The Conflict Between Our Worker vs. Our Consumer Roles


One of the deepest potential conflicts in every society is the conflict between the roles we have as workers versus consumers. As a consumer, we want the best product or service at the lowest cost, and, if we have unique needs, we want those unique needs addressed at no additional cost. We want the worker who is serving us to go the extra mile, and we only want to pay top dollar for exceptional service.

The worker role can be made consistent with our consumer role with exceptional management by those who lead the workers providing us with the products and services, whether those leaders are managers or, in the case of a unionized work force, union leaders. Too often, however, the path of least resistance for a product or service provider is to design or allow the design of their processes for the convenience of the worker at the expense of the consumer.

My point of view as a consumer, as well as the point of view of most others with whom I have conversations, is that I am willing to reward exceptional service, and I want the worker to have a good work environment and to be paid well. I am willing to pay more to insure that the worker gets paid well, and I empathize with workers who do their job under difficult conditions, like taxi drivers, policemen, fire fighters, corrections officers, teachers at inner-city schools, and certain kinds of construction workers.

I have great difficulty with workers who want processes that cater to them at the severe inconvenience of the consumer, and who want to be paid top dollar for mediocre or even poor performance. Unfortunately, too many managers and too many union leaders want the path of least resistance, which is a seniority-based reward system, a set of jobs that have highly-defined duties that do not allow for, or reward, creativity and exceptional performance, and that are designed for the convenience of the mediocre worker, not for the worker that delivers exceptional customer value.

There are too many environments designed for mediocre worker convenience. How many times have we been in retail stores in which loud music is playing, because the young people who work there have decided to play it at a decibel level that turns off the customer? How many times do we work with software programs that are too rigid and formulaic because the data we input is easier for a worker to process? How many times do we find that critical operations which serve the public open too late and close too early because of rigid labor laws designed to “protect” the worker instead of serving the public?

I became particularly aware of this when I have looked at government-regulated social service programs. The reporting and compliance requirements are not well-designed for the person the program is serving. They are not even designed for the front-line government social service workers to do their job better. They are designed to keep government officials out of trouble by creating processes that will insulate them from being criticized, and, therefore, putting their careers at some risk. Many programs reward compliance with tasks, not the achievement of results.

In fact, many reward systems for workers which could be designed to reward results are designed to reward tasks because the managers and those who report to them, as well as union leaders who represent them in unionized work environments, feel far safer in a task-driven environment than in a performance-driven environment.

In a global marketplace, the organizations that compete with American-based or even developed country-based organizations will be driven to deliver superior performance. We do not have the luxury of protecting mediocrity and incompetence, or getting uncompetitive on the price of products and services.