OP-ED: Merit and Accountability in the American Workplace

This post has been a while in coming, and I mean that to a degree most of you likely won’t expect. This, right here, these words you see before you, account for the third time I have written out my thoughts on this subject, the prior postings either being too disorganized or too negative and downbeat to ultimately find their way to the site.

Yet the topic kept circling back. Whether it was because of the constant barrage of, to put it kindly, angry or entitled posts I would see on social media from a particular group, or because I was in the opposing group those type of posts regularly attacked while also knowing (and seeing) firsthand what things were actually like, the topic kept coming back in my head. Though arguably, it also likely has much to do with firsthand experience I’ve had working at various jobs, seeing directly for myself how abysmal things have gotten … as well as how doggedly those who benefit from the current status quo fight to defend it.

Which I think is perhaps where things went wrong. Both the prior attempts to write out this post contained example after example, all first-hand, of how working in the US has become, well … awful. The problem was is that the post didn’t do anything constructive. It aired a litany of sins, pointed fingers … and then that was it. Not exactly great content. So after the second post had been a dud (which was last night), I stepped back and analyzed this latest attempt, and decided to come at things from a very different angle. Yes, I could throw stones, and there’s more than enough ammo to go around. But that won’t fix anything, because those who understand already know what’s gone wrong, while those who should understand have already insulated themselves from the issue and are often living a lifestyle dependent on never admitting the issue in the first place.

Ultimately then, there’s little reason to writing yet another post that airs the problems that are already there, whether or not they’re acknowledged. But a post that’s about the constructive, a post that is to those who will, slowly but surely, taking those same positions encouraging them to not dive into the same self-serving behavior and discussing how the US economy is harmed by such self-centered mindsets? Well … maybe that can do something. Just maybe.

So let’s talk about the idea of merit, the concept of accountability, and how both are vital to the US economy … despite being something that’s been largely ejected from the modern job market.

And look, I know there will be plenty of those that have, as noted above, insulated themselves from the reality of what’s going on out there. They’ll come at this post with torches and pitchforks, ignore most of it or attempt to leave a comment that’s effectively a giant strawman, or something else.

To all those posters: Tough. You’re welcome to go shout at your personal echo chambers about why “merit doesn’t matter” or “merit matters, but everyone else is just inferior” or whatever other cockamamie excuse you feel works. Knock yourself out. But don’t expect to be taken seriously here, or given a soap box to shout. Fair warning.

For the rest of you, let’s talk about merit.

Let’s start with the concept of merit, actually. Merit is defined as “the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward,” or as verb, to “deserve or be worthy of (something, especially reward, punishment, or attention).”

Merit is something that the entire principle of a “free market” rests upon. Without merit, you cannot have a free market.

Let’s talk about why that is. Merit is the idea that not all is created equal, and that created elements which are better are noteworthy of “praise or reward.”

For example, let’s talk about doors for a moment. Let us say we have three factories making doors: A, B, and C. Now, while all these factories make the same kind of door, for the same purpose (let’s say a door for an aircraft), the door that results from each factory is held to a different standard. Factory A produces a door that is thrown together very quickly, and the materials are cheap and often not quite to the standard of measurement, ill-fitting or sloppy. Factory B meanwhile, spends a lot of time on each door, checking to make sure that the measurements and materials are to a very high standard. Factory C produces a door that’s in the middle: The measurements are pretty good, but the materials are of a lower quality than B, but not quite as low as A.

Now, in a merit-based economy, none of these doors will be “valued” at the same price. A’s doors will wind up the cheapest because they’re of the lowest quality, and will need the most additional work and most frequent replacement, while B’s will be held in high regard. The doors are judged based on their capability, and those which are “deserving of praise or reward” are valued as such.

In a non-merit economy, however, there is no difference in the prices of the doors. Perhaps because a governing body fixed the price, or perhaps because a the public perception is that the doors are “easy to make” and “all equal,” a perception that the management of each factory agrees with, and therefore a door from Factory A is valued as the same as from Factories B and C.

Now let’s extrapolate forward twenty years and see what has happened in both situations. In the merit economy, where the value of the door is based on the worthiness and capability of the door, the three factories are all still producing doors, each to their own standard. Some customers buy the high-quality doors, paying the premium from Factory B, while some buy the super cheap doors from Factory A, saving money, and a decent number of people choose the middle ground with Factory C. Maybe there’s a new factory too. Part of the advantage of a merit economy is that someone can decide “Hey, this product isn’t up to standard” and start a new factory making doors to their standard, which can find a place in the market or even drive out another producer.

