It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Worplace
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.
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.
With all the controversy as to whether a transgender person should be allowed to use the public restroom of his or her choosing, Lierbag Fashions just outside of Chapel Hill, NC has decided to make all the bathrooms for its workers unisex.
A lot of places, including small offices and restaurants have unisex bathrooms, however, Lierbag went one step further by making its multi-use bathrooms open to everyone.
“I got the idea while watching Ally McBeal reruns on Netflix,” said Human Resource Director Floyd Lawson, a little red-faced at admitting that a man in his forties watched the show. “It’s not bad, he added. Except for the dancing baby. That creeps me out.”
Lawson thought if it was good enough for TV, it should work in real life. He brought the idea to CEO, Edith Clare, who immediately had Burton implement the idea.
“It really makes sense for us given our business,” Clare said. Lierbag specializes in men’s and women’s kilts for every occasion. “A lot of our male employees wear our product, and it was difficult for them to discern which restroom to use just by looking at the sign on the door.”
Lierbag took the unisex bathroom one step further. Not only did it tear out the urinals and replace them with traditional toilets, it also removed all the partitions. “You could see through the little cracks between the walls anyway. Not that I did, mind you.” said one Lierbag employee who wished to remain anonymous.
“The Roman Empire had public bathrooms where everyone sat in one big room, one hole right next to the other, and they last 1,000 years,” Clare said, noting that they are coming out with a toga-styled kilt next fall. “Besides, we’ve found it a great venue for sharing ideas.”
Employees appear to agree. In their latest employee satisfaction survey, most reported that communication and collaboration had greatly improved. One employee commented. “My boss used to just shrug and walk away when I came to him with a problem. He can’t do that now when he’s sitting right next to you with his pants down, doing his business.”
The unisex bathrooms have had another unforeseen benefit. Without the need for men’s and women’s rooms, they haven’t needed as much space for them. The company has been able to convert one out of every three of them into offices. “We just sealed the lid on toilets, added a sit-stand desk, and voila, instant cubes,” Lawson said.
As for the controversy with regards to the transgender community, Clare was Frank. “It’s hard enough to find good workers without worrying about what’s underneath their skirts. Or in our case, their kilts.” She laughed. “Industry humor.”
It’s that time of year again. When lights are strung and trees are trimmed and everyone’s busy shopping for that perfect gift.
And I, of course, am writing about what workplace lessons can be gleaned from your favorite holiday movies
In the past, I’ve touched on such classics as A Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life. This year, I’ve decided to venture into the world of technical and focus on a more modern Christmas Tale – Elf.
At first, you might not find any workplace lessons in the story of Buddy (Will Ferrell) an orphan raised by Santa’s elves, who as an adult goes to Manhattan in search of his real father. But for someone like me, who can find meaning in one of those Scooby Doo episodes featuring the Harlem Globetrotters, it’s easy if you try.
It’s Not All About the Work
Buddy, being human, is not very good at doing the main job of a Santa’s elf, namely, making toys. This irritates some of the Type-A elves who are all about production. They need to get their pointed shoes out fo their butts. Buddy is fun to have around. I once had a department manager working for me who wasn’t organized and rarely got anything done on time. He was, however, one of the most interesting people I ever worked with. He was smart, and could talk at length on almost any subject. He was also funny and had a great laugh. He had a great attitude. The only day I recall him missing work was the day he got a fish-hook stuck in his forehead (which is a story for another time). I was happy to pick up his slack just to have him around. He was my Buddy.
Some People are Patronizing Jerks
When Buddy laments that he is no good at making toys, his elf supervisor tells him it’s okay, that he’s good at a lot of other things. This makes Buddy feel better until he overhears the supervisor and another elf talking about how bad buddy was at his job.
Jerk. He probably thought he was being kind. Truth is, he looks down on Buddy because he is no good at making toys. He forgets that Buddy has been learning how to repair Santa’s jet propelled sleigh from his adoptive elf-father. What’s more important, being able to make a few Etch-a-Sketches, or being able to maintain the machine that will get them under the tree on Christmas Eve?
Don’t Do a Job You Hate
Buddy’s biological father (James Caan), is a children’s book publisher. While this job might fall well into the narrative, it is probably the last job this man should be doing. I’ve known a few people who work in children’s publishing, and every single one of them loves kids and cares deeply about the literature they put in those kids’ hands. Not only does this man not seem to like children, he doesn’t even care about doing a good job, printing a book with pages missing and even signing off on it. His other son tells Buddy he is only interested in making money. If that’s the case, he’s in the wrong business as well. Better off being an investment banker or a corporate lawyer.
