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Don’t Brand Yourself – Be Yourself

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A friend of mine and I were talking about our careers. I was telling him that too many companies don’t know what to do with someone who doesn’t fit into a particular niche. “You need to brand yourself,” he suggested.

“You mean permanently sear myself with a red-hot iron? Didn’t they used to do that to slaves so if they ran away, they could identify the owner?”

My friend knew me well enough to let this pass. He explained that personal branding is the process of developing an image of yourself and presenting that image to others. I already knew this, but I nodded all the same. I didn’t feel like getting into the fact that I would rather be forced to sit through an Adam Sandler movie marathon than ever bother with a personal brand.

Now, I’m all for taking charge of my own career. I’ve learned that if I don’t do it, no one else will. Nobody is waking up each day and saying, how can I help develop Manfred professionally? They have their own lives to worry about.

Hot iron aside, personal branding takes this idea to a whole new level. It wants to boil me down to a single, simple message that is appealing to others, complete with a slogan and a catchy jingle. This may work fine for Diet Coke or iPhones or Porsches, but I’m a person not a product.

On this blog, I write about human resources. It’s part of who I am, but it isn’t all that I am. I also write fiction. I play piano. I’m a soccer fan. My three daughters mean the world to me. If I were to brand myself as just an HR Guy, all those other aspects of my life would have to take a back seat, they may disappear entirely, yet they help make me who I am.

Personal branding, however, is all about how you appear to the world, not about who you really are. Take one of the biggest personal brands out there, President Donald Trump. Whatever you think of his politics (I try not to think about it too much), he has made his fortune not through his questionable business dealings, but by being Donald Trump. He exudes a particular image of success that some find appealing, and he has attached that image to everything from hotels to mail order steaks. He clings tightly to his reputation as a great businessman, attacking anyone or anything that threatens it. His success, after all, relies on people believing he’s a success. It’s one of the reasons I believe he doesn’t want to release his tax returns. If he did, we might learn he doesn’t have the billions he brags about being worth.

Personal branding is disingenuous. Some have said they like Trump because they know who he is, but do they really? Numerous accounts and reports point to the inconsistencies in his behavior, that he often doesn’t believe what he says, but says it because he knows it will get him the attention he craves. Often, a personal brand doesn’t promote who you are, but what you think others want you to be. Think of the simple example of how you dress. You may want to go to work in a t-shirt and jeans every day. but your profession dictates a suit and tie. You dress like this so that people will have a certain perception of you. It isn’t who you are.

But Donald Trump is President of the United States, you’re saying to yourself. Isn’t he proof that personal branding works?

That depends on what you want to achieve. If your goals are fame and fortune and power, Trump’s model might work for you (assuming you also have access to your Daddy’s fortune). But if you want to be happy you’re on the wrong track. Most studies show that to be happy, you need strong interpersonal relationships, and personal branding isn’t going to bring you that. It can’t because it’s whole purpose is to turn you into a commodity, and no one can get close to a commodity. You can’t be friends with a car or a computer, no matter how hard some people try.

Personal branding means always being on stage. But characters on stage, no matter how well written and acted, are not true people. Most aren’t even characters, they are caricatures. Stereotypes, flat and lifeless and easily mocked.

You have to be who you truly are.

But what if I’m a jerk? You ask yourself. Well, if you aren’t going to change, (and you can only change by small degrees anyway), then own it. One of my favorite authors is Harlan Ellison. He’s written that when people meet him, they are often disappointed, because they expect him to somehow be like the people in his stories. Instead, they find a cantankerous, opinionated and often rude man who doesn’t suffer fools lightly. He is extremely passionate about his beliefs, and this can come across as arrogant and unyielding.

Harlan Ellison wouldn’t last a day in most corporate environments (there is a great account he gives about a job at Disney in which he didn’t even last through lunch) but that’s not what he has tried to do. No, he is a writer, and in writing he has found a place where his personality can take a back seat to his work.

