Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Grad School Diaries: Crossing the Road

As it turns out, the question isn’t so much “Why did the Graduate Student cross the road?” as it is “HOW did the Graduate Student cross the road?” Why is moderately obvious: the other side of this road is the location of a large shopping center that includes several places which sell food, including a Cracker Barrel, a Bob Evans, a Steak n’ Shake, a Subway, and a McDonald’s (just to name a few), whereas this side of the road only features the Pontiac dealership where we’ve taken our Torrent for service, and the waiting room here offers only a drink machine and a coffee pot. Unless we want to go hungry for the duration of however long it will take them to fix the car – and there’s really no telling how long that might be – we need to cross the road, which in this case is Saginaw Highway, in Delta Township just outside of Lansing. How we are supposed to manage this crossing is an entirely different matter…

It’s the middle of winter in Central Michigan, and while I’m pretty sure this road has sidewalks on both sides of it (I remember seeing them when we were here in the summer) no one is bothering to plow them, since there are no houses around here and no one is likely to walk along them. Except us, of course; even getting the corner where there’s a traffic signal on Saginaw will mean slogging through two or three feet of snow, and when we do get there the intersection does not feature a crosswalk or a walk signal. We’ll have to wait for the green light (which won’t be visible from this direction) and then run like heck for the other side, hoping that none of the oncoming drivers is in the mood to jump the gun and go while the light is still red...

It’s never the big things in life that change the way your existence actually unfolds; it’s always the little things. A year ago, I had never operated a snow thrower and cleared my driveway so that I could get to work; today it’s not even remarkable to me anymore; just something I do on particular mornings before heading off. A year ago I’d never had the experience of going to work in my parka, or of needing to suit up to go outside, even for a moment, even just to cross the street from my parking structure to the Business Complex. A year ago I’d never even owned a snow brush or an ice scraper, let alone carried one in the back of my car against the possibility of having to clear the windshield before I could drive away, let alone actually having done so. A year ago, a hat was something I wore to keep the bald parts of my head from burning in the sun, not to keep my body heat from escaping and my ears from aching with the cold. There have been a thousand little things like this, all of them trivial, all of the combined taking up only minutes out of my day, but collectively a complete change in my life and how I live it…

This is why a lot of people believe that kids should go away to college; “away” being defined as however far the speaker thinks one must travel to experience a different lifestyle and experiences that one’s home city, home state or home climate can not provide. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve lived somewhere outside of my childhood home; it’s not even the first time I’ve lived outside of my home state; my travels have taken me to much stranger and more far-flung places than this. But this time is different; this time I have committed to this place for four or five years, with no prospect of leaving early unless disaster strikes and I am unable to complete the doctoral program. And, just as importantly, this time I have no real prospect of ever going “home” again, whatever that might mean. Certainly, there is nowhere in Redondo Beach for me to go back to, and no sane reason to go. And even if I am successful, in that time just four years into the future and yet unimaginably far away, there is no telling where the winds of fortune may carry me next. Will it be a return to Southern California, a voyage to New England, or the Pacific Northwest, or the Atlantic Coast, or even somewhere else in the Midwest, possibly somewhere even colder and snowier than here?

I have no way of knowing. I’m adrift in an almost featureless white expanse of time, with no real choice but to put my head down and press on through the winds, hanging on to the belief that there really is an “other” side – and that somewhere over there, the promise of hot food and cold drink may still come true…

The Little Things

Most of the time, when you hear about a major corporation making a minor cost-cutting measure, the temptation is to laugh it off. A company that grosses hundreds of millions each year can’t really care about a wasted slice of lemon here or there, can it? I mean, unless you’re getting into six figures worth of money, why would it even matter?

