Sorry Roseanne, Freedom of Expression Doesn’t Apply to the Workplace

Posted on

We once had an employee who posted some awful things about his manager on Facebook. I’m not going to repeat what he posted, but let’s just say it was offensive, nasty and simply untrue.

When I met with Senior Management to discuss how to handle the issue, one of the Senior Managers warned that we needed to be careful not to violate an employee’s freedom of speech.

He has the right to say want he wants, I countered. But we also have the right to kick him out on his ass for doing so.

Roseanne Barr’s sitcom was recently cancelled because of a racist Tweet. Her defenders state that ABC, and its parent company, Disney, are treading on her First Amendment right to freedom of expression.

Sorry, but the Bill of Rights stops at the office door, or in this case, the TV sound stage. The first ten amendments to the US Constitution guarantee protection from an overreaching government, not from corporations. Corporations were almost non-existent at our nation’s founding, and it’s doubtful the Constitution’s authors could fathom how much power they would wield 200 plus years later. Even when considering how it protects us from our government, there are limits. It’s appropriately illegal to distribute child pornography or park an M-1 Abrams tank in your driveway, regardless of how the Constitution is worded.

When someone goes to work for a corporation, whether through contract or policy, they agree to give to behave in a specified way in exchange for employment. As long it is done within the law and for justifiable business reasons, this can include items specified in the Bill of Rights. Within the scope of their authority, corporations can prohibit gun possession, search desks, monitor communications and yes, limit speech.

Corporations can’t limit all speech. They generally have to show that it creates an undue hardship. Under the National Labor Relations Board rules, they also can’t keep employees from discussing workplace issues such as pay, benefits and safety. They can, however, prohibit employees from saying things that would disparage or in some other way harm the organization.

So how did Rosanne run afoul of these rules? She was speaking as a private citizen, outside the workplace. It had nothing to do with her television show. Can’t she say what she wants?

Yes, she can, but Disney can also do what it wants. Rosanne Barr is not just some assistant key-grip or associate producer’s gofer. She is the star, the face, of the show. Like it or not, she represents it to the viewing public. She is essentially always working.

In my limited way, I am in a similar situation. I am a leader in my organization. What I say and how I act, reflects on the organization. It’s part of what I get paid for. So while a teller or a service representative could post certain messages on social media, I have to be more careful, even if I am doing so as an individual.

Disney is extremely image conscious. It wants to be seen as wholesome, family friendly and inclusive. Roseanne’s Tweet ran counter to this image. This could antagonize would-be customers and turn off potential advertisers. What looks on the surface like a moral judgment is in fact, a business one. Disney is protecting its all-important brand.

Some of Roseanne’s supporters have said that if her show is being cancelled for what she said, so should Bill Maher’s Real Time with Bill Maher. After all, he has said some mean and nasty things as well. There’s a difference, however. Bill Maher’s show is on HBO. HBO has a reputation for being edgy. Whether or not you agree with him, he is doing what HBO pays him to do, what viewers expect to see when they tune in. Roseanne, on the on the other hand, was being paid to put on a family friendly sit-com on a major network, which by their very nature, shy away from edginess in order to appeal to the greatest number of people.

(It should be noted, for those with short memories (or short lives) that Bill Maher had his ABC show cancelled back in 2001 for suggesting it took guts for the 9/11 terrorists to fly passenger jets into buildings.)

I assume Roseanne had a contract with some sort of morality clause. Even if she didn’t, Disney has the right to do what it did.

As for our employee, he voluntarily took down the post and apologized. “I knew it was a mistake even as I was typing,” he told me. “I wish I hadn’t done it.”

I have no doubt that Roseanne wishes the same.

Advertisements

Do You Want to Play a Game?

Posted on


I recently wrote about what I learned about work from role-playing games. Time to up my geekiness a level and relate what I learned from another of my passions growing up – the board war game.

