Friday, March 30, 2007
The Worst CEOs Haunt The Biggest Mansions
That mansion on the hill may contain the ghost of a formerly effective CEO - even if the CEO in question is still technically alive.
According to Slate magazine, "The last two bubbles - the dot-com bubble of the 1990s and the real-estate bubble of this decade - have combined to create a new culture of real-estate voyeurism." Americans are fascinated in particular by the domiciles by the rich and the famous - and that includes CEOs. Academics partake of the obsession as well, and many wonder whether or not there is any correlation between the size of a CEO's, ahem, house and the health of his company's stock price. A paper entitled "Where Are The Shareholders' Mansions?" examines that relationship. Checking out the cribs of captains of industry is one of the final frontiers of corporate disclosure. "Thanks to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, the public can learn a great detail about the salaries, benefits, and perks that CEOs receive. But up until now, homes have generally been off-limits." Now, what with virtual tours available from Realtor.com of any old house on the market, this is no longer true.
The authors of "Where Are The Shareholders' Mansions?" acknowledge that the size of a CEO's house could be interpreted in a number of ways. One school of thought might contend that a CEO willing to invest vast sums in a house is giving himself a mandate "to bust his butt so that he'll have the cash to pay off the huge mortgage." Another - and to me a more convincing - theory is that CEOs who invest "gazillions" in gigantic houses may have become too comfortable and complacent, and that their personal expenditures reflect a growing indifference to costs that may simultaneously express itself in their running of the company. As a coda, the Slate article notes that, since Bill Gates moved into his "gargantuan home", Microsoft stock "has essentially moved sideways, significantly underperforming the market."
The study found that there is indeed a correlation between house size and stock price. After a survey that included 488 of the Fortune 500's CEOs, the companies of those CEOs whose houses (and adjacent property) exceeded the survey mean of "6,145 square feet, 12 rooms, 5.37 acres of land, and a market value of $3.1 million" returned 3.35 percent less than the companies of those CEOs who lived in estates below the survey mean. "And the CEOs who lived in the biggest homes (at least 10,000 square feet or over 10 acres) underperformed their peers who inhabited more modest homes by 6.9 percent, on average."
When the study narrowed its focus to those CEOs who bought houses after becoming CEOs, the results were even more pronounced. Again - especially for the purchasers of extremely large homes. According to Slate, "They found 'a significantly negative stock performance following the acquisition of very large homes by company CEOs,' on the order of 1.25 percent performance lag per month. The conclusion: 'We interpret the stock return evidence as consistent with large CEO home purchase indicating entrenchment and foreshadowing poor future stock performance.'" Worse yet, a good proportion of the CEOs were actually selling shares of their own stock, apparently to finance their homes, before the stock began to fall. Hmmm... One of the authors of the study remarked that it was almost as if these CEOs were looking for an alibi for the "bad faith" of selling off their own stock before their company went downhill.
"Haunted Mansion" from Slate
Thursday, March 29, 2007
Congress Empowers Shareholders To Give Thumbs Down To CEO Pay Raises
The House Financial Services Committee just approved legislation to allow shareholders "advisory votes" on executive compensation - and on "golden parachute" packages, should the executives be leaving the company. The legislation does not set explicit limits on executive pay, but does grant shareholders the means to express their disapproval of excessive compensation. Moreover, according to committee chairman Barney Frank, "if boards of directors ignore shareholder votes against their pay practices, Congress may move to give shareholders direct access to nominating directors..." The committee approved the legislation by a vote of 37 to 29, and the yea-sayers included at least two Republicans. Barney Frank said, "We have taken an important step in giving shareholders the ability to express their approval or disapproval of pay packages for executives to run the corporations that they own." The legislation will go into effect in 2009.
According to the article at the link below, shareholder votes on executive pay have successfully reined in CEO compensation in nations like Australia, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The legislation has its critics however - from predicable sources. Republican opponents of the legislation claimed that "small groups of activist shareholders could use the process to advance political agendas and create a distraction for boards of directors." Corporate running dog Dick Armey remarked, "Salaries should be set by market forces, not government regulation. Representative Frank's proposal has a high demagoguery quotient, but does little for public policy. What will we hear from Financial Services Committee next, that the government is setting salaries for professional athletes?" Despite the fact that the issue of executive pay "strikes a nerve" with millions of Americans who have been blindsided by flat wages and layoffs, it is remarkable how clueless so many Republicans remain.
