It has often been remarked that “every system has its abuses”. If that is true, in whatever political, financial, welfare, production, distribution, military, ecological, ecclesiastical, technological, educational, cultural/social (including family), or other system in which we find ourselves embedded or to which we are exposed, something or someone will find a way to abuse others, oneself, something else within it or the system itself.

That includes hiring and employment systems.

Consider these examples of possible systemic employment abuse (with an emphasis on what in the blogosphere has been called “black-hat recruiting”):

  • “Tracking”—using a job applicant as a “tracker dog” who, by identifying companies to which (s)he has applied, provides job leads for the recruiter’s other candidates, thereby jeopardizing the tracker’s chances
  •  Sabotage—for example, slandering a head-hunted employee’s current company in order to entice him or her
  • Trafficking—based on fraud and/or force, e.g., trafficking of migrant laborers, domestic helpers or sex-trade workers, including undocumented workers
  •  Overcharging—This can take the form of charging recruitment fees that are too high or that should not be levied in the first place.
  • Posting expired or fake job openings: This is designed to mine resumes for leads to companies, referees (including HR managers, bosses, etc.), to other candidates or to run a bait-and-switch game.
  • Bait-and-switch—enticing applicants with one job in order to fill a different one (that they wouldn’t have shortlisted). Trafficking that depends on fraud will generally depend on this.
  • Misleading job descriptions—Work titles, job duties, perks, etc., can be manipulated at the expense of employees, customers and regulators, e.g., by over-glamorizing the job, deceptively categorizing it to fit a lower pay grade or through the use of vague or ambiguous contractual language.

Consider the differences among “night janitor-supervisor”, “night-janitor supervisor” and “night janitor supervisor” and grasping them only after signing an employment contract that requires you to work nights.

  • Pressure—see “Disclosure” (the 1994 Michael Douglas/Demi Moore now-classic flick about role-reversed sexual harassment)
  • Faked relationships: suggesting to candidates that a relationship exists with company X (with whom no relationship in fact exists) is hiring in order to collect resumes to present to the company as a business wedge that can create the relationship

Some Crucial Distinctions

Before considering reasons why every system—past, present and future—(will) have its abuses, it is important to make some crucial distinctions:

  • abuse vs. neglect: Job applicants frequently and rightly complain about “the silent treatment”, i.e., being ignored after submitting applications. But it can be argued that, despite their frequent characterization of this as abuse (of their good faith, if not of any recruiter “right to remain silent”), it is actually neglect (including failure—willful or not—to do one’s duty to meet the needs of others as the result of inattention or indifference).

Moreover, if abuse is defined as requiring “intention to harm”, the busy recruiter with no time to respond to every applicant cannot be considered guilty of employment abuse, unless (s)he revels in making job applicants squirm. In distinguishing such employment abuse from neglect, it is useful to look at how the law distinguishes these, e.g., in the context of child abuse vs. child neglect.

What is very important to note is that under the law, child abuse and neglect do not have to be willful, i.e., intentional, to be culpable. However, we may want to stop short of accusing a coworker of abuse just because (s)he neglected to inform anyone of another employee’s or management’s abusive behavior (assuming a moral, if not legal obligation to do so).

