Category Archives: Corporate Life

Does Business Have a Conscience?

Back in July, I wrote about the ongoing controversy surrounding pharmacists’ right to refuse to dispense emergency contraception, such as Plan-B, because they felt it violated their religious beliefs. As I stated then, for me

“the real heart of this issue is can an employee refuse to carry out specific aspects of their job that they do not like?…While I don’t think anyone on either side of this issue is advocating that people perform their jobs like robots with no room for compassion or common sense, we have to weigh the public responsibility of the pharmacy position (to dispense medications as requested) against individual freedom (to exercise free will).”

I feel that this is a “slippery slope” argument. Who gets to decide what is acceptable and what is not? As I explained to one commentor, who felt that my hypothetical example of a mailman refusing to deliver pornography on the grounds that s/he morally opposes it was not on par with pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions they believe will cause an abortion:

“Both situations (pharmacists refusing to dispense plan-B and postal carriers delivering magazines) involve one person (an employee) refusing to carry out a responsibility that directly impacts another person’s individual freedom over their own body (to prevent pregnancy or to masturbate).

Are you suggesting that moral objections are only legitimate in certain situations? That the rights of someone who finds pornography sinful should be less protected than someone who believes abortion is sinful? Who gets to decide what situations we can object to (the very question the WA State court is trying to decide right now)? What if the postal carrier believes viewing pornography is just as objectionable as abortion? Would that make it ok for them to not deliver pornography if that were part of their job?”

A surprising number of comments wholeheartedly felt it was acceptable to refuse the parts of their jobs that they disliked (much to my surprise). And recent developments have shown that the Bush Administration feels the same. The New York Times reports

“The Bush administration, as expected, announced new protections on Thursday for health care providers who oppose abortion and other medical procedures on religious or moral grounds.

“Doctors and other health care providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience,” Michael O. Leavitt, the secretary of Health and Human Services, said in a statement on his department’s Web site….

The measures announced on Thursday, sometimes described collectively as the “conscience rule,” were issued just in time to take effect before the start of the new administration.”

I still need to read the rule in its entirety, but I’m disturbed by this statement in the Times piece:

“The rule prohibits recipients of federal money from discriminating against doctors, nurses and health care aides who refuse to take part in procedures because of their convictions, and it bars hospitals, clinics, doctors’ office and pharmacies from forcing their employees to assist in programs and activities financed by the department.”

What exactly constitutes a “forced assist?” Could I sue my employer for making me come in on a Sunday when I don’t feel like it? Where does it end?
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Get Ahead At Work: Be Selfish

As performance reviews loom on the horizon, it’s a great time for all of us to step back and ask ourselves:

How can I be a better employee?

A lot of the career advice out there will tell you how to communicate more effectively with co-workers, make your boss look good or provide unexpected value for the company. The experts tell you to focus on finding ways you can help others in order to help yourself. This will probably help you climb up the ladder a bit, gain some favor with folks at the office. Your boss will look good, your co-workers will look good and the company’s bottom line will look good. But what about you?

I suggest a more radical approach to career betterment. I propose we stop focusing so much on what we can do for others and more on what we can do for ourselves.

The 10,000-Hour Rule

Two blogs, Career Realism and The Writer’s Coin, have helped me reach this conclusion. The first post I read was from Career Realism, introducing me to the “10,000-Hour Rule.”

“Simply put, the 10,000 Hour Rule says no one gets to the top of their field unless they log at least 10,000 hours of practice. That’s right – 10,000 hours!”

Now 10,000 hours is a lot of hours to log. As one commentor on Career Realism pointed out, that’s roughly 5 to 6 years worth of work. As the blogger explains, that puts recent grads at a great disadvantage,

“One of the biggest complaints I hear from managers these days is the lack of ‘professionalism’ they see from recent college grads. The 10,000 Hour Rule explains why: most college grads today have not been required to work through high school and college in professional settings. Moreover, managers, parents, and even students themselves today are under the mistaken impression that college teaches this sort of thing. Over here at Careerealism.com we say, ‘College teaches you everything EXCEPT how to get the job.’”

Ever had a superstar co-worker who was great at their job until they were promoted? It’s a common story. A salesman may be fantastic at landing deals but completely unprepared to deal with budgets, fighting co-workers or incorrect timesheets. But what makes these workers successful at one role but not another? Experience–something that can only be acquired by doing it yourself.