"House OKs Executive Pay Bill" from Time
"House Financial Services Committee Passes Shareholders Vote on Executive Compensation Act" from RTO Online
"Executive pay vote bill advanced" from Investment News
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
The Age Of The Transparent CEO
There have been more notorious corporate scandals than you can shake a rolled up annual report at in the last few years. CEOs everywhere are learning that if you screw up, you can't hide it - so why even try? "Transparency" is the new buzzword on the block among corporate publicists. Corporations are now freely admitting their mistakes, or at least pretending to. Some CEOs even have their own blogs, in which they confess their thoughts and even personal info to anyone who will listen. Some companies encourage their employees, lowly or otherwise, to run their own blogs off the company website, saying what they wish about their masters.
The trick is with "transparency" is that it must be done with a consistent and authentic openness. If corporations simply attempt to mimic openness by disclosing some things, but not others, the public will pillory them as hypocrites. Cunningly controlled publicity is hardly the same thing as openness either. One PR executive got into trouble by running "flogs" for Wal-Marts - fake blogs that pretended to be the real blogs of Wal-Mart supporters. Explaining why "transparency" runs counter to the traditional aims of PR, the author of the article at the link below says, "The reputation economy creates an incentive to be more open, not less. Since Internet commentary is inescapable, the only way to influence it is to be part of it. Being transparent, opening up, posting interesting material frequently and often is the only way to amass positive links to yourself and thus to directly influence your Googleable reputation. Putting out more evasion or PR puffery won't work, because people will either ignore it and not link to it - or worse, pick the spin apart and enshrine those criticisms..."
The article gives examples of many corporations and CEOs that have practiced full disclosure to their own benefit. There is a real estate executive who saved his business by ranting about the evils of his trade like Jim Cramer coming clean on the shortcomings of hedge funds, and a software mogul who actually increased the sales of his software by publishing the program code online. Southwest Airlines got some egregious initial publicity when they forced an obese man to buy two seats, and then it turned out that he was fat because of hepatitis C and was on his way to a "life-saving" operation. Southwest promptly confessed all in their blog, posting an apology and even links to articles that criticized them, winning a coup with a forgiving public.
Some hurdles to corporate transparency remain. Many CEOs don't really know how to write - not even half-literate emails - and this impedes their ability to blog. Even once they've started a successful blog, they can't stop it, which eats up valuable time that might otherwise be spent bossing their minions around. In a similar all-or-nothing fashion, once they start being honest, they have to remain honest about everything. The CEO of the job search service Jobster denied rumors of upcoming layoffs on his own blog, then was vilified when the layoffs actually came to pass. Finally, some corporate operations - such as the development of certain products - must be kept secret for obvious reasons, thus providing the exceptions that would invalidate any ethos of full disclosure.
"The See-Through CEO" from Wired
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
The Cubicle Survival Guide
A witty fellow named James Thompson has written a book called The Cubicle Survival Guide. Below are links to an excerpt from the book, and to an interview of its author. He treats the cubicle world as an environment like any other, in a tone that is by turns wise and semi-facetious. He stresses that the makeshift character of cubicles reflects the ruthless flexibility of profit-centered corporations that can expand or contract their workforce at a moment's notice. He also remarks that "cubicle farm(s)" are built around computer technology, which has become ubiquitous. He wants us to know that working in a cubicle is nothing to be ashamed of, not something that it is our fault. "Cubicles are the result of the times," he says. "Not our personalities." That's a relief to hear...
He warns us that how we decorate our cubicles can have negative repercussions. We shouldn't put up anything too sexy, too religious or too political. Cubicles are very much like pigeonholes, or those cardboard dividers in boxes of Christmas tree ornaments. They are designed to hold standardized contents - people who, above all, must fit in. As Thompson puts it, "There is more to your job than how well you work. There's how well you 'work'..."
The excerpt is full of evocative metaphors for cubicle life. Like this passage - "Being stuck in a cubicle is like being sutck in an elevator. You have to assess the situation, assess the people you are with, and appreciate the circumstances. You may not like the state of affairs, but given the reality you must learn to not only like but also trust, the people you are with. Realize that your lives could go up, down, or nowhere... together."
He has witty things to say about the various creatures of the office as well, especially the noise makers. There is the "Office Lamprey" who "sucks the life" out of his co-workers by swinging by their cubicles when they are otherwise engaged and subjecting them to interminable one-way conversations.
