So Long, Organization Man


White-Collar Blues: Management Loyalties in an Age of Corporate Restructuring (Basic Books, 224 pages, $23) is a good book in bad packaging. From the downbeat title to the blurbs from such economic doomsayers as Barry Bluestone and Clyde Prestowitz, the cover promises another screed on the evils of corporate downsizing.

In fact, Charles Heckscher, a Rutgers University labor-studies professor, has written a subtle analysis of the demise of corporate paternalism and the rise of a managerial ethic appropriate to adults in a free society. Corporate restructuring, he argues, is driven not simply by competition or technology but by the overthrow of the ideal of corporatism, with its emphasis on big bureaucracies, public and private. White-Collar Blues documents the end of the Organization Man.

The book is a study of middle managers in such large companies as AT&T, Honeywell, General Motors, and Pitney-Bowes. Mr. Heckscher is sympathetic to the managers whose expectations have been overthrown by restructuring, but he harbors no nostalgia. "Sociological and hortatory writing about community," he notes, generally has "three characteristics: a belief, or rather an assumption, that community is good; a critique of actual communities as repressive and closed; and a failure to provide any real alternative." White-Collar Blues avoids this trap.

Most white-collar workers subscribe to what Mr. Heckscher calls a "loyalist ethic." They are loyal to the company as an organization, building their careers within its boundaries and by its rules. They respond with blank looks when he asks about professional ties, political or religious affiliations, or charitable endeavors. They have no such outside commitments, at least none that might trump company loyalty.

And they expect that loyalty to be repaid with paternalist care. "The loyalist majority," writes Mr. Heckscher of one company, "had a set of expectations that involved what one called a 'sense of entitlement': entitlement to security and caring in exchange for competent work." Layoffs of middle managers are traumatic even for loyalists whose own jobs aren't threatened.

And when higher management tries to communicate the company's strategy—and to solicit ideas from middle managers—loyalists become upset. They believe their job is to turn out a good product, and higher management's is to worry about strategy. If top management wants their opinions, it must not know how to do its job. Their view of the company is insular, unconnected to the marketplace, and they like it that way. Mr. Heckscher is shocked to find one company's middle managers applauding themselves for quality improvements that the competition has already surpassed. Quality is a moving target, and loyalists aren't used to open-endedness.

At four sites, however, Mr. Heckscher finds a new attitude, more suitable to a world of continuous change. He dubs it the "professional ethic."

The "professionals" are motivated by loyalty to a particular task, a mission, not to the organization as an entity. They do not expect lifetime security, and they do expect to be rewarded for performance. But they don't just jump from job to job in search of more money; they stay until the mission is accomplished, and they seek not only financial reward but challenges. Mr. Heckscher refers to the glue that holds professionals together as a "community of purpose; a shared commitment to the accomplishment of a mission, without a permanent and dependent relation of employee to employer."

Unlike the loyalists, professionals care about strategy and have ties beyond the corporation. They identify with broader professions and pay attention to industry trends. They may stay in one company, if it provides a series of challenging projects, but they always keep their eye on the outside world. They're the people William Whyte's Organization Men scorned as the "What-Makes-Sammy-Run type," because they're alert for opportunities outside the Organization.

Mr. Heckscher sums up: "For loyalists the idea that corporate purpose could change, and that their particular skills and interests could no longer be needed by the corporation, is a basic violation of the moral contract….For the professionals, by contrast, the assumption is that the match between individual and corporation is a temporary one, defined by the frame of the project or mission….[C]ontributing to the current direction of the firm is what matters. The relationship requires a sense from both sides that it is productive. Therefore the main moral obligation on both sides is to be aboveboard in discussing interests and commitments."

Mr. Heckscher suffers from a few tics of the left; for instance, he attacks the 1980s for fostering an ethic of "free-agent individualism." But free-market advocates can learn a great deal from his careful research—and from the complex individualism of the professional ethic. The struggle between the desire for security and the dynamic, open-ended processes that freedom produces is at the heart of our political debates. With communitarians waxing nostalgic for the 1950s, White-Collar Blues provides a timely reminder that no one who values freedom and responsibility should mourn the passing of the Organization Man.

This review originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal on April 11, 1995. White-Collar Blues was recently published in paperback.