But how do you gain professional skills if not on the job?

The Writer’s Coin, as the last part of a six part series on being a better worker, recommends doing something outside of work everyday. The blogger says,

“This one has less to do with work and what you do while you’re there than it does with having a nice balance in your life. In other words, it might just make you feel better when you’re at work if you’ve done something beforehand (or afterwards, if that’s your style—I just can’t get much together after work)….

The point of getting up early and doing something else is to make you feel like you’re life doesn’t just revolve around working. It also gives you time to get side projects off the ground, catch up on e-mail, read, etc….

I know, I know, getting up early is a nightmare for most people. You will get used to it. Trust me, I feel weird staying in bed past 5:30am now because I’ve been doing it for so long.”

Ultimately, having something else outside of work, whatever it may be, is likely to make you a happier person and a better employee.

And isn’t that what it’s all about?

The complimentary nature of these two posts gives us a prescription to becoming a more successful employee: make effective use of your time outside of work to do things you enjoy, which will in turn help make you more effective at work.

For example, if you are trying to get promoted into a management position but have no direct supervisory experience, you could continue to do a great job in sales and hope that the higher ups are willing to reward you for that work with an untested promotion. Or you could help yourself by volunteering to manage a group of phone operators during a pledge drive for a local charity.

One of the best managers I ever worked for spent his Spring afternoons coaching a high school softball team. He was accomplished at the technical aspects of his job, but I really think his willingness and ability to mentor the younger workers on his team is what made him such a great manager. His mentoring skills were gained in large part from his experience helping young athletes perform on the field.

By focusing on developing yourself, rather than on what you can do for your co-workers/boss/bottom line, you will accelerate promotions as well as enable yourself to succeed once you get to your next professional challenge.

Related Reading

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On The Wrong Side of the Conference Table

Pessimism over OptimismIf a terrible catastrophe were ever to befall the earth, I believe that the world would be separated into two groups: the optimists, who think we will prevail in the face of adversity, and the pessimists, who start running for the hills because we are all doomed. I would fit squarely in the pessimists group with a backpack full of bottled water and running shoes on.

A Life Half Full

Negativity has always weighed predominantly on my personality, beliefs and actions (although I really prefer to see myself as a realist). I’m practical. I’m a downer. I always plan for the worst-case scenario. I carry napkins in my purse in case of spills. I keep energy bars in my glove compartment in case I get stuck in a snowstorm. I like to be prepared.

Having spent most of my life being told to look on the Brightside (I bring my sunglasses), it was no wonder that I took great offense to advice offered in a Wall Street Journal career column advising a Negative Nelly to “suck it up” and learn to play the game.

Here’s the situation:

My husband is a 41-year-old finance manager who was told by his new boss that he needed to stop making negative comments. Specifically, he was told not to say that the company has tried something but that it didn’t work before. He was told if he didn’t stop making these comments, he would be put on a performance action plan. Since then he has worked hard at being positive and was told by his boss that he was doing a good job. But recently, his boss got a call from human resources about my husband’s behavior in a meeting — he was perceived as being negative because he recommended that the group look at X before they do Y. He was told he would be fired the next time he said something inappropriate…Can he repair the situation?

Unsticking From Negativity

Having read through this a few times in an attempt to leave any “negative” bias behind me, I still fail to see how the man in question was anything other than realistic and offering meaningful advice that would probably keep the company from pursuing failed projects. However, the advice columnist saw things differently.

“If you’re used to a certain factual, structured world, and the boss is asking you to use the common cliché and think outside the box, if you don’t do it, you’re going to fail,” Dr. Tobais says. “Try to open yourself up.” But, he says, it won’t be easy. “Negativity is a thinking style we tend to get stuck in.”

In addition to meeting the boss’ expectations, not shutting yourself off from others’ bright ideas will make your co-workers more amenable to considering your suggestions. Giving them positive feedback and contributing something besides verbal roadblocks at meetings will make them return the favor and listen to you too — instead of daydreaming about what they’re going to pick up for lunch.

Negativity is “a thinking style” we get stuck in?! And blissful ignorance isn’t? I get that a lot of the tension in this situation stems from a clash in personalities and group mentality. Apparently this man’s co-workers are generally an optimistic bunch and this Eeyore isn’t meshing with their collective think. I agree that in order to help his relationships at work he may need to work on fitting in better with his team, whether that be cutting down on his “negative” comments or increasing his praise. However, I don’t understand why the realistic or “negative” folks are always ostracized.

