Category Archives: Politics

Bureaucracy By Any Other Name

Postings on this blog have been spotty lately due to the fact that my home internet connection was out of commission for a good three weeks. I spent a good majority of that time hassling with my DSL provider which is a large, national, well-known telecommunications company (who shall remain nameless out of the goodness of my heart) while simultaneously trying to finish two major freelance projects. This was one of the worst customer services I ever experienced.

Some highlights:

  • Come home Friday to discover internet not working. DSL technician suggests modem is the problem before being disconnected and not returning my call.
  • Spend $90 on new modem. Internet still not working.
  • Deadlines looming. Spend several nights schlepping my laptop (which is not my main computer) to a friend’s house to piggyback on their internet and finish projects.
  • Attempt to set-up new internet service from different provider that promises easy, fast, same-day set-up. Service does not work. Still no internet.
  • Determined to fix internet situation, I call DSL provider not once, not twice, but three times. Spend over 90 minutes (I timed it) on phone without talking to a single human being. Internet still not working.
  • 90-minute phone call put me over my monthly cell-phone limit. Spend $25 on overage costs.
  • Consider switching to the one other national, well-known Cable internet provider that would cost  me $15 more per month.
  • Call DSL provider at work (because of course no one is there after 6pm) to cancel. Finally reach a human being who is repeatedly “dismayed” that I am not at home to troubleshoot problem.
  • Placated by offer to send live human technician to house to investigate for free (insisted this be noted on my account) I agree not to cancel service.
  • Customer service rep then attempts to ‘upsell’ me on other services. I tell her I’d rather they work on providing my current service before we talk about future services.
  • Week later technician appears at my house (had to take time off of work to let him in). Very nice man spends 2 hours fixing the issue (Internet works!). Confirm with him that I would not be charged for visit.
  • Two weeks later, receive monthly bill. Notice that bill is $112 more than usual. Check line-item breakdown and see that I have been charged for technician visit as well as phone service (which I don’t have).
  • Call customer service. Speak to someone two states over. Have charges removed from bill.

All told, I am out $115 dollars, 4.5 hours of my life and endured 3.5 weeks of undue stress and aggravation from having to deal with an uncaring, bloated bureaucracy whose sole purpose is to provide me a service and make me happy (epic FAIL).

Why share this story? Because many critics of healthcare reform claim that they do not want a government bureaucracy clogging up their access to their doctors and denying them treatment services. What I’ve tried to illustrate here is that bureaucracy is bureaucracy no matter who (government entity or private corporation) is paying the person on the phone whether it be a civil servant or a private insurer.

If free-market capitalism is supposed to promote better service through competition, why was my experience so horrible? And why doesn’t the competition provide better/cheaper/faster service?

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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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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More on Politics in the Workplace

Stanley Fish, the author of the blogpost I cited in last week’s post, has written a response to the some 300 comments he received on his New York Times blog following his post on whether teachers should be allowed to express their partisan preferences in the classroom.

You can read his full response here, and here is a sampling of his thoughts:

H.J. Boitel complains that “Fish never gets around to explaining why there is something wrong or unprofessional about a teacher passively communicating his or her political preferences.” It’s unprofessional because it’s not part of the job; it’s an extra that is not a plus, but a minus.

Academic freedom, as I have said many (perhaps too many) times is the freedom to do your job, the job of introducing students to materials and traditions with which they were unfamiliar and equipping them with the appropriate analytical skills. It is not the freedom to say anything you like on the reasoning that you are a person with constitutional rights. Sure you are, but your rights are not infringed because your full exercise of them is curtailed for those few hours when you discharge your professional responsibilities.

Are certain things taboo to discuss in the workplace? What things? Should there be a line between the personal and the professional?

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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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Palin and the Peter Principle

In response to last week’s highly anticipated Vice Presidential (VP) debate, many pundits, news outlets and other “media elite” have come out declaring VP candidate Sarah Palin’s performance “exceptional,” “winning” and all around “outstanding.” Having watched the debate myself last Thursday, I can’t help but wonder:

Were we watching the same broadcast?

Governor Palin openly refused to answer direct questions, obviously recited prepared statements (whether they were relevant to the topic of discussion or not) and has a tendency to ramble incoherently. Is this someone I’d hire in a job interview? No. She may “shoot from the hip,” but I’d much rather work with someone (even more so be represented by someone) who can think critically, listen to questions, answer them thoughtfully using concrete examples and facts (much in the way I feel Senator Biden did during the debate).

While I personally disagree with some of Governor Palin’s political views, and find the controversy that surrounds her career in Alaska questionable, I cannot discount the fact that she has been very successful in Alaska political office. Going from city council member to Governor in 10 years is quite a feat, with 80% approval rating to boot. But if she is so successful as governor and as sharp as her proponents claim her to be, why is none of this coming across during her Vice Presidential campaign?

The answer may lie in an obscure social theory known as The Peter Principle.

The Peter Principle, as defined by Wikipedia, states that

…in a hierarchy, members are promoted so long as they work competently. Sooner or later they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent (their “level of incompetence”), and there they remain. Peter’s Corollary states that “in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties” and adds that “work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.”

What Dr. Laurence J. Peter, author of the Peter Principle, claims is that most people will eventually move up the corporate ladder until they hit a performance ceiling and are unable to competently perform the duties of the job they now hold. (This is not to be confused with the Dilbert Principle which states that incompetent people, regardless of how poor their performance is, will keep getting promoted far, far beyond their ability level).

A killer salesman can be great at closing deals and bringing in sales, but once promoted, will flail at managing a cohort of his peers, finding that his no-nonsense approach which worked so well on customers isn’t working on his employees. A middle manager who takes great pains to connect and mentor her employees may find herself feeling disconnected and out-of-depth in a tough-decision, high-stakes arena of upper management.

Watching Governor Palin stumble through interviews and seeing how fiercely guarded she is by her handlers makes me think this woman has reached her “level of incompetence.” This is not to say that she is incompetent as a wife/mother/woman/governor, just not ready for the job of Vice President.

Blogger Penelope Trunk, asks

“Who is so arrogant to think that they could do better with just five weeks’ preparation?”

I think the question should not be, “who thinks they could cram better than Palin?” but “who is Palin to think she can cram for the job of Vice President?” Can one ‘cram’ for the second highest political office in the country? Does this mean a nurse can study like crazy for a month and become a doctor? Of course not. Can a student read the entire textbook in a week and take over as teacher? Well…maybe (no offense to quality teachers). But do we really want one of our highest political leaders to be practicing a “fake-it-till-I-make-it” approach ?

As the national election draws closer, I urge everyone to take a step back and really consider if you want style over substance (this goes for either ticket) for the next four years.

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