How The Media Manipulates Workers Into Being Company Stooges

Ed Zitron 11 min read

When I started writing about remote work, I mostly did it because of my own experience. For years I was warned that my company would falter if not fail by being remote - that there would be “no team culture” and “things would get logjammed based on timezones,” and that “the personal touch matters.” None of this was true, of course - my company is doing well, my career is going well, things are great, and I haven’t gone into an office in quite some time. But the real reason I’ve written so much is a frustration with the suppression of workers, which in part is driven by the meat of what my job is.

My job (and no, this is not going to turn into a sales pitch) is to take clients that pay me and “pitch” (email, DM, never call), reporters, to cover their news, or use them as an expert source. As a result, I am intimately aware of how sources come to find their ways into stories and how having the right source is not necessarily a qualitative thing but a case of something being in the right place at the right time.

That’s why I’m so angry at CNBC’s latest management pornography that warns that the complete end of remote work at Goldman Sachs could lead to a “stampede” of other companies following suit. Goldman Sachs’ CEO, who made $35 million in 2021 and thinks people “want to work for leaders who are relatable” and “not “hard-nosed” decision-makers,” called remote work “an aberration” and has said that all workers must return to their headquarters - though it isn’t obvious when the remit starts or what form it will take. To be clear, this is the same Goldman Sachs that workers described as having “inhumane working conditions” during the pandemic, where workers had 100-hour weeks where they had no time to use the bathroom or take a shower, sleeping five hours a week. The research is grizzly:

On a scale of 1 to 10, respondents rated their mental health as a 2.8 and their physical well-being as a 2.1, compared with 8.8 and 9.0, respectively, before starting at Goldman. Seventy-seven percent of respondents said they felt like they had been a victim of workplace abuse, while 75% indicated they had considered mental-health counseling over work-related stress.

To be 100% clear, Goldman Sachs or David Solomon’s thoughts on remote work shouldn’t simply be rejected, they should be aggressively attacked. Solomon is a usurious clown that has no connection to his workers that oversaw disgusting worker abuse. To publish his thoughts without including how awful it is to work for him is the height of ignorance - this man is not someone that knows how to manage anyone, or to what a good company culture is, or what workers “want.” He is a wealthy, isolated ghoul that has made tens of millions off of the back of a company that continually overworks and underpays people, at least according to their Glassdoor.

In the case of the media, I try and abide by hanlon’s razor - to avoid attributing malice to something explainable with ignorance. I think there is a critical misunderstanding of how narratives are formed by those creating them and how sources - despite claiming objectivity - can be easily-manipulated and disconnected from the world around them. The CNBC article in question quotes University of Pennsylvania Professor Peter Cappelli, a terrifying ivy league-meets-Oxbridge concoction, a man who got his PhD before I was born, is a favorite source of CNBC, has made a great career in being entirely wrong, claiming in April 2021 that “nothing will change” and that ‘“employers have virtually unlimited power,” that young professionals “have less commitment to their organizations” and “things that work well for the employees don’t necessarily work well for the employer” and that “assuming work from home is going to work like it did during the pandemic is a mistake.”

Cappelli, a rat king of different biases and assumptions based on his career of being at a university, is the kind of source that you get in almost every workplace article, because on paper it makes sense to cite him. He works at a prestigious university after graduating from two others. He’s been on TV before. He’s been cited a lot. And what he says sounds smart, and thus you’ll give him a call - after all, he’s a well-respected academic.

The problem is that these thoughts tend to overwhelm far simpler ones: is the best source for your article someone who has literally not worked anywhere other than a university? Is the best source of your article someone that has said demonstrably wrong stuff the right person? I’m not so sure:

“What determines promotion rates is mainly company growth rates,” Wharton School researcher and management professor Peter Cappelli says. Because business growth has been slow in the last 20 years, it’s likely promotions have taken longer, he says.

Excuse me, what? Has business growth been slow? Wait, what is business growth? Revenue? Size of company? No need to ask the professor to explain what he’s saying, just quote and post the article and give a tenured professor PR help for his new book about the future of work, which he clearly knows nothing about. In fact, the tagline for his horrible little book involves the phrase “for employers, the benefits of employees working from home or hybrid approaches are not so obvious,” and quotes Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan as being against remote work.