Don’t Set Arbitrary Deadlines
Part of the plot revolves around Buddy’s father having to come up with a new children’s book idea on Christmas Eve. Forget the fact that this is not how most books get published. Christmas Eve? No one besides retailers do anything productive on Christmas Eve, if they work at all. Yet, here he is having a meeting with the Board (also not how it works) on an evening most people should be spending time with their families.
Except as a plot device, there is no reason to set a deadline for Christmas Eve. The book, if accepted, won’t get out any sooner than if the deadline was January 2, and even if it did, it wouldn’t be published for several months, when the high point is of course, the next Christmas, so they have plenty of time. The only reason this seems to be a deadline at all is because his boss made it one, which, unfortunately, happens all the time in the real world.
So if you are feeling down during the next few weeks, just think about Buddy the Elf and answer your phone with “What’s your favorite color?”
Work-life balance is like pornography. It’s highly popular, but everyone has a different definition of what it is, and it does not exist in the real world.
businessdictionary.com defines work-life balance as, “A comfortable state of equilibrium achieved between an employee’s primary priorities of their employment position and their private lifestyle.” So if work-life balance were a see-saw, it would look like this:
Sounds great, but if you try it, you’ll quickly learn how difficult it is. Oh, sure, you can stay this way for a few minutes, but eventually, one side begins to go down while the other goes up, simply because no-two people are the exact same weight or always exerting the same pressure. It’s unsustainable and unrealistic, and you’ll just frustrate yourself if you try to maintain it. Ask any child who’s played with one of these:
Workers have a different definition of work-life balance. Whenever someone explains to me why they need better work-life balance, they never say they are not working enough. Instead, they want more time and flexibility to pursue interests outside of work such as family and friends, hobbies and interests. They aren’t looking for balance. For them, the see-saw should be weighted towards life.
An employer sees work-life balance as the ability to work whenever and wherever the work needs to be done, whether you are in the office, mountain biking or watching your daughter’s dance recital. As one manager told me, it’s not work-life balance, it’s work-life integration. Their see-saw is also out of balance, weighted towards work.
All these definitions are wrong. The trick to being happy and fulfilled in both work and life is to realize that the see-saw is broken and to never get on it at all. It’s not about work-life balance or work-life integration. It’s all about work-life separation.
People have often asked me how I can do my job all day without suffering a nervous breakdown. Dealing with people’s problems, issues and concerns, not to mention having to fire people, can take its toll. Simple, I tell them, I compartmentalize. Sure, I may discuss work with my wife sometimes. She’s a good listener, and can provide me with a different perspective. But when I am with my children, reading to them, making dinner, coaching their soccer team, work is left behind. And if I’m out with my friends, having a couple of beers, work is almost never mentioned. Sure, there is the occasional email or phone call or text that I have to deal with while I’m not physically working, but these are few and far between.
“You’re lucky,” I had one manager tell me when I explained this to him. “My job is 24-7. I can’t divide the two so easily.” I had to agree that his job demanded more of his off-hours time than mine. He oversees safety and security, which in his role, is a round-the-clock responsibility. But actual situations in which he received middle of the night calls are rare. Besides, I see it as his choice. He has a team of people he could count on to help him, but he chooses to be the first line of defense all the time. He could just as easily delegate some of his off-hours responsibilities, freeing himself up except in the most dire situations.
Some will say that work-life separation will make you worse at your job. After all, if work isn’t your number one priority all the time, how can you be any good at it? I look at myself as an example. I used to stay up nights worrying about the next workday. Friends complained that all I talked about was work. Sometimes, I’d even become physically ill thinking about it. Was I great at my job? I was good, but I could have been better. I was constantly stressed about it, getting worked up over the tiniest of issues. It stressed out my coworkers, hurt the work environment. Over time, I learned let go, and as my personal life improved, I found that I became more efficient, more relaxed, better to be around when I was at work.
So how do you put work-life separation into practice? Here are some tips:
Don’t let work define you: Thomas Jefferson’s tombstone lists what he thought of as his major accomplishments. President of the United States was not one of them. It wasn’t who he was, it was something he did. If you wrap your identity up in your work, you won’t be able to break from it when the workday is done.
