For God’s Sake, Don’t Drink the Kool Aid!

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I was at a Human Resources Roundtable on onboarding. Mundane stuff, new employee orientation, peer mentoring, etc., etc. I was flipping through my Twitter feed to keep from falling asleep when one young woman said, “We want our new people to drink the Kool Aid.”

I looked up from my phone. “You know what that means, don’t you?” I asked.

“It’s just an expression,” she replied.

Poor deluded girl. It refers of to the Jonestown tragedy. Jonestown was a commune established in Guyana by the People’s Temple Cult and its leader, Jim Jones. After the murder of Congressman Leo Ryan, who went there to determine if people were there of their own freewill, the cult members either voluntarily or by force drank juice laced with cyanide. In all, 909 people died, including 190 children.

This is not the Kool Aid you want people in your organization to be drinking.

I was only 10 years old, but I recall the vivid images on the nightly newscasts. Hundreds of bodies spread across the ground. It dominated the news for days.

I can’t blame this young woman for not knowing about it. One day, I was talking to some colleagues about the current Iran Nuclear Agreement. The subject of the hostage crisis came up. A coworker about the same age as her commented, “Oh yeah, we learned about that in history class.”

Then again, I was born after Pearl Harbor, the Cuban Missile Crisis and JFK’s assassination, so I shouldn’t be so harsh.

Not only is this reference to the victims of the tragedy (no one would put the motto, Work Will Set You Free over their doors), I found it curious that this woman thought drinking the Kool-Aid, i.e. getting on board with everyone else, was somehow a good thing, even if you didn’t end up dead in a South American jungle. Organizations want to hire people who are a cultural fit, who can easily adapt to their way of doing things. Why they want this is simple. These people don’t upset the status quo.

As much as most organizations hail their cultures of change, they do not really want it, unless of course, it was their idea in the first place. Change is unknown, and therefore hard and scary. By our very nature we want stability and reliability. We especially hate change that comes from the outside. These newcomers do nothing but cause trouble, and managers hate trouble-makers. I had one manager say it drove him nuts when new employees said things like, “At my last company we did it this way,” or, “That’s not how we used to do it where I used to work.” It challenged him and the systems he set up. It made him feel that maybe he wasn’t as good as he thought he was. The only advice I give to people who do say things like this is, learn how we do things first, then bring up your ideas. They’ll go over much better because by then you’ll be one of us, and it won’t seem so threatening.

While change may be painful, it is necessary to thrive. Do you know of anyone who was truly successful by doing what everyone had done before them, whether it was in the realm of art, sports or business? And if your organization is going to change, you need people to come in who don’t just follow orders, but challenge those orders when they don’t make sense.

We onboard employees at my work, of course. We let them know about our pay and benefits, our expectations, and our culture. But we also tell them that just as they learn from us, we want to learn from them. We make it easy for them to bring us their ideas, their views. We want them to change our way of thinking just as they are changing theirs.

Kool-Aid, even without the cyanide, is nothing but flavored sugar-water. We don’t want our employees drinking that. We want them to throw a bunch of fruits and vegetables into a blender and come up with their own drink. One that may not be easy to swallow, but is good for us all the same.

NFL Cheerleaders Whipping Up the Fans for Better Pay

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Super Bowl 50 is over. The beer has been drunk, the nachos devoured. The Denver Broncos have had their victory parade and those multi-million dollar commercials can be found on YouTube. After weeks of hype, you can now concentrate on more serious matters.

No, I am not referring to the presidential primaries, the Syrian refugee crisis, the Zika Virus or the lead-poisoned water of Flint, MI. I am talking, of course, about the issue of low NFL Cheerleader pay.

Several articles have been written on the subject lately, which I suspect are all just a way to drive traffic to Web sites by posting photos like these:

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Not that the problem isn’t a real one. Many of these cheerleaders only get paid $70 to $100 dollars per game. Often, they have to buy their own uniforms, and they do not get paid for the numerous hours of practice per week.

Now, don’t get me wrong. If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know that I’m all for paying people more. I have no doubt that NFL Cheerleaders are extremely talented and hard working, and deserve to be compensated according. I also don’t think that the NFL is going to miss the few hundred thousands dollars that it would take to compensate cheerleaders properly when they are pulling in $13 billion per year. I just think we need to put this into perspective.

There are about 650 NFL Cheerleaders. Meanwhile, millions of retail, fast-food and restaurant workers are also earning below subsistence wages.

Of course, most of them don’t look as good in knee-high boots.

The NFL is unlikely to raise cheerleader pay substantially. Sure, they’ve settled with some who brought lawsuits against them, and some teams have given raises for PR purposes, but cheerleaders will never earn the six figure salaries of even the most mediocre of NFL players. The reason is simple supply and demand.

I once interviewed a young woman who told me it was her dream to become a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader. She had about as much chance of becoming their quarterback – or getting hired by me, for that matter. She applied for an admin job and could barely type.

