Month: May 2018

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

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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.

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Do You Want to Play a Game?

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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.