During my past 27 years as a computer programmer, I have considered the question from time to time. My answer has changed over the years and has been influenced by my experiences. Sometimes I thought that corporations were the most evil things ever. Other times I felt they were like beneficent rulers. I was largely influenced by the situation at the time or by recently experienced.
A coworker once said that corporate culture is an aggregation or conglomeration of individuals and their values. While I believe that this helps to partially explain working conditions, I do not think that this is the answer.
I believe that good and evil exist in the world and that most individuals struggle with good and evil in their lives and within themselves. I have also observed that companies are neither purely good nor purely evil, rather a complex mix of both.
So let’s take a step back. What is the primary characteristic of corporations? Answer, they seek their own interest. Often it involves dominance, power and gathering wealth among other things. This speaks to their motivations and helps explain their actions and decisions. Incidentally, the motivations of individuals in a capitalistic society are not that different. Most individuals want professional advancement, control over their lives and financial security. Of course there are other basic interests and needs like health, happiness, love and so on.
I think we can agree that all companies are not the same. Some provide an environment where people can feel they are contributing something significant and feel that they are appreciated and where they are growing and advancing professionally, intellectually, skill-wise and in other ways. Other companies simply have working environments that are toxic and are often accompanied by abuses, like excessive overtime or belittling and intimidating employees in subtle or not so subtle yet pervasive ways. Most companies are somewhere in between. All companies fall into this spectrum.
Returning to the idea that companies are made up of people, every employee’s influence on working conditions is different. Different levels of influence. Different areas of influence. A person in upper management will have much more control over the company and by extension the working environment than a person who is staff. A person in HR will have more influence and control over situations that are HR concerns. like protecting the company from allegations of discrimination or other actionable wrongdoing.
I have found that the immediate supervisor has the greatest influence to the extent that upper management does not enacted overarching and intrusive policies. And let us not forget each individual also has influence over the local working environment. A positive attitude and cheerfulness can improve conditions significantly just like a bad attitude can make people nearby more miserable (along with the individual).
Nevertheless, the greatest influence comes from people in upper levels of management or in very key positions. So in the same way that shareholders hold people in higher positions more accountable for returns on investment, the employees should also hold the same people responsible for working conditions.
When you keep in mind that a company is made up of various people (including yourself) and that certain individuals are in key positions of influence and that a company has motivations and self interests, you will better understand why a company’s working conditions are the way they are.
If you are in a bad place, please make the extra effort to change. Life is precious and we should seek that which is good and then share it with others.