Work – that’s the key. You probably know people who talk a good game. They say all the right things at meetings, they appear professional and speak with enthusiasm. They tell you everything you want to hear. Everyone who meets them for the first time thinks they’re a winner. But when deadlines are missed, projects fail, work is sloppy, it soon becomes apparent that their personal brand is nothing but a façade. Image doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t have the skills and abilities to live up to that image.

So don’t expect me to put myself in a nice neat box that fits on the shelf in your closet labeled “HR Guy”, to be taken out whenever you need me. Expect me to be that jumble of plastic bins in the back of your garage, filled with assorted odds and ends you think you might need someday, that you’ve been meaning to get around to sorting through but never do.

I’m not going to have a personal brand. Then again, maybe my personal brand is to have no brand at all.

Kilts Go Roman with Unisex Bathrooms

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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.”

If the Shoe Doesn’t Fit, Try a Slipper on for Size

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I’ve often heard that the best way to determine if someone is well dressed, take a look at the person’s shoes. Having sat in on countless interviews, I can understand why. I’ve had people come in (usually kids just out of school) wearing a well-tailored outfit only to have it ruined by a pair of shoes that were either beat up or way to casual. Sorry, but the only person I know who can get away with the gym shoes and a suit look is David Tennant’s Doctor Who, and that’s only because he’s a Time Lord played by a Scott (I wouldn’t be surprised if the first aliens to land on Earth were wearing kilts).

I’ve also seen women at work in heels that could poke your eyes out. While some may think they look more attractive, and some of the piggish bosses longing for the Madmen days may prefer them, all I can think of is, why the hell would you torture your feet by wearing something even the Spanish Inquisition wouldn’t use to torture their victims? High heels should be saved for the clubs, and only then if you don’t have to step out onto an icy sidewalk afterwards.

If you’ve been reading me for any length of time, you know that I don’t think that how you dress, shoes included, have a tangible impact on job performance. Like it or not, though, we live in world where appearance does matter, and someone who doesn’t conform to the proper dress for the appropriate occasion is saying that they don’t know what is appropriate, or don’t care. Either way, it’s not a good sign.

Not that I’m perfect when it comes to shoes. My wife has often said that I should invest in a couple of pairs of really nice dress shoes. She’s probably right. Not only would they look nicer, but they’d hold up better. But when I look at the price tags, I just can’t bring myself to spend the equivalent of a car payment on a pair of shoes, especially when they’ll still get trashed as I trudge through the snow and splash through puddles on my way into the office. I suppose I could wear galoshes, but I’m not that old.

A solution to all this comes from that fountain of so many great ideas – elementary school. Researchers from Bournemouth University in the UK found that when grade schoolers were allowed to wear slippers, it had positive effects on the classroom. The students at East Midland Primary School, where the study was conducted, tended to be more productive, better behaved and even got better grades when they were allowed to trade in their sneakers for slippers when they entered the building. It even saved on maintenance because there were fewer floor scuffs and less wear and tear on the carpeting.

The theory behind the findings is that wearing slippers helps make the classroom a more homey environment. This increases students’ comfort level, so they can focus on learning.

So why not bring this same practice to the workplace? Sure, we’re adults, not kids, but what work place couldn’t benefit from higher productivity and better behavior. I for one would love to wear slippers to work, especially on those cold winter mornings when my shoes are soaked through and my feet are ice-cold.

The only reason I can see not to is the idea that they are just not appropriate for work. I would be the first to admit that I’d have to overcome some of my own prejudices the first time someone showed up in the office in a pair of soft soled moccasins or something that looked like fuzzy blue monsters were devouring an interviewee’s feet. Still, fashions change. Someone used to be considered not fully dressed without a hat, spats used to be all the rage. Not t=so recently, a woman couldn’t step foot in a professional environment wearing open toed shoes, and a skirt without panty hose? Forget it.

