Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Shareholder Activists Scrutinize CEOs
Shareholder activism is growing rapidly, partly due to recent SEC rules and Sarbanes-Oxley regulations that require greater public disclosure of executive compensation and other expenses. But it is also growing because the public is more aware, not just of corporate fiscal abuse, but of the expanding power of corporations and their role in the world. One shareholder activist, cited by the article at the link below, is a college undergraduate who wants his alma mater to use its influence as a major shareholder of Chevron to help end pollution in Ecuador. Many other shareholder activists are trying to influence corporations in which they hold stock to promote similar social aims, but one of the largest motivations right now is to restrict CEO pay. Such concerns have generated 239 shareholder proposals this year, up from 175 last year. As CEO pay continues to rise, the number of such initiatives will no doubt increase.
Although both large and small shareholders have a say in corporate governance, influence is weighted and small shareholders have, individually, very little power. As the article says, "corporate America is no democracy." Nonetheless, individual shareholders can effect change indirectly, "by having an association with an institution and influencing them to take action."
Many organizations are willing and eager to show shareholder activists the ropes. Labor unions, the Sierra Club, and Amnesty International are teaching shareholders tactics and strategies for influencing powerful institutions to act on their behalf. The vast power of corporations can be a tool for good even beyond the narrow realm of keeping costs down and increasing stock prices. By globalizing their operations, American corporations have unwittingly made themselves accountable to what happens all over the world, and can use their international clout to improve millions of lives both abroad and at home. The director of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, Rev. Michael Hoolahan, says, "We see a burgeoning movement [in shareholder activism]... There are many, many new voices [over] what there were 10 years ago. It's really blossomed."
The cardinal rule for all budding shareholder activists is never to throw away their proxy ballots. These can be the seed of power. "It remains disappointing to me how much the average guy remains oblivious to the fact that the major force shaping public policy in America is the corporation," says a Washington area consultant. "And the one time that the average guy has something to say about that, he is throwing that chance into the trash."
"Activists put CEOs in a fishbowl" from The Christian Science Monitor
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Job Networks For Older Workers
Two of the articles at the links below discuss local job networking clubs for the dinosaurs of the business world - i.e., white collar workers over 40 years of age. I found it interesting that they both appeared about the same time, referring to separate organizations in different parts of the country.
One group, the Northwest Indiana Professional Network, is dedicated to generating job leads and providing job search advice to its members. According to the article anyone can join, but it "targets white-collar professionals over 50." Another such group is Job Club in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. It is run by the county employment services agency, and to qualify potential members must have been "laid off through no fault of their own." Like the network in Indiana, which as yet has only 20 members, the Job Club has only about 50 members. Their average age is around 50. Louis Uchitelle, author of The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences, spoke to this group recently. He emphasized that layoffs and downsizing flourish in "a culture of indifference", and are pursued as a routine procedure to reduce corporate labor and health care costs. Despite their routine nature, layoffs and downsizing are profoundly destructive to those who experience them, causing them to doubt their self-worth and to blame themselves for their fate when they are, in fact, blameless.
Job Club is a kind of job-hunting boot camp that requires members to "sign a contract and meet 35 hours a week" at a local business conference center. They receive training on job-hunting skills, which includes grueling tasks like "making 25 cold calls a day to prospective employers." Some might dismiss this as remedial tough love for a bunch of soft old coots, while those of us with any justice in our souls will recognize it for the much needed grassroots activism that it is. Let such clubs spread like wildfire across America.
I've also provided a link to an article in Career Journal that lists employment networks and other organizations for workers over 55 years of ago who want (or need) to continue working. These include:
YOURENCORE.COM - Sponsored by Eli Lilly, Procter & Gamble, Boeing, National Starch & Chemical Co., 3M Co. and Ethicon Inc., this website seeks to match retired engineers, scientists and managers with possible opportunities at the sponsor companies or at others. Most of these appear to be contract opportunities, but some of them are salaried.
SENIORS4HIRE.ORG - This network serves 182,000 job seekers age 50 and up, with an employer base of 550 companies offering more than 20,000 jobs in the domestic United States. These companies pay a small annual fee to post openings on the site, but members can browse these postings for free.
ENRGE.US - This is an employment network for former U.S. government employees who wish to work in private industry. The network maintains a resume database, which 42 employers thus far have paid $1,000 per year to browse. Most of the jobs offered "tend to be contract-based."
SENIORJOBBANK.COM - This online network has been around since 1999, but has recently acquired momentum under new management. Approximately 5,000 visitors a day visit the site, and as many as 200 jobs may be available at any given time. The jobs offered appear to be short-term and contract-based, as the founder of the company that runs the site says, "We are targeting middle-class people over 50 who need a little extra income."
DINOSAUR-EXCHANGE.COM - This is a relatively low volume website, but does offer the novelty factor of offering jobs in Europe and elsewhere.
"Networking group helps professionals in job market" from Post-Tribune (Indiana)
"First rule of Job Club: Don't mention your age" from Lancaster Online (Pennsylvania)
"Online Job Networks For the 55-Plus Crowd" from Career Journal
Monday, February 26, 2007
Office Aches And Pains May Affect Younger Workers Most
According to a survey conducted by the stapler company, Swingline, 66 percent of American office workers suffer from physical injuries acquired on the job. Such injuries affect younger people in record numbers, due to the heroic sitzfleisch they endure in their efforts to move up the ladder. In fact, it is scarcely unusual for medical professionals to see patients with these maladies as young as 22. The main cause of these physical injuries is simply too many hours on the job. A third of American workers are putting in longer hours. 62 percent work more than 50 hours, 35 percent work more than 60 hours, and 10 percent work more than 80 hours a week. Such ridiculous work hours spent making repetitive motions while otherwise remaining almost completely immobile result in injuries that, according to a physical therapist with 23 years experience, are "one of the biggest problems I've encountered." Another therapist asserts, "The number of young people seeking treatment for these workplace injuries is huge." She adds, "Many are at the beginning or the peak of their career, so they're putting in long hours just sitting at their desks. From what I can see, senior citizens are actually more active than the average office worker."
