Slavery and Modern Management

Researcher at Harvard Business School, Caitlin Rosenthal, has traced the origins of many modern business management techniques back to the practices invented by slaveholders as ways to optimize the production value of the enslaved individuals.

In this Forbes piece the author explains:

“Slave owners were able to collect data on their workforce in ways that other business owners couldn’t because they had complete control over their workers. They didn’t have to worry about turnover or recruiting new workers, and they could experiment with different tactics—moving workers around and demanding higher levels of output, even monitoring what they ate and how long new mothers breastfed their babies. And the slaves had no recourse.”

Although right now it’s been eclipsed by shutdowns, health care, potential recessions, and debt ceilings, the state of labor in the U.S. is still a major issue right now. Support for unions is weakening. The massive job eliminations from a few years ago left many employees covering what used to be the work of multiple positions. Fear of the job market is keeping people in jobs they would otherwise leave and giving management a bit more freedom to push expectations. And remember the fervor over teacher salaries and benefits last year?

[To be very clear, this is in no way to suggest that we draw equivalencies between modern employees and enslaved individuals. But by looking to the origins of modern-day “effective” management practices we can be reminded that they were not systems created to support or develop great employees]

I love the use of historical data to put a critical lens on business practice. I especially like that she did not set out to research this slavery but that her more traditional line of inquiry led her there and she went with it.


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