For those of you who were busy with sports and academics in high school, you know, the real world, these games are usually recreations or famous battles or entire wars (although I once played a game that posited a near-future fight for Europe between NATO and the Warsaw Pact). They are played on boards so big they usually come in three or four sections, with military units represented by small cardboard squares maneuvering on hexagonal spaces.

These games are essentially more complicated versions of Risk, and some adults used to ask me why I wasted my time with them. Why does anyone develop an interest in one thing or another? The hobby fulfilled my passion for military history, admittedly ironic for someone who is almost a pacifist (I do believe there are handful of unavoidable reasons for war). Although I would say it is my knowledge of war that has created my distaste for it. The more I learned, the more I realized that war changes everything but solves nothing. It certainly doesn’t save lives, but merely determines which lives will be taken.

But I digress. Regardless, playing these games taught me some important lessons.

How to Follow Instructions

Many war games seek historical accuracy, covering every detail in terms of terrain, troop strength and even the weather. Achieving this accuracy means providing instructions for how to play. These are no building an Ikea bookshelf pictures-only instructions. They are often 40 or 50 pages of single space type that make the tax code look like Good Night Moon.

Being able to read, understand and follow these instructions have come in handy every time a contract or some other legal document crosses my desk.

There Can Be Too Many Rules

In their attempt to be historically accurate, some war games have instituted so many rules the games are unplayable, the action bogged down with details that don’t make a difference. One notorious example tracked how much water Italian troops needed in North Africa to boil their pasta. Turns in games like these could last hours, while armies crawled along at a snail’s pace. Players either ignored these games, or, if they did play them, simplified the rules to increase playability.

Nowadays, when I am writing Policies or Procedures, I keep in mind that clarity and simplicity is key if I want them to be both understood and followed.

Have a Plan

All war games had one objective – too defeat the enemy. How that was done could range anywhere from destroying a majority of its troops to conquering a particular city, or even just standing up to an overwhelming force for a set period of time. To succeed, you needed a plan, and for a plan, you needed both a good strategy and good tactics. Strategy is a plan of action for achieving an overall aim. Tactics are the methods with which you are going to implement the strategy. For example, if the objective is to take over a city, the strategy may be to surround it and cut it off from reinforcements before assaulting it directly. A tactic may be to throw all your forces at a particular spot in the enemy line and then exploit the breakthrough with your most mobile troops.

Whenever I or someone else poses a project, I put it into these terms. What is the objective, what approach will we take, and how will we implement it?

Don’t Overlook Logistics

Most war games, as war itself, rely on good logistics. Most specifically, keeping open lines of supply so that troops, fuel and armaments can reach the front lines. Resources and movement mean as much as how troops perform in battle. It doesn’t matter how elite a fighting force is if it’s out of ammunition.

My job is to support those employees on the front lines, and if I don’t give them the ammunition they need to do their jobs, whether its training, pay or a healthy work environment, there is no way I can expect them to succeed.

Intelligence Matters

In war games, you have a luxury you don’t have in a real war, or in life for that matter, of being able to play the game again. You can learn from your mistakes and not make them a second time. More importantly you know what to expect. One of the most difficult aspects of any war game the first time you play it is not knowing where your enemy is or what its capabilities. If you don’t have good means of getting this information, whether its spies, recon, radar or whatever the game allows, you can easily stumble into a no-win situation.

At work, I try to get as much information as I can before making a decision. The more questions I ask, the more data I gather, the more I can avoid walking straight into an ambush.

Playing the Odds

Battles in wargames are determined by comparing the strength of opposing forces, rolling a dice, and then comparing the strength ratio to the die roll on a chart to get the outcome (victory, draw, loss). When attacking, the goal is to have as great a strength over the defender as possible in order to sway the odds towards victory. Even then, however, there are no guarantees. Rolls of 1 through 5 on a 6-sided die could mean victory, for example, but a roll of 6 could still mean defeat, no matter how good the odds.

While I certainly want to work towards making sure I’m successful, I also know that there are no guarantees. It’s important to mitigate risk while still accepting failure as a responsibility.

