What do the Branch Davidians and Microsoft have in common? Give up? Both organizations are cults. No joke. The only difference is one is religious, while the other is corporate. So says David Arnott, author ofCorporate Cults, The Insidious Lure of the All-Consuming Organization (AMACOM).

Both are classified as cults because the members of these organizations are cut off from the real world and are obsessed with achieving the mission of their leaders. For the Davidians, it was the charismatic late David Koresh; for Microsoft, it’s the world’s richest geek, Bill Gates.

Just as religious cults revolve around the lofty mission of their leaders, work cults center around the rules, regulations, and culture of the organization. One such early work cult was Electronic Data Systems in Dallas, created by Ross Perot and legendary for its “quasi-military culture,” as Arnott called it. Under Perot, “long hair, beards and moustaches were not allowed. Even loafers were prohibited.”
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Corporate cults can be traced back to the turn of the century when workers were financially tied to their companies. Today, workers are emotionally bound because work often becomes more important than community and family, according to Arnott. “Technology industries are rife with corporate cults because technology, by its nature, dehumanizes people,” he says. “There’s a danger to running code and staring at a monitor from morning to dusk. People have an innate desire to associate with others. Technology suppresses that.”

Corporate cults are like dysfunctional families in which there are no boundaries between the individual member and the family, says Arnott. “Corporate cults are dangerous because employees are given the false assurance by their corporation that they will always be taken care of,” he says. If you’re a brilliant techie, Arnott says you may be hired and promoted for who you are, yet continued employment is based on what you do. “That’s why the paradoxical promise of the corporate cult is so dangerous. Mixing the two produces an employee who does “what he does” to maintain “who he is.”

We all give up who we are for what we do, according to Arnott. “The question is how much do you give up? The degree of emotional involvement determines whether you have unconsciously enculted yourself.”

Tech start-ups are a good example. “Companies can easily replace families, especially in start-up years when devotion to the corporate family is so important,” Arnott explains. “Dot.com companies, for example, have been accused of turning their workers into slave labor.”

Microsoft was nurturing a small devoted army of ardent followers years before dot.com companies existed. Says Arnott, “Members of corporate cults are devoted to the set of rules often known as a code of conduct. At Microsoft, ‘devoted to code’ has a double meaning. Devotion is abnormally high at Microsoft because employees believe they are doing something more than just writing code, they are changing the world.”

Then there’s Austin, TX-based Trilogy Software, which subtly ensnares new hires into an all-consuming lifestyle. The camp has classes running from 8 A.M. to midnight. “The company meets so many needs, workers lose their attachment to the outside world,” says Arnott.

Cults form a simple two-class structure. “You have people who are ‘in,’ and people who are ‘out,’” says Arnott. “It’s easy to understand why cult-like companies are so appealing to many technical people who want to be working on the hottest technology of the day.”

There’s nothing wrong with being passionate about your work. Imagine the thrill of being part of a company like Microsoft that not only created breakthrough technology but that changed the way we work. But when your work is taken to the point where there is nothing else in your life, you could be asking for trouble, Arnott cautions.

Solutions? Avoid getting trapped in what Arnott calls “the group think.” Ultimately, your creativity and objectivity will be stifled. Even though you love your job, keep your options open by not losing touch with the marketplace. Find time to get out so you can change gears and find out what the rest of the world is doing.

Food for thought: Consider the alternatives if your close-knit, cult-like company goes belly-up. Then what? It’s happening every day. And it’s no secret that the technology you’re slaving over today will become a dinosaur in the coming years.

Bob Weinstein’s weekly syndicated column, Tech Watch, is the first career column covering the exploding technology marketplace. The column appears in major daily newspapers throughout the U.S.