The White Collar Syndrome – A Cause Of Inefficiency

We are all familiar with the reluctance of white collar employees to do work usually reserved for blue collar workers. For purposes of our discussion, I will call this the “white collar syndrome” although the behavior applies not only to white collar workers, and not just to Filipinos. I have read that in China, many college graduates refuse to work as factory workers even if the wage is three times the amount as an entry level office worker. There is something about doing work below your status that causes such revulsion; most people avoid it even at the cost of looking bad in the eyes of their boss.
Most people dislike doing menial tasks, although what is menial depends much on one’s position, especially if the task is not specifically mentioned as part of their job description. I read a funny story that happened in a factory abroad that illustrates how damaging this could be: There was a cat that happened to pee on the shop floor of the factory. The mess had to be cleaned up so that work could proceed. It so happened that the janitor was absent during that time. While there were dozens of men in the shop floor who could easily mop it clean, no one volunteered. As a result, work stopped for hours until someone from management decided to do the cleaning himself. The work stoppage cost the company thousands of dollars.
Protecting One’s Self-Worth
Here in our country, I have encountered many other examples of this phenomenon. I know of a manager who was demoralized because he was compelled to commute to inspect a site when he was previously driven in a company car. This was surprising because the manager commutes to work every day as he does not own a car. I believe what brought this about was the precedent wherein he did not have to commute. On the part of the company, they probably decided to save on the cost and potential liabilities in case of an accident by having the manager take a bus instead. They may not have imagined the degree of resentment it caused him.
For entrepreneurs like me for whom almost no task is demeaning if it will help the business, I am sometimes flabbergasted when employees are reluctant to do what they think is a lowly task. In our case, sometimes I am the one who picks up trash if the person assigned to do so is absent. I just can’t stand waiting for someone to volunteer to do so when there is a chance a customer may see it first.
Upon pondering what prompts employees to have this kind of attitude, I realized it may be due to their sense of worth. They don’t want to be perceived by others as being degraded. On the other hand, if you are the owner of the business and you do menial tasks, you may even be praised for your humility and industriousness.
If there are no harmful consequences, managers can simply ignore the white collar syndrome. However, this is not possible. Menial tasks may be infrequent, but not doing them can cause severe damage or at least a lot of inefficiency. Managers are sometimes compelled to take costly measures like hiring additional personnel who are not fully utilized since they are seldom needed.
What is the best way to handle this problem then? There is no simple solution. There will always be disgruntled workers no matter how tactfully you try to resolve it. And it is not something that cannot be solved through persistence and determination.
Before trying to handle the white collar syndrome, first make sure that employees are not in fact being abused or required to do menial tasks that should not even be their responsibility. If there is no problem on this matter, then you can proceed to tackle the issue. A frank and non-judgmental discussion with the employees would give appropriate directions on how best to overcome this great cause of inefficiency.

*Originally published by the Manila Bulletin. D-4, Sunday, January 26, 2014. Written by Ruben Anlacan, Jr. (President, BusinessCoach, Inc.) All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or copied without express written permission of the copyright holders.