I know the workplace is not a battlefield. And yes, these games don’t accurately recreate the experience of war, anyway. However, like role-playing games, these games are not a waste of time. They teach practical skills, and there are a whole lot of worse ways to spend a rainy afternoon.

Now, if I can just move out of my parent’s basement.

Cubicles and Coworkers: What Role-Playing Games Have to Teach Us

Posted on Updated on

When I’m training, there is nothing that elicits more groans and eye rolls than announcing we will be role-playing. Participants tend to dislike pretending to be interviewing a job candidate or having a fake conversation about someone’s performance. It feels awkward. It takes them out of their comfort zone.
Which is exactly what role-playing intended to do. It allows a safe place to practice difficult interactions in preparation for when the situation arises in real life.

Role-playing, while no substitute for real life, is an important learning tool. That goes for role-playing games (RPGs) as well. (For the record, I’m talking about table top games, not computer games, which are a completely different unicorn all together.)

If you haven’t guess it by reading some of my other posts, I’m a bit of a geek. My favorite movie is Blade Runner, I’ve seen all the episodes of every incarnation of Star Trek in order (except the last one, which is an abomination) at least twice, I’ve read The Hobbit 20 times, and yes, in my younger days, I used to spend hours with my friends pretending I was a 10th level mage or a 5th level dwarf fighter, battling trolls and ogres with rolls of 20-sided dice.
This was back before Freaks and Geeks and Stranger Things made RPGs seem borderline cool. In those days, you didn’t tell anybody in school you “gamed” unless you wanted to be relegated in the pecking order to just below the Chess Club, and never, ever getting a date.

I continued to game into my twenties, until life took over and I slowly lost interest. Around that time, a friend who learned of my hobby, and whose son had started playing, asked me if RPGs were dangerous. No doubt, she had heard the urban myths of kids becoming so obsessed with their character they’d go on violent rampages with homemade broadswords.

I gave her a flat no in response. The chance of a gamer of going berserk is no different than anyone else. To misquote Frank Zappa when asked the same about rock music, if someone plays RPGs, and thane goes out and kills someone, there’s more wrong with that person than RPGs.

If my friend asked me that same question today, I’d give her a much more complete response. I’d tell her that not only is gaming not harmful, it can help hone valuable workplace skills.

Social Interaction: Unlike other escapist activities, like computer games, social media, or even reading, gaming requires you to interact with others face-to-face. It gives even the most shy person to get this experience in a safe environment, among people much like themselves.

I was speaking with a middle school student who told me she wanted a job where she didn’t have to work with people. I told her she wouldn’t find it. Even the most introverted professions, scientists and analysts and programs, need to have the social skills necessary to deal with others on a regular basis.

Teamwork: For those who don’t know, RPGs require a group of characters with varying skills and abilities to come together to solve puzzles, navigate mazes, and yes, slay dragons. None of them has all the attributes necessary to do this alone. They need to learn to work together if they are going to succeed.

Show me a job posting or job description that doesn’t require someone to be a good team player or work well in integrated teams. Teamwork may be a cliché, but it’s also a necessity in almost any workplace.

Negotiation: The other gamers may be kindred spirits, but that doesn’t mean everyone always agrees. There are squabbles about what corridor to take, whether to sneak past the sleeping giant or attack him and risk an untimely death, how to divvy up the dragon’s horde. Gamers have to be able to work out these differences, and learn the important lesson that to get a little, you sometimes have to give a little.

Work often feels like one big negotiation, a constant navigation of different priorities, opinions and courses of actions. Compromise is not the exception, but the norm.

Adaptability: RPGs are improvisation. While a story is generally being followed, it is a living story that can change and take unexpected directions depending on how characters react. Players have to be ready for anything, and make it up as they go along.
Not unlike work, where your well-planned day can be thrown into chaos by a phone call from an unhappy customer, or a knock on your door from your manager on a deadline.