It is very easy to interrogate the underlying beliefs of a source without actually talking to them, and it’s essential to do so before you engage with them, because they always have some sort of agenda. In this guy’s case, it is to sell a book about how remote work is still up for debate. And it’s even easier to find out if he’s a fan of extremely anti-worker ideas like giving independent contractors managerial roles within companies, too!

The problem right now is that the remote work discussion is being driven by writers heavily leaning on management theorists - people who were relatively disconnected from the world of work before and have been utterly left behind in 2020. I have also seen quotes from very few Work Professors that appear to be anything other than pro-management goons using language adjacent to saying what workers want or need without any substantive proof or references. The assumption is that somebody would not become a tenured professor and get two degrees without being an incredibly huge idiot - to which I say, “please speak to anyone in academia and let me know how many times they curse at you.”

In short, the workplace academics that CNBC, The New York Times, and Wall Street Journal like to quote are extremely invested in keeping the status quo. Suppose Mr. Cappelli can’t keep people thinking that remote work is a bad thing. In that case, he will have to actually learn how it works and have to understand and research it, a thing that is significantly more work than being an ignorant corporate goon. Even his op-ed for Politico’s tech website Protocol includes some utterly insane propaganda:

There is much more potential for failure in remote-heavy arrangements. Disengaged employees who do not care about the organization have much more scope to cause damage. It is possible to keep social ties with remote workers, but it requires more purposeful effort. It does not happen naturally.

As I’ve said before, employee loyalty is not something that the employee is responsible for, and terms like “disengaged employees” who “do not care about the organization” suggest that Mr. Cappelli believes that workers should be grateful to work at the company, and, indeed, should treat it as their own and be loyal to it as such. I would argue that most remote and in-office employees do not “care” about the organization in the sense that the Work Professor believes they should, because they have no reason to - what has their loyalty ever given them? What piece of the pie do they get, other than money that’s significantly less than the people they work for?

That’s what frustrates me about this discussion and so many workplace discussions - there are these assumed social norms in the office that are spread through workplace journalism and literature that do not actually provide anything to the worker. We are told to be “loyal” to our companies to get paid more or treated better - but how often does that materialize? We are told to “care about our company’s mission,” but who does that benefit? The customer? The owner of the company?

I am struggling to find any research that shows how many employees get equity (stock) as compensation (this is only for private companies). Still, one problem I will always have with equity is the inequity of its distribution. To the uninitiated, it’s often the case that when you get stock in a company it has to “vest” - meaning that you have to stick around for a period of time for you to fully own it. Except you don’t really own it - you just have the right to purchase the shares once they’ve vested, at which point to actually own them you have to pay money. If you leave the company, you will lose the stock if you don’t pay it off within a certain period of time - sometimes only a few months - and depending on your financial circumstances, this may not be possible.

The idea is that this stock will be given to you at a deep discount compared to what the company might be sold for in the future. Of course, it’s not quite as deep as, say, the founder of the company, or the investors, or anything, really. And companies exist to loan you the money to exercise your options, with companies like Bolt offering their own employees loans to buy their equity early and start the capital gains timer so that the investment is taxed as long-term versus short-term capital gains.

It’s also important to realize that the company could easily be sold for less money than the stock you bought, meaning you could very well invest in a bunch of stock that is worth less than you paid, and have an outstanding loan that you can’t pay the entirety of which you are personally responsible for.

Fortune, in covering Bolt’s offer, compared it to a similar problem that Conseco Finance faced:

What Breslow responsibly noted could go wrong did go wrong in a big way two decades ago, adding another scandalous chapter to a disastrous corporate melodrama. It's the cautionary case of famously failed Conseco, another glamorous financial enterprise, led by one of the most flamboyant founders of the era, that instituted and touted what looked like a well-intended company-loans-for-shares program. When Conseco's stock collapsed, the recipients got stuck owing hundreds of millions of dollars they couldn't repay, forcing creditors to swallow the bill.

While this frames the company and the creditors as the victims, I can only imagine the emotional and fiscal damage that workers faced as a result. And this is the problem with equity in general - it’s a way for you to be “invested” in the company, but in a way that the company dictates, for the company’s benefit, at the company’s leisure. While you may feel “invested” on some level, your skin in the game isn’t real - it is merely paper until there is a liquidity event when you can sell it, like a company buy-back policy, or a sale, or a public offering. It may resemble money and may one day be money, until said event it is, at best, a promise.

