Jill Andresky Fraser
Photo by Andrea I. Burtman
Jill Andresky Fraser has just published with Norton & Company the book White-Collar
Sweatshop The Deterioration of Work and Its Rewards in Corporate America. She has
also written The Best US Cities for Working Women. She has written on business and finance
for The New York Times, the New York Observer, and Forbes magazine. She is currently the
finance editor of Inc. magazine and a general editor of Bloomberg Personal Finance.
White-Collar Sweatshop The Deterioration of Work and Its Rewards in Corporate
America is a searing indictment of corporate management in the roaring '90s which has
shattered the future of the white-collar worker. If you look at the stock market, or at
the corporate bottom line, it seems the best of times. But look into the lives of average
middle managers, and we are living in the worst of times. Media attention has focused
either on the horrors of massive layoffs or on episodic explosions of corporate violence.
But for those millions of Americans who have neither been laid off nor "gone
postal," life at the office has become a corporate nightmare: seven-day-a-week work
loads; reduced salaries, pensions, or benefits; virtual enslavement to technology; and a
pervasive fear about job security. What has happened to the American dream? With facts,
figures, and trenchant case histories, Jill Fraser chronicles this catastrophic sea change
in industry after industry: telecommunications, the media, banking, information
technology, Wall Street.
She lives with her husband and two children in New York City and Montauk, New York.
This interview was conducted by Haym Benaroya and took place between March and June 2001.
Resonance: When I started to read White-Collar Sweatshop, I was expecting
to read a well- researched, but "business" book, meaning the dry exposition of
some nefarious business practices. Rather, I found myself reading a well-researched
exposť that centered on the declining personal and professional fortunes of real people.
This is an excellent and important work. While I had some knowledge of these declining
fortunes, this knowledge never sank into my psyche. Reading about these case studies
actually took a toll on me. It really made me very sad, not only for these people, but for
our society. When you wrote the last parts of your book, you pointed to the market
volatility. Now that the market has gone back in time about two years in its price
indexes, will there be a re-thinking of the brutal management styles of the past decades?
Is there a silver lining, at least for the employees of large corporations?
Fraser: I'm sorry to report that I don't see a silver lining, at least
for now. This past year of stock market volatility and poor corporate earnings has, if
anything, resulted in even tougher conditions for many white-collar workers. It's almost
impossible to pick up the newspaper without reading about another layoff, even by
companies whose own results remain strong. (A good example is General Electric, which
announced its plans to eliminate nearly 20,000 jobs at the same time that it reported an
increase of 16% in its quarterly net earnings!) A growing trend among many large employers
lately has been to set up ratings-and-ranking systems, which Intel has relied upon for
years, to help target "under performing" employers (often the first step in
employees for a layoff). So jobs at these large corporations are becoming, if anything,
even more precarious.
Resonance: You point out in one chapter how executive compensation is not
only excessive, but has been decoupled from performance measures. One reason mentioned is
that it seemed to work for a while if we use stock price as an indicator of corporate
success. Could another reason be the incestuous relations between corporate boards, where
many of the same people sit on a variety of such boards?
Fraser: There are lots of reasons to criticize the boards of directors at
many large corporations and "incestuous" relations is certainly one of them. But
there are other problems as well: These jobs are often viewed as cushy, well-paid
sinecures where board members are expected to go along with whatever "program"
is recommended by the CEO and internal managers. Board members are also, often,
compensated through similar stock deals from those that motivate CEO's and their key
executives. So, despite the fact that these people should be focused on longer-term
considerations and long-term planning, they're often as preoccupied as chief executives
are about what's happening with the company's stock today and tomorrow.
Resonance: Many of the processes of our society today are based on
short-term thinking. The reliance on quarterly profit reports has driven CEOs and those
around them to ignore anything further out than one or two quarters. Some exceptions may
be the high end of the technologies. Look at energy policy. In 1973 we had cold water
thrown in our collective faces by OPEC. And yet, in 2001 we haven't a coherent policy to
reduce our reliance on foreign oil. The gas consumption rates of our SUVs are at least as
high as those of the monster cars of the sixties. Our homes are on average two to three
times as large and contain a whole host of electricity- consuming devices that did not
exist a couple of decades ago. This leads me to my point. While I would agree with you
that the "bad guys" here are the CEOs and their Wall Street enablers, weren't we
all playing the same game? Some were pawns and some kings. All of us were in it for the
money, for which we were willing to give up peace of mind, time with our families, for
years or decades at a time. The only difference between the employee and the CEO was the
level of compensation, not the frame of mind or willingness to sacrifice. It is true that
some would have preferred the corporate life of the fifties, but many were taken in by the
mirage of future riches. What do you think?