Here are some common workplace injuries for the white collar crowd. I won't describe what they are, as their names are already quite self-descriptive. Nonetheless, I will pass on ways to avoid them.
1) BlackBerry Thumb - To avoid this, just don't overdo it. Give your thumb a rest at regular intervals.
2) Tech Neck - To avoid this, don't hunch over - sit up straight. A good massage helps though, once you are diagnosed.
3) Mouse Wrist - To avoid this, move the mouse closer to the keyboard, or beg for a more ergonomically correct model.
4) Cellphone Rash - To avoid this, clean your cellphone with alcohol or disinfectant on a regular basis. Can be treated by exfoliation or dermabrasion.
5) Carpal Tunnel Syndrome - To avoid this, keep your keyboard at waist level. And, believe me, you will want to avoid this.
6) Computer Vision Syndrome - To avoid this, use a glare filter, take breaks from staring at the screen, and change your position regularly.
"A Pain In The Neck" from The New York Post
Sunday, February 25, 2007
Job Stress Is Heating Up Europe
Job stress, American-style, is heating up the officescapes of Europe. According to the article at the link below, job related stress, depression and anxiety resulted in 10.5 million lost work days last year alone. Another study found that at least 40 million workers in 15 European Union nations suffered from work stress, costing their employers $26 billion annually. Medical research discovered that job strain increases the risk of cardiovascular illness by 2.2 times, and the Samaritans - a charity that aids people in extreme psychological crisis - report that a third of those surveyed drank to excess to relieve job anxieties, while only 23 percent did so in 2003.
Experts believe the stress is caused by increased pressure from employers to work harder and for longer hours, with individuals frequently handling jobs that would have been performed by two or more workers in the past. Increased job mobility has also eroded the sense of community at many corporations, undermining the social support system that would otherwise have helped workers get through periods of high anxiety. Management, of course, "encourages" such overwork. According to UCL psychology professor, Stephen Palmer, "In industries like oil and banks you have companies that are making billions. There's no excuse for them to treat their staff like this."
All the whip-cracking could well backfire. Unreasonable treatment of loyal employees makes corporations vulnerable to high profile lawsuits and negative publicity, like the recent suit brought by a former Intel employee, a 13 year veteran who experienced a nervous breakdown when forced to do the job of two people and who repeatedly informed her bosses that she was overstretched. The courts eventually ruled in her favor - which should be a warning to all American companies who would apply hell-for-leather New World methods to civilized Old World people. Experts in the UK and elsewhere advise the creation of corporate stress workshops, and the expansion of flexible hours and telecommuting. Escalating work stress is the societal equivalent of global warming, and unless something is done soon we will all drown in its rising waters.
"The Workplace: U.S.-style work stress is spreading to Europe" from International Herald Tribune
Saturday, February 24, 2007
The Tragic Problem Of Email Addiction
Here is an amusing article about Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD). This is a dependence on email so profound that some addicts get upset if they don't get a response to their emails in two minutes, while others will spend more time when they're away on vacation checking their email than seeing the sites. Tragic. I am myself quite addicted, so I know all too well the ravages of this particular malady. It is unfortunate that most email is scarcely worth the trouble. Businesses claim that they are losing "zillions" of dollars in man hours spent sending and receiving emails, and that is no doubt the truth. But corporate culture itself becomes more a part of the problem than the solution when it inundates the inboxes of employees and managers alike with cc'ed emails of questionable relevance, and encourages employees seated just yards apart to email each other rather than get up and talk face to face.
The article includes an anecdote about "CrackBerry addicts" - American workers so enslaved by the BlackBerries issued to them by their employers that they are suing their companies for ruining their lives. It also describes the plight of a British banker "pitifully grateful" for a BlackBerry that enabled his employers to tack on two extra hours to his already 14-hour day by allowing him to conduct email both to and from work on his long commute. As for another UK BlackBerry addict, "his exaperated wife hurled his wretched gadget out of the window, but this merely sent him shinning down a pipe to retrieve it. He returned cradling it as if it had narrowly survived a plane crash."
What to do? Some companies have instituted "No Email" days, but in case your employers are not taking your addiction seriously, here are "12 steps to recovery":
1) Admit that email has you by the gonads, and resist the urge to check your inbox every ten minutes.
2) Keep your inbox as empty as possible.
3) Segregate emails into folders where they can be disposed of in an organized fashion.
4) Give your folders sensible and descriptive names.
5) Deal quickly with emails "that can be handled in two minutes", but "create a file for" (or folderize) emails requiring more thought before responding.
6) Set dates on which to clean out your inbox, and a set time in which to complete the task.
7) Turn off automatic send/receive. (Presumably this would be more appropriate for broadband customers who are online continuously. Such is not my problem.)
8) Set aside a particular time of day to review email.
9) Seek help from others with your addiction.
10) Reduce the amount of email you get. (Spamblockers will help with this no doubt. So would the misanthropic approach of limiting the number of your email acquaintances.)
11) Restrict emails to specific individual topics. Delete what I would call the "reply trail" in email responses or forwardings. (This is especially important when you're responding to an ongoing discussion on a message board or public mailing list.)
12) Rejoice in your measured and vigilant new approach to the email scourge.
Hmm... Me, I'm waiting for the TV show Intervention to tackle the heart-breaking issue of "email addiction".
"Are you an email addict?" from The Telegraph (UK)
Friday, February 23, 2007
There's A Worm In This Apple For The Teacher...
Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Computers, wants to consign teachers' unions to the trash bin of history, and make it so that teachers can be fired at will. Just like white collar employees in that citadel of enlightenment, The Corporate World. His rationale is that only bad teachers will ever be fired, and the weeding out process that results will improve the quality of teachers nationwide. Competition will rule, he believes, just as it does in The Real World. He does not seem to realize that public education is a non-profit activity, the function of a society's obligation to educate its young. It is something that must be done, not something that people do to make a lot of money or become famous. Teachers will never be competitively paid, if the truth be known. Teaching is a calling, not a paycheck. In fact, the efforts of teachers' unions to ensure that teachers have some job security and a living wage are among the few means the profession has for attracting talented young people into its ranks. You do away with even those minimal perqs, and you will chase people away - not draw them in.