This is a risk that investors are willing to take (though their stock is purchased rather than optioned) as part of their job. It’s also a risk that a founder is willing to take because their theoretical compensation is that much larger - and, of course, they have control over their destiny in the way an employee doesn’t.

This is also assuming that the worker in question doesn’t get shafted by the stock they’re offered. Select Uber drivers were allowed to purchase stock in the company using a bonus calculated by the number of their rides, I imagine at the public offering price of $45 a share. This of course meant that they would lose money, because Uber’s price quickly tumbled from $41.57 on May 10 2019’s close to around $30 by the end of 2019. Drivers were offered the opportunity to buy into the IPO only a few months beforehand, making it more than likely a net loss.

Perhaps workers don’t feel engaged and invested in a company because companies do not seem particularly invested or engaged in them. And no, things at the office do not really count - because if they did, companies would be working to transfer those benefits to people remotely, rather than discontinuing them entirely.

Equity options are nice - and I respect them as side-compensation in many cases - but in the case of private companies they are often used as a means of not paying someone more money. 90% of startups fail, and private company equity as compensation can be reasonably viewed as funny money if you’re not being paid significantly enough otherwise.

Fortune had another piece about Bolt’s loans-for-stock plan that really hammered this home (and laid out many of the problems):

By nature, startup founders are bullish about their prospects. However, risk is not evenly distributed across a startup. Investors expect failure and distribute their risk across their investment fund. Founders don’t pay for their stock options, so they’re typically able to move to their next startup without creditors nipping at their heels. Investors also get access to preferred shares, allowing them to jump to the front of the line to recoup their investments if the company fails.

Let’s be frank: if we are expected to be invested in a company, we should expect the company to be invested in us. I am sure someone will disagree with me on this, but stock options (rather than direct gifts) are not a real investment in an employee. Money is an investment. Resources are an investment. Making their work easier and their lives better are investments. Giving them the option to maybe invest their own money in something that may give them more money in the future is only an investment in the sense that you are giving them something that costs you absolutely nothing based on a gamble.

Sidenote: I am, of course, talking about stock options within a private company. Public company stock options are different with each company and at least have some kind of immediate tangible value to calculate. However, they are still a thing that makes you put out money “to invest” and fall into the same bucket of “just give me real money please.” It’s also not investing in them! It’s giving workers the option to invest in the company.

When the media discusses workers being negatively “invested” or “engaged” with a company, they are engaged in corporate propaganda. Work is a transaction of labor for money - a company is paying someone to do something, and the worker being “invested” or “engaged” is a result of them feeling fairly compensated and motivated to do so. Companies should not be given the chance to say that “workers are disengaged because of remote work” not just because it’s factually incorrect, but because it’s a cop-out for them to say “so remote work is bad.” It also suggests that disengagement is a worker condition versus a failure of the company to engage them. And the idea of someone being “invested” in their job suggests that someone needs to be invested in something to care about doing a good job.

In both cases, bringing up these terms as employee conditions suggests that engagement and investment from an employee is both required and fair to ask for, which it is not.

It’s also crucial to understand how deeply abusive the idea of “emotional investment” in one’s work can be. If you are emotionally invested, you are more willing to put bad things aside - toxic culture, bad pay - because you care about the outcomes associated with it. That’s why companies push propaganda about their “mission” - not because they want people “unified around one goal,” but because that’s how you encourage someone to put more unpaid hours into their job, to go that extra mile (without extra compensation) and to stick around when times are hard (when they are not going to get more compensation).

There are absolutely cases where people will take less money to do something they truly believe in, and I respect those decisions. However, a Professor Of Business pushing the idea that “a lack of employee investment or engagement” is a problem with remote work is someone that doesn’t understand work at all. If an employee is disengaged because they aren’t put in a magical box with other people, perhaps the problem is your company. Offices are not magical, inspirational places - they are not automatically lighting rods for creativity or hubs of collaboration, they are physical spaces.

And that’s all they are until you intentionally do stuff to make these things happen - which, again, you can do with remote work, if you aren’t a charlatan bereft of creativity or knowledge.

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