Social scientists working for industry in the thirties and forties advocated methods of motivating work values that focussed on interpersonal relationships and morale—the ‘Human Relations approach’. Basically it was about being nice to workers on the assumption:
Eminent sociologist Daniel Bell has called the work of Elton Mayo and the Human Relations school ‘cow sociology’ because it aims to make the workers content and satisfied so they will produce more.
The idea of inducing hard work through gratitude was not new. Various corporations introduced ‘welfare’ programmes in the second half of the nineteenth century in Britain and in the early part of the twentieth century in Japan and many other parts of the world. In the US, companies such as Eastman Kodak, the National Cash Register Company, United States Steel, International Harvester and Sears Robuck introduced such programmes. Sometimes these programmes operated alongside Taylor’s scientific methods, sometimes they were seen as an alternative to scientific management.
The ‘welfare’ programmes were superficially aimed at taking care of workers and providing them with facilities and services, but their agenda was to get the workers to work harder and to counter the gains being made by the unions. The idea was to develop feelings of appreciation and loyalty in employees by looking after them so they would want to work harder. The programmes offered pension plans, medical services, libraries, gymnasiums, and recreational activities, including classes in language and civics: “The content of these classes were mainly oriented towards industrial discipline.”
Welfare capitalism had some limited success in increasing worker productivity. Some workers, however, saw through it as being just a means of buying them off with trivial benefits.
Another means of getting employees on side and countering unions was to have mechanisms for employee representation. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company established a pseudoparliamentary structure for employee representation which it then publicised heavily. Other schemes involved employee work councils and company-funded ‘unions’. One estimate was that almost 500 companies instituted some form of employee representation in the 1920s. Such plans tended to be token gestures that had little to do with shared power or employer concessions and much more to do with gaining employee cooperation.
The Human Relations approach was given scientific recognition following a series of experiments in the 1920s carried out at the Hawthorn Works of the Western Electric Company. It had been commonly assumed at the time that the productivity of workers was influenced by the physical conditions in which they worked. However, in experiments on how lighting affected workers it was found that whether the level of lighting was increased or decreased, the workers increased their productivity.
A subsequent set of experiments at the Hawthorn Works, under the direction of Australian Elton Mayo (pictured), on a group of six female workers found that every change—in rest breaks, working hours, pay regimes—produced increased productivity. The experiments caused the scientists to “shift their attention away from the psycho-physical aspects of work towards social factors.” The reason for the workers’ increased production was explained by the fact that the women had become a group, a cohesive stable social unit, that thought well of management because they had been specially selected by management and were consulted about the changes throughout the experiments.
Further experiments confirmed the importance of group dynamics to individual worker productivity and indicated that this could be far more significant than the individual characteristics than industrial psychologists had been concentrating on. Social rewards were seen to be more important than economic incentives in winning the cooperation of these informal groups. This finding brought sociologists into the service of employers.
After the second world war worker morale seemed to be at an all time low in the US and productivity had fallen. Productivity was down 34 percent at Ford Motor Company from 1941 and down 37 percent at General Motors. Surveys showed that large numbers of workers were not satisfied with their jobs. One showed that almost half of the factory workers surveyed were dissatisfied compared to a third during the Depression. Less than half believed that the benefits of hard work were worth the effort and many “who felt that they only received the ‘crumbs’ had little incentive to work hard”. The soul destroying nature of work under scientific management often meant that workers were hostile to and distrustful of management, alienated from their work, and resentful of their situation. All this made control and discipline difficult to exercise and quality output difficult to achieve.
Various business journals such as Factory and American Business advocated the Human Relations approach as the only way to get their workers to cooperate. Courses and articles on Human Relations proliferated. Firms gave recognition to good employees with awards and prizes and acknowledged individual workers with birthday cards.
Foremen were given leadership courses so that relations between themselves and their workers could be improved and they could better motivate their workers. A 1951 study that showed that Human Relations was being taught in 96 percent of US companies to foremen and that it was given primary emphasis in 57% of these training courses.
Unions remained somewhat cynical. The union at Ford satirised:
The profit possibilities of human engineering, as it is called by Henry Ford II, are fantastic.