And who would determine what teachers should be fired? Or not hired at all? Suppose the school board decides that teachers of American history and English literature should be fired and replaced with more teachers of Finance For Teenagers or Advanced Placement Computer Programming? After all, aren't Finance and Computer Programming more important in The Real World than History and Literature? Doesn't The Market place a higher demand on them? Speaking of markets... If public schools should be run like businesses, who says they won't reach a point where they can compete only by offering the most popular courses rather than the ones that kids really need? Will Slasher Films For Kids and The History Of Rock Divas drive out even Finance and Computer Programming, just because more kids want to take them, ergo more parents will be pressured to demand them from their local schools?
Corporations have already polluted our universities with their blinkered focus on profit and their contempt for the moral and intellectual value of asking The Big Questions. Are we going to allow that same misguided ethos to destroy the foundations of our educational system as well?
Teachers get a raw deal for doing a job that is already too tough as it is. One of the reasons why kids don't have the discipline to learn anything anymore is because they have learned that instant gratification is everything, that the ends is infinitely more important than the means - and that Profit Is All. And who on earth taught them that?
"Steve Jobs, Proud to Be Nonunion" from Wired
Thursday, February 22, 2007
Teaching Ethics In B-School
There are five times as many ethics courses taught at America's top business schools than were offered twenty years ago, according to the article at the link below. Ethics courses started to become popular during the 80's, partly as a legacy of Watergate, and also because of Michael Milken, Ivan Boeski and other high-profile white collar offenders of the Gordon Gekko era. The initial emphasis was on "those three reliable commandents", which consisted of "don't lie, don't cheat, and don't steal" - but the focus of business school ethics courses has expanded in perhaps predictable directions. The most popular such courses tackle environmental issues, and the problem of sustaining business growth without hurting the planet. Ethics courses have flourished partly because of student interest, but also as a calculated strategy of the schools themselves to offer a distinctive and provocative curriculum - "ethics" exploited as a sales tool, to wit.
The Christian Science Monitor approves of the trend, so long as it isn't just a passing fad and has some effect in the real world once the B-school students graduate. "As long as the ethics evolution doesn't lose sight of those three reliable commandments [don't lie, cheat or steal], it's a welcome one." A belief in ethics must be taken seriously to have any real value. Otherwise, it merely deepens the hypocrisy of those who nod in the direction of "the right thing to do", but never really change their behavior.
Nonetheless, in these times when corporate indulgence in lying, cheating and stealing has all but jumped the shark, business ethics are more sorely needed than ever. Even corporations know this. According to a recent survey conducted by the Ethics Resource Center, about 70 percent of American companies provide ethics training for their employees, a 14 percent increase since 2003 - but there's little evidence to suggest that this training has yet made any impact.
The tone of the article, like that of those other articles about corporate "niceness", is appropriately skeptical.
"Business ethics and the bottom line" from The Christian Science Monitor
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Nice Guys Finish First?
The articles at the links below all approach the rise of "niceness" in the workplace with a healthy skepticism. Can nice guys (and gals) finish first these days? Are we entering an unprecedented Pay It Forward era in American business? Who knows? If so, the next question to ask is what do the practitioners of "niceness" really expect to get from their efforts.
The Miami Herald looks at the new book The Power of Nice -- How to Conquer the Business World with Kindness, and registers the appropriate incredulity. Being nice can turn you into "the office doormat", allowing you to be exploited right and left. Others may resent your niceness, or suspect it to be the reflection of a superior attitude - as in the sense of noblesse oblige - or a covert attempt to build up a sense of obligation. For many, "niceness" is the hallmark of insincerity. I recently read an article in The New York Times about the dangers of praise. One of the trends it noted was the tendency of children to interpret their teacher's praise of a classmate as a sign that the classmate needed special encouragement for his or her shortcomings - the opposite of deserving praise in their eyes - and would tease that classmate mercilessly. White collar workers are, contrary to the beliefs of many, no more naive than children are, and can sometimes read "niceness" as a slap in the face. Even genuinely nice people can have an "image problem". Your niceness can make you look like a wimp or a pushover. Nonetheless, "niceness" must be good for something. The Herald attributes its current popularity to the escalating risks of behaving badly in the workplace. Your subordinates can diss you on their blogs, for instance. Also, in a cost-conscious era, obnoxious bosses who chase away employees cost the company money in hiring and training replacements. Being nice can not only keep the boat from rocking. It can also provide a kind of social glue that bonds co-workers together.
The Delaware Online article is similarly skeptical, but provides links to other articles about niceness in the workplace from The Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek.
The Slate article attributes the rise of "niceness" to a change in the zeitgeist. Corporate abuses now figure larger in the public imagination than corporate profits, especially since we all now realize that stock ownership really benefits only a fraction of the American people and, besides, the stock market is not quite as booming as it used to be. Corporate moguls may feel they need to be loved (or at least liked) to survive in a culture that has grown to distrust them. "Niceness" may also simply be a strategy for attracting attention. The corporate world has been ridden by no-nonsense hard-asses for so long that they are no longer a novelty. Toughness has become a tiresome cliche, something to snore at when you haven't been rudely awakened long enough to be repulsed by it. "Niceness" is hot, it is trendy, it the new New Thing.
