Open source communities see themselves as pure meritocracies. But while the abolition of rank automatically eliminates certain blatant kinds of rankism, it can mask jockeying for status. Most common is an atmosphere of aristocratic noblesse oblige. "Newbies" may be snubbed by old-timers of proven repute and have to undergo a long apprenticeship before their ideas are taken seriously. As in more traditional organizational models, people who feel insecure are more likely to mount challenges to the dignity of others in order to find out where they themselves stand.
Other problems that typically plague non-hierarchical models are stagnation and lapses in responsibility. It is silly to argue that hierarchy or heterarchy or P2P is always the better model. The real question is: What kind of organization is best suited to getting the job at hand done and done well? Once that decision is made, it's important to bear in mind that rankism can rear its dysfunctional head in one way or another in almost any kind of institution. It won't be eliminated simply by redrawing the organizational chart.
When the Boss Is a Bully
The film 9 to 5 depicted a nasty boss. More recently, Mean Girls showed how "popular" girls are sometimes bullies in schools. In 2005, a presidential nominee for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations had his appointment stalled because of subordinates' allegations of his bullying.
Bullying is archetypal rankism, and it's ubiquitous. What's new is that it has suddenly become newsworthy. This suggests we may be approaching a tipping point in regard to its public acceptance.
Here are some facts about bullying in the workplace, as excerpted and paraphrased from the Acorn Center's web site and Benedict Carey's New York Times article Fear in the Workplace:
- A recent study estimates that approximately one in six U.S. workers directly experienced destructive bullying in the preceding year.
- Supervisors may use bullying to swat down a threatening subordinate, or a manager may look for a scapegoat to carry the department's or the boss's frustrations.
- Some bullies target subordinates for the sheer pleasure of exercising power...a kind of low-grade sadism. They often start on one person and then move on to someone else.
- Malicious bosses often elicit from their subordinates defensive habits first developed as children, such as reflexive submission and explosive rage. "Once these behaviors lock in, people are transported to a different reality and can no longer see what's happening to them and cannot adapt," according to Dr. Mark Levey.
- Ambition of co-workers is the most insidious ally of the bully. Frequently, when workers witness a boss humiliating a colleague, they are relieved that they themselves are not the target and wonder if the victim did not in fact deserve the treatment. In that case, according to Dr. Calvin Morrill, "The brutal behavior goes unchallenged, and the target feels a sudden chill of isolation. By doing nothing, even people who abhor the bullying become complicit in the behavior and find themselves supplying reasons to justify it."
- Based on U.S. figures from 2003, 58 percent of bullies in the workplace are female, 42 percent are male. Woman-on-woman bullying represents 50 percent of all workplace bullying; man-on-woman, 30 percent; man-on-man, 12 percent; woman-on-man, 8 percent. Since bullying is same-sex harassment most of the time, it is often invisible when seen through the lens of anti-discrimination laws. The vignettes that follow--personal stories posted on the breakingranks.net web site--illustrate the damage done by workplace bullying.
From Oregon, Roxanne, a woman in her mid-fifties, laments:
I have worked as a legal assistant for over three decades. My current bosses (one man, one woman, both my age) have no compunction about screaming obscenities to my face, ordering me about and refusing even the most urgent requests for time off (such as when my dad died or when I sustained an eye injury). Because they are high-profile and well connected, the chance of my obtaining other employment in this relatively small legal community is about nil. I lack the money to leave the area so I stay and endure the situation.
What's frightening is the prevalence of this type of abuse. An article in a national law magazine notes that "legal assistants are coming out of these firms like whipped dogs." An apt simile, and evidently not about to change--or have you ever tried suing a lawyer?
The next story, from an anonymous post to breakingranks.net, illustrates the high cost of standing up to rankism.
While working as a low-level associate in a prestigious architectural firm, I experienced severe rankism. I have never been more humiliated and denigrated. My boss was an authoritarian who made life there a living hell for me and many others. The "higher-ups" were well aware of her malicious harassment, yet indirectly encouraged it through inaction. I came to understand the stories I'd heard about the many others who'd held my job before me and why it was a "revolving-door position."
One day I asked a co-worker who was leaving the wood shop to pick up after himself because the mess he left was becoming a hazard for others. He took offense at this on grounds of his seniority, complained to his superiors and as a result, I was summarily fired.
I've been job hunting for almost a year now. I was discarded like an old magazine and lost my health insurance. Because of my low rank in the firm I was considered inconsequential and easily replaced. No consideration was given to how this would affect me as a fellow human being trying to get along just like anyone else. We live in a culture of rankism.
How to combat such rankism? The answer is both personal and institutional.
This story from Sylvia Cope of Port Orange, Florida, shows how even a modicum of economic independence empowers people to defend themselves against rankism on the job.
I prepare transcripts for court reporters on a freelance basis. The expected hierarchy is lawyer, court reporter, scopist (me). But since we are all self-employed, I never bought into any notions of relative worth and importance. I feel that my labor is equal in value to anyone else's, that the mere fact that someone is better compensated does not make that person superior to me.