The complex negotiation of worker identities within the corporate framework

embossed sculpture

In this essay, I contend that rather than viewing individuals as attempting to resist the imposition of corporate power into various aspects of their lives, we can view their behaviour as more of a continual and complex negotiation of the establishment and consolidation of various identities within the corporate framework. To this end, I argue we can broadly observe these frictions to fit within one of three parameters: attempted systemic identity arbitration by groups: individual negotiation of personhood; and determination of identity and maintenance of status through corporate compliance. This constant friction of perceptions of personhood affects both the intensity and situation of power at any particular moment and thus, is not only relational to historical and cultural contexts but also to the relationships with which it is intertwined.

When discussing acts of resistance towards corporate power, ideals, and behaviour, the term ‘misbehaviour’ is sometimes used as a reference point in theories of why people behave as they do against corporations (Paulsen 2017). I contend, however, that this term instead emphasises an unhelpful moral division between what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong.’ Unhelpful because this division is, of course, a fluctuating and arbitrary line that depends on both historical and cultural contexts. For surely, as the idiom goes, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” – it just depends on which side of the fence you sit. Similarly, the term ‘resistance’ implies that one set of codes and behaviours (normally that of the overarching corporation) are static in both their composition and scope of power, whilst the values and behaviours of those both within and outside the corporate framework are more malleable and reactive resulting in a constant ‘pushing back’ against these static standards. I, however, concur with Paulsen (2017) as he suggests all parties involved in interactions with the corporation have the use of power as a tool – not just as an end to which they aspire. That is, the fluid and organic nature of the matrix of relationships that both constitute the existence of, and facilitate the operation of, the corporation, ensure that the degree of power embedded and then exercised by various parties, fluctuates considerably depending on historic, spatial, and cultural contexts. Furthermore, the term ‘resistance’, as defined as “opposition, refusal to comply” (Hayward 1982) within the context of the organisation, implies that individuals constantly experiencing pressures between assertion of their individual values, beliefs, and behaviours, with those emphasised by the organisation, deal with these issues only through the method of a refusal to comply. As discussed, however, non-compliance is not always prominent in an individual’s or group’s response to corporate culture.

To counter this conundrum, therefore, it would seem more appropriate to consider individuals as “collective subjects” rather than unitary entities, or as Strathern (2004) theorised, as “dividuals” rather than individuals (quoted in Foster 2017)). That is, rather than an individual entity with an all-encompassing, non-changeable identity that is in constant opposition to anything dissimilar to it, we should instead re-evaluate personhood as an organic, interchangeable and malleable form that evolves, depending upon the context in which it operates and the relationships with whom it interacts (Foster 2017). Regarding corporations themselves, Foster (2017) takes the idea of dividual identities a step further, asserting that corporations could arguably be considered to be, not single entities that operate in unison in both thought and action, but a composite body that, by necessity, must act not just with its own cause at the forefront of its actions, but with regard to the effects of its actions upon others. As with the individuals who compose its ranks, the corporation itself also acts in response to its enveloping context whilst simultaneously succumbing to the needs of the relationships with which it is intertwined.

Regardless, however, of which contention holds more weight, it cannot be denied that the fear of either not having what could be considered a ‘defined’ identity, or the threat of losing an established one, is an issue that pervades humanity’s modern existence. The idea of individuals constantly having to negotiate (and re-negotiate) their desired self and corresponding identities within differing contexts and relationships, is one that sees the remaking of what is referred to as ‘subjectivities’ (Foster 2017). That is, individuals are in a constant state of defining a range of viewpoints from which to see themselves in terms of multiple identities.

In practical terms, this constant remaking of subjectivities and personhood is clear in both systematic and individual forms. I contend that we can consider three main categories to encompass most forms of this constant remaking of identities. The first can be regarded as coordinated efforts by corporate employees to change the systemic workings and culture of the organisation itself. To this end, workers operating within the confines of an organisation’s culture may be at odds with the explicit and implied values permeating throughout the corporation and thus defining their work lives. Furthermore, as personhood may comprise a compilation of varying subjectivities, when individuals publicly announce their connection with a corporation (particularly a well-known one), the sense of identity they wish to portray may be threatened by the culture and actions of the corporation they represent. The recent protests of Google employees are an example of this category. On the first of November 2018, Google staff engaged in worldwide mass walkouts protesting the way Google management handled internal sexual harassment claims (Steinmetz 2018). In this way, and with the San Francisco division leading the way, they designed these simultaneous protests with a view to changing corporate culture via public scrutiny. It also represented a public decree of sorts, of employees’ attempts to re-negotiate the predominant values of Google management. Using the power of collective numbers, non-performance of work, and public exposure, a substantial number of these corporate employees overtly attempted to re-align conflicting internal corporate identities with their working identities.