Times change. slippers, though, they’re forever.

Sleep Like and Egyptian: The Power of Naps

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When I was studying in Rome, I never got into the habit of Siesta. The entire city would practically shut down between noon and four. People would leave work or school and sit down for a leisurely lunch with family, then, for the most part, nap through the hottest part of the day before returning to their daily routine.

I was fine with the leisurely lunch, but afterwards, I never could sleep even though my dorm room had blinds that shut out all but the tiniest fragments of light. Instead, I’d read, do homework, hang out with friends. Part of the reason I couldn’t nap was becauses I started class late, so could usually sleep in. I just wasn’t tired. A bigger part of it was probably my German upbringing, which equated napping with that greatest of all sins – idleness. Sleeping midday is something old men did in front of the television. It was not for young people who, if they needed more sleep, should have gone to bed earlier.

People are monophasic sleepers. We sleep for long periods of time and then are awake for long periods of time. This is unlike most animals, who sleep periodically throughout the day. It is unclear whether this is our natural state, or something we have learned over time. One story about napping comes from the ancient Egyptians. They worshipped cats as divine creates, and when they saw cats napping, decided to emulate them by napping as well. It’s a good story, but there’s no proof it is true. I’m more inclined to believe that after mornings of lugging stones up pyramids, they were just plain tired in the afternoons.

In recent years, I’ve become a napping convert. I’ve found that though I get six to sevon hours of sleep each night, taking a 20-30 minute nap midday helps keep me fresh, makes me less cranky, and keeps me from snoring during those 2 pm meetings.

We have a quiet room here at the office. I used to be weary of this room, thinking it was only for the lazy, but now I recommend any employer of sufficient size to have at least one. I’ll go in, close the door, turn the lights down low, settle into the recliner and close my eyes. Sometimes I’m fully asleep, sometimes I just drift, but I always feel better afterwards.

I also set the timer on my phone. The last thing I want is to wake up two hours after the office has closed and the alarms have been set. I recall a movie I saw as a kid called Trapped (1973), about a guy mugged in a shopping mall and tied up in a bathroom stall. He didn’t get free until after the mall was closed. This particular mall released Dobermans at night for security, and so the guy spent most of the movie being chased from store to store, trying not to keep away from them.

We don’t use Dobermans to guard our building, of course (raw meat is too expensive these days). Still, it would be a bit embarrassing explaining to the cops that I set off the alarm because I fell asleep.

Research backs me up on the power of napping. While there is some debate on how long naps should be and their specific benefits, numerous studies have shown that naps not only help us close our sleep deficit, but also improve alertness, motor skills and mood.

Maybe those Egyptian cats had some of the divine in them after all.

Excuse me, Mister, or is it Mistero?

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I was relaxing in the paneled lounge of my men’s club. Heads of lions and rhinos and other big game kills hung on the walls and cigar smoke-filled the air. I sat in my leather wing-back, surrounded by other men in their smoking jackets, while tuxedoed waiters brought us martinis and scotch and sodas on silver trays.

“I think we should start calling married men Mistero, and keep Mister for unmarried men,” I said to fill a lull in the conversation.

One man playing billiards missed the cue ball. Another man did a spit take with his bourbon and water. A third put down his copy of the Wall Street Journal to stare blankly at me. One of our oldest members tapped his pipe into his ashtray and said, “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.”

“But then how will we be able to tell which of us is married, and which isn’t?” I asked.

“My good sir, he said, it doesn’t really matter.” And with that, we moved on to other more important topics, like whether or not the price
of oil would continue to increase, and who’s favorite football team would lose the most players to concussions this season.
This exchange is ludicrous of course, for no other reason than that sort of men’s club only exists in old mystery novels and BBC period dramas. Most of us are lucky to get away for a half hour to share a beer in the neighbor’s garage. It’s also ridiculous to feel the need to distinguish married men from unmarried ones through titles, but that’s exactly what we’ve done to women for centuries.