For every NFL Cheerleader, there are at least 10 equally qualified women who would gladly take her place. Some would probably even work for free. This hardly creates pressure to increase wages. Do you know why computer coders are paid so well? Because there are so few of them. If there were ten coders for every job available, they wouldn’t be making much money, either.

And while the cheerleading squads generally earn money for their teams, the total income for the entire NFL is about $1 million annually. A lot of money for you and me, but nothing for the juggernaut which is professional football. It basically breaks down to $1,500 per cheerleader. I once worked for a retail operation where people earned only slightly more than cheerleaders, and it earned twice as much per employee.

If cheerleading squads were disbanded next season, only those guys at the games who need something to ogle between downs through fogged up binoculars would care. Most of us would just shrug and keep watching. Hell, if the fact that the guys playing the game are ending up with brain damage because of too many skull crushing impacts doesn’t make us stop watching, why would we care if a few scantily clad women are suddenly gone from the sidelines?

Don’t believe me? I remember back in the 80’s when the Chicago Bears disbanded their cheerleading squad, the Honeybears. Their owner, Virginia Halas McCasky, thought they had no place in the blood and guts world of professional football and got rid of them. The Bears still continued to play, draw fans, earn a profit and sometimes even win a game. Sure, there are those who blame the so-called Honeybear Curse for the Monsters of the Midway not winning a Super Bowl ever since, but that has had more to do with poor management, misguided coaching, mediocre players and bad luck than with some leggy blonde high kicking in short-shorts.

So while NFL Cheerleaders deserve more money for the work they do, they probably aren’t going to get it (or at least not much more than a slight raise so that the NFL gets the media off its backs). Not for a job in which has little value and in which workers can be so easily replaced. But don’t worry about them. Most cheerlead part-time. They have full-time jobs or are going to school. The exposure they get can lead to modeling contracts and other sidelines that will earn them more money, or, for the 1950’s traditionalists, land them a wealthy husband.

And if they truly want to earn a good living and be paid well for the work they do, they’d be better off dropping those pom-poms and picking up a laptop.

Buddy the Elf has Some Valuable Lessons for the Workplace

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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?”

Happy Holidays!

The Doctor Is In

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I was sitting at my desk when one that new supervisor we hired, the rounded-headed kid, knocked on my door.

“Can we talk?” He asked.

A can that read Psychiatric Help 5 Cents sat on my desk. I picked it up and shook it. The coins inside it jingled.

He reached into his pocket, pulled out a nickel and dropped into the slot in the top of the can. I motioned for him to sit down.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“It’s my staff. I delegate assignments, give instructions, make sure they understand, but when I turn around, they just start playing music and dancing.”

“I’ve seen that. That one guy is great on the ivories, especially considering it’s a toy piano with only five keys.”

“They won’t do anything I say.”

“Why do you think that is?”

The supervisor shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s always been this way. Even my dog doesn’t listen to me.”

I nodded, recalling the beagle who came with him on Bring Your Dog to Work Day. Wore an ascot and a flying cap. “Your dog thinks he’s a World War One flying ace,” I said.

“Still, if I can’t get him to do what I want, how can I get my staff to listen?”

“Have you thought of upgrading your wardrobe? I mean, you always where that same shirt with the black zig-zag. There has to be something else in your closet.”

“I don’t think it’s my clothes.”

“Then maybe you should try getting involved in some of the stuff they’re involved in. Have you thought of joining the company softball team? I know most of your staff play.”

“I did. Lost every game I pitched. They think less of me now than ever.”

“What would you suggest is it then?

“I need a change in title. Supervisor just doesn’t carry enough weight.”

“What about Grand Poobah, or Lord God Emperor?”

“I’m serious. Calling me manager instead of supervisor might make all the difference.”

I frowned. “You know what my title is?”

He shook his head.

“Neither do I. It’s changed so many times, I can’t remember it without checking my business card. Still, I’m here and people listen to me. Why do you think that is?”

He looked at the can on my desk. “Because you’re cheap?”

I rose,  “I’m not cheap, I’m affordable!”

The shout sent the supervisor flying from his chair, he spun in the air, his clothes flying off him before he hit the ground. Stars and hashtags appeared over his head.

After he was dressed and sitting in his chair again, I continued. “They listen to me because I listen to them. Your staff knows their jobs. They don’t need you telling them what to do. They need you to support them in what they already know they need to do.”

The supervisor was quiet for a moment. “So no new title?”

“If I thought it would help, I’d be all for it. But you aren’t going to get the respect you want until you start respecting others. It doesn’t matter what title you have.”

He rose and thanked me, told me he had a lot to think about. As he headed out the door, I asked, “Could you send Patricia in? I need to talk to her about those sandals. Definitely not up to dress code.

Want to See Something Really Scary? Life Without HR

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Boo!

Did I scare you? Probably not. No offense to John Carpenter and Wes Craven (RIP), but most of us are not terrified by masked slashers or clawed fiends who invade our nightmares. These are fantasies. Reality is much scarier. How are we going to pay the bills? What if we lose our jobs? Will we ever be able to retire? These are the thoughts that run through our heads as we toss and turn at night.