Well, sometimes it does. Consider, for example, this story on UPI Online, which details a cost-cutting measure adopted by Southwest Airlines last week. According to the UPI account, flight attendants had been noticing for some time that at the end of the day they were ending up with a lot of leftover lemon slices on the drink carts. It may not sound important, but when you add up 3,200 flights a day (that’s over a million flights a year), even a few cents worth of waster fruit adds up. The company’s estimate is that they will save over $100,000 per year, just by not carrying lemons and just offering people a slice of lime instead. Which still doesn’t sound that important, until you consider that it isn’t costing them anything at all to get it; all of that money drops straight to the bottom line…

For some time now we’ve been seeing several different airlines making what appear to be trivial cost-cutting measures, and I’ve mocked them as much as the next person. It’s not so much the fact that going from an ounce of peanuts per customer to a half-ounce doesn’t actually save much money; as noted above, saving a few pennies at a time adds up if you do it several million times each year. My problem with these measures has always been that they annoy your customers by implying that you’re saving money by doing less for them. But Southwest’s lime versus lemon initiative is saving money in a sector of operations that the paying passengers will never even notice – the leftovers in the galley (or lack of them) at the end of each flight. It makes you wonder how many additional little nuggets of waste are wandering around each Southwest flight – and how many of them are things you’d never even notice unless you read about them in a UPI online article…

Which, of course, raises the same questions about other types of business. Fast-food companies introduced those little ketchup and mustard packets to promote the same kind of incremental savings by reducing waste, and if you really cared I could suggest a dozen similar innovations. Trimming a little bit off your operational costs every day isn’t usually that difficult, but doing so without violating the Second Rule of Business (e.g. without annoying your customers) is another matter. If you haven’t already considered how to achieve incremental savings in your own business, it’s probably worth taking a moment to do so, but I’m going to suggest that you take it one step farther and consider the cost-cutting measures you may already have taken. How many of them are true cost-cutting measures, things that will eliminate waste, and how many are things that will cost you as much in lost business as you save by cutting costs in the first place?

It’s probably worth taking another look at those programs. Oh, and while you’re at it, you should probably get the lime juice off your keyboard…

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Buy American?

Over the past few years I’ve had a number of arguments with people who seem to believe that, for whatever reason, they shouldn’t pay any attention to the 94% of Planet Earth that isn’t the United States. Some of it can probably be explained away as jingoistic nationalism, or willful ignorance (assuming there’s any difference between those categories), but some of it appears to be business people who genuinely believe that if your company has a purely domestic focus there is no reason you should ever consider what the various International markets are doing. It’s an amazing example of 18th or 19th Century thinking, and there’s no telling how many more companies it will do in over the next few years. And it doesn’t help that the people in Washington apparently don’t grasp this either…

As noted in this article from the Wall Street Journal Online last week, one of the provisions in our $787 billion economic stimulus package was a “Buy American” provision, which requires anybody receiving those funds to spend them on American-made goods (and services, one assumes) wherever possible. On paper, it looks like an entirely logical idea; since this is government funding, provided by America’s long-suffering taxpayers, as much of it as possible should be put back to work here, where it can provide jobs, stimulate the local economy, and hopefully help those same taxpayers to earn even more taxable income and keep the whole loop going. Unfortunately, this fails to take into account the fact that other countries (or at least the people who live in them) have feelings, too – and some of them are just as susceptible to jingoistic nationalism as we are…

The example given in the story is a firm doing business in both the United States and Canada, which is ideally suited for stimulus-package products, but is losing about 25% of its business because many of the Canadian cities and towns the company does business with are refusing to spend anything on American goods or services until this “discriminatory” practice is rescinded. While there’s no way to be sure how widespread this problem may become, the WSJ article notes that exports to Canada are down over $5 billion for 2009 – and the year isn’t over yet. Nor is there any way to be sure what other countries may also be curbing their spending on American-made products. All we know for use is that our country’s foreign trade imbalance has been a huge problem for several years now, and this is not going to help…

Of course, foreign trade relations has never been an American strong suit. From the early days of this country we seem to have been better at making excuses than at making healthy trade relationships. But in the 21st Century, it would appear that telling other countries that they should let us do whatever we want in foreign trade because we’re defending the free world with our nuclear arsenal, or because without us you’d all be speaking German (or Japanese), or because our manifest destiny demands that we be complete jerks to everyone that stands in our way, or that we’re still breaking free from the tyranny of King George, or any other lame excuse we can think of is no longer going to work. Whether the issue is pure food, product safety, or just being more diplomatic in how we phrase government money giveaway legislation, it might just be time for us to start caring about the International Markets…

Because, as I’ve noted before in this space, it doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in the Global Economy; the Global Economy believes in you. And if we don’t start being better neighbors, no amount of free money giveaways are going to stimulate our economy to do anything…