But what about the economy where all the prices were fixed and merit didn’t matter? Well, as the years go by, both Factory B and C realize that there’s no point to producing the better product because the system they’re selling in does not reward a better product. All doors are viewed as “equal” in valuation, and therefore no matter how much better Factory B’s doors are than C’s, or even A’s, it never sees a single penny more for that extra effort. No reputation, no market advantage, no merit.

What does Factory B do then? Well, if there is no reward for creating a better product, it reasons why create a better product? It’s “reward” will that of Factory A no matter what, so why bother? And so the doors it manufactures are reduced to the standard of Factory A. Factory B does the same for the same reasoning. After all, if there is no reward for doing the extra work, then why spend the time and effort for a market that will never account for it?

So, in the end, all the doors that are produced sink to the lowest common value, since there is no force allowing or encouraging for them to be anything else. Any new Factory that wants a better door, opening its production to produce a better door, will quickly find that such effort is pointless and unrewarded, and that the only intelligent decision is to produce a product that is the equal of the lowest of the other Factories.

From this example, the meaning should be clear (and, in the interest of extra clearness, if you seek out market examples of this, you will find them): If you remove merit from the equation, a market drops to its lowest point as the commodity in question becomes valueless outside of the lowest possible rate. In other words, it stops being a free market, as there is no “value” for the market to exercise upon.

This holds true for a lot of commodities: If you stop letting them be valued on “merit,” the economy that supports them stops being free.

Now, a quick aside: Some use this sort of example as proof that regulations concerning price minimums and maximums are therefore bad, as they “limit” the merit that can occur, but the majority of the time this is not the case (there are a few exceptions, but not many). What those regulations assure is that a powerful organization, like say Factory B, with its increased income and market weight, cannot force the market to adopt certain values independent of merit in order to assure that company an advantage. This is often referred to as preventing monopoly, price-fixing schemes, or other forms of market manipulation. In other words, they are small “limits” that are put in place to keep bad actors from using the power of the free market to remove the free market to their own advantage.

Aside over. Merit is essential to any sort of free market, as demonstrated above. Commodities need to be valued based on their worth in some way.

Labor is one of these commodities.

Here is where the original post would start getting away from me, as I would start offering examples about how labor is not valued by merit in the modern US economy, drawn from job after job after job, and the post would effectively sling so many stones that everything else in it became buried. So to save time, I will simplify this to one of three stances: You either understand that a large portion of the US business market has “devalued” labor by refusing to value it as something worthy of merit, IE, all labor (below a certain “social level”) is seen as equally “valued,” and no amount of extra hard work or going above and beyond will ever be recognized … Or you don’t, either because you’re not involved in the modern business economy, or you’re implicit in the justification of encouraging a meritless system to your own gain. To the latter two, this post likely has nothing more for you, consider this a fair point to step out.

But to the rest of you, those who have been in the job market and have seen job after job where merit is never rewarded as a matter of corporate pride … what’s to be gained?

This is where the second bit of this post’s title comes into play: Accountability. Or to put it another way, taking account for that which we are responsible for.

See, what has allowed so many businesses to divest themselves of the concept of merit being applied to labor is, in my own experience, a lack of accountability. If a manager makes a poor decision and employees suffer for it, the manager rarely, if ever, sees any responsibility for that decision. They aren’t accountable for it. It’s the “company’s problem.” I’ve seen this time and time again in places I’ve worked, as I’m certain many of you reading this have as well, where a manager makes a terrible decision or refuses to acknowledge employees that went above and beyond, but the blame is placed, quite literally on “the company” or “corporate.”

There’s a divestment at work in the US business-scape. To give a hypothetical example (though believe me, we could fill this post with real ones pulled from the headlines), a CEO makes a decision that tanks company profits by a quarter, but rather than accepting blame for the decision, states that it was “an unavoidable drawback of the corporate sphere” and collects a bonus that should have only been given had the business succeeded in its goals that year, rather than failed to make even the normal accomplishment.

Both of these are damaging to the free market because the remove responsibility and value from the equation. But there’s one last, insidiously detrimental concept at work here. What would happen, I ask you, if a “normal employee” made a decision or behaved in a way that cost a business a quarter of its profits? They’d probably be fired, right? Under a merit system, that would make sense.

And here’s where things get really messy: Most days today, that employee would be. So we have a system of “merit” but only insofar as it extends to punishment, not reward (as working hard or going above and beyond is explicitly not rewarded in most US business). Worse, sometimes it’s a punishment for a decision the employee didn’t make but a manager did, the employee suffering the punishment for the manager’s bad decision.

Again, I could write out a bunch of examples. We could fill the comments with people’s personal experiences in this.