As the result of this discovery, foreman are attending schools throughout the country to receive training in the art of convincing workers that they really are deeply beloved by the boss.
Employers are trooping to special classes at Harvard, where they learn workers are not the least bit mercenary, and that while it is true that the boss is in business for an honest, or at least a fast, dollar, workers report to the plant each morning for love, affection, and small friendly attentions.
Human relations became an important strategy in the battle to get the most out of workers and to combat the unions. According to Carey “vast amounts of money suddenly became available” for this sort of research.
Companies such as Esso embraced it: “the biggest competitive advantage that Esso can gain lies in continuing to build initiative, cooperation, and the will to work within our people.” Whilst it would have been expensive for Esso to compete with other firms on the basis of worker benefits and wages, motivation by Human Relations seemed to offer “limitless” possibilities for increased productivity and therefore competitive advantage.
The Human Relations approach emphasised participation of employees, and worker democracy, because it was believed that participation would motivate workers to be better workers through increased morale, decreased resistance to company authority and a fuller sense of involvement and belonging. And indeed many companies found that limited employee participation did result in increases in productivity, reductions in costs, more willingness to change, better acceptance of restrictions, and less grievances against management.
Atlantic Refining was most explicit. The advantage of participation, according to this company, was that an individual tended to accept the decisions of a group of which he was a member. Group pressures were so relentless that, regardless of personal convictions, conformity to a group decision was virtually guaranteed.
Researchers Coch and French who undertook some classic studies with women at Harwood Manufacturing Corporation in Virginia argued that allowing workers to participate in designing their jobs overcame worker hostility toward management and made it “possible for management to modify greatly or remove completely group resistance to change in methods of work and ensuing piece rates. This change can be accomplished by the use of group meetings in which management effectively communicates the need for change and stimulates group participation in planning the changes.”
In Britain labour-management co-operation went under the title of “joint consultation”. Committees of workers and management discussed working hours, holidays, dismissal procedures, safety and accidents, work conditions and far less frequently training and promotion prospects.
In both the US and Britain worker participation tended to be illusory. Companies were reluctant to make any real changes or to restructure either the company organisation or the decision-making hierarchy. Often the ‘participation’ was limited to suggestion schemes or consultation with employees on decisions that affected them so they would feel as if their wishes and ideas were taken into account.
One academic who studied a company system of participation decided that the aim was “to get the workers to accept what management wants them to accept but to make them feel they made or helped to make the decision.” Another noted “the decisions to which the workers were said to have assented in democratic discussion had been reached by management in advance... There is the danger of confusing democratic procedure with the manipulation of groups by persuasion that retains only the external forms of freedom.”
The Human Relations approach was also aimed at ensuring workers were less vulnerable to persuasion by union organisers. Indeed some firms were using foremen as a counter to union influence. For example Lukens Steel Company “instructed foremen to compete with the union steward for worker allegiance by personally greeting each employee every day and by providing a sympathetic ear for on-and-off the job problems.” At other firms, foremen were given counselling instruction and at General Electric they were given a manual with answers to objections workers might raise to their working conditions.
Peter Drucker, stated in a paper to the American Management Association that “Most of us in management” had implemented Human Relations reforms “as a means of busting the unions.... They are based on the belief that if you have good employee relations the union will wither on the vine.”
In a 1953 book entitled Motivation and Morale in Industry a leading industrial psychologist, Morris Viteles, claimed that the three great needs of industry were to increase production, “promote employee satisfaction and adjustment at work” and to “prevent industrial strife”.
The facade of participation that was part of the Human Relations approach was also thought to be an effective counter against unions. Viteles cited a study that purported to show that where foremen were active in involving the workers but the union stewards were not, the workers were more likely to take a management point of view and vice versa. He concluded that “any management which wants its employees to be management-minded must take steps to provide the opportunity for and to encourage active participation by workers in arriving at decisions pertaining to the work process and to the work situation.” Some companies, such as a subsidiary of Bethlehem Steel, found that participation “actually converted radical workers into ‘sound’ management-oriented employees”.