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Ethics of Privacy

It seems likely that most people would agree that they have some expectation of privacy when conducting private business transactions – like having their photographs developed, for example. While you don’t have any active protection along the lines of attorney-client privilege, most of us would be fairly upset by the idea of total strangers going through our negatives and deciding if our behavior seems beyond reproach. At the same time, most people would hope that if ordinary people working ordinary jobs run across potential evidence of a crime being committed that they would report it to the relevant authorities – especially if the crime in question is a particularly heinous offense, like child abuse or child pornography. But what happens when these two generally accepted principles come into direct conflict – possibly in the same news story?

If you missed it in the news aggregation sites this week, there was a case where a family had taken the memory stick from their digital camera to the photo counter at a large retail store near their home to get prints made from their vacation photos. Unfortunately, the memory stick also included bath-time pictures of the three kids (ages 2, 3 and 5), and one of the photo technicians noticed these, decided that naked pictures of small children were probably evidence of something, and alerted the child protective services in the jurisdiction. The authorities “investigated” the matter and wound up removing the children from the home for several weeks until it could finally be determined that there was nothing wrong, no crimes were being committed, and there was no reason to go on with the case (and no chance of prosecuting anyone). Which is pretty much the end of the matter, except for the lawsuits and the corresponding question about what (if anything) the retail business involved should do about the situation…

On the one hand, your employees have the same responsibility as any other citizen to report crimes they become aware of, and even if you could order them not to (you can’t) there’s an excellent chance they wouldn’t obey you. Nor would you want them to; the last thing your company needs is to have prevented employees from reporting the next 9/11 attack or similar outrage just because you want to avoid inconvenient lawsuits. But by the same token, you don’t really need to pay your personnel to go through customer pictures looking for evidence of crimes, and you definitely don’t need to have them see a few family photos, jump to conclusions, and get your store (or your corporation, or worst of all, you personally) sued into the process…

So the question seems to be, where do you draw the line? At what point does it stop being your employees performing their civic duty and become a matter of nosy idiots taking too much of an interest in things that are none of their business? How can you tell, months or years before the event actually arrives, how to set your corporate policy so as to avoid incidents of this type? In the long run, parents are going to continue taking the sort of naked baby pictures that feature in so many wedding albums (and other special events documents) twenty or thirty years later, and running the photo counter in a drug store or general merchandise store is going to remain one of the most colossally boring occupations imaginable. Eventually, inevitably, somebody is going to start looking through the batches of pictures just to stay awake, and they’re going to run into something that might just provide the opportunity to call the authorities and create some excitement…

Which means that, sooner or later, if your business has anything to do with customer media and under-paid employees, you are going to face this exact scenario. And even if you have given your personnel very clear instructions and careful training on how to handle these situations, it's still quite possible that your entire corporation's policy, conduct and financial future will be in the hands of some teenage employee with a deficient sense of perspective (or possibly humor). When that day arrives, how will you handle the case?

It’s worth thinking about…

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Don’t Look Now

I continue to be amazed at just how na├»ve some of the comments we keep hearing about the economy – and some of the more problematic aspects of it – really are. Take, for example, the media reaction to FBI Director Mueller’s statement to Congress that the Bureau’s mortgage fraud caseload is larger than it was just a few years ago, and that the number of cases under investigation is continuing to rise. How can that be? I hear people wondering in alarm. The Federal government is spending close to a trillion dollars to take care of this problem, major financial institutions have improved so much that they’re now able to start giving away tens of millions of dollars in bonuses every year again, and the Fed Chairman is talking about the Great Recession being over! How can the amount of mortgage fraud still be rising? Let alone corporate fraud (which is also up dramatically)?