Cubicles were invented in the 1960's by a fine arts professor who believed the new design would allow "office workers (to) freely discuss and trade ideas." How sad it is that we have come to despise them, and to view them as the symbol of our own diminishment.
"Excerpt of 'The Cubicle Survival Guide'" from USA Today
"Climbing The Walls" from The Washington Post
Monday, March 26, 2007
Flying Without A Safety Net
It may be exhilarating to fly through your youth without a safety net, but what happens when you fall?
Here is an article from New York Magazine that examines the plight of young workers without health insurance in New York City. The young - as well as the poor - are disproportionately represented among the more than 47 million uninsured Americans. Although some might not readily sympathize with healthy, white, middle-class twentysomethings going without health insurance at what may be the most carefree time of their lives, the fact is things happen. And when they do, the consequences can be financially crippling.
The article makes a few interesting points. One is that, considering that healthy, young people are a necessary ingredient in the "risk pool" of insurance to offset the costs incurred by those who are older and sicker, the health insurance honchos apparently don't have the common sense to make their product cheap enough for younger workers to afford it. This only causes their costs to run even higher, increasing their premiums still further in a vicious circle that spirals out of control. Another effect of setting the price too high is to shift the burden of medical costs for the uninsured to hospital emergency rooms and the like. This increased cost is then spread across all of the rest of the hospital's services, causing it to bill the insurance companies more for everything, and ultimately this increased cost is passed along to the consumer in the form of higher premiums. And so the vicious circle spirals upwards even higher - or actually two vicious circles spiral upwards together, like a pair of cobras cuddling or the double helix of our own goddamn DNA. If the insurance companies set the premiums for the young at affordable levels, they would not only reduce the overall risk of their policies, but decrease the cost of medical services to begin with, therefore doubly reducing their own costs. You'd think they'd think of that themselves, now wouldn't you?
"The Young Invincibles" from New York Magazine
Sunday, March 25, 2007
Blue Collars Beat White Collars In South Korea
Is this the wave of the future for all of us? White collar workers retire earlier than blue collar workers in South Korea. This seems counterintuitive, as one would assume that jobs that require mental skills would allow one to work longer than those that require physical brawn. Clearly, it has something to do with the greater vulnerability of white collar workers in the corporate structure in South Korea, and their ultimate expendability. The official retirement age at most Korean companies is 57, but white collar workers find themselves out on the street at an average age of 52.4. As a consequence, many students are switching from academic programs to a vocational or technical curriculum. A survey of students enrolled in one-year technical programs showed that one in three had held office jobs before enrolling. 35 percent held college degrees, up from 18 percent in 2004. The life of the salaryman is no longer as attractive - or perhaps as dignified - as it used to be. It may not be long before the glories of globalization turn all of us everywhere into plumbers.
"White-Collar Workers Turning to Blue-Collar Jobs" from english.chosun.com (South Korea)
"'Royal' Blue-Collars Emerge" from The Korea Times
Friday, March 23, 2007
Your Dream House May Be Interfering With Your Livelihood
An English economist has demonstrated a positive correlation between home ownership and high levels of unemployment both in Europe and the United States. Several phenomena explain this trend. Individuals who have put down roots in an area will build strong social networks that will induce them to stay - and not just for sentimental reasons. A strong social network can help unemployed individuals find work, although perhaps not the the jobs they want and maybe not even at a convenient location. Then there is the logistical difficulty of parting with your present home and moving to another place to find another. If you own a house in an economically depressed area, the buyers' market may be small and your house may not sell for a good price. Also, if you need to move to any area which is booming in order to find a new job, you will have to pay more to buy the equivalent of your old house because the demand for houses there is higher. You can stay put in your present house, and weather the slings and arrows of unemployment, a reduced salary and/or a bad commute. Or you can uproot yourself from the community you've lived in for years, and lose money settling among strangers somewhere else in the hope of earning the money back later on. In a sense, you are damned if you do, and damned if you don't.
Here are some of my own thoughts. The recent boom in house prices, plus the current collapse of those prices, have affected this dynamic in different and probably very negative ways. Home owners have spend vast sums to buy houses with the expectation that the value of those houses will increase still further, providing them with their primary retirement investment. Paradoxically, the more your house is worth when you become unemployed, the less willing you will be to part with it, and the more likely you will draw on its value by taking out additional mortgages, thereby sinking yourself further into debt and diminishing your house's retirement value. When the price of your house plummets, you will still be reluctant to sell it because its decreasing value is no longer enough to offset the debt you've already accumulated. Instead, you will stay put, hoping against all odds that its price will rise yet again, beyond what it was even at its peak in the past - as that will be the only way you'll be able to recoup on your losses and pay back your debts. The growing insecurity of corporate employment and flat wages will dissuade you from what may once have been the most sensible solution - simply selling your house, and moving to a place where you can find a better job.
