25 August 2011

Guilty of immorality

In the 19th century it was common for employers to insist that their workforce attend church services regularly. In Lowell, Massachusetts a 1848 handbook for women working in the mills stated "The company will not employ anyone who is habitually absent from public worship on the Sabbath, or known to be guilty of immorality." Servants in Victorian and Edwardian households were expected to use a portion of what little time off they were given to attend Church of England services, lest they give into their baser instincts. The upper classes felt justified in taking a paternal interest in directing the spiritual lives of the laboring class: they were, after all, looking out for their employee's immortal souls. And if morality could also be a club to keep the rabble malleable, all the better.

I was thinking about this history when I read this Atlantic collection of interviews from employers about the "mistakes" job seekers make. "Sanitize [your] net presence," chides one interviewer. "Those drunken spring break pictures have got to go." We've all heard stories of people getting into trouble because of what they wrote in their blogs or because of what they do in their spare time, but the unapologetic nature of this interviewer still took me aback. It's not simply the absurdity of an employer thinking that what a candidate did on spring break has any bearing on their fitness. It's the fact that they were even looking at that candidate's Facebook page in the first place. I mean, I find the idea of my mom reading my status creepy, let alone my boss. (Hi, Mom!)

But, the argument goes, if you choose to make your life public on the Net, don't employers get to use that against you? The problem is in most cases, the offending revelations have nothing to do with the employee's fitness. It's that they had the audacity to post a photo of themselves in a bikini, or they used the word fuck in their blog, or they felt they had to support one candidate or another. In other words, the employer is seeking to get their unruly workforce to adhere to a moral code which goes far beyond the concerns of the workplace.

These days it's illegal to make religious decisions for your employees, either by requiring that they practice a certain faith or by prohibiting them from adhering to another. We recognize such efforts as wrong-headed, patronizing, unfair. What we need now is to extend this understanding to the secular choices as well. And HR Dude? Quit being such a creeper.

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