You can read about these gloomy reports here if you want to, but if not, just take my word for it that during the worst financial crisis in three generations, there seems to be an increase in the amount of fraud going on. What puzzles me is why anyone is surprised by this, let alone the Director of the FBI, who is supposed to be one of the top-ranking law enforcement officials in the country. The fact that these numbers are continuing to climb since May of this year, when all of the bailout money had already been spent and the worst should have been over, is upsetting, to be sure, but hardly surprising. The fact that corporate fraud is still rising after all of those corporations have been given so much of our money is even more upsetting, but it’s important to remember that in both cases, the people who are getting all of the free Federal money are probably not the same ones committing all of the bonus fraud…

I say this for two reasons: first, while the initial phases of the bailout may have been laughable from an oversight standpoint, over the past few months Congress is taking a closer and closer look at where that money went, and when (and whether) it’s coming back; and second, because if you’re having the Feds stuff random gobs of money into your face, there’s both an incentive not to draw any more regulatory attention and a disincentive to put forth the effort to commit fraud in the first place. Neither of these was exactly the point of the TARP legislation, but the outcome is the same. What I do wonder about is the climate in which all of this crime is occurring. There was a time when mortgage fraud was a crime with limited appeal and an even more limited resistance to detection and punishment. But with all of the chaos in the financial industry these days, you have to wonder if more people are getting the idea that they could carve out a little Federal money for themselves – and how many of them are getting the idea that if the people who nearly destroyed our economy can get $10 million bonuses, that they deserve whatever they can carry away…

In the long run, I expect that our economy will survive all of the idiotic things that were done to it in the early years of the 21st Century, and that when high school students 80 years from now study the Great Recession, it will look just a quaint (and just as idiotic) as the Great Depression 80 years before that. If our culture has changed to the point where people in business start to believe that they are entitled to whatever they can screw out of the system, on the other hand, I seriously doubt if there will still be a country here in 80 more years. And I’m not so sure about the planet, either…

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Grad School Diaries: The Atlanta Transition

Here I am, locked in a life-or-death struggle with the doctoral program in Management at Michigan State University, surviving by the skin of my teeth, the good will of a few professors, and possibly by the grace of God, if one believes in a deity who looks out for secular humanists with very confused ideas about organized religion. By the closing weeks of the year 2008 I knew I had passed all of my classes, but that was about the best you could say for me; the first semester of the doctoral program is generally considered to be your best chance to impress your professors, and my performance had very clearly impressed no one. As I remarked at the time, I was very glad to be one of the 12 people who passed our all-important Methods class – I just wasn’t that crazy about being #12. The sane thing to do would have been to spend as many hours as possible in my office (or my study at home) between the semesters, divide my time between frantically trying to get ahead on the reading for the new semester and compulsively trying to memorize as much of the past term’s information as possible, and hope for the best. So of course, I’m spending the last week of the year in Atlanta, Georgia, hanging out with gamers half my age and helping to throw a really good New Year’s Eve party…

In fairness, I have spent a lot of time during this break working. I’m trying to get ready for an Independent Study project in Entrepreneurship for the new semester, and my advisor has me putting together readings from courses on this subject from all over the country. And there’s no question I need a break; anyone reading these posts probably already knows that my stress level has been ranging between “really bad” and “suicidal depression” for much of the fall, with occasional spikes into the “jumping around yelling ‘Ya-HA! Ya-HA!’ and pelting people with chunks of rump steak insane” level. I need a vacation, and this is more than just a trip back to the South; it’s a trip back in time, as well…

Twenty-five years ago I was in college for the first time, in what even I have to admit were unfocused and generally unproductive years. Much of the time I had no idea of what I wanted to do with my life, or even what the horizon of years beyond my bright college days would bring. Days passed when my biggest concerns were what kind of pizza to order for dinner, what role-playing game systems to invest my meager income on, and whether I’d get a date before the Big Crunch at the end of the Universe made the whole question academic…

It was glorious.

As much as I loved going to school in Santa Barbara, living on campus in dorm room that featured a view of the ocean, and being just “on my own” enough that no one ever told me to clean up my room, some of the best times in that period where when I returned to Los Angeles to hang out with my friends and game, and some of the best of those days were in a multi-generational game where the players included the young woman who would one day become my wife, and the (slightly) older gentleman who would one day become my father-in-law. It was impossible to imagine my own parents hanging out with a bunch of college-age gamers; they’d have been shocked (and bewildered) by the suggestion. I remember thinking, back in those days, that if my turn ever came, if I ever wound up being somebody’s parent, that this was the kind of person I wanted to be, and this was the role I wanted to take…