The practice of using Mrs. and Miss has gone by the wayside in most workplaces. People rarely address each other by their last names, and when they do, such as in formal letters, Ms. is commonly used. Not only is it more universal, it prevents someone from having to guess at what salutation is appropriate. Still, there is one place that Mrs. and Miss (and Mr.) is still in regular use, and that’s in the classroom. Students are taught to address their female teachers by their last name using the salutation of Mrs. or Miss. This is mind-bogglingly old fashioned, disrespects the teachers and sends the wrong message to children.

Mrs. and Miss were not always used to signify whether or not a woman was married (you can read more on this history here – add link). They both derive from the term Mistress. While today, this generally refers to someone who is having an affair with a married man, in the 18th century, it could also refer to a woman who was in charge in some way or who had a specific set of skills.
Later, of course, it made it easier to determine who should be discriminated against. It was considered shameful for a married woman to work, especially if she had children. I once saw a movie from the 1940’s, the title of which is escapes me, in which a boss explained it this way:

When a man asks a woman to marry him, it is expected that he be able to earn enough to support them both. The woman should then stop working outside the home, so as to create a job opening for a man who needs the job.

My mother worked as a registered nurse while raising six children. A lot of people looked down on this. What they did not understand is that my father had a bad heart valve due to rheumatic fever, and wasn’t expected to live past the age of thirty. If he died, she would have no way to support the family.

As it turned out, developments in open heart surgery allowed my father to receive an artificial valve and live to the age of 79. Still, my parents were able to pay off their house early, put six children through college and have a comfortable retirement.
I also don’t think my mother would have been fulfilled as a stay at home mom. Working as a nurse might have had its frustrations, but it also gave her a certain amount of self-worth and money of her own. While this may be right for some, it wasn’t right for her.
It does not matter whether a teacher is married or not, no more than it mattered for my mother all those years ago. It says nothing about the person’s skills as an educator. Yet we still use Mrs. and Miss, and in doing so teach our children that this distinction is somehow important, and needs to be highlighted.

Now, before you go saying this is just a bunch of politically correct mumbo-jumbo, let me remind you that the term politically correct was invented by people who didn’t wanted to demean the idea that people should be spoken to and about in a respectful manner, and that terms that somehow degraded races, genders, ethnicities, etc. have no place in civilized society. It isn’t politically correct, it’s just plain correct.

Perhaps we need a new way of addressing all teachers. After all, attorneys use Esquire. People who have done nothing more than bury themselves in libraries, developing theses around the poetry of Lord Byron that no one will ever read or care about call themselves doctor. Being an educator takes much more skill, training, experience and dedication than what most people have. If you don’t believe me, spend a day in a classroom and find out. I would personally keep my quiet little office in place of a room full of unruly eight year-olds you have to mold, shape or at least contain for several hours a day. So how about if we stop calling them Misses and Miss like they just walked out of some 1950’s sit-com and provide them with some title befitting of the respect they deserve.

I’m not sure what this would be, but Hero springs to mind.

Yes, Even Chevy Chase has Lessons for the Workplace

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I’ll never understand how National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation became a holiday classic. First off, to be a classic, it has to be made before I was born, which I realize eliminates a lot of would-be classics. Second, it has Chevy Chase.

I saw this movie in the theater back in 1989. In those days, my friend Ray and I went to see a lot of movies during our Christmas and Spring Breaks (no Fort Lauderdale for me. I was too busy working). I remember coming out of it and saying to each other, that’s the last time we pay the full price for anything starring Chevy Chase. The man who became famous for falling down at the start of every Saturday Night Live in its first season was also the first to leave prematurely when the glitter, glamor and money of Hollywood beckoned. He made a lot of movies in the beginning, and except a couple of good films (Caddyshack and Foul Play spring to mind) most of them were duds.