Why on earth should we be as afflicted by the same self-defeating immobility as the Europeans anyway? Americans in the past were an extremely mobile people, always willing to move to better their circumstances. Somehow this pioneer spirit has collided with another of our national myths - that of the Norman-Rockwellian "home sweet home" with the white picket fence - and the two myths are bringing each other down.
"The Renter's Manifesto: Why home ownership causes unemployment" from Slate
Thursday, March 22, 2007
A Rise In The Importance Of Workmates
The article at the link below discusses the phenomenon of the "work spouse". This is a kind of partnership that springs up between colleagues at the workplace, implicitly between a male and a female. The article isn't talking about workplace romances - these relationships are strictly platonic, but intimate nonetheless. Some folks who work together become like old married couples. They finish each other sentences, they exhibit the same facial expressions, they seem even to read each other's minds. Come to think of it, they sound more like identical twins raised in isolation than mere married couples.
The phenomenon is on the rise, which seems like a good thing. The article speculates on the reasons why. Is it because Americans are spending more time at work? Very likely. Is it because they are emotionally more attached to their workplace than to their homes? Perhaps. It is certainly more prevalent among younger workers, who depend on the workplace for making social contacts more than their elders do. According to a survey of 2,000 workers, almost half of the younger ones "said the availability of support or networking programs for employees with common interests was a very important factor in their decision to join and remain with an employer", as opposed to little over a third of the older workers. Corporations have become a lot scarier and more competitive than they used to be as well, which may cause co-workers to bond more closely simply for the sake "of survival" - sort of like foxhole buddies during World War Two. Once established however, such intimacy can imbue workmates with the sense of a common mission, and make the work itself more exciting.
As for office romances, they too are on the rise. According to another survey, 60 percent of workers reported having dated officemates, as opposed to only 46 percent just three years ago. The office has become the center of our world in many ways now, whether we really want it to be or not.
"'Work spouses' are part of office culture" from The New Observer
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Towards An Asshole-Free Work Environment
Here is more commentary on Stanford B-school professor Bob Sutton's book, The No A-Hole Rule. Although the article at the link below coyly refers to it by the bowdlerized bogus title, The No (Blankety-Blank) Rule, it cheerfully agrees with the book's thesis. Professor Sutton uses A-hole as a catch-all term for all "bullies, creeps, jerks, tyrants, tormentors, despots, backstabbers and egomaniacs who do their best to destroy you at work." He believes the solution is for personnel departments simply not to hire such individuals. One problem is how to identify A-holes, as many sub-species excel at pretending to be nice. This is all deja vu for me, as it recalls a post I made last year about the issue of "emotional intelligence", and how various writers believe employers should select for it among their recruits. Discriminating against A-holes is essentially the flip-side of the same process. I have ambivalence about any such policies. Some of the worst A-holes on the planet have the sociopathic guile to ace both psychological testing and face-to-face interviews purportedly designed to screen out people just like them. Conversely, many fundamentally nice and considerate individuals may be rejected on the basis of subjective judgments, "bad days", cultural distance or outright misinterpretations.
The ultimate problem is that any corporate strategy to identify A-holes would need to be engineered and ratified by senior executives who themselves may include a goodly quota of A-holes. As the article says, "In the real world, it’s the boss who gets to define what’s derogatory [or who is an asshole in some other way]."
"Swearing by no-jerks-at-work rule" from Boston Herald
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
New Software Boosts SEC's Ability To Police Corporate Finance
The SEC has introduced exciting new software changes that will make it much easier for researchers to ferret out specific information about a company's finances, such as executive pay and stock option backdating. SEC is replacing its Edgar online reporting system, which has provided electronic information on company filing since the 1980's, with a new slick new "interactive" system written in something called XBRL. XBRL stands for "extensible business reporting language", and is based on XML and similar data transfer products. According to Forbes magazine, "Rather than treating financial information as a block of text - as in a standard Internet page or a printed document - XBRL language provides a unique identifying tag for each individual item of data, such as company net profit or a stock-option grant to an executive, for example. That will enable users to extract specific information more easily from SEC filings, run calculations and aggregate data as desired. Company revenue or an executive's compensation, for example, could be tracked over several years without having to open up and review multiple filings."