And now time has come full circle, and it IS my turn to be the older generation of gamer, still playing, still telling collaborative stories with nothing more than a few rule books and some polyhedral dice, still cool enough to actually be the kind of person you’d like to hang out with at a gaming party and maybe share a few tall stories with, both in and out of character. They say you can’t go home again, and undoubtedly it’s true; there is no way for me to return to my single dorm room in Santa Barbara, even if it’s still there, and even supposing that I wanted to go. But if you try hard enough, you might just be blessed enough to return a place and time that everyone else would have told you was gone forever – even if you have to do it as one of the old-school gamers with grey in his beard and jackscrews in his neck…

I’ll have to return to the present day, and all of the anger, frustration, desperation, fear, despair, rage and endless days and nights of effort soon enough. But for the next couple of days, at least, I’m going to hang out in the past. The year 1983 is a nice place to visit – even if you can’t actually go and live there…

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Don’t Complain

No, seriously; don’t bother complaining. At least, if you’re flying Delta Airlines and you have a complaint about any aspect of their service, including not taking you to the destination you’ve hired them to transport you to, losing your bags, taking forever to board or deplane an airplane, or even sitting on the tarmac for hours at a time waiting for an opportunity to take off, you shouldn’t bother trying to complain to the company. Because they’re definitely not listening; they apparently don’t even have a telephone line available to listen to you…

A story published this week in Time Magazine makes the surprising claim that Delta no longer has a customer service number, and requires all inquiries to the airline be made in writing, either by e-mail or by conventional mail. There is a company 800-number, but it’s used entirely for Frequent Flyer issues, and the Representatives assigned to it will just refer anyone with a conventional customer service issue to the website. American Airlines stopped taking customer complaints by telephone some time ago – considering some of the people they had working the phones, it’s probably just as well. And United Airlines apparently shut down their customer service lines just a few months ago – around the time I was asking why they even HAD a customer service department if they weren’t going to do anything to mollify their customers. Maybe I should be more careful about whom I mock…

Now, on the face of it such a policy seems like a clear violation of the Second Law of business (“Don’t annoy the customer!”) as well as all common sense. If someone is having a problem with your operation, telling them to send you an email and you’ll look into it really isn’t much help; they want someone to find their missing bag and tell them when it will be arriving, address the fact that they’re being harmed, or cheated or grossly inconvenienced and try to make it right, or at least reassure them that the company DOES care about their business and will attempt to take care of them. Complaints can be handled by email easily enough – problems that occurred hours or days earlier do not require immediate correction, and most people would be just as happy to register their complaint and then go do something while you process it. But when there’s an actual crisis – or even an ongoing problem – email is never going to replace a human voice…

Unfortunately, this appears to be the direction the entire industry is going. Customer Service Representatives are expensive, not least of all because each one of them can only really take care of one customer at a time. To handle the volume from a large customer base you need a large number of CSRs, along with a large number of telephones, computer terminals, desks, and an inconveniently large building in which to house them. This is the real reason so many call centers have been outsourced to countries where the labor and the real estate are relatively cheap, and why you can often find yourself talking with a guy with a thick Bangalore accent who says his name is Joe. But as previously noted with regard to baggage fees and charges for services that used to be free, budget cuts and petty nickel-and-dime fees are not going to save any company, let alone an entire industry, from financial destruction…

Perhaps in the long run the airlines can find some way of making this new business model work. Maybe they can incorporate text messaging or Instant Messenger services into their online customer service sites and create a text-based immediately available service model. Maybe people will grow to appreciate not having to deal with different accents and crappy telephone connections and instead getting clear, easy-to-read replies on the screen. Maybe the reply time for email or text message replies can be brought down to a few minutes, which would definitely be better than waiting on hold for the next Representative for two or three hours…

But in the meanwhile, if you need to complain about something, you’d best get ready to put everything in writing – and keep a copy…

Monday, September 7, 2009

It Could Be Worse…

It seems appropriate that this post will run on Labor Day 2009, given the subject matter. Of course, since this is a web log and not a newspaper column, I can make anything run any day I want it to, which makes it easier for me to time this sort of thing than it would be for a real columnist. But it still seems appropriate to have a column about miserable working conditions pop onto your web browser on Labor Day, so for the next few hundred words, if you’d care to imagine me as a crabby, middle-aged man with a bad complexion and a beer gut wearing a fedora with a “Press” ID stuck in the hatband, crouching over an ancient manual typewriter and grumbling quietly as I slam out this story, please feel free. I’d still be doing better than the poor bastards who appear in the news account I’m going to hot-link in a minute…