"Kindness in the workplace goes a long way" from Miami Herald
"Nice Guys Finish First: When did Super Bowl coaches and CEOs start being so...decent?" from Slate
"She Said Blog: Is the workplace really getting 'nicer'?" from Delaware Online
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
The Emperor's New Office
According to the article at the link below, the latest trend in office design not only eschews real offices, but even cubicles, no matter small or austerely accoutered. In fact, it features no assigned workspaces at all, at least for any of us worker bees. Some corporations find it cheaper to provide their workers with a loose collection of movable walls, regularly placed outlets, and a rolling stock of office furniture, none of which is "owned" by any specific individual. I guess the assumption is that you are supposed to show up at the office - your own laptop in hand, of course, as fixed PCs will be extinct in this scenario - and scrounge up the required chair or table or printer or whiteboard or whatever, all of which might be different or even unavailable from one day to the next. But what the hell, you might ask. If this game of musical chairs has left you standing on a given day, why not just sit on the wall to wall carpeting, next to your favorite modem jack? That is if that isn't already taken, too. Frankly, I can't see the appeal in this. If the office is no longer a home away from home, where you can navigate immediately to your own niche on entering the building, why go in to the office at all? Why even have an office? Why shouldn't everyone be allowed to just telecommute?
This type of office design is wrongheadedly touted as the ultimate in human freedom, where the office becomes an ersatz amalgam of Roman forum, stage in the round, and college campus lawn. A model of the communal, the epitome of the glorious collective. That it might cost less to management is, of course, entirely serendipitous - one of those cases in which the interests of management and labor are harmoniously aligned. Or so we are led to believe. The reality is that no one comes to the office to pursue freedom. No one subjects oneself to the tiresome grind of the nine-to-five so they can confront the chaos of not knowing where they will sit on any given morning. That is not what work is about for most of us. If the bosses themselves, with their corner offices and assigned parking spaces, base their own status on the quantity of fixed capital that is earmarked for their own use, what then must they think of us when they deprive us of anything at all that we can call our own? Can they really believe that we would be content to mill about in a nothingness as bleak as the grounds of Andersonville Prison, fighting for a chair to sit on as though it were a morsel of food? The vast gulf between what pleases them and what they pretend to imagine will please us reveals their hypocrisy. Territory is dignity, and all workers should each be allotted at least one place - whether it be a cubicle, a desk or even a bare corner - where they can do work in peace, day in and day out, without the fear that that place will be gone tomorrow. We sacrifice our lives to the tedium and anonymity of corporate life precisely for the comfort of its regularity, and to take that from us does us no favors.
"Cubicle free as a competitive advantage" from bloggingstocks
Monday, February 19, 2007
Happy Monday Morning
On the lighter side, here is a little advice column called "Monday Morning Manager", which may or may not be a regular thing at Canada's globeandmail.com. It encourages workers beleaguered by their bosses, telling them, "bad bosses are inevitably jealous of their more talented staff and the best way to get even is by showing them they can't take away from you those qualities that they envy." So the bottom line is that you should be better than your boss, more popular with your co-workers, let your boss's abuse roll off your back, document everything you do and, above all, be happy. "Nothing irks a bad boss as much as seeing other people genuinely happy. Always be polite, courteous and co-operative." Yeah... This is sound advice when taken at face value, but it is oddly ironic that the behavior you are counseled to adopt is indistinguishable from the sort of behavior that would meet the expectations of any boss, good or bad. Do your work, don't make waves, and smile, baby, smile... In other words, you are counseled not to give bad bosses the negative feedback they deserve, without which their colleagues and superiors would never be able to identify their badness. Ah, well... The order of the day is CYA.
Other bits of advice include the basic structure of a business email. Provide information. Request information. Request action (or your next command from above). Convey basic information in the subject line. Pretty much comparable to all the things that you might learn in an entry level journalism class. Again, sound advice. But obvious advice, too.
The column peters out into a trail of business world bromides and other telegraphic inanities gleaned from self-help books, corporate newsletters, and the utterances of various entrepreneurs. Stuff like "Don't fear failure" and "Everyone is a genius on a bull" or "Don't focus on flaws". I have no idea how many such renditions of homespun corporate wisdom are out there in cyberspace, but there are certainly enough to make me believe that Reader's Digest should be reinvented as an online business magazine.
"Monday Morning Manager" from Globe And Mail
Sunday, February 18, 2007
Not Even Fat Cats Like Fat Cats Anymore
During the Reagan era we had (supposedly) "trickle down economics". Now we have entered an era (I hope) of "trickle upwards populism". Or perhaps the better phrase is "percolating populism", as surely it is about time that the top dogs smelled the coffee. Some actually do - or profess to. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has cited income inequality as a threat to "the dynamism of capitalism". President Bush has scolded overpaid CEOs. According to Bloomberg.com - itself a remarkable organ for such news - "These conservatives have realized that, for all the strength of the American economy, many people feel it's chiefly the rich who are getting richer while the middle and working class struggle to stay even." Thoughts of the 2008 election are clearly driving some of these gestures of concern, but they aren't limited to politicians. Even Warren Buffett admits, "Too often, executive pay in the U.S. is ridiculously out of line with performance."
The article at the link below points out that there are greater (and ultimately more intractable) sources of income inequality than excessive CEO compensation, but overpaid CEOs are both highly visible and almost entirely oblivious to the negative image they've created among the public at large. This combination of supreme narcissism and PR imbecility has made them a very convenient target. More than anything else, they have emerged as the symbol of economic injustice in America. Barney Frank of the House Financial Services Committee is confident that he can push forward legislation to give shareholders the power to vote on compensation packages for CEOs, and on "golden parachutes" to outgoing CEOs who hitherto have believed they have the right to get rich on failure. Some in the financial arena fear that these small empowerments of the shareholder will expand into a larger and more intrusive interference into corporate governance. But I say, the more power, the better. Academic studies have demonstrated that executive compensation bears little relation to actual performance, and the experts believe that CEO compensation should be as strictly controlled as any other line item of company overhead. CEOs should be treated as gods no longer. And that is something on which even the demigods among us have begun to agree.
"Corporate Chiefs May Come to Rue Fat Paydays: Albert R. Hunt" from Bloomberg.com
Friday, February 16, 2007
Work And Happiness
Capitalism is here to stay, whether we like it or not. Moreover, our work has become the defining characteristic of our lives, with our identities invested more deeply than ever in what we do to earn our daily bread. The best route to happiness thus is to find it in our work, which means to find it in the nooks and crannies of capitalism. What is the business model that can provide happiness and fulfillment of purpose to the largest number of workers? Control and equality are the key, and those just aren't available to us in the conventional corporation with its grotesquely exaggerated sense of hierarchy.