I’m no exception. But it’s the realities of the workplace that frighten me more than any personal concerns. Now, I know some of you think that as an HR Guy, I’m the one who is truly scary. The bogeyman with the pink slip and the empty box for you to pack up your office, lurking behind the door as you walk in to start your day. Many of you wish I was a fantasy, a monster under your bed, a bad dream you could wake up from. But I’m here to stay, and it’s a good thing, too.

Some say we don’t need HR, that managers can and should perform most of the employee relation and performance management functions HR performs. HR, they claim, gets in the way. Here are some examples of why these people are wrong. I may have written about some of these before, but in honor of Halloween, the most frightening ones bear repeating. What’s even more terrifying is that most of what I’m going to describe occurred at places that are overall great places to work. It sends shivers up my spine to imagine what happens at employers who don’t care what employees think.

1) A woman asks her boss for a raise. He tells her that he would pay her more if she was the breadwinner.

2) A manager asks an employee why she is bothering to study psychology, when the Bible has all the answers to life anyone will ever need.

3) A nursing mother asks about a private place to pump. Her manager tells her to go use a bathroom stall.

4) A verbally abusive manager tells his staff that if they complain to upper management or HR, he will fire them because they are “at-will”.

5) An employee leaves over a fifty-cent raise ($540 annual) the manager refuses to sign off on due to budget constraints. It costs $3,000 to replace that employee.

6) A manager has the habit of looking female employees up and down when he talks to them. He tells one that she would look more “professional” if she wore more skirts and heels.

7) An employee gives other employees derogatory nicknames, and even uses them directly. The manager does nothing about this. He claims employees have no problem with the nicknames, because who doesn’t like being referred to as ugly or stupid?

I could go on, but I won’t. I’m breaking out in a sweat as it is. The bottom-line is that what scares me most is, despite all the training, all the coaching, all the talk of fostering a positive work environment, managers will still go and do something unethical, illegal, or just plain stupid. And when they do, it’s HR that has to pick up the pieces. But don’t feel bad for me. It comes with the job. Feel bad for the employees who work too hard to have to put up with bad bosses day-in-and-day-out.

And as for those managers who insist on being jerks, what about them? Maybe they should try something novel for Halloween, and dress up as human beings.

What Salaried Really Means

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I was talking to a person who did graphic design for an architecture firm. She often has to produce work on short deadlines, often working late hours and coming in early.

I wish I was salaried, she told me.

I assumed, like most people, when she said salaried, she meant exempt.

Why? I asked, you’d lose your overtime. You wouldn’t get paid for all those extra hours you work.

Yes, but I’d be salaried.

Like most people, she equated exempt with being a professional. Getting paid for the work performed, rather than the hours worked. To her, it’s a sign of status, like a corner office or a vice president title. And like those things, she was willing to sacrifice pay to get it.

Now the Department of Labor is proposing changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) which will make it harder for you to be classified as exempt. Basically, one of the requirements is that you earn a salary of$23,660 annually. They proposing to at least double this (IT positions, for all you techies out there, follow a different set of rules).

This rule change means a lot of people who are currently exempt will either have to receive pay raises or be reclassified and get overtime. NPR featured just such a person. A bank branch manager getting paid $30,000 a year was told when he was hired that his was not a 9 to 5 job. He would always be on call. As a result, he often works 60 hours per week. Because he’s exempt, he doesn’t make a dime more for it.

I worked this out. At 60 hours per week, he earns the equivalent of just over $9.50 per hour. Some bank tellers earn more than this, and don’t have near the responsibility. For all practical purposes, he is probably earning less than many of the loan officers and personal bankers he supervises.

Low paying industries have been doing this for years. They give someone the title of manager, work the hell out of them, and get to keep all the additional results of that labor as profit. In addition, many of these people aren’t even true managers. Due to their companies’ constant budget cuts, they are short-staffed, so they make up the difference. Most of their time isn’t spent hiring or developing staff. It’s spent working behind the coffee counter or stocking shelves, with less than half of it

Of course, some of these employers complain that if the law changes, they won’t be able to make money, forcing them to cut jobs. They may even have to shut their doors. Good. As I’ve said before, if your business model depends on taking advantage of your workers, you have a poor business model and deserve to go out of business.

Other employers are naturally looking for ways around the law before it even goes into effect. Most will merely move the employees at issue to hourly, but pay them less so that they’ll have to work overtime to maintain their current rate of pay. Then they’ll turn around and say it’s not their greed, but big bad government’s fault.

Nice, huh?

It’s too bad that any of these rules are even necessary. The workplace would be so much better if employers didn’t see employees as a resource, like computers or shelf space, but rather as a stake holder, just like their customers and shareholders, people invested in the success of the organization who employers need to invest in for their success.

Until that time comes, the Department of Labor will continue to enforce the FLSA, and employers will continue to find ways to work around it, or flaunt it all together.

And as long as she’s salaried, that graphic designer and millions like her will be thankful for the privilege of being considered a “professional”.

Work-Life Balance: The Broken See-Saw

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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:

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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:

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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.

Work-life separation.

“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.