Have transition time: I know a man who works long hours. When he gets home, the first thing he does is go out and putter in his garden. It gives him time to unwind and let the workday go. My Dad used to relax with the afternoon newspaper. Do something that helps you make the transition easier, whether it’s listening to music on your commute home, sitting down with a good book, or just sitting quietly.
Turn off your phone (or tablet, or whatever): When you aren’t working, don’t check emails or texts from colleagues. Unless you are the head of a nuclear power plant or a brain surgeon, there’s nothing that can’t wait until you get back into the office. Likewise, if you are at work, don’t waste time shopping for a Halloween Costumes for your pet cat or updating your Facebook status. Spend it getting your job done. Your employer will appreciate it.
Develop outside interests: I had a project manager tell me that she was one-hundred percent about work. She was proud of the fact, but her desk was a mess, she was always in meetings and whenever I saw her, all she could talk about was how stressed she was. How sad, I thought. What will happen to her if she gets laid off, or when she eventually retires? She’ll be lost. We all need to have more to life than work.
Most of us drag ourselves into work every morning, not because a deep yearning to do what we do, but to keep a roof over our heads and our bellies full. There are those lucky few, however, whose jobs are also their avocations. They are making a living doing what they always dreamed of doing, and cannot see a life without it. For them, work-life separation makes no sense. Then again, they don’t have work-life balance, or work-life integration, either. They just have life.
Winston Churchill is quoted as saying,”Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
The same could be said for cubicles. The 1960’s workspace innovation that took hold in the 1980’s and has been with us ever since has been derided for turning the office environment into a cold, uninviting and impersonal place. Still, what are the options? Sure, windowed offices for each and every employee would be great, but that’s not practical unless your building is as narrow as an Amsterdam row house. Inner offices would need to be created, and those unlucky enough to work in those offices would inevitably feel as though they were working in a cave. Most employees agree. In one office I worked at, employees were given a choice of whether or not to have an inner office or a cubicle with a window. They overwhelming chose having a window.
Then there’s that other great innovation, the open plan workspace. Tear down the walls, rip out the cubicles. Everyone sits in a big, airy space at shared tables. There are even couches and comfy chairs to recline on as you discuss the next great idea that will change the world. In fact, the one benefit touted by proponents of the open plan workspace is that it fosters encourages communication and collaboration. They seem to think that if your workplace is one that stifles cooperation, all you have to do is put everyone in a room together, and voila! Problem solved.
It’s not that easy. While the work environment can help shape organizational culture, it can’t change it. If you work in a place where no one talks to each other, and new ideas are consistently met with a response of, “That’s not how we do things around here,” making Jack and Jane Coworker face each other day in and day out isn’t going to make an ounce of difference.
You don’t need an open plan workspace to have a collaborative culture. I have two people working for me and we all have offices. Yet we have no trouble collaborating. Are doors are generally open, and anyone of us knows that he or she can stop by at any time with questions, concerns or ideas. Changing to an open workspace might help enhance this, but it wouldn’t create a significant improvement.
Then there are the drawbacks. Take a look at our situation. We all work in HR. We deal with confidential information and have conversations with people who need to be kept private. An open workspace just wouldn’t do. Nor would it work for most of our organization. We are a financial institution. How would our members feel if information on them and their accounts were left out in the open for anyone to see, the details openly discussed?
The biggest problem with the open plan workspace, however, is that they lack the one thing they were designed to eliminate – privacy. They are often noisy and the distractions are constant, making it hard to get work done. Study after study has shown that open plan workspaces are less productive than others for this very reason. Getting together to discuss ideas is great, but ideas don’t make money – products do, and to turn an idea into a product, people need quiet places in which to buckle down and work.
This should be news to no one. Prior to the cubicle, people often worked in large spaces consisting of rows upon rows of desks. The complaint in those days was the same as it is today – it was hard to get work done with all the noise and people walking by all the time. And if you think it’s so much different today, just compare the two photos below:
See much difference? Neither do I (Except for that guy sitting on a ball. No worker who survived the Great Depression and the Second World War would sit on a piece of inflated rubber when there are perfectly good chairs around).
So why the trend to open plan workspaces? First, there’s the follow the leader effect. The reasoning goes like this: Google and Facebook have open plan workspaces. Google and Facebook are successful. If we adopt an open plan workspace, we’ll be successful too.