Here is an article from The New Stateman pushing corporations that are both co-owned and co-created by their employees-slash-directors. Called "CoCos" by the author, these companies are strikingly reminiscent of the Mondragon cooperatives that have flourished in the Basque Country of Spain since the 1950's. The author nonetheless insists that CoCos are not "reheated cooperatives". For instance, even though income inequality in such corporations is kept to a minimum, "there is no expectation that everyone will get a same-sized slice of the pie." Nor are CoCos any sort of pie in the sky enterprise either. The value of their business model lies in its potential competitiveness. Their essentially egalitarian nature can put a brake on the wildly escalating growth of CEO salaries - more than ever a major concern to every potential stockholder. CoCos also tend to be better at keeping the common worker in line. If each worker gets a real slice of the profit, increasing that profit becomes a personal issue. Workers put more of themselves in their jobs, and are equally vigilant at insuring that their comrades do the same. As a result, productivity booms. Indeed, a recent study predicts "a 19 percent productivity lift from co-ownership." Among co-ownership firms in the UK, "72 percent reported that staff worked harder than in competitor companies, and 81 percent (reported) that they took on more responsibility."
The author believes CoCos are the "capitalist business model" of the future, revealing that a new group in the UK - the Employee Ownership Association - will kick off a publicity campaign for its cause this winter. He points out that CoCos, unlike publicly traded corporations, are resistant to corporate raiders. They are also more able to plan for the long term without the fear that short-term sacrifices will result in the public humiliation of stock price reductions. Finally, the absolute fusion of the interests of management and labor will eliminate the divide between the two groups.
Let us hope so. Having done some research on co-owned corporate structures in the past, I found little new in this article. Part of their appeal right now may be due largely to timing, as the abuses most common in contemporary corporations are directly related to the powerlessness of both workers and stockholders to rein in the greed of high-level management. Among CoCos, the CEO as King simply does not exist. The time may be right for co-owned businesses after all.
"We love capitalism" from The New Statesman
Thursday, February 15, 2007
Corporations That Dare To Go Green
Many corporate gurus doubt the value of "corporate social responsibility" - also known simply as "CSR". Milton Friedman was notoriously skeptical of CSR, citing that it did not directly enhance shareholder value, while others believe the practical value of CSR is much exaggerated. Some corporations practice CSR nonetheless, according to business consultant and author Christine Arena, not just for ethical window dressing but as "long-term corporate strategy". Her research has found that corporations that practice CSR are often top-performing, visionary companies, "among the alphas of the business world". More extensive research conducted in academia, on the behavior of 34,000 companies across the world over a thirty year period, found that good management and social responsibility go hand-in-hand. The best run companies tended to have better "social and environmental records". Not only that, but "overwhelmingly, firms that rewarded employees with good work climates and higher pay and benefits ultimately saw stronger sales and stock prices..." As one of the authors of that study suggests, "it's a virtuous cycle... As a company becomes more socially responsible, its reputation and financial performance go up, which causes them to become even more socially responsible."
Corporations that have practiced CSR to benefit the environment include the following:
General Electric - GE's "Ecoimagination" movement has contributed to the development of "fuel-efficient jet and train engines, wind turbine power, energy-saving fluorescent light bulbs and water purification projects."
Toyota - Toyota has been a pioneer in hybrid cars, introducing the Prius in 2000.
DuPont - DuPont manufactures Bio-PDO, an environmentally friendly ingredient used in cosmetics, detergents and fabric. They have also cut "greenhouse gas emissions by 72 percent and air carcinogen emissions by 92 percent at (their) facilities worldwide."
"Businesses grow more socially conscious" from USA Today
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
ExxonMobil Has Its Head Stuck In Sand On Global Warming
Reeling ecstatically from its record-breaking 39.5 billion dollar profits in 2006, ExxonMobil is careening out of its usual self-absorbed orbit to put the kibosh on any initiatives to head-off global warming. CEO Rex Tillerson told the concerned at Davos that renewable energy sources will never represent more than two percent of the world's energy supply, and aggressively engages lobbyists to suppress the fight against global warming with misinformation and junk science. As The Nation points out, Tillerson's statement at Davos is itself a lie, as renewable energy sources already represent four percent of the total energy supply. ExxonMobil's actions have spurred a public interest coalition called ExposeExxon to combat the company's shameful stance on global warming.
Go to the link below to read more about ExposeExxon, and how you can lend your support.
"The Rich Get Greedier" from The Nation
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Business Ponders Health Care Burden
Corporate health care benefits, as The Christian Science Monitor reminds us, began as "an accident of history". They originated during World War Two as a way for companies to get around government-enforced wage limits by offering workers "back door" raises through the medium of increased benefits. Unfortunately, such benefits have long since become a burden to American companies, both large and small. American workers and their Congressional representatives are not the only groups committed to a new system of health care insurance. Major corporations are on board as well.
In conjunction with a major labor union, Wal-Mart executives recently started a campaign called "Better Health Care Together", and the Business Roundtable - a Washington-based group of large employers - has joined with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to help provide better health care for all. "We feel a huge sense of urgency," says Maria Ghazal, a director of the Roundtable task force on health care. "Mostly it's a sense that the way the system is now, if you can call it a system, is not sustainable."
Although corporations are more eager now than before to solve the health care conundrum, the ultimate direction of their efforts is far from certain. As the Monitor says, "the business world push doesn't settle a basic conservative-liberal divide over whether the key fix is a stronger role for government, or the introduction of more free-market competition..."
Some predict that the federal government will dominate the new system, but others imply that Bush's proposed tax deduction for health care will empower consumers to choose their own health care insurers, thus helping to stimulate competition among them. Employers are also suggesting that improvements in such business elements as information technology can improve the cost of health care insurance from within. Some are even open to the idea of pooling contributions into a government fund to help provide universal health insurance. No one knows what the new shape of health care insurance will be, but at least all parties involved are thinking.