The new system will be in place at SEC's website by June 2007. This will coincide with the introduction of more detailed filings mandated by rules that went into effect in December 2006. According to FDIC IT architect Richard Campbell, the implementation of the new XBRL software won't necessarily make more data available - the regulations will do that - but it will make its retrieval much faster and more convenient.
"Easier to Dissect Executive Pay Data" from Forbes
"SEC making executive pay data more accessible" from International Herald Tribune
"Richard Campbell: The New Language of the Bottom Line" from CGN
Monday, March 19, 2007
Work-Life Balance Is An Issue For Both Genders
Time for family is an integral part of "work-life balance" for both genders, but it is often characterized largely as a women's issue both in the media and in the mindset of the culture at large. That is not the reality. According to a recent survey, "more than 90 percent of full-time employed adults believe work/life balance" is an issue for everyone - and that "only 15 percent report actually achieving a schedule they are content with."
Women's organizations - such as MomsRising, The MOTHERS Initiative, the National Association of Mothers' Centers and the Mothers Movement Online - are in the forefront of winning family time for America's workers. Most of these organizations say that men are welcome to take part. But, as the article at the link below points out, "are men really going to join a revolution that doesn't have their name on it?" Moreover, the issue doesn't involve just mothers, but fathers too - and any movement in support of work-life balance should acknowledge that explicitly.
Some new organizations do take a gender-neutral approach to family time issues for working Americans. These include the Children, Work and Family caucus organized by U.S. Senators Arlen Spector and Christopher Dodd, the Take Back Your Time movement founded by filmmaker John de Graaf, and The Healthy Family Act "which features progressive, gender-neutral language, and will be up for review again this month."
But organizations willing to identify fathers as well as mothers as parents who need more time for family are not enough by themselves. Significant cultural hurdles remain. Although many corporations offer parental leave for fathers, few men take advantage of it for fear of appearing weak, soft or unserious about their jobs. The macho mystique of corporate self-sacrifice still keeps most men from pursuing their own best interests. According to the author of the article - herself a female journalist - cultural change requires more than the pioneering "courage of individual fathers... but an inclusive, broad-based movement that values men's interests and leverage in work/family balance as much as it does women's."
"Fighting Apart for Time Together" from The American Prospect
Sunday, March 18, 2007
The Latest On Workplace Bullies
Here are two new items about workplace bullies. Not that I need to cite any more such items, but it is always good to get a jolt of reality now and then.
One article notes that a Google search on "workplace bullies" yields 2,100,000 results, and recommends a book entitled The No A-hole Rule. The author of this book is a management professor who claims that workplace bullies cost corporations millions in "lost productivity and employee turnover." Here are some examples of bad bosses that he cites:
1) Bosses who claim the company is like a "family", and go on to prove it in their perverse way by irrationally favoring some "children" over others.
2) Bosses who pretend to welcome criticism, then object when it is given.
3) Bosses who discourage "dating" at the workplace, but indulge in it themselves.
4) Bosses who waste company money pretending to interview job candidates for a position when they already have one of their cronies in mind.
5) Bosses who insult the intelligence of their employees with "fun" exercises intended to build team spirit.
6) Bosses who love jargon.
7) Bosses who spy on their employees to find what they say about them.
The second article insists that 50 percent of bad bosses are not really bullies but "sad, scared people" who are "afraid" of their employees. Such bosses are essentially indifferent to their subordinates and offer little to help or encourage them. Since these bosses have "no substance", they are difficult to deal with. They are like quicksilver, and slip out of your grasp when you try to pin them down. The workplace bully is something else altogether. He or she may be very formidable, with "plenty of substance", but is a "narcissistic psychopath" who will actively steal credit from you, and destroy your reputation behind your back. One way to defend oneself against bosses like this is to build your own network of allies to whom you can turn for help.
This article offers its own thumbnail typology of bad bosses, complete with strategies on how to deal with each variety.
1) Selfish, egotistical and back-biting bosses. You can deal with these by showing them what you do can to put them in a good light.
2) Overworked bosses (who are perhaps more out of their depth than simply malevolent). State your ideas concisely to these guys, and don't waste their time.
3) Nasty, bullying bosses. Cover your ass with these dudes by detailing everything, and holding onto the paper trail.
