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!

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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.

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.