The Human Paper-Shredder Has More Than 60% on Her Side

A reportage about an out-of-the-ordinary subject stirred conversations in Romanian Hotnews online media outlet. The Human Paper-Shredder (translated), places under the lens work, law, and behavior in Romania. What follows is not a translation of the article, although an English version would be useful, nor is it a summary. This article wants to briefly analyze users’ comments to The Human Paper-Shredder, as they show some specific job-related behavior and attitudes.

The story in brief

A secretary at Assystem Romania sues the company in 2012 for being fired. She files abuse charges and wins the lawsuit against the company one year later. Assystem is obliged to pay her salary for the months leading to the Court’s decision, and has to reintegrate her back in the organization. The company obeys the Court’s decision, and gives the former secretary the task to shred information-sensitive documents by hand. She is explicitly instructed to tear them in pieces no larger than one centimeter on either side. By hand, no scissor, no electronic shredder. Although in her pre-lawsuit position she has had all the office equipment a secretary needs, reintegration brought her to a technology-free desk, having only a pile of documents and a large trash bag. She continues this eight hours a day task while filing a complaint to the National Council Against Discrimination (CNCD). The latter fines Assystem with 20,000 RON (~ 4,500 Eur) for “discrimination, harassment, and practices against human dignity (translated)”. Upon the Council’s decision, she quits her job as a human paper-shredder. The company, through administrator Roger Coat, is appealing the Council’s decision and intends to sue the former employee for defamation.

Missing information

Throughout the article, three parties are questioned: the secretary, Council Against Discrimination president Csaba Asztalos, and Roger Coat, company representative. There are two important pieces of information I have missed from this otherwise excellent article: why was she fired in the first place (she mentions an abuse), and what would her colleagues have to say about her work as a human paper-shredder. I wonder about their reactions to a colleague manually tearing paper all day. The latter I think would be of great importance to understand the collaborative work environment in Romania.

Users’ comments

Although my faith in Romanian work ethics has been restored after seeing so many comments condemning these humiliating practices, these comments win the voting algorithm with less than double over the votes condemning the secretary’s return. Briefly, the comments follow three distinct lines: employer is right, he can make employees redundant whenever and can assign no matter what tasks; employee was right to return to work after the Court’s decision of an abusive redundancy; employee was legally right to return to work, but should have understood the company’s ‘rejection’ message and not return to work after winning in Court.

Hotnews’ comment voting algorithm uses thumbs up and down feedback, negative and positive votes canceling each other to reveal a final comment score. Comments and votes can only be cast by logged members.

One of the first comments falls in the third category (although she had the legal right to sue the company, it was ‘morally wrong’ to do so and ‘morally wrong’ to return to the company). This comment has received 139 votes (Feb. 16), with a grand score of -23 votes. This means that 81 users voted against the comment (i.e. no, it wasn’t ‘morally wrong’, she just followed the legislation), while 58 users voted for the comment (they agree the secretary was ‘morally wrong’ to have sued the company and to return to work following her Court win). This places 58% of voters for obeying legal decisions, and 41% against legal decisions (she was ‘morally wrong’). Viewing this 41% makes me wonder how can these people impose their morality on another person about whom they know almost nothing. 41% of people telling someone what is and what isn’t moral seems too much in a society that wants to catch up with other more modern, liberal societies of Western Europe.

Another comment, an answer to the previous example, condemns its author and his ‘morality equals subdued/ passive/ meek’ logic. Out of 88 votes (Feb. 16), the comment score is +22. Meaning that 33 users (37.5%) have voted negative, while 55 users (62.5%) have voted positive, agreeing that rules and laws trump subjectivity.

A newer comment saying that “a contract is a contract” has received 29 votes, with a total score of +13, meaning 8 votes (27%) disagree with “a contract is a contract statement” and 21 votes (72%) agree contractual agreements need to be followed.

It’s important to mention some biases that might occur in the comments and votes: older comments are stacked at the top and receive more votes, is a platform pertaining to a more liberal crowd, and parties involved in the article can gather votes against comments they disagree with (fake accounts, friend votes etc.).

Overall, the article and its comments show more than just the story of the ex-Assystem employee. It shows inaction from her colleagues (curiously, none of them has commented the article), lack of solidarity, value systems anchored in archaic presumptions, inflaming tensions about what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and employees roughing it out during times of change.

While the National Council Against Discrimination verdict is under appeal, more information is needed to understand what has led to this situation. Nevertheless, making a person tear up documents by hand, eight hours a day, challenges every argument Roger Coat brings in defense of his decisions. Assystem is, according to its website, an industrial engineering firm with “nearly 11,000 employees”. Asked if she has encountered another human paper-shredder, the secretary said no. This leads me to wonder how does a person feel when s/he sits in an office environment having a garbage bag on the desk while colleagues go about their business in front of a computer. I think it feels degrading. And I can find no argument in favor of Assystem for not using technology to destroy their documents. A search on the internet also gave me many document destroying services, none of which includes manually tearing stacks of documents in pieces no larger than one centimeter on either side.

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