4) Stupid bosses. Just keep it simple, and don't talk too fast.
The author of this article laments that "people often don't think hard enough when making managerial appointments these days." Amen, I say.
"We need fewer bullies, particularly as bosses" from HeraldNet
"Beware the workplace bully" from The New Zealand Herald
Friday, March 16, 2007
Don't Let Your 401(k) Pick Your Pocket
Beware of what you don't know about your 401(k). Even though 401(k) providers are obligated to give you account statements, annual reports and plan summaries, none of them have to tell you about the fees you pay. These include "investment fees, record-keeping fees, or loan fees." The Labor Department would like to help you out, but the U.S. government doesn't get much info about these "hidden fees" either.
Fees can take a major cut out of your return on investment. According to the example at the link below, a person who puts 20,000 into a 401(k), and leaves it there for twenty years at an average annual interest rate of 7 percent, will make 17 percent less if those "hidden fees" total 1.5 percent per year rather than .5 percent. In dollar terms, that is $58,400 versus $70,000. And the more you invest, the more you lose.
The Labor Department wants to introduce new legislation that would require greater disclosure of these fees, and they may even asking the public for suggestions. Meanwhile, 401(k) plan victims - I mean, participants - have filed class action lawsuits against International Paper, Lockheed Martin and Caterpillar over the issue of these fees. Until such time as new rules on fee disclosure are passed, you can research your own 401(k) fees by consulting your benefits manager, and examining expense ratios and the prospectus of each mutual fund in which your 401(k) is invested.
"Fee, Fie, 401(k), Fum" from MSNBC.com
Thursday, March 15, 2007
Handy Health Care Synopsis
At the link below you will find a handy synopsis of the complex issue of health care in the U.S.A. The synopsis focuses on two realities.
One - Our health care system is totally screwed up. 47 million Americans have no health insurance, and private insurance is prohibitively expensive for all but the affluent. Most of us depend on our employers to offer us health care benefits, at the same time that medical costs are rapidly increasing, causing the cost of health care insurance to rise at an even higher rate. This, in turn, causes corporations to offer health care benefits to fewer Americans, to avoid hiring older workers or those with health conditions, to downsize all classes of employees with greater alacrity, and to deny health care benefits to former employees on pensions. As a consequence, even though we pay twice as much for health care in the United States, we have a lower life expectancy than most advanced western nations, and "significantly higher infant mortality."
Two - Our leaders erroneously assume that "Americans would never accept socialized mediince", and that health care should be provided by commercial suppliers anyway because "markets will always outperform the dead hand of government."
According to the article at the link below, those who debate health care policy pay far more attention to the political reality, Number Two, than to the social reality, Number One. The article goes on to cite journalist Jonathan Cohn's new book about health care - Sick: The Untold Story of America's Health Care Crisis - And The People Who Paid The Price. Cohn says that the medical establishment started jacking up its prices beyond what most of us could pay almost as soon as they figured out how to cure more people than they killed. That happened approximately in the 1920's. When the Depression pushed the cost of medical care even further out of the reach of the average American, Baylor Hospital in Dallas started a system that we now know as Blue Cross. This, and organizations like it, were non-profit insurers that served communities and strove to keep costs low. The success of these organizations attracted into the marketplace other health care insurers whose motives revolved entirely around profit. Costs increased, and the average American again needed help to pay for health care. When wages were frozen during World War Two, corporations introduced health care benefits as an enticement to attract new hires. More corporations began to provide health care benefits to compete in the labor market, and the modern system was born.
As the cost of health care insurance rose higher and higher, HMOs stepped onto the stage, offering to control costs through "managed care". HMOs started as non-profit organizations, but were eventually replaced through the moral Gresham's Law of capitalism by HMOs seeking only to make a profit. These HMOs preferred to "manage care" the hilt, going so far as to deny treatments to those who needed them most.
The profit motive is a juggernaut, and costs continued to rise. Now we have a system whose mode of operation is the exact opposite of any authentic "service to society". It makes a profit on health care by providing it most willingly to the young and the healthy, and charging an arm and a leg from those for whom health care is most essential - the old and the sick. That is the social "bottom line" of health care, and it must change if we are to remain a civilized nation.
