified.

Contrast this with a former job of mine in a French bank where they insisted on providing training that would directly impact our job, but we could also choose more general career training - like foreign language courses. Talking to my friends about corporate life today, this kind of investment in developing staff sounds like it is from another world, not just a few years ago.

Is it possible to change direction or has corporate culture hardened to the point that The Apprentice is now seen as a training guide for managers who hire and fire at will? You tell me!