Slave Owners vs. Modern Management: Can You Tell the Difference?


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The eerie similarities of slavery management practices to modern business

The history of detailed record-keeping on plantations goes back to at least the 1750s in Jamaica and Barbados.
20: first African “indentured servants” reach Virginia, in 1619.
1660: Slavery, as an institution, is justified
Late 1700s: More than 600,000 Africans had been transported to U.S. as slaves
35,000 slaving voyages: brought 12.5 million Africans to the Americas between 1619 and 1860.

1840s: Thomas Affleck (not related to Ben): developed account books for plantation owners.
• It allowed owners to measure productivity
• Which allowed them to determine how far they could push workers
• Could see how many pounds of cotton each slave picked, compare it to previous years
• The account books reduced slaves to “human capital” … as assets, rather than people

Southern plantation owners:
• Many were absentee owners
• Kept complex and meticulous business records
• Carefully monitored their profits
• Had complete control over their workers (slaves)
• Didn’t have to worry about turnover
• They could experiment with tactics, moving workers around
• They could demand higher levels of output
• They could monitor what workers ate
• Incentivized workers (to pick more cotton)
• Encouraged honesty, doled out barrels of corn as the prize for good work, to police one another
• Could measure a slave by “bales per prime hand”
• A healthy male slave was considered a “hand”, a child, “half a hand”
• Depreciated a slave’s worth through the years

4 million: number of slaves in the U.S. by 1860
7%: of Southern Whites owned slaves
2% of free Blacks in the South owned slaves
10,000 free Blacks owned 60,000 black slaves in the 1860 U.S. Census Bureau report
Slaves were considered numbers, not people; today, many corporations considers numbers, not people. HOW far have we come?

Evolution of modern management techniques: A timeline.

1911: RISE OF THE MACHINES: American engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor publishes The Principles of Scientific Management, where managers think of their employees as specialized, replaceable components. [Sounds like slavery, right?]
1923: MANAGING BY COMMITTEE: General Motors and creates a decentralized bureaucracy
1938: David Packard and Bill Hewlett form Hewlett-Packard. Their supervisory style, “Management by Wandering Around,” encourages bosses to leave their offices and chat with their employees
1950: Edwards Deming, a former statistician for the U.S. Census Bureau, preaches the concept of “quality management.”
The basic idea: Profit comes from repeat customers, so every person in a company should be focused on making the highest-quality product possible,
1978: Transformational leadership,” where a leader’s job is to determine how his company and his employees can benefit society.
1990s ; Servant leadership: the main role of a leader isn’t to single-handedly pursue some higher goal, but to keep his employees happy.
2001: Daniel Pink publishes Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself. Workers no longer need companies to employ them.

Even today: two H.R. approaches similar to plantation owner management:
• Commodity approach: A person is treated like a commodity who can be bought or sold at a price.
• Machine approach: person is treated as a part of the machine that can be fitted like any other part.

In more barbaric ways, does Plantation-like slavery, in Business still exist?

20.9 million: number of men, women and children round the world still in slavery. These people are:
• forced to work – through mental or physical threat
• owned or controlled by an ‘employer’, usually through mental or physical abuse or the threat of abuse
• dehumanized, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as ‘property’
• physically constrained or has restrictions placed on his/her freedom of movement.

Types of slavery today:
• Bonded labor: biggest numbers in South East Asia.
• Child Slavery: an estimated 5.5 million children around the world.
• Early and forced marriage affects women and girls forced into lives of servitude.
• Forced labor affects people who are illegally recruited by individuals, businesses or governments and forced to work.
• Trafficking: transporting a person from one area to another and forcing them into slavery conditions.


“From Slavery to Scientific Management: Capitalism and Control in America, 1754-1911,” by Caitlin Rosenthal, and the forthcoming edited collection Slavery’s Capitalism.