Conversely, a second category of arbitration of individual subjectivities, based on perceived and real uncertainties and precariousness within corporate confines, can be considered one solely administered by the individual. Although one of the most obvious forms of action is that of sabotage, there are other types of behaviour, such as absenteeism, ‘slow work,’ or deliberate time wasting (Paulsen 2017), where a sense of hyper-vigilance against such threats as semi-permanent work, can be enforced to gain a sense of power over the environment, and thus internalise a desired identity. An example of this activity is Mole’s (2010) account of “precariat” Italian workers, where the author argues that in anticipation to such adversities as risk, marginalisation, and anxiety, amongst others, many Italian workers attempt to be almost proactive in their recognition and resulting combat of neoliberal tendencies (and the corporations who perpetuate them), by establishing an identity that values a stable labour force rather than the prevailing atmosphere of precariousness to which they are beholden. In this way, whilst these actions may be viewed as a collective action, they are nevertheless individually internalised, adapted, and translated into behaviour which may tenuously be perceived as a form of ‘resistance’ against corporations’ neoliberal antics, but which is founded in both cultural values and individual expectations surrounding perceptions of desired identities.

From a somewhat different vantage point, a third category I propose, is one whereby individuals are outwardly complicit in abiding by the rules and regulations of an organisation’s culture, but nevertheless remain, to varying degrees, conflicted between the identity they are pressured to maintain (perhaps publicly), and other assumed identities dependent on the context of relationships (such as family). They may submit to the deployment of corporate demands in order to elevate or sustain a desired position or status within a group, but with no less stress endured upon the remaking of their subjectivity. In this regard, Hugh Wilmott’s (1993) concept of ‘corporate culturism’ is particularly apt as it refers to the ways in which the corporation seeks to “win the hearts and minds of employees: to define their purposes by managing what they think and feel, and not just how they behave” (quoted in Paulsen 2017). From a psychoanalytical framework, Ouroussoff (1997) sees this almost dismissive attitude by individuals who accept cultures which may be at odds with either their own or the public’s, as “unreflective compliance” (quoted in Foster 2017). This may, in turn, lead to a substantial and detrimental level of “organised irresponsibility” within an organisation (Jackall 2010).

A contemporary example of this type of behaviour is the ball tampering issue that beset the Australian cricket team’s 2018 tour of South Africa, resulting in three players sent home, promptly fined, and then suspended (Holmes 2018). In the aftermath, publicly expressed tears and regrets emanated from the accused, who conceded they were complicit in conducting a premeditated attempt at cheating. In addition, a 145-page review produced by the Ethics Centre (Holmes 2018) commissioned to delve into the culture of the governing corporate organisation Cricket Australia, as well as the status of the relationship between management and the Cricketers’ Association, determined there was a culture of “winning without counting the cost” (Holmes 2018). This situation seems reflective of the culture described in Ho’s (2009) appraisal of Wall Street investment bankers who demonstrated a culture of intensity and excess; all premised on the foundation of job insecurity. Indeed, the internalisation of the prevalent corporate culture in which they operated, enabled them to make quick decisions without taking time to consider and evaluate the consequences or morality of such behaviour. This behaviour, in fact, was a way of simultaneously cementing their identities within the organisation whilst showing greater superiority and flexibility, or “liquidity,” in their skill sets and lives than those existing outside these specific corporate boundaries (Ho 2009).  

No matter the method used, however, the constant establishment and re-making of personhood and subjectivities by all parties within a corporate environment, has far-reaching effects upon the enveloping culture. Indeed, the public may sometimes employ a vantage point of “corporate determinism,” whereby they perceive the corporation as created by an external force and so acting with one mind and purpose: this purpose being motivated by self-interest and executed usually callously (Foster 2017). Furthermore, since corporations operate within a framework of limited liability, individuals realistically have extraordinary leeway to perform harm on behalf of the organisation whilst personally avoiding any meaningful retribution. As a result, corporations are often perceived as quick to privatise gains whilst, just as quickly, able to disseminate and socialise any incurred losses onto the wider community (Baars 2017). In reality, though, corporations should be regarded as what they are: socially constructed entities, being neither aloof nor un-reproachable, that are malleable, organic, and dynamic collections of competing personhoods.

In conclusion, therefore, whilst there is constant friction and negotiation within corporations attempting to balance the innate and necessary drive to create profit, with an increasingly pressured need to show elements of corporate citizenship, there too exists within its corporate confines, a continual shift of power between individuals seeking to both establish and consolidate their perceptions of individual personhood and identity. Whether played out individually or collectively, or in stark contrast to the overriding corporate culture – or a costly facet of it – it is nonetheless an essential element for the development of the innumerable identities of the corporation itself. For surely, just as perhaps individual’s personhood comprises “dividuals” (Foster 2017), so too we can see a corporation as having an organic and complex series of identities – constantly made and re-made within a vast matrix of intertwining relationships in which it, by necessity, must operate and consider – to be effective. In this way, whilst it may seem there are periods of resistance by individuals and groups against a domineering corporate culture, I argue that, just as a teenager ‘rebels’ against familial rules and boundaries to develop a sense of personhood by comparison with the Other, so too there is constant redefining of desired and accepted identities both within and outside corporate parameters; a necessity to determine and uphold prioritised cultural values, beliefs, and behaviours.


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