The Macho Days At Ford – Violence, Prostitutes, Alcohol and Bad Cars

I have to laugh at Google going berserk over one sexist memo. When I was at Ford Motor Company, it tolerated and often encouraged workplace violence,  drunkenness, and even prostitution. This was way back in the late 1970s in Dearborn Michigan. (Yes, I am that old.) I was one of a large group of MBAs and Engineers that Ford recruited from top schools all over the country. We were lured there by the fact that the whole Detroit region was promoting what was supposed to be the Detroit “Renascence” (which obviously did not work out as planned) Little did we know that while top management wanted to modernize the whole Ford culture,  Middle Management had no intention of letting go of its beloved macho lifestyle.

The Ford Pinto. The worst car of all time.

The Ford Pinto. The worst car of all time.

Our first clue that Ford was not as progressive as it claimed, was the fact that whole departments and even divisions  of the company had no women. None whatsoever.  This lead to a very “frat house” working environment, which was epitomized in the company sponsored events.

My first week on the job our department had a company sponsored trip to a Detroit Tigers game. The company even paid for a bus and all the tickets, food and drinks. However, the first stop of the bus was not at Tiger Stadium. No; the first stop was at a strip club where the entire department got lap dances, while getting thoroughly drunk. (Did I mention there were zero women in our department?)

Even the sexy girl can't make the Ford Fiesta a good car

Even the sexy girl can’t make the Ford Fiesta a good car

After several hours in the strip club, we got back on the bus, joined by one of the women from the strip club. She sidelined as a prostitute, and the department manager awarded  her “services” to the top worker in the department.  We only actually made it to the game for the last few innings. There was so much booze at the game and on the bus, I don’t think anyone even knew if the Tigers won or lost.

At the workplace itself, physical threats were common. The factories themselves were known as dangerous places, but threats were also common among white collar workers. I personally witnessed a division V.P. pick up a desktop computer and throw it at the head of an engineer who had not gotten his calculations completed on time for a key presentation.

Ford's River Rouge plant. Now closed

Ford’s River Rouge plant. Now closed

The division V.P. screamed a string of obscenities, the gist of which was that if the engineer could not get his work done, then there was no point in that engineer even having a computer. Then the V.P picked the heavy computer off the the engineer’s desk and threw it at the engineer’s head.  It missed the engineer’s head by about three inches, and smashed into the wall, destroying the computer. No one reported the incident to Human Resources. It would not have been macho to complain and if you did you would  be ostracized as a wimp.

The Ford Fiesta. One of the reasons Americans switched to cars from Japan.

The Ford Fiesta. One of the reasons Americans switched to cars from Japan.

While Ford’s top management seemed not to be aware of this environment, middle management actually considered it valuable part of the Ford culture, and thought that putting people under as much pressure as possible all the time was the best way to achieve the best results. They seemed not to notice that the effects were exactly the opposite.  In the 1970s Ford produced some of the worst cars ever made, inducing the piece of junk Ford Pinto and the Ford Fiesta. The East German Trabant has the reputation as the world’s worst car, but the Pinto was far worse. After all, there are still a large number of Trabants around, and even Trabant clubs. When was the last time you ever saw a Pinto?

Ford Security Thugs beating up a union organizer

Ford Security Thugs beating up a union organizer

No discussion of the old days at Ford would be complete without mentioning the hated Ford Security forces. They were not your normal corporate security guards. The Ford security guards were essentially a private police force, who treated the Ford employees as the enemy, rather than the people they were there to protect. This went back to the 1920’s when Henry Ford used Ford Security as goons to beat up union organizers. In the days of Henry Ford the first, the Ford Security “guards” were often also members of local organized crime gangs. Even decades later the basic attitude of Ford Security had not changed.

If you work late at most companies, when you leave the building the security people wave to you and say a cheery “good night!”. No so at Ford in the 1970s. If you worked late the guards  immediately suspected that you were really there to steal something. If you left by car it was like going through a checkpoint in Baghdad.

Two or more gun-toting goons would come up and shine a flashlight directly in your eyes. You would be made to step out of the vehicle, while the guards searched every part of the car and trunk to see if you were stealing anything. This was how Ford treated the “brightest and best” employees who they had recruited at great expense from all over the country.  Then Human Resources wondered why one by one these new recruits took jobs elsewhere, until after a few years not a single one was left at Ford.

One of the most hated aspects of the Ford Security force was the way it treated the Ford employee’s cars. Ironically, there were not enough parking spaces at the Ford buildings to accommodate all the employees. This forced many employees to park in non-designated spots, or on the grass etc. Instead of setting up remote parking with shuttle buses or some other solution, Ford punished its own employees for the company’s lack of planning.

Ford Security would “sticker” any employee’s car not parked in a designated spot. This sticker was a bright red 1 foot by 1 foot “no parking” placard which Security would glue directly on the driver’s side windshield of the employee’s car.  It was heavy, fast-drying glue. At the end of every working day, many employees would find these bring red placards glued to their windshield. It would take 10 or 15 minuted to scrape one of these stickers off with an ice scraper. Even after the placard was removed the glue left a sticky residue which made everything look blurry when you looked through the windshield. This residue took weeks to wear off.

Top Management was completely unaware of what was really happening at the company. They even thought Ford was making good cars. After all, Ford top management all drove Ford cars, and they loved them. Of course, Top Management was not really driving average Ford cars. All senior management got free top of the line Fords to drive (no Pintos or Fiestas for them), in return for filling out surveys on how the cars performed.

Ford's ironic motto was "Where Quality is Job 1"

Ford’s ironic motto was “Where Quality is Job 1”

Every day, senior management would drive these cars and park in their assigned spaces (no stickers on their windshields.) While these men were  working (all senior managers were men) a team of employees took care of the cars. The cars were washed, the insides cleaned, and the cars filled with gas. If the senior manager reported any problem with the vehicle, then the manager was given a brand new replacement car to drive home. Predictably, the senior managers all truthfully filled out the surveys reporting that all the Ford cars they drove were great.

When Senior Management would leave work, no matter how late the hour, Ford Security men would smile and wave and wish them “good night!”. No flashlights in the eyes, no car searches. Senior Managers drove home happy in the knowledge that they were running a company that made a great product, and all the employees were happy.

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