"Burdened by healthcare costs, US businesses seek a shift" from The Christian Science Monitor
Monday, February 12, 2007
Kudos For The Corporate Library
At the links below you will find the website of The Corporate Library, several references to it in the mainstream press, and an interview in CFO Magazine with the founder of The Corporate Library, Nell Minow. Nell Minow is an attorney, educated at the University of Chicago Law School, who has been a shareholder activist for nearly twenty years. At the CFO interview states, in the past her "calls for reforming corporate governance have often been spurned by companies and ignored by shareholders." This is not so anymore. For the last several years, Minow's brainchild, The Corporate Library, has become an indispensable source of information about the abuse of executive compensation in America. Identifying itself on its own website as "the leading independent source for U.S. corporate governance and executive & director compensation information and analysis", The Corporate Library provides research to corporations, investors, academic institutions and journalists. It has been a beacon of light in a decade benighted by corporate greed.
Characterizing herself as an "anthropologist of boards", Minow has become intensely familiar with what goes in corporate boardrooms, who their members are, and what their strengths and shortcomings might happen to be. Although corporate board members tend to be skilled "consensus-builders", those very talents can predispose them to a conciliatory mindset that makes them unlikely to stand up to a domineering CEO. CEOs "still pretty much control the nomination" for members. Moreover, the pool of individuals from which board members are drawn is ultimately a small and incestuous one. According to Minow, the interconnectedness of board members "makes the [six degrees of] Kevin Bacon game look like nothing. Out of the 20,000 directors in our database, you can get from any one to almost any other one in no more than two or three steps." The result is a culture pervaded with conflict of interest that ensnares board members like a web, and induces them to act against the interests of the shareholders they are supposed to represent.
Ms. Minow believes monitoring corporate governance will influence the behavior of board members for the better. Alluding evocatively to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, she says, "boards are like subatomic particles - they behave differently when they are being observed." Let us hope that the sharp eyes of The Corporate Library are fixed on them for a long time to come.
The Corporate Library website
The Corporate Library blog
"Web of board members ties together Corporate America" from USA Today
"The Corporate Library Announces the Addition of Nearly 1,000 Companies to its Coverage Universe" from PRWeb
The Corporate Library's Director Pay Survey
"Scrutiny of executive windfalls intensifies" from The Christian Science Monitor"The Prime of Ms. Nell Minow" from CFO Magazine
Sunday, February 11, 2007
A Website Dedicated To The Fight Against "Rankism"
I made a blog entry several months ago about the subject of "rankism" - which is, vernacularly put, the act of "pulling rank" on subordinates, and subjecting them to other indignities on a regular basis. The corporate world is rife with this kind of behavior, but it has also become increasingly common almost everywhere around us. On reviewing this blog entry last week, I noticed that someone involved with the anti-rankism movement had left a comment. Included in the comment was the URL to the website at the link below. This website is called "Breaking Ranks", and focuses on the "dignitarian" movement pioneered by Robert Fuller, social activist and author of All Rise. The website features sections entitled "Rankism: A Social Disorder". "Dignity: Universal Human Right", "Modeling A Dignitarian Society" and "20 Ways To Combat Rankism". It also includes a list of Mr. Fuller's articles, links to articles in the mainstream press about his movement, and a podcast of an interview with a Canadian cabinet minister on the subject. I urge anyone reading this blog to visit this website. Eradicating "rankism" may seem like a quixotic venture to many, but the radical nature of the concept is quite breathtaking and its goals are certainly something worth fighting for. I intend to make a thorough exploration of this website when time allows, and to contact those who run it.
My own feeling thus far about "rankism" is that workers of all walks of life should stop worshipping the rich and the famous and the powerful simply because they are rich and famous and powerful, and view with a skeptical eye any species of "authority" or presumed "superiority". It is time to embrace a cool agnosticism towards the false idols of rank, and reinvigorate the healthy contempt for authority that once made America great. However, simply turning a cold shoulder to "rankism" is at best a passive-aggressive tactic, and I think the authors of "Breaking Ranks" have something much more proactive in mind.
"Breaking Ranks" at http://www.breakingranks.net
Friday, February 09, 2007
The Latest In Office Software
The White Collar Warrior rarely links to product reviews. However, since everyone who sits in a cubicle with a computer in front of him (or her) is going to use Excel, Access, Word or some other Microsoft office product at some point, here is a review of Office 2007 from Slate. Know thy tools, as they say in The Workers' Bible, and enjoy!
"Office Politics: Microsoft's Office 2007, the most annoying computer upgrade since Windows 95" from Slate
Thursday, February 08, 2007
A Colloquy On Health Care
Journalists at The American Prospect recently engaged in a "conversation" about health care. The consensus was that eradicating employer-based health benefits is a step in the right direction, and that universal health care should be the ultimate goal for the nation. There was some disagreement about reaching that goal however, and each journalist had his own opinions.
Ezra Klein emphasized that health care must be extended to those who need it most, but that commercial health care providers have used discrimination against precisely those individuals - those disadvantaged by age or pre-existing conditions - to increase their competitive edge. He suggested that government regulation should be imposed to end that discrimination, and to force health care providers to increase their competitive edge instead by lowering prices.
Merrill Goozner said that attention should be paid to minimizing the many causes of ill health in America, as well as to providing the best health care available. He nonetheless suggested that not everyone needs the same coverage, and reminded us that the cost of paying for universal health care will have to fall on someone. Hence, keeping costs down through preventative public health programs and fitting coverage to need will be required.
Jonathan Cohn also focused on the major issue of "cost". He somewhat cynically remarked that one way to provide universal health care would be to "buy off" the industry with a deal favorable to them. Considering how health care costs are already, that is a frightening prospect. A similar "buy off" took place with Medicare early on, but later reforms imposed cost containment measures that have essentially kept Medicare costs lower than those "in the private sector". Cohn cast himself as a political realist, and supported compromise, gradualism and the slow gathering of public support for interim measures.