Focus on Strengths: RPG characters generally have a list of attributes. A player learns how to focus on the strengths and downplay the weaknesses. For instance, if a character has low scores in physical strengths but high ones in intelligence, the player is not going to force the character to be a warrior wielding a battleaxe. More likely, the player will use the intelligence into making the character into some type of wizard, reading archaic tomes and casting spells.

Too often, organizations focus on employee weaknesses, forcing them to get better at skills they will only ever be mediocre at, while not taking advantage of what these people really do well. Do that with a character in a role-playing game, and that character will be down to zero hit points pretty quick.

Rules: RPGs are run on a set of rules. Part of the game is knowing these rules and using them to your advantage. The rules try to mimic real life. But no one likes a “rules lawyer” a player who sticks to the rules even when they don’t make sense. You have to know when to throw out the rule book and go with what works.

Work is no different. Policies and procedures dictate everything from how to dress to how to manage a multi-discplinary, transformative project. Some even tell you where you should park. Rules can’t cover everything. Sometimes you have to ignore them and go with your gut.

Heroism: While some RPGs have a dark side, requiring characters to do awful and evil things, most are of a heroic nature (most who have tried being the villain in an RPG ended up feeling unsatisfied and even a little dirty). One of the appeals of these games is to be the knight in shining armor, the wise and helpful wizard, the self-sacrificing priest, to be a story book hero.

Work isn’t always so cut and dried. There is often no light or dark, only shades of gray. Still, while no one is perfect, there is nothing wrong with striving to do the right thing, not for fear of punishment or the promise of reward, but for its own sake. Just think of how many fewer women would have been victims of harassment if there were just a few more heroes willing to risk it all to come to the rescue.

I realize that RPGs aren’t for everyone, and there are other ways of gaining these skills. I also realize that it wasn’t gaming alone that made me what I am today. I’m just saying that rather than something to be looked down on as escapist fantasy or a waste of time, it should be viewed as positive an activity as playing sports, being on the debate team, or entering the science fair.

As for me, I think I’ll start making decisions with a good old saving throw.

5 Stupid Interview Questions and How to Answer Them

Posted on

Most managers don’t know what to ask during a job interview. I don’t blame them. They’ve never been trained and their role models have no idea what to ask, either. So they end up asking some stupid questions. Still, if you want the job, you can’t say, “That questions so dumb it doesn’t merit an answer,” so you have to be ready for them. Here are five of the most common questions, why they’re stupid, and how I suggest you answer.

1) What are your greatest strengths?
Why it’s stupid: It’s too easy to lie, or at least embellish, your answer. If you say one of your strengths is the ability to take on 10 ninja warriors single-handedly with your bare hands, who’s to say you’re not telling the truth? Unless, of course, you’re applying to work at a ninja school. In that case, you’re in big trouble.

How to answer:
Hopefully, you’ve read the job posting, maybe even received the job description, so you know what attributes the organization is looking for. Pick two or three of these and provide those as strengths. You don’t have to lie, because you no doubt have something they are looking for, unless they are just interviewing you because you are the CEO’s nephew. Provide specific examples, even if they haven’t asked for them.

2) What are your greatest weaknesses?
Why it’s stupid: It almost encourages dishonesty. You can’t say, “I’m unreliable and can’t be counted on for anything,” even if the last time you met a deadline was your 5th grade science fair project. You may think you are being straightforward, but what you are telling the interview is that you are too dumb to lie.

How to answer: Some people think the best response is to say something positive about yourself but phrase it as a negative. Examples include, “I try too hard,” or “I care too much”. You aren’t fooling anyone with this type of twist of phrase. Instead, be prepared with something you aren’t as strong at but add how you’ve worked to overcome it. For example, I’d answer this question by saying, “I can sometimes be too nice. While this is a strength in some situations, it is a drawback when I need to be more honest and direct in delivering bad news. I’ve been getting better at this, identifying these situations and practicing how I will deliver the message so that it is properly communicated.” This type of answer tells the interviewer that you not only understand yourself, but am working to improve.

