The Hawthorne Effect in a New Light!

The iconic Hawthorne experiments at a Western Electric factory used changes in working conditions such as subtle adjustments to lighting and noise levels to improve the working environment. They were founded on the insights of psychology and affected a sea change in workplace relations. This new “human relations” approach broke the influence of scientific management and instituted the human relations approach to managing people. According to this article by UK scholar John Hassard, this is a convenient myth.

Hassard asserts that Elton Mayo’s programme, far from being an ingenious set of experiments, was:

  • Predated by a long standing paternalist approach to employee relations based on ‘welfare capitalism’. The commitment to this was strengthened by a works tragedy which left nearly a thousand dead and fractured families in a close-knit immigrant workforce.
  • Far from being about humane employment and empowerment, the experiments financed by the Rockefeller foundation were aimed at cost control and coercion and was at root an attempt to undermine union organisation.
  • The context of an economic downturn, large-scale redundancies and coercive anti- union espionage is left out of most accounts of the experiments.

Western Electric’s (WE) origins were as the company which made the telephone and the supporting infrastructure. The owner’s commitment to its workforce led WE to develop a range of worker-friendly policies. One such policy, a treat for families, ended in a searing tragedy. A 1915 boat trip for workers and their families on Lake Erie ended in a dreadful accident killing nearly a thousand, including entire families. This led to a huge compensatory effort aimed at making amends. The firm had hired an unproven modern lake steamer, which was vulnerable to capsizing. It was this, asserts Hassard, that deepened the strategy in a new direction – long before the famous experiments. Furthermore he believes and provides documentary evidence that the real aim of Hawthorne was twofold:

  • Though WE had been dominant, the technology it developed was vulnerable to competition from rivals like Westinghouse. Following a takeover by AT&T, it was soon engaged in a ruinous price war with rival telephone and switch gear manufacturers in a falling market. As Hassard explains, WE’s profits reduced sixfold in the depression of the late twenties and early thirties.
  • Parent company AT&T put enormous pressure on managers to raise productivity. The fact that producing electrical equipment was skilled and intricate work meant that Taylorist methods did not work without a great deal of coercion and control. Hassard controversially asserts that this was the real focus of the experiments.

Many have pointed to the absence of a union voice in what was a heavily unionised community. A congressional enquiry found that the firm had spent $25,000 on spies to undermine and destabilise union organisation. In the actual reports of the study unions were systematically downplayed. Hassard explains this as part of a general lack of context to the Hawthorne studies. One could quibble with Hassard’s assertion that the strategy of the Hawthorne period was merely an effect of economic crisis, and that union avoidance is often a rational strategy for employers, but his corrective is welcome and counsels us always to be aware of the context of change and innovation. It also gives us some context of the nature of employment relations and workplace change as the CIPD grew from its own beginnings around the same period.

Source: Hassard, J.S. (2012) Rethinking the Hawthorne Studies: The Western Electric Research in its Social, Political and Historical Context. Human Relations. 65(11), pp.1431-1461.

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