The Social Contract

My friend’s a retail manager. We were chatting about his role when he said “It’s a horrible company to work for: they don’t care if i leave because there are ten other people who will take my place“. I wonder if that’s true: if the value of people within our teams has really been driven to nothing, if the reason organisations fail to care is because the units of production are so expendable. Or does the organisation care, but fail to show it’s love in ways that count?

Businesses are there to make money, but they sit within communities, indeed, they are communities. But communities governed by different rules, different laws from the social ties that bind us in other spaces.

We form communities in many ways, at many times, some permanent, some highly transient, forming around a table for an evening and then dispersing, forming around a project, forming around a retail branch. But the bonds that tie us together as people are different from the contract that ties us to an organisation: one is a social contract, the other a purely legal one.

But is that enough? In the Social Age, we are seeing an evolving relationship between employer and employee: a relationship that governs how we work, how we learn, how we share, how we develop, how we live. Does a legal contract adequately govern this, or are there higher social considerations that should factor into our conversations? Take maternity: there are legal requirements which all companies must meet, then there are discretionary measures that some companies take. What drives those businesses to add socially responsible layers into their contract? What makes a company want to be good? And do companies that try to be good always show their love in the right way, or are they like teenagers trying to be romantic, turning up with a dozen red roses but being a bit predictable.

I had quite a heated discussion with Cath last night about Starbucks taking government funded apprentices, on the basis that some of them, if they did well enough, may get a permanent job. Her feeling was that the organisation was just using free labour and saving a fortune on ‘real‘ jobs. She may be right: it may just be a cynically exploitative business model that profits off the backs of the unemployed, badgered into taking ‘training‘ positions by a government determined to show a drop in unemployment rates. But there may be another side to it too. The organisation could be seen as taking a conscientious stance on how to bring people into work, how to train them in essential skills (from timekeeping to appearance, to forming teams and delivering great customer service).

It’s quite possible that the same organisation is doing both: like Janus it has two faces, the business and the social one. There may be genuine social purpose there, a desire to be part of a movement to inculcate skills into a disenfranchised group (after all, Starbucks does have a strong reputation around social conscience in the US with it’s healthcare benefits). That social purpose may coexist alongside a more cynical business model that exploits the society around it by using government funded apprentices instead of just giving people jobs: teasing people along by dangling the carrot of a job at the end.

I don’t know the truth of it, but i suspect that it, like many truths, is complex. I think that organisations are made of people, some of whom care about people, others just about money. I’m sure if someone from Starbucks reads this they can send me their narrative about it.

So consider these two elements: the social contract and the legal one. Companies may survive with a purely legal framework, but they don’t exist in isolation: we are gathered in social learning communities that transcend organisational boundaries, that transcend individual jobs or, to put it another way, people talk to each other.

In the Social Age, brand and identity are co-owned by the community: whilst organisations used to have large departments dedicated to telling us what to think, today we co-create that meaning in the community that surrounds and embraces the organisation. In other words, the value of Starbucks is created within our local communities, through these conversations.

As the relationship between employer and employee evolves, we are likely to work for more companies across our careers, some of which will be good, others less so. The most agile workers will be the ones that end up as freelancers in the market, aligning, forming quite transient project communities, but quite permanent social learning and support networks. Many others will fall into semi long term relationships with organisations, working with them for five or ten years. Very few will have a job for life.

An organisation needs to find ways to engage with these agile artisan workers, it needs a social profile that will attract them. It’s not true that everyone is replaceable in the moment: there is a social responsibility to form social bonds, to go beyond the legal requirements. Organisations that get this, ones that show their love in meaningful ways, will be the ones that thrive, because if they get it right they will sit in communities that we want to join.

You can get so far treating people as units, as fodder for the machine. It will get you precisely to the edge of a cliff. If your organisational social capital devalues, due to the perceptions of the community, your financial value will be close behind. These are not insignificant issues: as social media permeate further into the mindset of how we create value, how we build our perceptions, the gap between the most socially conscious employers and the least will broaden. Social media may not level the field, it may obliterate it.

As we curate our careers, build the knowledge and skills that we need to thrive, as we build value in our personal brands, we will think long and hard about who we want to sign a contract with: a social or a legal one. It’s not just about the money. Does the organisation really care and how will it show it? That’s more than process, it’s about social conscience, authenticity and relevance within our community, as well as sound business practice and the desire to turn a healthy profit.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
This entry was posted in Agile, Collaboration, Community, Culture, Equality, Inclusivity, Learning Culture, Legacy, Partnership, Relationship, Responsibility, Sincerity, Social Capital, Social Media, Success, Trust and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

74 Responses to The Social Contract

  1. David Bates says:

    There is great stuff in here – and so very much more to say. This is a huge topic that’s completely relevant. Just last night I heard of an intro level person who left their sales job at AT&T. She was the golden prospect – amazing at what she did for them in a short period of time. She quit and her manager was upset with her. Why’d she quit? She didn’t want to work 12 hour days. There are many stories – some personal, some from colleagues – that demonstrate the same thing. I refer to this as “corporate cost shifting”. A term I use to describe your example of the business trying to eek out every last dollar (shareholder value, right? wrong…). The trouble with cost shifting is that it violates the social contract. I think it is time for companies to quantify the business and shareholder value of the social contract. I wonder if things would change if we found a way to express the terms of a social contract in quantifiable business terms.

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