In 1956 William H. Whyte (pictured) wrote The Organization Man which described how middle level employees, not only worked for organisations but they belonged to them as well. He noted the disparity between the ideal of the individual in 20th Century American life and the reality of the collective situation that most Americans found themselves in where individuality was actually a handicap and conformity the way to get promoted in one’s career.
Whyte observed that young organisation men identified their own well-being with that of the company and in those years of rapid expansion after the war, “many a young man of average ability has been propelled upward so early—and so pleasantly—that he can hardly be blamed if he thinks the momentum is constant”. Such men assumed that they would be with the organisation for their whole careers.
At the executive level, Whyte described men who worked long hours but didn’t feel that it was a burden. They worked fifty or sixty hours a week, as well as doing after hours work-related entertaining, conferences, and reading. They promoted those who followed their example. “We have, in sum, a man who is so completely involved in his work that he cannot distinguish between work and the rest of his life—and is happy that he cannot.”
Sloan Wilson depicted a similar image in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, in which the main character described the “bright young men in gray flannel suits rushing around New York in a frantic parade to nowhere.... pursuing neither ideals nor happiness—they were pursuing a routine.”
The organisation men were influential in the communities in which they lived, organising committees, sitting on school boards, setting trends. Because they moved about so often with their work, Whyte argued that it was the organisation, generally a corporation, that determined a person’s position in the community rather than birth or background, at least for the middle and upper classes. (It was still rare for working class people and coloured people to reach the top levels of the organisation.)
So important was the socialisation of the organisation man that personality tests were used regularly for management personnel, not just to select the right people but to decide on their promotions. Whyte claimed that the proportion of US corporations using personality tests had jumped from one third to 60 percent in two years (1952-54) and it was still increasing. Unlike aptitude tests that attempted to find out about a person’s skills, the personality test purported to find out more about the person; how well adjusted he was and would be in future, how conservative he was, how stable, his “potential loyalty” to the organisation.
According to Whyte, such tests were in reality tests of normality and conformity:
Neither in the questions nor in the evaluation of them are the tests neutral; they are loaded with values, organization values, and the result is a set of yardsticks that reward the conformist, the pedestrian, the unimaginative...
Of course, anyone refusing to take a test automatically failed the test of normality, conformity and company loyalty. Whyte suggested that in order to ‘cheat’ on the tests so as to ‘do well’, one should pick “the most conventional, run-of-the-mill, pedestrian” answers and if in doubt portray oneself as the sort of person who would have the following views:
I loved my father and my mother, but my father a little bit more.
I like things pretty much the way they are.
I never worry much about anything.
I don’t care for books or music much.
I love my wife and children.
I don’t let them get in the way of company work.
Companies still use personality tests in hiring and promotion. One of the favourites in the late 1990s was the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator which differentiates between types such as ENTJ—”extroverted intuitive thinking judger, a born leader” and ISFP—”introverted sensing feeling perceiver, a loyal follower”.
In the 1980s Whyte revisited the organisation man and found little had changed: “The United States continues to be dominated by large organizations, and they are run much as they were before, ...The people who staff them are pretty much the same as those who did before.”
And a 1989 survey of middle-managers in 20 well-known US corporations including American Express, Dow Chemical, General Motors, Johnson and Johnson, Mobil and Westinghouse found that 76 percent believed they would spend the rest of their career with the company they worked for, 80 percent said they were deeply committed to the company because it had been good for them, and 77% worked more than 50 hours in an average week (26 percent worked more than 60 hours).
Salaried employees are still required to put the company interests first, both during and outside work time. Anthony Sampson noted in Company Man that “Young American executives are expected to be still more thoroughly committed to their bosses, leaving still less time for hobbies or philosphical thoughts; while leisure-time is associated with failure or opting-out”.
American firms also still expect employees to be politically active on their behalf (see Astroturf - Mobilising Employees). Ron McCallum, professor of industrial law at the University of Sydney, notes: “not since the 18th century have employers been able to exercise such controls over the private lives of their workforces”.