Maggie Mahar asserted that health care costs are intrinsically inflated, contrasting health care with the computer industry, in which better products sell for progressively lower prices. She pointed out that a large percentage of health care dollars are wasted on unnecessary and redundant tests and procedures, and on pharmaceuticals that are marketed at exorbitant prices based solely on hype. She said that much of the "cost" issue can be resolved by assessing realistically how much health care is really needed - rather the maximum of what is available - and to fix the price of coverage accordingly.
Check out the link below for the details.
"Healthy Bottom Lines" from The American Prospect
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
Love Your Job - Or Else
According to Barbara Ehrenreich, it's not enough to be positive about your job these days. You need to be passionate about it. In her satirical review of Jeffrey Gitomer's book Little Gold Book of YES! Attitude, Ehrenreich skewers that branch of the self-help industry dedicated to indoctrinating wage slaves. Gitomer's book preaches surrounding yourself only with smiling people and positive attitudes. Read other self-help books, but don't watch the news. The real world out there is "negative". Also avoid "negative" people. Avoid their problems, too. Gatherings of people with problems in their lives are "pity parties" which you must avoid to focus on yourself. You must also smile - and smile all the time. Ehrenreich slyly notes that women have traditionally been required to smile, as a reflection of their status as supplicants in a male-dominated world. Now even white collar males are required to smile as well, because they too have been rendered helpless and submissive.
Ehrenreich suggests that it is possible to get something "postive" out of embracing, not avoiding, "negative" people. Join one of those "pity parties", she says, and transform it into "a revolutionary strategy meeting".
"Fake Your Way To The Top!" from The Huffington Post
Tuesday, February 06, 2007
Was Uncle Miltie Right About Everything?
Paul Krugman addresses the legacy of free-market guru Milton Friedman at the link below. Although Krugman admires Friedman tremendously, declaring him "possibly the most brilliant communicator of economic ideas to the general public that ever lived", he criticizes the absolutism of his beliefs in the benefits of free markets and the evils of government intervention. Worse yet, Friedman apparently allowed many of his ideas to be excessively simplified or misinterpreted.
Friedman believed that the only role government should play in the economy was to control the money supply. It should never fix minimum wages, create work projects to employ the unemployed, pass laws to abet union labor or engage in any sort of protectionism. Just modulate the money supply and a free market economy can take care of itself. He believed that The Great Depression could have been lessened or avoided altogether if the government had lent money to banks to prevent them from failing, which would have encouraged private citizens to continue to invest in banks, thereby allowing the banks themselves to keep lending money and for consumers to keep on spending. Fair enough, but Friedman also eventually suggested that the government had brought on The Great Depression by reducing the monetary base of the economy - which is defined as currency plus bank reserves. This, in turn, reduced the money supply - which is defined as currency plus bank deposits. In fact, the government did no such thing. The monetary base actually increased during The Great Depression, while the money supply decreased for reasons beyond government control - those bank failures which caused private citizens to lose their trust in the banking system. Nonetheless, the misconception that the government had actively caused The Great Depression prevailed, making the idea of government intervention anathema among the monetarists and their neoconservative allies. Although Friedman had not invented this misconception, his stake in the primacy of monetarism induced him to let it flourish. Friedman espoused a slow and steady growth in the money supply as a panacea for all economic ills. But recent history has demonstrated this notion as false. After monetarist policies came into effect at the end of the seventies, the United States suffered through a long series of recessions with high unemployment. Only the active intervention of Federal Reserve to cut interest rates kept the recession of 2001 from worsening dramatically. Clearly, just increasing the money supply - or, rather, just the monetary base - is not enough to keep the economy stable.
Other free market ideas espoused by Friedman have not fared so well either. Free market policies applied in Pinochet's Chile in 1973 proved successful, but similar policies applied in other Latin American nations have all resulted in dismal failure. One specific policy championed by Friedman - deregulation - has had a similarly uneven history. Deregulation works by increasing competition among suppliers, which ultimately improves efficiency and drives down prices. In fact, when the California electricity industry was deregulated in the late nineties, the suppliers colluded to create an artificial shortage that drove up prices, rather than reduced them. Those who would give free rein to "economic man" should never lose sight of the ingenuity of self-interest. Friedman's sanguine belief that free market economics would serve the ordinary citizen as well as any other system has also been proven utterly false. The hegemony of the "free market economy" has overseen the greatest widening in the gap between the rich and the rest of us since before The Great Depression.
As Krugman says, it is time to put aside the Frankenstein's monster of free market libertarianism that Friedman created, and revisit thinkers like John Maynard Keynes, who believed the benign intervention of a government on the behalf of its citizens is a successful ingredient in any national economy.
"Who Was Milton Friedman?" from The New York Review of Books
Monday, February 05, 2007
The Need For Trust Trumps Telecommuting
The availability of myriad electronic devices for communicating with others doesn't decrease the need for face-to-face contact, but actually inflames it, according to Slate magazine. Devices such as email and cellphones don't just connect us to people we already know. They expand our circle of friends and acquaintances, causing a likewise expansion in the number of people we feel a need to meet, either out of curiosity or in the old-fashioned business sense of having to look a potential partner in the eye before closing a deal. This expansion of present and future personal contacts is coupled with the mobility provided to us by our communications tools. For not only can we keep in contact with more people more easily than ever, we can keep in contact with them while we travel. None of us has to sit by the telephone in the hallway waiting for a call, or even by the computer waiting for an email. We can take our Blackberries, our cellphones, and our wireless laptops wherever we go. And where we want to go, more than ever, is to meet those folks we've previously known only electronically.