3) What do you like to do outside of work?
Why it’s stupid: This question tells interviewers nothing of how someone will perform in the workplace. Whether you like to skydive, go for long walks with your dog, or sit on the couch binge watching Stranger Things for the fifth time, it says nothing about whether you can balance an account ledger, provide great customer service, sell dishwashers, or whatever the job entails.

I knew a man who was a functional alcoholic. He needed a six-pack to get to sleep at night. But he almost never missed a day of work, was never late, and did a good, if not exception, job. While I cared about this man personally, and encouraged him to get help when we discussed it, his private life was none of the organization’s business unless it affected the workplace.

The question is also problematic legally. The answer could provide information that could lead to charges of discrimination. You may tell the interviewer that you are active in a particular church, or heavily invested in a political cause. If the organization doesn’t hire you, you could claim it was because it knew this information and didn’t approve. You could be right. Everyone has biases, even if they don’t realize it. Not having this information will keep an interviewer from even a chance of making a decision based on it.

How to answer:
Be honest. Whether you spend all your free time on Instagram and Twitter, or volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, tell them. And if an organization doesn’t hire you because it doesn’t approve of your personal life, you probably don’t want to work for them anyway.

4) Where do you see yourself in five years?

Why it’s stupid: Organizations need to someone who can do the job they are hiring for today, not five years from now. Besides, most of us are too busy just trying to get through the day, or even the interview, to think about long-term goals.

The question is also a trap. If you say you want to be a manager, or get into some other job within the organization, the interviewer will think you won’t stick around, or worse, are gunning for their job. If you say you want to do the job you’re being hired for, you sound unambitious.

How to answer: Use generalities and don’t get into specific roles. Talk about how you want to be in a role where you are both successful and valued. Tell the interviewer that you want to be a contributor to the organization, that you want to learn and grow. All of this sounds positive without giving the interviewer an excuse not to hire you.

5) Any question that the interviewer thinks is clever.
(These include, “If you were a salad, what kind of dressing would you want?” Or “If they made a movie of your life, who would you want to play you?” Or “If you were a car, what kind of car would you be?”)

Why they’re stupid:
When an interviewer ask a question, he or she should have some correct answer in mind. These questions don’t have correct answers. Does the interviewer think, the correct answer to what kind of car you would be is a ’65 Pontiac GTO? I doubt it. When an interviewer asks a question, it should be for a particular reason, to illicit a particular response that gets to the person’s ability to be successful in the job. In most cases, these types of questions do neither.

How to answer: This depends on whether or not you really want the job. If you do, all you can do is answer them as honestly as possible. Since interviewers have no idea what a correct answer is, no answer will be wrong.

If you don’t want the job because you’ve already decided from the hiring process that you’d rather have your eyes pecked out by an angry crow, come up with the most smart-ass answer you can. So if asked, “If you had six months with no obligations or financial constraints, what would you do with the time?” Your response should be, “I don’t know, but I certainly wouldn’t be sitting in on this waste of time interview.”

And after the interviewer picks their jaw up off the floor, tell him you have a few stupid questions of your own.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy – Or Don’t – It’s Really Up to You

Posted on

Titles are cheap.

It’s an old saying, but true. Your organization can call you whatever they like – Specialist, Manager, Supervisor, Grand Poohbah, Lord High Inquisitor – and it won’t cost them a dime. In fact, they often give you a title just so they don’t have to pay you more money.

And you fall for it – sucker.

People put a lot of stock in titles. Take my profession. Once, we were called Personnel. It seemed an appropriate enough description, except for the fact that most people couldn’t remember how many n’s and l’s were in it until spellcheck came along. It implied that we were in charge of all aspects of an organization that were people related – hiring, benefits, payroll, etc. That’s exactly what we did, and we did it well.

But being called a Personnel Specialist (or Representative or Supervisor) just wasn’t special enough for some of us. We saw ourselves as being a strategic part of the organization. We wanted a seat at the Adult Table. But rather than putting in the hard work to get us that seat, we just insisted on a new title. And thus, Human Resources was born.