But what would be the point? Those who understand this constant barrage of “merit only when punishment occurs” already know it’s awful, while those that refuse to acknowledge it, or even deny its existence, do so to protect themselves.

So instead, I want to go back to the idea of accountability.

Right now, we’re in the midst of what’s being called “The Great Resignation.” Employees are leaving jobs that have no belief in merit (or worse, merit only when punishment occurs) in droves, taking advantages of the openings left by the pandemic or mass retirements to find newer positions that will, by “force” of “have an employee or not” treat them with merit, at least temporarily, or even starting their own businesses where they want things to be different.

This is all good. Labor needs to be recognized as a commodity like everything else. “The Great Resignation” treating it as such is good for giving labor back a sense of merit.

With that in mind though … let’s not forget it this time.

That’s my plea. My “constructive moment.” Don’t forget what this situation became. Those employees that have finally succeeded at finding a position where they are treated with merit? May they not resolve, either by laxness or some twisted form of “everyone must have it as bad as me” to perpetuate a meritless system in their wake.

The same goes for all those that have started a business in these last few months, who may either have people work under them or be working on contract with people: Remember merit. Be accountable. Don’t repeat the same conditions that made the position you very likely fled from such a nightmare. Don’t justify it or dismiss blame as “a corporate decision” or “that’s just how the world works.”

Especially the latter one. “That’s just how the world works” is one of the laziest, most trite excuses ever. Millions of children used to die from smallpox. That was “how the world worked.”

We can be better than that.

Ultimately, that is what I’m getting at. We can be better. We can bring merit back to labor, back to our jobs. We can keep a free market going by rewarding employees for hard work and effort, not just punishing them.

We can call for accountability too, across all levels of companies and corporations. If a CEO makes a decision that damages a company, they should be held accountable for it and their compensation adjusted accordingly just as it would be benefitted if they’d “succeeded.”

There needs to be an equal accountability at all levels of American business. Equal merit. We may not be able to change those that are old and set in stone … but that’s their decision.

What we can do is resolve not to repeat those behaviors that we, as those who were the ones who took the brunt of the negative impact from it, found so damaging. We can be managers that value the merit of those who we employ. We can be the ones who have the courage to admit that our decision didn’t work out, rather than placing the blame elsewhere. We can hold ourselves accountable, and build a system that looks for a fair merit with everyone we work with.

All it takes a decision. We live in an era of superhero movies, and a lot of those movies have made a repeated theme out of how some of the best “heroes” aren’t the ones swinging around on webs or throwing electric hammers, but instead the everyday people who stand up for the right decision, even when it seems like you’re alone.

I know it sounds weird, but deciding that labor, like everything else, should be weighed on merit, and not just punished on it, is a decision like that. There may be a whole swath that kicks and screams against it, or mocks those that reward an employee for going above and beyond.

Let them howl. At the end of the day, you’ll have made the world a better place for those around you. Small motions like that add up.

If we all choose to do the right thing, maybe we can bring merit back to the US economy, and help pull ourselves out of the downward slide we’ve been in for decades.

But even if we can’t, even if the concept of rewarding hard work remains an anathema to the rest of US business at large, the one thing I can guarantee is that you and yours won’t be the problem. And as long as one small part of the market refuses to move merit out of the equation, it can’t ever fully leave, and there’s a chance for things to be better.

So let’s give all our labors merit. Let’s all hold ourselves accountable.

Let’s make things better.

Comments? Leave ’em below!

Featured image stock from Pexels.com.

2 thoughts on “OP-ED: Merit and Accountability in the American Workplace

  1. This reminds me of the latest nonsense policy my company started focusing on in the last two years: limited employee ratings. We had our annual employee reviews last month. My boss, as always, praised me in ways that are almost embarrassing and tried to give me the highest possible rating. But no, the company now has a rule: across the entire business only a specific percentage of employees may make the highest rating. They then decided that I would not get that highest rating so that the percentage this year would meet this arbitrary requirement. Of course, if we get raises this year (always a big if), how much our raise ends up being is based on those employee reviews. Although they never said so, I imagine this is the entire reason the new rule exists: so they don’t have some perceived obligation to pay higher raises to more people.

    So. Looks like I’m going to stay stuck with a 3% raise in a world of 8% inflation rates. Joy.

    I asked my retired father about this, and he said his company had been doing the same things for years. So it’s not a new phenomenon, it was just new for my company.


    • I’ve seen stories of a few people who immediately adjusted their work to compensate, basically playing chicken with their employers, some winning and some getting new jobs but … There’s no denying that a lot of companies adopt this system with the aim of not giving raises.

      It definitely is a crock, and I’m sorry you got hit by it.


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