  • punishable vs. non-punishable (legally/organizationally abuses): Non-punishable abuses are the most problematic for any system, since, obviously, there is nothing to prevent their perpetuation. Moreover, the existence of punishments (that are actually meted out) is evidence that the system is only “abused”, rather than “abusive”—a key distinction discussed in detail below.
  • abuse as sin of commission vs. abuse as sin of omission: Although the failure to do what is required is strictly speaking neglect, the consequences of such sins of omission may be sufficiently egregious to be perceived or judged to be abuse—especially if the neglect has passive-aggressive motivation, e.g., a boss is tardy in finding a replacement toilet key for the one that an employee lost. If failing to contact applicants is to somehow be seen as abuse rather than neglect, the question remains whether it is “willful disregard”—which suggests “deliberate neglect” (and therefore abuse).
  • intended vs. accepted vs. caused harm: As the discussion of abuse vs. neglect above suggests, there is room to debate the question as to whether harm that is merely caused or passively accepted without any intention to create it should legally or morally be considered abuse.
  • prohibited vs. allowed vs.  permitted vs. encouraged abuse: Permitting abuse within a system is different from allowing it, because permission is explicit, authorized acceptance, whereas allowing abuse amounts to failing to do anything to stop it. Obviously, prohibited abuse is different from non-existent abuse, since prohibition rarely completely stops anything, e.g., drinking. Equally clearly, prohibited abuse can only be allowed, not permitted. So, if you decide to do something about any kind of employment abuse that comes to your attention, you’d better get clear about which of these it is—including whether it is actually encouraged abuse, even if not permitted, i.e., abuse that is supported, but only unofficially.

These noted, it can be argued that among the distinctions that need to be made, perhaps the most important is that between “abused” and “abusive” systems.

Abused vs. Abusive Systems

In the worst case, the vulnerable system in question is not merely abused by cheats, parasites, predators and loophole artists, e.g., one that high-mindedly authorizes legal, reasonable corporate lobbying or legal, compassionate issuance of warranted unemployment and welfare checks. The worst is, instead, the inherently and deliberately abusive system, e.g., slave-wage, dangerous mining and dreary factory jobs situated in villages formerly owned by the now expropriated, formerly content farmers, whose land is seized through corporate-governmental collusion in order to build those mines and factories.

(Of course, the catch in conceptualization, discussion, debate and control of abuse is that one man’s abuse is so often perceived as another’s right, if not, in the extreme, his “duty”.)

In every instance of abused or abusive systems, the crucial question is not “will there be abuse?” Rather, the question is “who will abuse whom, how will they do it, and how will they be stopped and/or punished, before they resume abuse or are replaced by new abusers?”

Hence we have the fear among conservatives on the right that “liberal”, “progressive”, “leftie” job and entitlement programs will inevitably—through deliberate design or unintended consequences that promote fraud, the illegitimate exercise and expansion of power and force, or other kinds of exploitation of system flaws —ruin everything, bankrupt us all, if not also enslave those who are still free.

These fears are symmetrically mirrored on the liberal left: “Progressives” believe that among the rich currently entitled to earn as much as they can, there will be too many who will not only attempt to “selfishly” keep it all, but also to use that wealth to create even greater disparities of opportunity, power and access to resources (including information), to influence (if not buy) the political process to ensure these results, to manufacture disinformation to control those below (whom they also see as beneath) them and to waste the world’s precious resources on frivolities, such as yachts, private jets and ostentatious sprawling estates, while multitudes are reduced to beggary.

The irony of and fuel for their debate is that they are both right: Inherent in both their ideologies and systems is huge potential for abuse, even though they are prima facie not abusive by design. That’s why we have periodic, “thermostatic” (self-correcting) and polarized elections: to replace regimes whose abuses and costs have, over time, eventually “matured”, i.e., manifested themselves and eclipsed the benefits they’ve provided.

As suggested above, abused systems—including employment systems and practices—founded on the noblest and most “fair-minded” of principles can (and probably will) be plagued by abuses that match those of purely abusive systems, with the main difference being that the latter systems will encourage and institutionalize abuse, e.g., totalitarian slave states.

One of the most challenging aspects of “abuse management” in both abused and abusive systems is to get abusers to consider what they are doing to be abuse—especially since, as mentioned, “One man’s abuse is another man’s right or duty” has proved to be one of history’s dark axioms. “Abuse management”, odd though it sounds, is the correct and insightful term to use, especially if abuse can never be completely prevented and eliminated.

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Note: None of the foregoing is intended as legal advice. For any legal issue, always consult a certified professional.

Next, in Part II: Is abuse inevitable? Plus, the anatomy of abused and abusive employment system



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