"A Short History of Health Care" from Slate
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Office Work Can Cause Deep Vein Thrombosis
Sitzfleisch can kill you, apparently. Researchers in New Zealand who studied hospital patients admitted for DVT (or deep vein thrombosis) discovered that 34 percent "were office workers who spent long periods of time seated at their desks." In contrast, only 21 percent had been passengers on long-distance flights. That is quite the trick, considering that almost any flight arriving in New Zealand is likely to be long-distance. The office workers with DVT had sat at their desks or computers "for a total of 14 hours a day and went for stretches of three to four hours without getting up from their chairs."
Deep vein thrombosis is a condition in which a blood clot forms in a vein deep in the body, most often in the legs. These clots become particularly dangerous when they move up the bloodstream into the lungs, heart or brain, where they can cause heart attacks, strokes and pulmonary embolisms. The best advice I've heard for avoiding DVT on long flights is to pop one or two aspirin before boarding the plane. I do that every morning before going to the office. Maybe you should, too. Going out for a long walk at noon might be a good thing as well. Oh - I forgot. You can't take breaks or work shorter hours. Due to all the downsizings at your firm in the last few years, you and your colleagues are short-staffed and overworked, led by management to believe that you will lose your job too if you don't work insane hours with no overtime. Ah, well. I guess you'll just have to kiss your health good-bye to keep those paychecks coming in. Sorry I brought the whole thing up...
"Long Hours at Desk Raise DVT Risk: Study" from MSN.com
"Office workers 'risk blood clots'" from BBC News
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
Cones Of Silence
According to the item at the link below, the "technology of soundscaping" may soon make it possible for office workers to conduct their work in "pools of silence" analogous to pools of light shed by desk lamps. Researchers at Napier University in Edinburgh and elsewhere are attempting to develop software "to predict noises and create nullifying soundwaves." The finished product could be installed in each worker's cube, allowing the worker to modulate ambient noise, screening out office chatter, clattering computer peripherals, the sounds of doors slamming, dogs barking, traffic and much else. Microphones would intercept the offending sound before it reached human ears and automatically screen it out. Not to pun, but this "sounds" almost too good to be true...
"Silence on the way at the push of a button" from The Australian
Monday, March 12, 2007
Quantifying "Personal Time" On The Job
Big Brother is a bean counter. That's all you need to know about the corporate world. The brief article at the link below cites a survey of 559 "cubicle dwellers" conducted by a staffing service called OfficeTeam. The respondents reported that they spent an average of 36 minutes per day "handling personal tasks while at the office." Women reported less time than men, 29 minutes versus 44. Workers between 18 and 34 admitted spending 45 minutes on average, those between 35 and 64 spent 32 minutes, and those 65 and up spent 17 minutes. (I cannot help but feel that those 65-plus individuals must be CEOs who exaggerate the purposefulness of their actions, because who else that age is left standing in any corporation these days? But no matter. The differences remain.)
A companion survey of 150 senior executives estimated that their people spent an average of 43 minutes "on non-work activities." The closest to that is the overall male figure of 44 minutes, which suggests that the senior executives - who are typically male - were simply extrapolating from their own behavior. Either that or they slightly underestimated the commitment and integrity of their underlings. Either interpretation does not speak especially well of them.
The question I have to ask is what constitutes "handling personal tasks while at the office"? Does it include coffee breaks, bathroom breaks, obligatory chit-chat with colleagues, taking off and hanging up one's outer clothes upon arriving in one's cube, and pulling them on when leaving? Does it include eating your lunch at your desk, which many of us often feel compelled to do? Does it even include thinking, daydreaming, the ineluctable wandering of one's thoughts? The guy who wrote the article is similarly uncertain. When he tallies up calls to his wife to expedite household matters, answering personal emails, and wolfing down his own lunch, he figures he spends 20 to 25 minutes doing personal stuff. He wonders if that is typical, and implores his readers - managers and worker-bees alike - to send in their comments and opinions.
The survey apparently offered no clear definition of what "handling personal tasks while at the office" or engaging in "non-work activities" actually entails. Therein lies its power. By keeping the classification of personal time nebulous, the survey induces respondents to underestimate it out of fear of overestimating it, and thus arrives at an artificially small figure intended to provoke intimidation and guilt in anyone who reads about it. If I counted everything that I did that could be construed as time spent simply being human, rather than wedded to a specific corporate task, I'd come up with a figure way more than 36 minutes in an eight hour period. I'll wager you would, too. This survey is yet another pseudo-scientific tool designed to amplify the sound of the whip cracking behind us.