People who believe that being a commercial pilot must be exciting, glamorous, or at least nice work if you can get it may want to skip the rest of this post and wait for the next Grad School Diaries installment on Saturday. As noted in this story from the The Associated Press quoted by SF Gate online, 62 pilots and flight engineers from a Florida-based air freight company went on strike last week protesting the fact that their employers do not provide restrooms for them onboard their aircraft. It seems that these old 727 cargo conversions had everything stripped out of the original cabin, including the lavatories, leaving the crews with nothing but plastic zip-lock bags to relieve themselves in. And you thought your office restroom stank…

Now, in fairness, relief bags of this type (usually with a small sponge in the bottom to help with containment) are commonly used by military pilots assigned to make long flights in aircraft without restrooms, but it should be noted that many military aircraft have no where to put a restroom in the first place. These old 727s originally mounted several lavatories and the support systems to operate them, and we must assume that the freight company had them removed to save on weight and space. Moreover, while military flights in single-seat or two-seat aircraft may sometimes last as long as 18 hours, very few such pilots will be subjected to regular 18-hour shifts in peacetime – a practice the striking pilots describe as the rule, rather than the exception on their jobs. They also note that after 18 hours with a crew of three and nothing but zip-lock bags for sanitation, the inside of the aircraft can get a bit unpleasant…

Why, exactly, the freight company thinks this is a good idea is not addressed by the article linked above. Certainly, every pound of equipment you can remove from the airplane means more payload you can carry and less spent on fuel, but even the military will provide pilots with a chemical-pack toilet (like the one in an RV or camper) whenever there is room to do so, and there’s no doubt that the company is not coming off very well in the press accounts of this issue. To say nothing about the striking pilots or the potential loss of business if more of their personnel join the revolt…

I point all of this out to you not, as usual, because I believe that anyone following this blog (assuming anyone follows this blog) would be daft enough to believe that their employees would be okay with 18-hour shifts every day, let alone 4-hour turn-around times between shifts or plastic bags for lavatory functions, but rather to illustrate the point that decisions that make sense on paper don’t always work well in practice. The fact is, I’ve worked 18-hour (and 20-hour and 25-hour) shifts without overtime pay, had to go back to work after only 4 or 5 hours off, and worked under conditions where a plastic bag would actually have been a step up over our sanitary facilities – and every one of those companies has been destroyed by the competition, driven out of business by employee lawsuits, bankrupted by boycotts, shut down by government regulations, or all of the above. So the next time you have a great money-saving idea, remember to think it through…

Happy Labor Day, everybody!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Ethics of Down Time

In some of my earlier posts in this space I’ve already commented on the need to handle employee paid leave (vacation days, sick days, and paid holidays) fairly and even-handedly. It may seem incredible, at times, that anyone is still arguing the other side of this issue; leaving aside the legal, social and regulatory aspects of paid leave, even a purely pragmatic view should be sufficient to confirm that denying your workers time off with pay will result in lower productivity, poorer worker relations, and increases in such undesirably behavior as shirking and employee vandalism. But what happens when the people requesting time off don’t have a doctor’s note or a religious observance they need to perform? What if it’s just a matter of needing a couple of days off?

If your immediate reaction was to roll your eyes and mutter something about giving people inches and seeing them take miles, you’re not alone. Anyone who has ever managed a group of workers knows that there are always going to be people on the crew who are going to regard any benefit you offer as an attempt to squeeze anything extra they can get out of the company, just as there are always going to be those people who have to observe the Feast Day of Saint Monday (better known as calling in with a hangover) multiple times every month. But what about cases where somebody has put in three straight weeks of 80 or more hours trying to finish a project on time, or people who are not eligible for stress leave even though they’ve been through a rough experience on the job? What is a manager supposed to do in those cases?

