The Business of Rating Workers

There’s a lot on this blog about the need to protect workers’ reputations, in the digital era. Today, I want to spend a little time talking about what it means that so many corporations are essentially handing over some or all of their management of front-line workers to customers. Because part of what it means is that we’re all doing unpaid labor for corporate America, and that’s not good for anyone. 

Whenever I buy something at my local post office, before the woman who serves me hands me the receipt, she uses a highlighter to circle the customer service survey on it and asks me to fill it out. Because I know she’s protected by a union, I throw it out and don’t bother to do the survey. I’m not worried that she’s going to be fired for having either bad or non-existent customer service scores. 

But more and more, it seems like every transaction I make offers me the opportunity to rate the employee who provided it to me. There are extreme examples, like Uber & Lyft—where I know that if I rate any driver at less than five stars, I’m threatening their livelihood (or at least their access to the app). There’s the innocuous survey a hotel sends after a stay, that asks about how happy I am about the housekeeping service. Open Table, after I eat at a restaurant, wants me to rate it on a variety of metrics, including service—and so does GrubHub, if I order food in instead of eating out. I buy a flip-chart pad at Staples, and the cashier makes a special point to ask me to do the survey on the receipt, because she’s new and needs good ratings. 

Corporations have a clear value proposition for asking their customers to rate them: it makes the customer feel like their opinion is valued, for a start. In the extreme cases, like ride-share drivers, it allows the company to essentially dispense with any direct management of front-line workers—if the driver isn’t making enough customers happy, they’re just gone. 

Am I actually getting anything in return for doing any of this rating, though? Or am I just helping companies justify eliminating substantive feedback from a frontline manager that would be much more useful to the employee, and slash staffing costs by reducing the amount of time that managers are given to manage. Do I have any incentive to give honest feedback about a service sector worker or ride share driver who made a human mistake, if I know that anything less than 5 stars might cost them their job?

With all these ratings systems, there doesn’t seem to be much ability for companies to ferret out the biases and prejudices of their customers, in order to take that into account. Should a company allow racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist, Islamophobic or transphobic customers the same ability to rate their employees that they would anyone else? What if I’m a Karen just having a crappy day, and decide to take it out on a retail worker? 

We’ve made some real progress, as a movement, at making cities and states understand their needs to regulate the gig economy, and to put limits on algorithmic scheduling that causes upheaval in working people’s lives. It’s time for us to start thinking about how to put limits on these rating systems. 

For example—can we pass local or state legislation that expressly forbids companies from solely using customer ratings to terminate workers or contractors? Can we force companies that are asking us to essentially replace some key management functions to pay us for that labor? Can we require that they allow regulators to poke around in their algorithms, to understand what they are doing to control for biased customers? Can we call a one-day “ratings strike” where we all agree to give every worker we encounter five stars, or refuse to participate in ratings at all? 

Until we band together and agree to stop doing companies’ unpaid labor to manage their workforce, service sector and gig economy workers are going to suffer the indignity of asking every customer to give them the highest rating possible.

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