The proponents of this logic fail to realize that it’s the culture at these companies that made them what they are, not their workspaces. The workspaces weren’t born of nothing, but evolved with the organization. If anything, the workspace is a product of the culture, not the other way around.
And then there’s this, the real attraction to open plans for most companies – they are cheaper and easier. Those metal and cloth cubicles cost a lot of money, sometimes more than building true offices. Not only that, but you don’t have to deal with the headache of where to seat people. So why go to all that bother, when you can just stop by at Ikea, pick up a bunch of tables and chairs and be done with it?
Fortunately, despite what I said earlier about cubicles being the better option, A workspace does not have to be an either/or choice. The best workspaces I’ve seen mix and match open spaces with cubicles, allowing you to get together to collaborate, but get some privacy to get your personal work done.
If you are still on going back in time with an open plan workspace, Do me a favor and go all the way – add a few ash trays and some rotary phones?
Can two years in a row be considered a tradition?
Last year, I wrote Lessons in HR from Miracle on 34th Street. In keeping with the holiday season, this year, I’m focusing on workplace lessons from that Frank Capra Christmas Classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.
For those of you who weren’t around in the 80’s, when the film was shown over and over on countless television stations due it’s being in copyright limbo (read the history here), it’s the story of a man named George Bailey. George is a young man who dreams of travelling the world, but instead is stuck running his family’s Building and Loan in the small upstate New York town of Bedford Falls. When an unfortunate turn of events results in the near ruin of his business one Christmas Eve, he contemplates suicide. Clarence, an angel who has not yet earned his wings, comes to earth and shows George what the world would be like had he never been born. George comes to realize the numerous ways he has positively affected those around him. In the end, the many friends he has made over the years come together to bail him out.
The first lesson you can glean from It’s a Wonderful Life is that you don’t always get to follow your dreams. Numerous times, George tried to leave Bedford Falls, but circumstances (the death of his father, the Great Depression) interrupted his plans. Growing up, we are often told that we should follow our dreams. Whether it’s to be an NFL quarterback, an Astronaut or a Nobel Prize winning scientist, we are sold the message that we can be anything if we just put our minds to it.
Truth is, we can’t. Maybe we aren’t talented enough. Maybe we weren’t at the right place at the right time. Perhaps, like George Bailey, life interrupts. Me, I once dreamt of writing the Great American Novel, or at least the Great American SF Novel. But unless you get lucky enough to hit the bestseller list, or sell the movie rights, being a novelist isn’t going to pay the bills. So I took the jobs that came along, and one thing led to another. If someone told me 20 years ago that I’d be working HR, I would have asked, “What’s HR?” But here I am, and I’m all the better for it.
The second lesson from George is that life is duty. George doesn’t run the Bailey Business & Loan out of a passion for banking. He does so out of a sense of duty, to his family, his community, his customers. There’s a lot of talk these days about having fun at work. As I’ve said before, if work was fun, they wouldn’t pay you for it. George knows this all too well. So do the rest of us. We have people depending on us – our kids, our spouses, our coworkers, those we serve. We’ve made a commitment to our employers to do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. We can’t just walk out on all that.
But before you get as downtrodden as George contemplating jumping off the bridge into the frigid river, there is a silver lining to these lessons. For most of the film, George is discontent because he never got to follow his dreams. His life was full of have-tos instead of want-tos. But once he embraced this, he discovered that he has gotten much more out of life than seeing the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall of China could ever give him. He was doing good for his community. He was respected. He was loved. His life of sacrifice wasn’t a tragedy, but a life many of us would envy. It is the fulfillment of these little dreams, not the big ones, that bring true happiness and fulfillment.
Now that you’ve gotten out the Kleenex and wiped your eyes, time to bring up the final, and most important, lesson. Lean in close, you don’t want to miss it:
DON’T HIRE RELATIVES!
George’s woes begin because his uncle Billy, who works at the B&L, misplaces $8,000 in cash. $8,000! That’s over $100,000 in today’s money. Not only does he lose it, he loses it by accidentally handing it to Mr. Potter, the unscrupulous bank owner bent on ruining George.
Uncle Billy is a drunk. He lives with a menagerie of animals, and he’s none to bright. There’s a reason he wasn’t put in charge of the B&L after George’s father died. The board knew he was incompetent. Yet George keeps him on out of loyalty, because he’s family. I’ve seen it a thousand times. I even had one guy who told me, “My father’s was part owner in the company, I can do whatever I want. No one will fire me.” The B&L wasn’t led to extinction because of George’s poor management, but because he was too nice to put his uncle out to pasture with a nice pension. This one mistake was almost the death of George.
