Your Boss Wants to Know Your Love Language So He Can Better Exploit You

The fad of employers using workers’ “love languages” as an HR tool is a good reminder that the boss will do anything to avoid giving you a raise.

While the specifics might be new and weird, the underlying aim of bosses getting to know their employees’ “love languages” is not. (Element5 Digital / Unsplash)

Your boss wants to know your love language.

That’s the subject of a recent article in the New York Times, which looks at state-of-the-art efforts by employers to squeeze out additional labor from their workforce without coughing up money for raises.

The piece looks at Pete Lien & Sons, a mining company in South Dakota, where an unlikely experiment is unfolding. As illustrated in photos throughout the article, miners at the company wear colorful stickers on their hardhats with icons that denote their respective love languages — quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, or gifts.

“Love languages” were first coined by marriage counselor Gary Chapman in a 1992 self-help book but have since been marshaled to the workplace, where employers like those at Pete Lien & Sons can use them to discern what approaches work best for each employee: Does Jim want pizza after working mandatory overtime? Does Charlie prefer a heartfelt thank you from his manager? In the workplace context, the framework has been changed to “languages of appreciation,” presumably because a boss asking his workers what their love language is sounds like sexual harassment.

While the specifics might be new, and weird — the vocabulary of a woo-woo Instagram infographic applied to South Dakota miners — the underlying aim is not. For centuries, employers have sought ways to get their workers to acquiesce, and even speed up, their own exploitation.

Employer quality-of-work life (QWL) programs were a previous iteration of the boss’s longstanding quest to enlist workers themselves in the drive to minimize labor costs. The approach took off in the 1970s and ’80s, when years of concessionary bargaining and failed strikes had weakened unions. Into the breach stepped labor-management collaboration, labor peace at the cost of worker gains.

QWL circles invited employees to participate in determining shop-floor changes, and on some level, that looked good — workers having a say and sometimes winning improvements. But as the late Mike Parker argued in Inside the Circle: A Union Guide to Quality of Work Life, such an approach functioned as a nonbinding alternative to negotiations at the bargaining table, and sidestepped the democratic input ensured by elected shop stewards and bargaining committees. Further, it planted a question in workers’ minds: why have a union at all if the boss says he’ll listen to us elsewhere? Employer control — not quite a company union but not not that — undermined workplace democracy and power.

Today, that’s more or less the water in which we swim. Walmart and Amazon call their workers “associates,” Starbucks calls them “partners” — we’re all a family here, and everyone is enjoined to link their fate to the success of their employer. In practice, that means hustling to boost the boss’s profits, which is the point of employee-appreciation programs: keeping workers on the job, often for more hours than ever, in a tight labor market, all without offering them permanent raises. As the Times puts it, “Employers now know the financial benefits of praise.”

The Times article was published on National Employee Appreciation Day, a holiday created in 1995 by a guy named Dr Bob Nelson. Nelson is a founding member of the aptly named Recognition Professionals International, which is a professional association of HR employees. Nelson created the holiday to mark the publication of his book, 1,001 Ways to Reward Employees. If you’d like to know what the point of all of this is, check out his website. The homepage offers visitors access to a free article, headlined “Dump the Cash, Load on the Praise.”

On the same day that the Times article was published, a health care worker texted me a photo from his hospital’s cafeteria. “Happy Employee Appreciation Day,” read a banner hanging on a wall. Plastic water bottles and some sort of grape snacks sat on a table in front of it, there for the taking. But that wasn’t all. He sent a photo: the hospital had given each worker two scratch-off lottery tickets (he didn’t win any money; his friend won $2). “They are using psychological warfare on us,” he texted. The hospital has not given people like him raises, and he estimates that approximately half of his coworkers have quit since the start of the pandemic.