Fit for $5 a day? The company will decide
It's hard to imagine employers asking such questions today. But it was standard procedure at Ford Motor Co. in 1914.
When Henry Ford shocked the world that year with his $5 day, he used the stunningly high wage to motivate workers to live the way he thought they should.
Neil Baldwin wrote in Henry Ford and the Jews: "Livelihood was to be linked with behavior. Industrial betterment was linked to the straight and narrow path. As one of several corporate press releases blared, 'The idea Mr. Ford has in mind is to help men to a life, not a mere living.' "
To monitor the moral rectitude of his workers, Ford created the Sociological Department in 1914 under the leadership of John Lee. Its mission was to monitor employees' behavior to make sure they proved worthy of their newfound wealth.
As a Ford adviser theorized in Baldwin's book: "If you double a man's wages, and lift him up from living below par, he might go haywire. Hence the Sociological Department was necessary in order to teach the men how to live a clean and wholesome life."
It worked like this: If the company determined that workers were not morally fit to earn $5 a day, it withheld a part of their wages - but offered them a chance to regain the money if they shaped up during a probation period. Under Lee, the Sociological Department began with a staff of around 30, which was quickly expanded to more than 100. The department was constantly investigating the lives of the workers and instructing them on how to improve.
In 1915, Henry Ford replaced Lee after convincing the Rev. Samuel Marquis of St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral in Detroit to join Ford Motor Co. Henry Ford said, "I want you, Mark, to put Jesus Christ into my factory!"
Allan Nevins writes in his book Ford: The Times, the Man, the Company that investigators visited workers at home to ask about marital status, diet, alcohol consumption and recreational habits. Taking in boarders was frowned upon, because the department felt it to be a source of family tension. How much money was being saved, they wanted to know, and were there any debts?
Could people speak and write English? If not, attendance at a company language school was strongly encouraged.
The advisers reported all the information on the department's blue and white forms, along with their notes on the cleanliness of the home and any evidence that would help determine the family's values and morals.
Workers thought to be falling short would be put on probation with a portion of their wages withheld. If they changed their ways, they could get back some or all of the suspended salary.
If they made sufficient progress in 30 days, says Nevins, all of the money was refunded. If it took 60 days, the refund was 75 percent. If it took 90 days, they got 60 percent, and after five months the refund was only 25 percent. If six months went by without apparent signs of reformation, the workers were fired.
How many workers failed to meet the standards set by Ford Motor? Nevins writes that within two years, 90 percent of Ford's work force were determined to be fit for the $5 wage.
You can reach K.C. Crain at firstname.lastname@example.org.