The primary reason for meeting one's business partners is, of course, the need for trust. While Slate neatly describes the paradox of how increased means of reaching people remotely fuels our compulsion to meet them in person, it doesn't directly address another paradox. The age of email and the cellphone has also become the age in which businesspeople have become less trustworthy than ever before. The conveniences of modern life have facilitated ruthlessness as much as they have anything else, and if we feel more than ever a need to trust the people we work for, or who work for us, it doesn't just reflect the persistence of human nature. Something about the modern economy has actually made us worse. This is something corporate cost-cutters should consider when they seek to replace face-to-face meetings with teleconferences, and a handshake with an email - at the same time that they are downsizing the workforce and padding their portfolios. The very ethos of their cost-cutting has made the overhead of looking the other guy in the eye an irreducible expense.
"The Distance Paradox" from Slate
Saturday, February 03, 2007
Corporate Tyranny Turns Comical
At the link below, you will find a little satire in the "Modest Proposal" vein inspired by recent decision made by the CEO of the Scotts fertilizer company to fire an employee for smoking in his own home. His own home! What next? I remember an employer I had in Wilmington, North Carolina in the early nineties. He was a classic paranoid, a timorous tyrant in the mold of the senile Roman emperor Tiberius who trembled in anger at even the rumor of criticism. He once announced to his subordinates - us - that we were not allowed to make remarks about the company even when we were off duty. We could not say anything in shops, parks or restaurants. If word got back to him that we had slighted so much as the size of the company parking lot, we would be summarily fired. It's not like he himself was even part of this community. He lived in Greenwich, Connecticut and only flew down every few months or so. Nonetheless, his edict was strictly enforced. I recall dining with my wife to be and my future in-laws at a local seaside restaurant. The shipping manager of the company stood nearby, pretending to read a list of specials posted on a wood-paneled wall. Six feet eight inches tall, and cursed, like Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim, with the figure of a milk bottle, this gentleman was far from conspicuous. But there he stood, listening intently, an eavesdropper in neon. As I began loudly to praise The Company in fulsomely obvious terms, using the inflections of a kindergarten teacher reading a Dick and Jane book, the gentleman began, slowly, to sidle away. A few months later, he himself was fired. Who knew why? Perhaps he blinked at the wrong moment during a company meeting. I hope he learned his lesson. All you Corporate Gestapo Hopefuls out there beware! Sucking up to corporate dictators will not necessarily spare you from the guillotine.
"I Am the Boss of You" from The Boston Globe
Friday, February 02, 2007
Bush Speaks Out Against CEO Pay
Here are some quotes from President Bush's "state of the economy" speech. He acknowledged growing income inequality - "The fact is that income inequality is real. It has been rising for more than 25 years. The earnings gap is now twice as wide as it was in 1980." Although cagily evading governmental responsibility for putting caps on CEO salaries, he strongly suggested that corporations police their own - "Government should not decide the compensation for America's corporate executives. But the salaries and bonuses of CEOs should be based on their success at improving their companies and bringing value to their shareholders." More hints (as if Corporate America would care to take them) - "America's corporate boardrooms must step up to their responsibilities. You need to pay attention to the executive compensation packages that you approve. You need to show the world that America's businesses are a model of transparency and good corporate governance." Well, duh. By far the most remarkable thing about the President's remarks are not what was said, but who said them - and where. President Bush, a graduate of the Harvard Business School who once famously declared that billionaires were his "base", made these remarks at Federal Hall, smack dab in the middle of the New York Financial District. Most of his audience were business types, who responded in "silence" to Bush's admonitions, applauding only when he vowed (as ever) to cut taxes and improve education.
You can chalk this up to the lame duck syndrome, in which the outgoing leader can finally afford to speak truth to power. But there you have it, nonetheless. And, by the way, Hell froze over yesterday, and we should expect four blue moons in a row this month...
"Bush demands greater openness on CEO pay" from Management Issues
"When a Republican president chides rich CEOs, investors listen" from Delaware Online
"Bush takes aim at lush CEO pay" from the North Adams Transcript
Thursday, February 01, 2007
How To Know When You Hate Your Job
Here is another catalog of the obvious from the mainstream Internet press. To wit, a list of the symptoms of a lousy job - with my own annotations:
1) You dread going to work - Once you begin to feel a massive reluctance to start the day sitting on your chest like an incubus as soon as you awaken, you know your job sucks. I felt that way in the most pronounced fashion in North Carolina some twelve years ago. To relieve myself with a touch of humor, I would pull myself out of bed and mutter, "Time to make the donuts..." to my wife as I padded across the floor to the bathroom. The irony was that the job was only a fifteen minute walk - yes, that's walk - away. Sure enough, by the end of that year, that job was gone. (But never again would I have such an easy commute.)
2) You get no enjoyment from your day-to-day responsibilities - Most white collar work is drudgery, but some tasks have a certain anal compulsive satisfaction. A few even provide some of the mild fascination of solving a crossword puzzle. The great salvation (and opiate) of the modern white collar worker is the ability to surf the web while at work. Virtually all of us do it, and for some of us that is the only interesting thing we do all day. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that all those colorful glimpses of the outside world that the web offers us have nothing to do with our real world, whose monotonous banality we must confront if we are ever to truly change our lives.
3) You are uncomfortable with the company culture and environment - This is the great pitfall of working for large companies, where the corporate culture is most fulsomely developed. If you are dragooned into an auditorium with a hundred of your colleagues and asked to draw pictures with crayons as part of an HR exercise in "problem solving", you know the culture of your company has jumped the shark into the treacherous waters of mass imbecility. If you're so far gone that you can actually go along with such silliness, a cup of Koolaid at some corporate Jonestown lies in the future for you.
4) Your relationship with your boss is turbulent - If your boss insults you, lectures you as though you were eleven, or even screams at you with sociopathic heedlessness, take heart. I've been there, too.
5) You see no opportunities for career advancement or enhancement - Unless you had the appropriate foresight (and soullessness) to have earned an MBA at a reputable business school, your fate will be Dead-Ends-Ville 99 times out of 100. Beware the managerial sleight of hand sometimes called "lateral movement", in which you are shuffled around from one project to the next, under the pretext of teaching you new things, while you remain at the same level wherever you go. Horizontal mobility is used here to camouflage a lack of vertical mobility.
"Employee Beware: Five Signs of a Lousy Job" from MSN.com