Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Still No Words For This

I’ve mentioned before that sometimes when I’m surfing through the various news sites online I’ll come across a news story – usually something being breathlessly reported as astonishing and novel – that is so obvious that words fail me and it’s all I can do to keep from posting what would end up being the word “duh!” repeatedly for several hundred characters. Once such story turned up on the local news station serving Salinas, California’s website regarding a company called Green Vehicles. According to the site, this company had set up operations in Salinas two years ago and was planning to start manufacturing electric cars – three-wheeled vehicles in the same general class as a Smart Car or Mini, but running entirely on rechargeable batteries. It offered the possibility of dozens, if not hundreds, of new jobs for the economically depressed area, and at least the potential for turning Salinas into a center for electric vehicle production. Impressed with the company, the City government decided to pour over a half-million dollars into the project…

Now, even before I finish mocking the City of Salinas, you’ve probably already figured out what happened, haven’t you? Sure enough, the company went under after the grant money ran out, without establishing much of anything except a bad reputation for the “founder” and the city that was na├»ve enough to shell out money for a high-risk start-up company like this. But the real point here isn’t that it will take time to enter the automotive market, even with proven technology, let alone something as exotic as a three-wheeled plug-in-only vehicle. Nor is it that despite the ink that zero-emission vehicles and vehicles using alternative power sources are getting, neither the State of California nor the Federal government has allocated any real capital to support entrepreneurs in this field. It’s not even the fact that Salinas is a backwater (several hours from anywhere), or that without either personal or brand awareness even marketing this product would have been a huge challenge…

No, the punch line to this story is when the founder is quoted as saying that the reason the company ultimately failed is a lack of capital. This isn’t quite as dumb as saying that the sun came up this morning because of the rotation of the Earth – there are, in fairness, many other ways that a fledgling company can be made to fail. However it is only fair to point out that there is no way to keep a fledgling company in business once it has expended all available capital. Most companies have only a limited time before they must either start turning a profit or go under; a point beyond which their initial capital will not be able to sustain them. In such a case, bankruptcy follows as surely as the night following the day, and no matter how hard the local news attempts to paint it otherwise, even an imbecile should have been able to tell that this would happen unless the company had raised enough money to sustain itself until it began to break even on product sold…

I can’t tell from the news story what the local government was thinking – if they assumed that the entrepreneurs running the company knew what they were doing, or that the company would be able to sell stock and take our loans as it went along, or that the demand for these new products would be so huge that even a few sales would sustain the company’s operations. You and I weren’t there during the pitch meeting, so we really don’t know whether the city representatives were credulous fools or if the entrepreneurs sincerely believed that they could get the job done, or if there is some other explanation altogether. All I know for sure is that if that was my tax money, I’d be calling for the firing of the people who made the grant decision – and that if any of them materially benefited from the award, I’d be calling for them to be jailed…

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Ethics of Quitting

Here's a hypothetical that has come up a couple of times over the years - and is called to mind by some recent events. Imagine for a moment that you are working for an organization when you become aware that a co-worker is being treated in a way you find inexcusable. To the best of your knowledge, there are no actual laws being broken, so you can't report these shenanigans to the authorities, and you are not the party being wronged, so you can't sue the company, file complaints with the Board of Labor, or take any other civil action - at least, not directly. However, you do not have any high-level standing in the company (you're not an executive, a member of the Board, or a major stockholder) so your ability to influence the people who are responsible for these outrages is effectively nil. What are you going to do about the situation?

First of all, you could attempt to bring the situation to the attention of someone who does have either the power or the influence to do something about it. This could mean going to higher management (assuming that the CEO isn't the one directly responsible for the situation), talking with the organization's ombudsman (if you have one), or bringing union personnel (if either your position or that of the affected individual is represented). Alternately, you could attempt to gain support from a major customer (if your organization is a for-profit company) or a major donor (if it's a non-profit agency); if it's a political organization you might even be able to gain support from leadership in another jurisdiction or drum up grassroots support for your co-worker in your local district. If you work in academia, however, these options may not be viable - particularly if the antagonist in your case has tenure, and especially if you do not...

A second possibility is to attempt to gain support from multiple people at different levels of the organization. At its extreme this means creating a new union, but most of the time one can achieve some results by the use of petitions, letters of support, or various expressions of solidarity. Even the most autocratic leader knows that an organization must have contribution from its members in order to accomplish its purpose; if management could do all of the work by itself it would not need employees in the first place. Bad morale leads to lower performance; therefore bad morale is bad for business, and openly defying the wishes of your employees can easily lead to poor morale. At the very least, disaffected workers are unlikely to contribute their best possible efforts to the company, and most of the time it's not that difficult for other workers to see that poor treatment of one of their colleagues means that they could be poorly treated as well. Still, in a soft economy, this isn't always enough to keep management from acting like short-sighted idiots...

In extreme cases, of course, one can quit the company, citing injustice, loss of respect for management who could act in such a fashion, concern over possibly sharing the fate of the unjustly-treated worker, or other factors in one's resignation. But if you need the job to survive, or if the job market in your area is highly depressed, it may not be advisable for you do do this; if you are dependant on the job for survival you may not be able to advocate, agitate, or lobby against injustice or in favor of your co-worker, either. But if you fail to take action, management, your coworkers (including the one being abused), customers, vendors, and other takeholders may all get the idea that you approve - or at least support - management's abuse of your coworker...

So should you risk your own financial/economic survival and quit? Should you risk termination and a possible blackball by all related industries for organizing a Union or Guild? Should you risk your good name and reputation, not only with your management but with the rank-and-file of your company as a whole, and attept to call in help from higher echelons? Or should you just stay there and take it, even though you know that the way your co-worker is being treated is wrong, and even though it makes you gnash your teeth with rage?

It's worth thinking about...