Funny thing is, although Human Resources is a now the widely accepted term, most of what we do is still related to personnel. Our time is mainly spent making sure everyone gets paid and has a 401(k) while staying compliant with state and federal laws. Sure, the big boys gave us the title, but that was just so they didn’t have to figure out how to fit in one more chair at Thanksgiving dinner.

Still, if you posted a job for Personnel instead of Human Resources, I’d bet you’d get half the applicants, and most of those would be old ladies with names like Agatha or Beatrice who never understood why we got rid of accounting ledgers and carbon paper.

Recently, people both in and out of my profession want to eliminate Human Resources from job titles. Those outside of the profession don’t like it because they think it reduces people to just another item to be used by an organization, like a building, a truck or a machine. They are people, and want to be treated as such. Well, guess what? To most organizations, a resource is exactly what you are. Something to be exploited and then thrown away once you’re no longer of value to them.

Me, I don’t see you like just a machine or a piece of office equipment. After all, I’ve never had to reprimand one of our company cars for coming in to work hung over or been sued by a computer for discrimination.
Implying that you’re a resource isn’t flattering, but at least it’s honest.

As for practitioners, just like they didn’t feel that Personnel reflected their importance to organizations a few decades ago, they now feel the same about Human Resources. It’s just plain doesn’t sound important enough.
So now you are seeing all sorts or more creative titles – Vice President of Human Capital, People Manager, even Vibe Manager. This is mostly used at young tech companies, where cash for salaries is as rare as a suit and tie, so the inexpensive but prized job titles are handed out like so many worthless stock options.

But my favorite substitute for Human Resources is Vice President of Happiness. Sorry, but I’d rather be called Adolf Genghis Kahn Stalin than have that has my responsibility.

I can’t make you happy. No one can. I can make the sink taps run with local craft IPAs, set up ping pong tables in every conference room, bring in pizza at lunch and have a masseuse at your beck and call and you still might be miserable.
The biggest obstacle is that you probably wouldn’t recognize happiness if a giant smiley face dropped from the sky and hit them in the head. You think happiness is having a certain house or car. They think it has to do with that next promotion or big raise. These things may bring some temporary joy, but they won’t result in long-term happiness. This isn’t necessarily your fault. Our society, our economy, relies on the idea that happiness is only a new smartphone or Caribbean cruise away.

Most studies show that a large portion of your happiness is genetic. You have a happiness range that is predetermined, and nothing is going to change it. So unless I start working as a bio-engineer, there is no way I can help you there.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t be more happy than you already are. Most of these factors are immaterial. Sure, if you don’t know how you’re going to make your next rent payment or have 20 bucks to put in your gas tank so you can get to work or have cancer or chronic depression, it’s going to have an impact on your happiness. But assuming you have enough money to meet your needs and are in good health, happiness comes from those intrinsic aspects of life such as a sense of belonging, doing things that are meaningful, new experiences and helping others.

Your employer’s job (and by extension, my job) is not to make you happy. Your employer’s job is to provide some desired good or service. If you are happy at work, that’s just a bonus.
Or is it? Some would argue that happiness gets in the way of work. After all, if you’re happy, that means you are satisfied and feel good about where you are in life. If that’s the case, what motivates you to excel? Why should you strive to get that project done early or stay late to ensure that order gets filled if you are fine with things just the way they are?

Those who say this are full of crap. Studies show that happy employees are more productive and can more easily adapt to continuing changes in the workplace. I myself would have an easier job if I didn’t have to mediate petty squabbles between people who are obviously miserable and want to spread that misery to others.

So your employer should want you to be happy. I want you to be happy. Unfortunately, it’s outside my pay grade, I’m only one person and I have no influence over your life once you walk out the door at the end of the day. The most I can do is make sure you have a productive and safe work environment that promotes happiness.

The rest is up to you.