Fraser: Your question is an interesting one, but I'm convinced that --
for all those people who might have accepted our culture of overwork and overstress
because they were either addicted to a high-consumption lifestyle or were simply
workaholics -- the vast majority of white-collar workers have had no choice. My book
documents the fact that many of the same people who are putting in 10, 12 or more hours
each day (and then taking their jobs home with them) are the ones with paychecks of
$30,000, $40,000, $60,000 a year. Most of them never saw anything resembling a stock
option in their compensation packages. If they own stock at all, they do it through their
401K plans (and it's worth pointing out that large numbers of companies are cutting back
or eliminating any type of pension or retirement-savings plan). So I don't really accept
the notion that we're all to blame for our current corporate environment of overwork and
Resonance: In you final chapter, A Path Out of the White-Collar
"Sweatshop", you point to certain developments that signal coming changes to
corporate life as we know them: the rise of unions and the willingness of white-collar
employees to join them, and investor activism to name two. Another could be the bursting
of the bubble of NASDAQ and the biological impossibility of obtaining more work from less
people. A point of diminishing returns has been reached. You have pointed this out, that
society has paid a high price for the complete domination of employees' time. These
employees' children are growing up in a way we, as a society, might not have wanted.
Community groups no longer have the participation of local residents. In a sense, society
has subsidized the growth of corporations without much of a rate of return. Can this
problem be placed in a framework that acknowledges the need for shared benefits derived
from shared risk/cost?
Fraser: It should be placed in that framework, but I'm not sure how
that's going to happen, without some kind of external push -- either from government
regulations (not the likeliest of scenarios in our current political environment) or from
white-collar unionization efforts (which still show only sporadic signs of occurring). One
of the things that I talk about in my book is that way that corporate employees can use
the internet as part of a grassroots informal organizing strategy in which, even without a
union, they begun to communicate across department lines and swap stories, share
strategies and, most importantly, publicize internal conditions to the outside world,
including large institutional investors in their companies.
Resonance: Is there a larger societal cause for the lack of concern shown
by corporate managers and Wall Street for the employees that support such organizations?
Fraser: During the 1980's and '90's, it seems to me that there was a
fundamental shift in our social priorities. Regardless of how much lip-service (and
newspaper headlines) we devoted to issues such as education, teenage violence, teenage
drug use, and other social problems, we were preoccupied with the economic boom and our
prolonged bull market. We began to lionize America's CEO's -- which usually meant people
like Jack Welch of GE, Andy Grove of Intel, or Al Dunlap of Scott Paper, who were closely
identified with the overwork movement. And we didn't seem willing to ask ourselves the
tough questions, including: How much of our economic boom has depended upon inhumane work
conditions and excessive demands that have exacted a large and costly toll upon our
Resonance: How would you, or do you, protect yourself from the kinds of
practices that you describe?
Fraser: I, personally, have not worked on the staff of a magazine for
about 15 years now, since my son was about 2 years old. That's because I wasn't willing to
make the necessary tradeoffs in my personal life, including leaving home by 8 a.m. and
often not getting home before 9 or 10 p.m. But my choice to work as an independent
contractor has carried with it its own costs, including the heavy tax penalties that our
government imposes upon self-employed people like myself, and the burden of paying for
benefits for myself and my family. (My husband worked for a corporation for many years,
but when he decided to switch to independent-contractor status himself, for quality of
life reasons, I could scarcely blame him!) But that choice, obviously, isn't for everyone.
So I think that people need to be very aggressive, when it comes time to search for a job,
about looking for employers who are willing to honor their own priorities (whether that
means not having to take work home with them, or being able to schedule work-free
vacations, or leaving the office every day at 5 or 6 p.m.). It is possible to find jobs
like these, especially if your skill set is in demand. So it's important not to give up
Resonance: How long did it take you to conceive, research and write
Fraser: I came to this book through my life as a business journalist. I became
aware, back in the mid-90's, of what seemed to be a very great discrepancy. When I would
interview CEO's, or the people at top jobs at large corporations, they were relentlessly
upbeat about how strong their companies were and how well-positioned they were to dominate
the increasingly global economy. But when I'd interview other people, at all other rungs
of the corporate ladder, I heard very different stories: They were burned-out by
excessively demand workloads and demoralized, they were cynical about management's lack of
long-term vision, and they felt that all these great corporate results depended upon a
very unfair culture of overwork and under-reward. I wanted to make sense of that
Resonance: Has there been, or will there be, a backlash from corporations
on "being exposed" in this way, especially those that are named?
Fraser: I'm not aware of a backlash from the corporations that I
"named" in my book -- other than general denials of unhappiness or problems in
their workforces. But for independent observers, the evidence behind my case is
everywhere, including on many of the websites that I talk about throughout White-Collar
Resonance: Speaking to a young person of about 13-14 years old, just
entering High School, what advice would you offer?
Fraser: My advice to a high school student would be this: Your future
work life can be a sense of intellectual challenge, emotional gratification and enrichment
on many different levels -- or it can turn out to be something quite different, as many of
the stories in my book reveal. I'd urge you, as you complete your education, to think
about your own priorities when it comes to matters of career development and
quality-of-life issues and then to pursue those priorities aggressively once you enter the
job market. You, and your generation, can help press for change in corporate America and
for a return to a fairer, more humane approach to work and its rewards. Don't settle for