So if you want to be happy at work, take joy in the simple pleasures of a job well done. And whatever you do, don’t answer calls from that second cousin who’s hungry for an interview.
Is that a bell I hear ringing?
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
(And Chanukah and Kwanzaa too!)
Santa Claus must have a really great PR Firm. Think about it, he went from the Bishop of the small city of Myra in the Fourth Century to become one of the most recognized figures in the world. His image has been on products ranging from Coke cans to Camel Cigarettes. Children wait hours in line to see him. He’s been the subject of countless television shows and films (including one of my favorites – Miracle on 34th Street). To most, he is seen generous and kind. But don’t let all that fool you – as an employer he leaves a lot to be desired.
I’ve experienced my share of bad bosses. From the manager who wrote someone up for the improper use of a box cutter after he badly cut his finger to the one who used to tell us to use staples instead of paperclips because staples were cheaper. Yet none of them come close to Jolly Old Saint Nick himself.
First off, he’s the offshored his manufacturing operations, taking good jobs away from people who need them. And he didn’t just move his manufacturing to some developing nation, he moved it all the way to the North Pole. Santa Claus is Coming to Town, that stop-motion classic, would have you believe he did this to escape the evil clutches of the Burgermeister Meisterburger. Untrue. The real reason for the move was so that he could work free of regulations that protect workers. OSHA the IRS and the Department of Labor have no jurisdiction at the North Pole. There’s no minimum wage, no overtime laws. He’s free from paying payroll taxes.
Ah the workers. We all know that he employees only elves to work in his workshop. Only elves! Where’s the diversity? You might say that elves are a minority, but not in a place where everyone is an elf. A six-foot tall man can’t even get an interview, no matter his qualifications. Santa is practicing a form of height discrimination. I’m guessing that Santa hires elves because of their diminutive size. They are cheaper to house and feed, and it makes it easier from him to loom over and intimidate them. No Napoleon complex there.
As for working conditions, we have no way of knowing how clean his workshop is, how safe, whether or not it is adapted for workers with disabilities. No inspector has ever set foot inside it. What we do know is that he has created a company town far away from any regulators. A place were the elves must both work and live if they want to keep their jobs. We can see from other examples how that works. Whether it was the Pullman Town of the Industrial Revolution or modern-day the Foxconn facility in China, they are often rife with employee abuse, low pay and poor working conditions.
Santa would have you believe that all the elves spend the year happily making toys and whistling while they work (sorry, those are dwarves). But do we know this for sure? We don’t even know if they get paid, or if they do, how much. And if they do want to do something different (be a dentist perhaps?) it’s not like they can leave. There are hundreds of miles of frozen tundra between them and civilization (and no, Buddy, you’d freeze to death trying to walk it). He has a captive workforce that he can treat as badly as he wants and still maintain zero turnover.
Then there’s all that watching and judging. The NSA’s surveillance program pales in comparison. Sure, he says he’s only watching the kids, but don’t you think someone like that would also be watching his employees? Spying and sitting in moral judgement of who’s naughty and who’s nice (who is he to decide?) is no way to build the trust of your workforce.
But the worst thing about Santa as a boss is something almost everyone knows, but is somehow overlooked. We even sing a song celebrating it. Santa has fostered a work environment rife with intimidation and harassment. Case in point, that most famous reindeer of all, Rudolph. Simple because his nose glowed, he was subject to ridicule, name-calling and exclusion by the others. Santa may not have participated, but he knowingly allowed it to happen. It was only when Rudolph showed he had some value during that foggy Christmas Eve that Santa and the others started treating him with respect. In other words, he wasn’t treated well because of who he was, but because they needed him. Notice how you never hear about what happened to Rudolph after (not accounting for the horrible Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, which lacks any creditable sources)? No doubt, the next Christmas, when the whether was clear, Rudolph was grounded, ignored and forgotten without any severance or unemployment insurance
So let’s face it, Santa makes Scrooge (pre-ghost years) look like a candidate for the Best Boss of the Year award. I’m sure he doesn’t care. He’ll fill our stockings and place presents under our trees just like he always has, and keep abusing his employees regardless.
Kind of like Walmart.