Pessimism Can Be A Good Thing

Having worked for a boss who took on any project floated without question and encouraged me to do the same, I can attest that it is just as bad to be a negative person working in a sea full of optimists as it is for a room of optimists to have to deal with one negative person. Sometimes I feel like I am crazy because I see all of these problems that no one else seems to care about, much like the Greek myth of Cassandra who was blessed with the gift of knowing the future but cursed with the inability to be believed by others when she told them what she saw.

The subprime mortgage crisis a great model of how unencumbered opportunism can run afoul when there aren’t enough naysayers to keep everyone from going around the bend. The lending industry saw a great opportunity in financing subprime mortgages. They won, the banks won, shareholders won, homeowners won—at least for a while anyway. But what would have happened if some pessimist predicted the housing bust and stepped in to stop it? Why did no one have the courage to call the industry out? Why are we so hostile toward whistleblowers?

Shouldn’t a successful company employ a balance of creative dreamers and practical executors?

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My Co-Worker is a Closet Racist

Two weeks ago I wrote a post about why I think we should not talk politics in the office. I argued that:

“your political preferences will most likely pigeonhole you into one [ideological] group and others will form opinions about you based on where you fit. To me, this is the danger in expressing personal beliefs in the workplace. It can take the focus from your professional accomplishments and redirect it on your personal life, no matter how brilliant you are at your job.”

Fellow Brazen Careerist blogger, Rebecca Thorman of Modite countered with:

“What we believe in and have faith in informs our work and personal lives intimately, and to say that we shouldn’t discuss them anywhere is dangerous…And while voicing your opinion may invite all sorts of opinions and criticism and the chance that you might – gasp! – have to defend your beliefs, we cannot have as our legacy a production that mindlessly follows the corporate establishment.”

While I admire Rebecca’s courage to speak her mind and I think she makes some good points, my cynical side has been presented with an example as to why such righteous idealism (“I will know that I never, ever regretted opening my mouth, only keeping it shut.”) sounds a lot better in theory than in practice.

Free Speech in Action

My friend, the same one I referenced in The Separation of Work and State, decided to engage a co-worker in a political discussion about why she was choosing to vote for John McCain for President.

My Friend: “So why are you voting for McCain?”

Co-Worker: “I don’t trust Obama.”

My Friend: “Why not?”

Co-Worker: “Well, he says he’s half black. But his father is from Africa, which is close to the Middle East, so I heard he is really part Arab. This means that Obama is really more Arab than he is black.”

My Friend: “Oh?”

Co-Worker: “It’s ok that he’s Arab, but why is hiding it from everyone? I don’t trust him.”

A Moral Dilema

My friend is now embroiled in somewhat of a moral dilemma as he now suspects his co-worker is:

a) severely misinformed/ignorant

b) racist against people of Middle Eastern descent

c) racist against people of African descent

I have no doubt that this woman is a competent employee who does a good job. But by sharing this side of her personality (in a non-work related context) has made her co-workers view her in a very different and unflattering light.

My friend ultimately chose not to argue with his co-worker but if we are supposed to fully express our beliefs no matter the consequence, shouldn’t he have spoken up to correct her? Would she have changed her mind if he did? If they had argued, would any lasting animosity affect their professional relationship?

The First Amendment

I understand that a central tenant of America’s freedom is the exercise of personal speech without persecution. As a blogger, I can acutely appreciate the gravity of losing this freedom and consider myself lucky that I an write whatever I want without fear of being jailed (like bloggers in Egypt, Malaysia or Morrocco.

However, any idea, no matter good/bad/right/wrong, will always be subject to critics. Let’s not discount that it’s much harder to have to work side-by-side with your critics everyday than to sit miles and miles away from them at a computer.

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The Separation of Work and State

With only three weeks to go before the November election, political campaigning by both politicians and their supporters has reached fever pitch. Hardly a day goes by where Americans are not being bombarded by news stories, television ads, campaign signs or election-themed chatter. A friend of mine was explaining that political activism was so pervasive at his office that people were decorating their cubicles with t-shirts, signs, buttons and other regalia from their preferred presidential candidate.

While no stranger to political water cooler talks, even with, or maybe especially with, those who disagree with me, I wonder: Is it appropriate to openly discuss politics at work?