The obvious answer in these cases is to use comp time if you have it, but many employers do not have a comp time program, and in many cases union agreements, offset shift arrangements, or remote supervision issues would make one impossible. It’s sometimes possible to give somebody a day (or even an afternoon) off in a purely informal sense; telling them to go home and marking their time card as present, or clocking out for them, or whatever, but this brings up the problems of other members of the work group resenting this “special” treatment and the fact that this tactic is technically perjury (falsifying in-house attendance documents). And if the person receiving this special consideration is perceived as the office brown-nose (if the other members of the work group believe that you are arranging your assignments so that workers you particularly like get to have more time than everyone else) the overall effect on the group is likely to be even worse than just offering your stressed-out worker a few hours off the books…

Of course, the best solution would be to distribute the assignments so that no one is pulling significantly more work than anyone else while building the team up to the point that when someone who reports to you is experiencing a serious problem, the other members of the work group will suggest that you give the affected teammate the day off even before you think of it. Backing this up with either a comp time program or a discretionary budget (something that allows you to do overtime pay or special merit rewards for off-the-clock work hours) that you spread around evenly would be even better. But the situation is still going to come up every so often when you have the choice between doing what’s best for your employees, and following the company’s attendance (and compensation) policies. When that happens, what will you choose?

It’s worth thinking about…

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Grad School Diaries: Santa-tized For Your Protection

It’s time. I take a deep breath and stand up. “Ladies and gentlemen!” my voice booms out, cutting through the hundred or so people talking at once. “The First Year Cohort proudly presents our interpretation of Clement Moore’s classic poem ‘A Visit From St. Nicholas,’ better known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas!’”

I hit the play button on the remote, and our video segment comes up on the big screen behind me. Now I just have to read the poem in the cadence we’ve rehearsed in advance, which should time the words to the images on the screen, and the rest should be a walk. My cohort and I will have completed our first semester as doctoral students and we can all go home and sleep. Or whatever we like, I suppose…

Finals Week was every bit as grueling as we’d thought it might be; even without an actual final in HR I still had two exams, and our Methods final was even worse than they told us it would be. But unless my luck is a lot worse than it has been so far, I should at least have passed everything. Which means that if I can just make it through another 56 lines of poetry I’m done with that critical First Semester and ready to move on to my next mind-boggling challenge. Still, I wonder…

I know I’ve complained too much about the process; the lack of direction or feedback; the monumental workload and break-neck pace; even the absurd, hazing nature of the exercise I’m currently involved in. Was that wrong? Should I not have done that? I’m infamous for not suffering fools lightly, if at all, but is that really what I’m doing? With no way of knowing what’s a fiendishly clever test of my intellect (or character) and what is simply the sort of bureaucratic inertia common to every large organization, how am I supposed to know when I’m out of line?

“And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!” I declaimed with a flourish, and waved out into the audience.

On cue, my friend and counterpart, the other Large White Guy in the cohort comes in, doing Santa’s voice as he calls to the team of reindeer. No one outside the Cohort knew he was going to speak, and his booming delivery makes at least half of the audience jump. It’s a tricky performance, jumping into the cadence, but my friend makes it look easy, matching his lines exactly with the images of various creatures being waved on long sticks on the screen. The first of these is actually a picture of a reindeer, but the others wander all over the map, including a donkey, a pig, a duck, and actor George Clooney. The audience laughs, and at all of the correct moments, I’m pleased to say…

Still, I wonder. Is it arrogant of me to think that I could have anything to add to this process; that my opinion as an example of the lowest form of Academic life could carry any weight in how this passage should be conducted? I’m not just some 20-year-old rebel (without a clue) anymore; management has been my profession for over 20 years now, and whatever one may think of my abilities as a scholar, in my working life I was actually quite good at my job. I would never be so arrogant as to challenge the scholars assembled in this room on any matter of theory or empirical proof, but does that mean my opinions are as invalid as they are irrelevant?