An Idiot’s Guide to Sexual Harassment

Posted on Updated on

homer-3

I used to believe it was difficult to be charged with sexual harassment. After all, to meet the legal description, you need to do more than just tell one dirty joke or call a subordinate Hon at a meeting. There either has to be some sort of quid pro quo (have sex with me and I’ll give you a promotion), a practice I thought went out with the last episode of Madmen, or you had to create a hostile work environment. A hostile work environment needs to be pervasive. That means you have to do something sexually offensive, be told you’ve crossed the line, and then keep doing it. In other words, in order to create a hostile work environment, you either have to be a clueless or not give a damn.

In the past month, I’ve been proven wrong. It turns out there are a lot of (mostly) men out there who fall into one of these two categories. I suspect most of them fall into the last category. These are men of wealth, status and power who believed the rules didn’t apply to them, because, let’s face it, they never have before. They probably knew what they were doing was wrong, but hell, they just didn’t care, and besides, who was going to stop them?

But now that their reputations and careers are running down the drain like the blood in the Psycho’s shower scene, their finally starting to get it.

A host of men are finally facing consequences for their actions, and I have a feeling the list will grow as time goes on.

Granted, these men are mostly  in the entertainment industry (and yes, I count network news as entertainment), so I shouldn’t be to surprised that some of them act like the world revolves around them and their needs. I remember after 9/11, the Emmy Awards were going to air,  and Hollywood was worried about being a target. All I could think of was, how full of themselves are they to believe Osama bin Laden gives a rats ass what happens to the cast of Friends? If everyone in the entertainment industry were gone tomorrow (and I don’t wish that – they are still people after all), the world would keep plugging away same as it always did. And anyway, for every one of those who made it, there are 10 waiting to take their place on the red carpet. They should count themselves lucky,  not entitled.

But these pigs do feel entitled. Entitled to treat other human beings like objects, things to be used and tossed aside. I like to think it’s only the entertainment industry that has this type of culture. I know it doesn’t exist in any culture I’ve worked in. I recall once, now twenty some years ago, when a plumber doing work on one of our buildings kissed a manager. The regional director got wind of it, fired the subcontractor, and then fired the contractor who hired the subcontractor. The message was clear. We don’t tolerate that crap.

Still, I’m afraid it probably does exist in other places, we just don’t hear about it, because fields like industrial engineering and waste management aren’t as glamorous as Hollywood.

I’ve had to deal with sexual harassment over the years. Most of these issues have been relatively minor. A person filed a complaint. We investigated the complaint and learned it was true. Yes, most of the time, the complaints were warranted. While perhaps 1 percent of women are making up a story for some ulterior motive, the other 99 percent would not endure the embarrassment of coming to their HR department without the events having occurred. Once we learned it was true, we told the person to stop or be fired. Most of the time, the person apologized and the behavior ended. Sometimes, it didn’t stop, and we had to fire the person. Either way, problem solved.

Of course, most of the situations I dealt with were more of the rude comment, shoulder-rub variety. Not the sexual assault and rape we are talking about with many of these pigs.

Hopefully, the guys who are either clueless or don’t care are beginning to get the message, but in case you’re reading this and you haven’t, here are some tips for avoiding committing sexual harassment:

  • Treat all women like they were your fourteen year old daughter. If you wouldn’t want her exposed to it, don’t do it.
  • If you don’t have a fourteen year old daughter, imagine the woman was your mom. You all have a mom.
  • Other than a handshake keep your hands off people at work.
  • And don’t be a close talker. She can still
  • Genitals (men’s or women’s) are not attractive. No one wants to see a photo of them. Ever.
  • You’re aging, pudgy and balding. She’s young, fit and attractive. No way in hell she has any interest in  you.
  • There’s nothing wrong with asking a woman out at work, assuming you are both unattached and neither is a supervisor. But if she says no, back off.
  • If you are truly interested in someone, do the old-fashioned thing. Ask her our for a coffee, a drink, maybe lunch, don’t grope her in the mail room.
  • Your dirty jokes aren’t funny. She’s only laughing because she doesn’t know how else to react.
  • If the only way you can get her to sleep with you is to force or threaten her, it’s not an act of passion, it’s an act of violence.
  • If you aren’t yourself a pig, but are around pigs, say something, do something. Stick up for your female coworkers. Don’t pull a Billy Bush and awkwardly go along just to seem like one of the guys.

