‘We’re a family here’: Belonging and the apolitical corporate workplace
Corporate 'family': Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian, center, meets with employees at LaGuardia Airport in New York. | Mark Lennihan / AP

It’s your first day at a new job. There’s a lot of information thrown at you, but things will be normal again in a few days after all this training and onboarding. As “normal” as they could be, anyway, with social distancing measures, mask and vaccine mandates, and constant sanitization efforts in place.

Someone from HR shows up to discuss the company’s commitment to DE&I matters: diversity, equity, and inclusion. They tell you how proud they are of what the company has accomplished so far and even offer free DE&I training courses (which you’ll be responsible for completing because they’re mandatory). Then the words hit: “We’re like a family here.” It’s not the first time you’ve heard it, but you certainly want to believe it this time.

So goes the story of the modern office job.

As the days wear on, you start hearing more people refer to the company as their “family”—usually in official internal channels like email or chat apps—and the company offers some family-like benefits. There’s a free lunch here and there; coffee and snacks in the break room; Employee Assistance Programs and crisis lines for discreet, personal issues; paid-time-off (which must be accrued); games, televisions, and even a slide.

They are all aimed at assuring you of one thing: The company cares. However, it’s not enough for a company to simply care; no, they also want to make you know you belong there.

As Pat Wadors, Chief “Talent” Officer (CTO) of ServiceNow, puts it: “I think you have to pursue that sense of belonging in order to unlock your superpowers—what makes you ‘you’. What makes you feel safe. And when that happens, you create higher innovation, higher outcomes, better decision making, and better joy.”

Inspired yet?

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are rounded out with belonging to create a “company culture” of safety and comfort, creativity and innovation, loyalty and interpersonal relationships, the desire to learn and grow, and overall employee well-being. This is the current mission of most human resource departments: ensuring people want to be at work.

The modern apolitical corporate workplace is a place for ideological indoctrination which goes on under the cover of political neutrality. | Hasso Plattner Institute via AP Images

What gets missed here is the double meaning of these terms. “Safety and comfort” prevents employees from rocking the boat or discussing things like politics in the office. “Loyalty and interpersonal relationships” suggest dependency on co-workers and guilty feelings for either not doing enough or taking time off work. “Innovation and creativity” mean going “above and beyond” the 40-hour workweek. Having a “desire to learn and grow,” meanwhile, ensures employees will pursue education and skills training on their own, “free” time.

Employee well-being may mean personal well-being, but when one’s job oversteps from work hours into “free” time, the two become indistinguishable. This is to say, employee well-being is for the sake of one’s full participation in their job, in the labor market, etc.

This is why “work-life balance” is put into such terms: Work-time no longer has a strict demarcation from the time spent on living, rather the two are meant to complement one another. We are constantly confronted by employers with demands to “invest” in ourselves, build our “portfolios,” and reinvent our “brands” in order to stay relevant.

The truth of this language should not be surprising to us, considering diversity and equity are each a conjugation or synonym of a marketing term. “Diversity” is the moment of diversifying one’s holdings (whether stocks or workers). Equity is defined in terms of property values and market shares. “Inclusion” is even a depoliticized substitution for “solidarity” because it assumes a pre-shared political allegiance as opposed to standing with another’s politics.

If we are to accept that these terms truly imply some market-based logic, then we can understand “belonging” to mean embodying the company itself. The expectation of each employee is to be responsible for how the company looks and operates—to take on both its public image and its internal ethics. Being an employee means doing what the company’s higher-ups dictate for the sake of profit and surplus value, but belonging at a company means being responsible for what that company does.

Ultimately, the effort of every workplace is to declaw its employees of any politics. Hence why the “safety” and “comfort” of all employees depends on not talking about so-called hard topics like religion, politics, and personal issues. Such HR policies are not meant to protect employees from being offended. In fact, these policies go further in establishing such an illusion by suggesting the workplace is a neutral zone where talking politics would only be disruptive to the normal flow of things, suggesting politics is a separate area from work and the economy altogether. Politics divide the “family.”