Looking out into the audience I can see at least three people whose work I would cite if I were actually insane enough to raise such objections; whose own words would disapprove of many of the things we’ve enduring on this journey and whose own scholarship would support the conclusions I have drawn. It’s all too likely that once upon a time I would simply have been a malcontent newcomer, looking to assert my value (or at least my understanding) by claiming to know more than the experts. But I have not been that petulant child for many long years now; I have come so far and learned so much, and now I am beginning to understand the theory behind that hard-won practical knowledge. If you asked me to, I could indeed explain all of the complaints I have made using the actual theory that underlies our field of study – and I could use the work of many of those listening to support my argument…

And in that moment, I know that the process is real, and that like all of the rest of my cohort, I too have been changed by our journey through the fire. Some of what we’ve been through is clearly part of the process of making new scholars; some of it is almost certainly not, unless these people are far more Byzantine than they appear to be. But which part is which, and how will we ever know where to draw the line? How much of the medium IS the message, and how much of this process is real? I suppose we’ll never really know; even if we are one day tasked with making new scholars ourselves, we can’t ever be sure about this passage itself. But there is no longer any doubt that all of us are starting to learn how to ask the questions. Even me…

“But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,” I conclude, as the rest of the cohort get to their feet and brace themselves.

“Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night!” we all bellow in unison.

Applause breaks out all over the room. Our last challenge of First Semester is over, and we have survived it. We have a few weeks to rest, recover, and prepare ourselves. Because we already know: the next semester will be harder…

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Let the Reader Beware

The admonition “don’t believe everything you read” has been an American staple for at least 100 years at this point; its roots run back into such evergreen legends of our culture as William Randolph Hearst’s famous telegram “you furnish the photographs, I’ll furnish the war!” In modern times we have had to deal with both deliberate misquotes (Al Gore never actually claimed to have invented the Internet) and complete fabrications (such as the supposed “Kenyan Birth Certificate” belonging to our current President – which turned out to be a badly Photoshopped version of an Australian birth certificate, and was a huge surprise to the Australian man whose birth certificate it actually was!), both of which are made worse by the existence of the Internet. The current equivalent, “You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet,” is no longer a cynical commentary on the scruples (or lack thereof) possessed by newspaper publishers, but more of a simple statement of fact…

Take, for example, the much-quoted and often-blogged case of the 14-year-old hip-hop pioneer who was cheated out of most of her earnings by a crooked record company but got revenge by making them pay for her college education, all of the way through her Ph.D. (variously reported as $200,000, $250,000 and $350,000 in tuition). It’s a heart-warming story, both because it tells the tale of a young woman escaping crushing poverty and achieving a respected place in the world, and also because it tells the tale of an evil, greedy corporation (no doubt run by evil, greedy white men) getting its comeuppance for trying to cheat said plucky, accomplished young woman. The problem is that the whole thing is a complete fabrication…

The story about the story first broke in Slate.com, but has now been picked up by a number of other news organs as well. It turns out that the artist in our story never had a contract with Warner Music Group, that Warner Music has never signed a contract of the type described in the original article with anybody, and the young woman in question does not have a doctorate in anything OR a license to practice as a Psychologist or anything else. It accomplished the 21st Century equivalent of selling newspapers (generating web page hits, blogs and tweets) but otherwise has no excuse for existing in the first place. Except, perhaps, as a clear warning that believing everything you read is just as unwise as it ever was…

I mention this, not because I believe that any of my readers (assuming I have readers) is about to fall for any of the Nigerian bank fraud scams, or anything equally stupid, but rather because of this story which appeared on the Internet on the same day as the Slate piece debunking the “rapper’s revenge” story. It’s a highly incendiary account of the President of Iran and his “chief spiritual advisor” giving a press conference about how the use of torture and rape, in particular, on political dissidents and other prisoners is not only okay, but condoned by Islam and will bring great rewards to those who do it properly. All of this would be much more upsetting, however, if the news agency making the report wasn’t the INN; the Israeli News Network…

Now, I certainly don’t mean to impugn the integrity of the INN, or suggest that this story isn’t accurate; I’m just pointing out that all of the sources they quote in the article are Israeli news agencies and intelligence groups, and that all of these entities have a vested interest in making the current Iranian regime look as horribly evil as possible. This story could be absolutely correct, with all of the quotes translated verbatim from the original and fully documented, and anyone who is less than completely pro-Israeli (or less than completely anti-Iranian) might still find it difficult to believe. Which is kind of the point of this current rant: in the Internet age, it isn’t wise to automatically believe OR disbelieve anything you read without checking your sources (and those used to write the story); the traditional warning of “Let the buyer beware” has become “Let the reader beware…”