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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.