The “Low Level Employee”

MacEwan University in Alberta has been the victim of a successful (well for the criminal elements at least) phishing scheme. The article cites University of Alberta professor Karim Jamal, who was consulted to provided commentary on MacEwan’s accounting controls. By Jamal and the article’s author, the front-line workers are thrice referred to as “low level” employees.

Jamal’s gist here is that the system of controls should be blamed, not the workers. But its funny how, by referring to the workers as “low level,” the defense of their actions comes across as somewhat patronizing rather than  supportive. I wonder how the workers themselves might feel, reading about themselves described publicly as incidental, low-status employees?

I could be a little over-sensitive here, but I read this article on the heels of finishing Joan William’s White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America. It’s a quick, engaging read, and a slap upside the head for liberals who, in an odd combination of earnestness and condescension, are Trying to Understand Trump Voters. At any rate, William’s book heavily emphasized the importance of dignity in work. So I was thinking about the dignity of the workers in the MacEwan article, and the incidentaly — perhaps “clueless” way in which they were slagged by the Dr. Jamal.

Dignity is out of fashion. It is a word we rarely hear invoked in the world of work, yet it has been central in accounting for the experiences of workers who, as Williams points out, have jobs that are important but offer no means of distinction: no way to “stand out in a crowd.” Whether we like it or not a lot of necessary work — whether paid or unpaid — is not glamorous, interesting, or challenging. Richard Sennett and Jonathon Cobb described such work in “The Hidden Injuries of Class.” In “same old, same old” jobs that offer little intrinsic reward, rewards come, as Williams also discusses, dignity is realized in fortitude, “hard work,” self-discipline, and self-sufficiency.

What Sennett and Cobb and Williams all highlight is that we need a sense of dignity, regardless of the labour we perform. We need that labour to be recognized as valuable in the eyes of others. Because we are a society that places little value on “same old same old jobs,” it’s easy for someone like Dr. Jamal, in a kind of analytical fog, to publicly label clerical staff as “low-level workers” without recognizing the sting of “injury” this might entail.


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