I know that some of you think that all of this makes the workplace less fun. If that’s the way you feel, forget the entertainment business and run for office.

 

 

 

If Uber Wants to Fix Its Corporate Culture, It Needs to Add Umlauts

Posted on Updated on

When Uber was started back in 2009 as Ubercab, no doubt they wanted to indicate they were better than taxis by using the German word for over. Perhaps they recalled the word from German 101, perhaps they were thinking of Nietzsche, whose concept of Übermensch was co-opted and twisted by the Nazis. If they were old enough (and I doubt they were) they may even have recalled the old SNL “What if?” skit that asked what if Superman landed in Germany instead of the US:

Lois Laneoff: X-ray vision? Can you see through my clothes?

Uberman: Ya! And through his, too. [ points at Jimmy Olstein ] He’s a Jew!

Jimmy Olstein: No! No, it’s not true! My parents were just very advanced in hygeine, that’s all..!

As any German speaker will tell you, though, they got it wrong.
It’s not Uber, it’s Über.

The company whose primary purpose is to give drunks rides home has been lambasted in the press and among the public lately for a hostile work environment rife with sexual harassment, and most of it can harken back to the decision to omit those two little dots, the all important Umlaut.

In German, the Umlaut (used with a, o and u) changes the sound of the letter. It turns a u into more of an ooh sound, spoken with pursed lips. American’s have trouble making this sound, even people like me who have heard it all our lives. How many times did my Mom try to correct me on this, and I still couldn’t get it right? It’s even worse for those who didn’t grow up with the language. It’s an utterly foreign sound, and one they can rarely say properly.

Then there’s the fact that the Ü isn’t a key on English keyboards. We English speakers are forced to make do with adding an e after the vowel to indicate an Umlaut. You can still see this in the last names of people who came over from Germany, last names that are chronically mispronounced.

Uber got around these problems by simply ignoring them. That’s how they’ve gotten over a lot of their issues. Don’t like the regulations of a city or municipality, find work-around or flaunt them all together. Don’t like Apple’s terms of use, blow them off (until they call you on it and threaten to pull your app, of course). Don’t want to bother to ensure you have a positive workplace, complete with employee reporting systems and an independent HR function, pretend the problems don’t exist.

But that’s not where the problems ended.

The Umlaut has many uses. One of them is to make a noun plural (Apfel = apple, Apfel = apples, Haus/House, Hauser/houses, you get the idea). Uber has been anything but a pluralistic organization. It’s recently deposed CEO, Travis Kalanick, ran the 14,000 employee organization like it was still some small start-up. The organization took on his personality, not one of its own. Kalanick has been reported to be a win-at-all-cost type of person, and one who is more comfortable with data than people. So it’s no surprise that he was more concerned with building his company than he was about the lives of those who worked there.

Organizations even a tenth of Uber’s size know not to be the product of one person. While the President/CEO may set the tone, there are others in the organization that also influence the tone and establish the culture. There’s an independent Board of Directors. There are vice presidents and managers. I’ve often been lucky to serve under leaders who set the tone by being professional and respectful of everyone in the workplace. But even when I didn’t, there were others to counteract them, soften the atmosphere.

I once worked for a company where the primary stockholder and president was a lawsuit waiting to happen. The other owners banded together and forced him out before anything serious happened. While Uber finally ousted Kalanick, his hold on the company was so strong that it took actual law suits and a drop in stock price to make this happen.

With Uber under new management, it will be interesting to see whether they can change their culture. As its tarnished image continues to drive its customers to rivals such as Lyft, its survival depends on it.

I don’t know if it can be done, but I’ll tell you one thing – No change will be enough until they add that Umlaut.