Human resource departments are tasked with policing these politeness policies and posit any deviation from them as offenses requiring personal accountability and discipline. On one side of the coin, such policies have acted to penalize neo-Nazis and racists for their social media posts, ideological affiliations, and workplace violence. In this sense, companies do seem to care about employees’ safety.

However, on the other side, the truth of a company’s politics is revealed to be the same as someone who says “I’m not very political” but still votes: Corporations have no problem taking very real political stances under the guise of neutrality.

What’s more is that, despite the apolitical public images they cultivate, companies will openly support candidates and ideologies that are inconsistent with the “company culture” they portray to workers and consumers. Political contributions are public record, and many companies gladly share the records of their political support: Clorox, Coca-Cola, and Ford have all supported problematic (to say the least) candidates recently.

Political “neutrality” is always already in support of “the way things are,” and taking this stance is not the product of some lack of awareness of the violence and oppression it perpetuates but rather acts as protection to a certain way of life. The company does not care what their employees believe; and, beyond this, companies have no desire to lift all their employees up the ladder. In short, “company culture” protects the company from the politics of the employee base.

Such is the truth of this responsibility we assume when we “belong” at a company: It is our politics that will be punished, not the company’s.

So, in the face of these political truths and the true role expected of employees, we are left to question what kind of family workplaces truly allow for. Given the day-to-day realities of firing employees, prioritizing profits, increasing market share, and the so-called higher purposes of a company, “family” seems like an insulting word to use. Even Forbes doesn’t shy away from these “harsh” realities and warns against using the term.

Perhaps we only need to look at examples like Ford Motor Company, which earlier this year poisoned the sewer system of Flat Rock, Mich., where many of its employees—members of the “Ford family”—live and raise their families. Or Apple, which is under fire for sexual harassment and work conditions. Or Blizzard Entertainment and their fostering of a “frat boy” culture, despite assurances that it really is like a “family” there.

Maybe the truth of these “family matters” is best captured by what happened at No Evil Foods earlier this year. After spending the better part of a year focusing on union-busting (including firing the two workers who led the organizing effort), the “socialist”-branded vegan food producer abruptly laid off between 30-50 workers without severance and canceled their benefits.

Co-founders of No Evil Foods Sadrah Schadel and Mike Woliansky. The ‘socialist’-branded vegan food company turned out to be a major union-buster. | No Evil

These are not exceptions or hypocrisy. Rather, this is how the “family” is supposed to function.

Corporations need their employees to feel like they belong like the company is there to care for them. Likewise, amid corporate crises like those above, it’s easy for these companies to run damage control and bounce back by offering new benefits to the employees that remain or to donate to charities.

To wear the mask of “conscious capitalism” is to erase these violent excesses—whether they be racial and gendered violence, working-class suppression, or environmental catastrophes—and rebrand them as isolated cases of mismanagement or the fault of a particular rogue individual. “Skilled” office jobs are no more immune to these lies than the “unskilled” factory, restaurant, retail store, or hotel.

“Belonging” is a contradictory feeling when it comes to the workplace, and this was something made clear long ago in Karl Marx’s notion of “estranged labor.” Belonging is less about whether we feel like we belong at a company and more a matter of our labor and things we produce or serve no longer belonging to us. Instead, they belong to the company itself.

One of the main charges often made against Marxism is that it’s too class reductive. However, it’s not Marxism or socialism which are the biggest class reductionists—that designation goes to the dominant corporate ideology of today. There is no clearer example of class reductionism than the culture of the modern workplace; it just so happens that all the “diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging” means the only class interests that are accepted and which matter are those of the owning and shareholding class.


Andrew Wright
Andrew Wright

Andrew Wright is an essayist and activist based in Detroit.  He has written and presented on topics such as suicide and mental health, class struggle, gender studies, politics, ideology, and philosophy.