Perhaps the fact that I saw the movie in the theater is the problem. Most people I know who laud the humor of the movie experienced it on some secondary cable channel one late December night when there was nothing else on TV. Their expectations were much lower than mine. When pressed, they’ll say, oh, I like it, but I’d never pay full price in a movie theater to see it. It’s not that good.

To those few who would have plucked down the price of a ticket, not to mention the cost of overpriced popcorn and soda, all I have to say is that everyone’s entitled to their opinion, even if it is wrong and misguided. I found Christmas Vacation to be dull and predictable. The only true laughs came from Randy Quaid who played cousin-in-law Eddie.

If you’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing the movie, the plot centers around Chevy Chase as the hapless Clark Griswold, determined to have a good old-fashioned Christmas when his extended family comes to town. The comedy (I use the term loosely) includes antics like going out to cut down a Christmas tree then finding they have no saw and stringing the outside of the house with thousands of lights that won’t work. To add some tension, there is also a somewhat real life crises happening. Clark hasn’t received his annual bonus yet, and he needs it to pay for the down payment he put on a new pool.

Since John Hughes wrote this movie, it has to come with a message. All his movies have messages, usually warped and twisted ones (outer beauty is what matters, date rape is okay, etc.) This time, the message is about the importance of family and the joy of Christmas. Of course, being in HR, that’s not the message I got out of it.

And no, the message is not that Dickie’s are inappropriate work attire:

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The message is – NEVER COUNT ON YOUR BONUS.

Let’s not dwell on the poor parenting that makes Clark think a pool is what he should spend his bonus on instead of, let’s say, his kids’ college education. Instead, let’s focus on his expectation of a bonus in the first place. He believes he is getting a bonus, not because anyone told him he would, but because he had always gotten one in the past. Then he goes and spends it before he even knows he’s going to receive it. We’re supposed to fret along with Clark about this, when really, all I could think is that he’s an idiot.

We have to keep in mind, however, that Clark’s no different from most of us. Hell, I’ve even made the mistake of counting on a bonus, even if I didn’t spend it before it was in the bank. Now, I’m not talking about earned commissions, money someone receives based on sales using a prescribed formula. I’m talking about true bonuses. Money the company awards based on criteria no one can usually understand, but usually entails executives in a closed room with a dart board.

Companies will flat-out tell you bonuses are not guaranteed. They’ll have it scroll across the bottom of your computer screen, make it part of their logo, tattoo it on their CEO’s forehead. But no matter what, a certain large portion of you will consider it a regularly scheduled part of your income. You’ll work it into your household budgets, pile money onto your credit cards with the expectation that the bonus can be used to repay it. When you receive it, you view it as an entitlement. When you don’t, you complain that something has been taken away. It’s easy to forget that a bonus is just that, an extra.

My organization is generous with its incentives and bonuses. When it does well, it shares its success across the board. But if it doesn’t do well, everyone is out of luck. Back during the Great Recession, no bonuses or incentives were paid for about two years. While no one liked it, it did serve an important function. It reminded everyone that these bonuses weren’t guarantees.

It’s been over six years since that happened. Unfortunately, the lesson learned has been forgotten by some (and never learned by people who were hired later). Bonuses will be good this year. I’m happy for everyone. They worked hard. They deserve it. I just hope they remember that the bonus they get this year is no promise that they’ll get one next year.

If you are getting a bonus, I hope you remember this, too.

Happy Holidays!

No Horseplay and Other Workplace Rules from the Pool

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When I was in junior high, the public pool was our regular hangout in summer. My friends and I would spend hot afternoons basking on the lawn chairs, telling dirty jokes, eating junk food from the snack bar and ineptly failing to flirt with girls. Sometimes, we’d even go into the water.

Now that I’m an adult, I’m stuck at work year around. A window pane and half a lifetime separates me from those idle summer days. But as I reflect on those days long gone, I realize that both work and the pool have one thing in common – rules. And in looking at the list of the pool rules posted on the locker room wall all those years ago, I find that only a few minor changes are needed to apply them to work.

