Organizational Metallurgy – Why Coworkers are Better than Employees

When Kinko’s founder Paul Orfalea insisted we refer to one another as coworkers rather than employees, he cited the fact that the word “employ” derives from the steel industry, and refers to processes for bending steel. “Employees,” therefore, are people bent to management’s purpose. That’s not how he wanted to think of the people on whom he depended.

Since leaving Kinko’s, I have found it difficult to use the term “employee,” but I do see steel itself as an illustrative metaphor to explain the value of workplace diversity and democracy. The alloy known as “steel” is much stronger than any of its component metals, even the iron that comprises the majority of its structure.

For almost ten years, I planned to call my book Kamelot: Kinko’s Brief Shining Moment in American Business History. The title generated many blank stares, because no one caught the out-of-date reference to both the Broadway play and the Kennedy presidency. Fortunately, as I developed the content, I realized that my wistful nostalgia was secondary to a more powerful theme in the book: the importance of democracy as a workplace culture.

As a professional writer, I know the importance of “killing your darlings,” as William Faulkner put it, so I scrapped the Kamelot idea and tried to think of something more suitable for a book about organizational democracy. Reading over some emails from one of the book’s contributors, I glommed onto his reference that the company was built by an army of anonymous twenty-year-olds.

That is absolutely true. The founding partners in general and Paul Orfalea in particular get a lot of credit for building Kinko’s, but their real genius was the ability to hire motivated people and stay out of their way. Voila! The light bulb went on and I saw the new title, carved in marble: E Pluribus Kinko’s.

That very day, I guest-lectured in a college classroom, and proudly announced the new title. I expected everyone would get it instantly, since E Pluribus Unum is the motto of our country, appears on our currency, and pretty much defines American democracy.

Not one of the college seniors knew what it meant.

I immediately called my daughter. Then a high school student, she had studied civics more recently than this roomful of college seniors. But she didn’t know what it meant either.

My enthusiasm deflated, but I stuck with the title because the idea is so important I think people should look it up. E Pluribus Unum means “Out of many, one.” That pretty much describes every organization, but not every organization seems to recognize this fact.

The difference between coworkers and employees amounts to more than semantics. In E Pluribus Kinko’s, I explain that our company philosophy supported the seemingly paradoxical ideas of independent thinking and teamwork. How? We understood that open communication and diversity of ideas is the formula for a stronger alloy.

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