This is a question some school administrators are currently grappling with. According to a recent New York Times blog,

“In Illinois, the state university ethics office stated in its newsletter that faculty are barred not only from wearing campaign buttons in the classroom, but also from placing political bumper stickers on their cars and attending political rallies on campus.”

I personally think the ban on bumper stickers is a little extreme. The real issue here is whether a teacher expressing a political affiliation in the classroom affects students’ behavior and output, much in the same way an employee might be inclined to voice support for a particular candidate to score points with their boss regardless of the employee’s true preference.

As author Stanley Fish points out,

“You don’t have to be taking up a collection for a candidate in order to make a pitch for him. A campaign button will do just fine, and the student who sees it day after day will wonder if it might be prudent to slant an essay in a certain direction.

And as for Cary Nelson’s point (which others also make) that if students can wear campaign buttons, why can’t teachers too, the answer is obvious: if I look out and see Heather and Kevin turning themselves into advertisements for a candidate, my behavior doesn’t alter at all; but if they look up and see me announcing where I stand, they might well alter their behavior in ways of which they are not even aware.”

Does a ban on expressing political affiliation at work violate our first amendment rights to express ourselves freely? Do the personal beliefs of others have an effect on our behavior? Where do we draw the line between personal expression and professional conduct? Is there a line? Should there be one?

As it gets closer to the election and I discover the political preference of friends, co-workers and family, I can’t help but notice that, whether we want it to or not, political preference says a lot about a person and their beliefs. Liberals are generally viewed as idealistic, socialistic, tree-hugging hippies. Conservatives are often seen as wealthy, anti-government and older.

Whether you agree with or conform to these stereotypes, your political preferences will most likely pigeonhole you into one of these groups and others will form opinions about you based on where you fit. To me, this is the danger in expressing personal beliefs in the workplace. It can take the focus from your professional accomplishments and redirect it on your personal life, no matter how brilliant you are at your job. That’s reason enough for me to consider keeping my campaign buttons at home.

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Are CEOs 275 Times Better Than The Rest Of Us?

“Greed is good.”

These immortal words, uttered by Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s 1987 smash hit Wall Street, were iconic of the go-go, Reagan-era 80s. The story of an ambitious young trader who gets caught up in a world of high-stakes trading and questionable ethics, gambles everything and loses it all has become as applicable today as it was 20 years ago.

The New York Times released a graph from an Economic Policy Institute study showing that executive salaries were 275 times the average worker’s salary in 2007, compared to only 28 times the average worker’s salary in 1970. (To see a visual representation of this graph, visit Portfolio.com).

In today’s dollars, if the average worker was pulling in $30,000 annually that would mean the average CEO would be making a whopping $8,250,000 per year.

Can someone really be worth 275 times more than someone else?

I’m sure most of us would agree that a CEO candidate usually brings more education and experience to their job than does the average worker, but do they truly bring 275 times more? Is the work that a CEO does worth 275 times that of the average employee?

A CEO is charged with making decisions both large and small. They lead the company, they have the ultimate say and absorb the responsibility of making the right decisions, all of the time. The fate of the company rests on their shoulders and they should be compensated accordingly. But a company is not a singular entity. One person alone could not run a fortune 500 business. Does not every employee from the executive in the penthouse to the receptionist in the lobby play a vital role in making a business successful?

As our members of congress hammer out one of the most massive government bailouts of private industry in our history, a major stumbling block to the negotiations has been whether or not to put caps on what some perceive as ballooning executive pay. If message boards are any indication, Americans are outraged at what they see as outrageously excessive compensation. Every article I read on the bailout or executive pay is accompanied by hundreds of comments, none of which defend executives. Why is the average American worker so angry?

In most businesses today I think there is a systematic de-valuing of the contributions of the average worker. While a high-priced consulting firm with years of experience and a brilliant portfolio may come up with extensively researched, strategically written customer service scripts to ensure maximum sales for a call center, it is the ‘lowly’ call-center employee who is on the phone with a dissatisfied customer, providing friendly voice, sympathetic ear and exercising their critical thinking skills to create a win-win situation for both the company and the client.

Yet, a call-center worker who spends all day everyday working the phones is treated to less respect, fewer benefits and lower pay than someone who spends their time “being creative” in an office with a view.

The American worker is angry because they are overworked, underpaid and disrespected. After watching corporate executives jump off a sinking ship with golden parachute strapped to their backs while employees and shareholders are left holding the bag (see the failure of my local bank, Washington Mutual), congress is now asking these displaced workers, these shareholders who are looking at their retirement accounts being gutted to pick up the pieces and bailout Wall Street.