1) Please obey all lifeguard supervisor instructions; failure to do so may result in being asked to leave.
Do what you are told or we will fire you.

2) Proper swim work attire is required. No street clothes, cut offs, denim shorts, or thong bathing suits are permitted in the pool work area, unless deemed appropriate for religious purposes.
Dress appropriately. I am unsure which religion requires thong bathing suits, but regardless, they or any of the other items described, are not appropriate at the pool or work.

3) Only service animals permitted in Aquatic Facility, all other pets are not allowed.
Animals do not belong in most workplaces. Sure, there are a few start-ups that allow you to bring your dog to work, but they’re the exception. As much as I love my mutts, and would like to have them at my feet while I work, I realize that other people might be allergic, dogs can be disruptive, and some of my coworkers are just plain scared of dogs. Besides, while my dogs are well-behaved, I wouldn’t want them at work if it meant I had to put up with your nippy little chihuahua or the incessant yapping of you Tasmanian devil of a terrier.

4) Food and drink are not allowed in the aquatic facility workplace.
Research shows that not eating is not only desk neater and more professional, getting away from work for lunch makes you healthier and more productive by giving you a break from the daily grind.

5) No running.
Yes, in some workplaces running might be necessary, but in most offices, it’s just a worker’s comp case waiting to happen.

6) No pushing, shoving, horseplay, or inappropriate behavior is allowed.
I actually worked for a company that specifically stated “no horseplay” in their handbook. Ever seen horses play? They rear, they kick, they bite. This sort of activity is not acceptable in or out of work. And unless you work as a mosh pit coordinator, pushing and shoving is never okay.

7) No diving into the shallow end of the pool. Backward dives and flips are not allowed.
Too often at work, we jump in head first without knowing where we’re getting into. Ever go into a meeting unprepared? Act on an assumption only to find out that assumption was wrong? Head in one direction on a project then have to change direction? I’m sure you have, and if so, you were risking the workplace version of a broken neck.

8) Individuals who cannot swim are only allowed in the shallow end.
If you don’t know what you’re doing and start doing it anyway, you’ll end up splashing around in the deep end, and someone else will have to come save you.

9) Gum must be deposited in the trash cans before entering the water work.
Whenever I’m talking to a coworker who is munching on a wad of gum, I can’t help but feel like I’m speaking with a nine-year-old.

10) All swimmers workers having a communicable disease or displaying signs and symptoms of a communicable disease which can be transmitted through normal swimming pool use shall be excluded.
If you’re sick, stay home. You might think you’re doing the right thing by dutifully showing up at work, but all your accomplishing is giving your coworkers whatever you have.

11) Glass, sharp objects, or any other items which might cause injury or accidents shall not be allowed in the pool or pool area at work.
This is just common sense, although I do have a letter open which could cause a nasty cut if wielded improperly.

12) Spitting, spouting water, blowing your nose, or discharging bodily waste in the pool at work is strictly prohibited.
Goes without saying.

13) All persons using the swimming pool work must take a shower before entering the pool enclosure.
Don’t be that smelly guy with the greasy hair that no one wants to sit next to in the lunch room.

14) Glass containers are not allowed in the Aquatic Facility or on the outside patio at work.
Okay – this one doesn’t fit in the workplace. I guess they’re afraid that something might break, and it would be hell to get shards of glass out of the water. I’ve had the same coffee mug for 15 years, and have yet to crack it.

One last similarity between pool and work rules – I often try to break them. I took great pride in trying to sneak past the lifeguard without showering, or splashing my friends when no one was looking. I spent a lot of time sitting on the hard concrete instead of being with my buddies as punishment.

Today, I still eat at my desk, and dive into work I am not clear on how to do, preferring to learn along the way. No horseplay, though, that’s where I draw the line.