Thursday, March 23, 2006

Frequent-Flyer Miles and the Droit du Seigneur

Here is an exchange from today's "Work & Family Mailbox" in the Wall Street Journal that epitomizes part of what's so depressing about life in the corporation:

Q: My manager and I were traveling together on a five-hour flight during a business trip. We have a very good working relationship. To my surprise, my manager decided to upgrade to first class using his personal miles. He said he wanted the free drinks and better food. Is this bad manners or no big deal?--R.A., San Ramon, Calif.

A: It's usually fine for a manager or a co-worker of equal status to treat him or herself to an upgrade, says Peter Post, a Burlington, Vt., author and etiquette expert. The manager's error, he says, was mentioning the better food and free drinks, which understandably may have made you feel slighted. He might more wisely have said something like, "I fly a lot, and this is an opportunity to treat myself." The answer might be different, however, if you, the subordinate, had been the one with extra miles for an upgrade.

"Probably the better part of valor is not to use an upgrade if the person you're traveling with is of higher rank," Mr. Post says.

I wouldn't quarrel with the advice offered by Peter Post (via the Journal columnist, Sue Shellenberger). It's probably sound. But it brings back vividly the petty anxieties and humiliations that pervade the corporate world I left almost nine years ago (forever, God willing). Business etiquette largely involves agonizing over all kinds of actions that are insignificant in themselves but may have symbolic resonance in terms of power relationships. What will my boss think if I say or do the wrong thing? Am I eating or drinking something I shouldn't? Did I laugh too loud at his joke--or not loud enough? Is it safe to leave the office yet (I finished my work hours ago) or should I sit here pretending to work for another twenty minutes just to be on the safe side? And what about my clothes--dear Lord, my clothes . . . !?

For all the talk among consultants and new-age business theorists about "flat organizations" that have "no hierarchy" and supposedly consist of self-organizing teams that freely form and reform as conditions demand, the culture of most companies still involves this medieval stuff about "rank" and finely-calibrated gradations of power, prestige, and privilege. From the outside, it appears silly. But from inside--when your family's livelihood depends on negotiating it successfully--it causes plenty of sleepless nights and tension headaches.

I'd love to see this system truly reformed, but I'm not holding my breath. In the meantime, we ought to at least question the right-wing assumption that laissez-faire capitalism and political democracy automatically go together. It's hard to see how the social structures of the corporation promote genuinely democratic values and attitudes among those most deeply enmeshed in them.

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