I’m resigned to the fact that a bailout is necessary to keep our economy and financial sector from collapsing, but executive pay has skyrocketed beyond reason and it is time for those at the top to remember that no man is an island, and they can’t take singular credit for the efforts of many if they don’t plan to take the blame as well.

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Money is No Stand-In For Motivation

One of the first few posts I wrote on this blog chronicled a story about a pilot program in several New York City public schools that offered monetary or material incentives (such as ipods or gift certificates) to students for doing “typical” student tasks such as attending classes, completing homework assignments or achieving high scores on standardized tests.

Ronald Fryer, the head of one such project had this to say about the program in a January interview with U.S. News & World Report:

“Roland Fryer, a Harvard professor of economics, says it’s “absurd” to expect children who grew up in poverty, with parents who, for example, dropped out of school, to appreciate the value of education without giving them immediate rewards for taking school seriously. As the chief equality officer for New York City public schools, Fryer oversees a pilot program that pays students from low-performing schools $25 and $50 for doing well on standardized tests. “We’re not undermining this idea of learning for the love of learning,” Fryer says. “We’re trying to cultivate it by making education tangible for these kids.”

Eight months later the results are in:

Money does not singularly improve performance.

According to the New York Times, a similar program encouraging high school students to take and score highly on Advanced Placement exams has produced more test takers, but less high achievers than in the previous year (with no monetary incentive).

“Offered up to $1,000 for scoring well on Advanced Placement exams, students at 31 New York City high schools took 345 more of the tests this year than last. But the number who passed declined slightly, raising questions about the effectiveness of increasingly popular pay-for-performance programs in schools here and across the country.

Students involved in the program, financed with $2 million in private donations and aimed at closing a racial gap in Advanced Placement results, posted more 5’s, the highest possible score. That rise, however, was overshadowed by a decline in the number of 4’s and 3’s. Three is the minimum passing score.”

About 400 more students took the test this year this last, most, presumably, to have a shot at taking home about $1000. Yet, while they were motivated enough to show up, the students were unable to achieve a high enough score to pass, failing to achieve the desired effect.

Does money offer only enough motivation to try but not to succeed?

“I’m just dumbfounded that they can regard this as an achievement or as a great improvement or as something worth spending the money on,” said Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, who had expressed cautious support for the Advanced Placement program when it was announced last fall. “I’m surprised that that kind of money, that kind of incentives, doesn’t produce better results. It sort of undercuts the argument that the problem is the question of motivation.”

I tend to agree with Mr. Stern. In the business world, we are offered monetary incentives to show up to work everyday in the form of a paycheck. It’s enough to get people through the door everyday, but once they’re there, how does an employer get them to produce, achieve and excel? The employees may be motivated to do well but may lack the tools or skills necessary to achieve their goal, whether it be signing up new clients or discovering new revenue streams.

Offering a student $1000 to do well on a test but not ensuring that they have adequate preparation or good study habits sets many students up to fail. A student may really, really want that $1000, but, never haven taken an Advanced Placement test before, may not have figured out the best test-taking techniques, or found the material too challenging or just had an off day during the exam. In that case, the money would have been better spent on prepping the student rather than incentivizing them. Motivation wasn’t the missing piece in this equation, it was the skills and knowledge needed to score well on the exam.

My own experience with bonus programs in the workplace has been mixed. I once worked for a company that proudly boasted that its bonus program accounted for roughly 15% of total employee compensation. The bonuses were based on company wide financial projections and were handed out at the end of every quarter. After several quarters of poor financial performance many employees (including myself) were starting to get upset about the smallness of our paychecks. Complaining about it one night at dinner to a friend, who worked for an hourly paid wage and didn’t receive bonuses (but did get time and half for overtime), dismissed me without sympathy saying I was lucky to get a bonus at all.

My response was,

“How would you feel if you worked hard all quarter and then, because of circumstances out of your control, you only received 85% of your pay?”

Talk about de-motivating.

I think the real problem is that there is no one way to motivate everyone. Some people might find that extra money in their pocket enough to out perform others. Some might value the competition with other students/employees for top prize. And then others might put more emphasis on perks like flexible hours or free food. The trick for managers is to get to know their employees, find out what makes them tick, and then create an incentive that plays to their natural motivation.

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