"How long do personal tasks at work take?" from DeseretNews.com
Sunday, March 11, 2007
Downsized Actress Takes Up Cause Of The Fired
Actress Annabelle Gurwitch was fired four years ago for sounding like a "retard", at least to the ears of her boss, Woody Allen. Since then she has produced a play called Fired: Tales of Jobs Gone Bad, a book, Fired! Tales of the Canned, Canceled, Downsized and Dismissed, a documentary called (simply) Fired! and a website, www.firedbyannabellegurwitch.com/.
She also has recently joined United Professionals. Having made all the rounds she cares to make as "the fired lady", she is now returning to her Hollywood life, and all the presumed glitter which that entails. Much of her work as "the fired lady" did indeed focus on the experiences of other Hollywood types - mostly comedians, judging from the list at the link below - but she also interviewed "real people" who had been fired, including a chef at the White House, and many factory workers in Lansing, Michigan, where she went in apparent imitation of another glitterati activist, Michael Moore, who made his own pilgrimage to Flint, Michigan in Fahrenheit 911. "The month I was fired something like 160,000 New Yorkers lost their job. Maybe not all by Woody Allen," she says, "but that's a lot of people. It really opened my eyes."
Although, as a "real" person, I am somewhat skeptical of the motivations of a celebrity augmenting her resume with anecdotes of job loss, ultimately my attitude is "The more, the merrier." The more publicity we can bring to this problem from any source, the sooner we can turn private stigma into public indignation.
"The end was only the beginning" from Los Angeles Times
Friday, March 09, 2007
Neocons' Worship Of CEOs Is At Odds With "Family Values"
Here is a thoughtful piece from The American Prospect about the hypocrisy of the neo-conservatives. While they applaud the brutal "new economy" with its frequent recourse to layoffs, downsizing, and restructuring, and its steady diminishment of pensions, health care and overtime, they condemn the collapse of the American family. Today only 23.7 percent of households are two parent families with children, while the figure was twice that about 50 years ago. The neo-conservatives blame the sixties for disrupting the sanctity of family life with its emphasis on permissiveness and its focus on the self. In fact, it was the Reagan years of the eighties when the average family really began to fall apart. The key to its destruction was the new attitude of employers towards their middle-class and working-class employees. No longer could these individuals depend on a stable source of income for the duration of their working lives, and that new instability reverberated throughout their personal lives, causing countless marriages to collapse, and forcing millions to delay marriage and children - or to forego them altogether.
Read the article below, and relish the irony of how the pompous fools of the conservative right undermined the very values they presume to cherish.
"The Family Values Sham" from The American Prospect
Thursday, March 08, 2007
More About Then We Came To The End
Here are some more reviews of Then We Came To The End, the new "office life" novel that has been almost universally praised. Several remark on the narrator's use of the pronoun "we", which author Joshua Ferris employs throughout the novel much as David McInerney famously addressed the reader as "you" in Bright Lights, Big City. Here though, instead of putting the reader into the action, the use of "we" conveys a hint of solidarity among the white collar workers in the story, an acknowledgement that they are facing the same crisis together despite their individual differences and feelings of alienation.
There is also an interview of Mr. Ferris, who used to be one of us. He worked as a copywriter for an ad firm in Chicago where, he says, "I never did advertising that was particularly sexy. I was more a news-letter and bill-insert man." He is unequally unassuming about his writing gifts, claiming, "I have always said that I have absolutely no talent, but a tremendous amount of discipline." He made up for his perceived shortcomings by working on his book 16 hours a day, completing it in 14 weeks. One thing that the white collar world will teach you is how to meet a deadline.
"All in a day's work: Ferris gives voice to office tyrants and flunkies" from BookPage Interview
"When work isn't fun but funny" from Newsday
"Hell Is Other Cubicles" from Slate
"Tender view of life among the cubicles" from The San Francisco Chronicle
"Cubicles of mass destruction" from The Christian Science Monitor
Wednesday, March 07, 2007
Quantifying (Or Downplaying) American Insecurity
Let it never be said that we at The White Collar Warrior don't acknowledge opposing views. The folks at Tech Central Station, for instance - those libertarian apologists who speak sooth to power - are prominent among those who belittle working people and dismiss their grievances as a sort of weaklings' hysteria. We don't like these dudes, but we read them occasionally anyway. They can prove inadvertently entertaining, as they sit naked behind the transparency of their biases.
At the link below is an interview of Karlyn Bowman, a poll analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. The AEI, according to Wikipedia, is "a conservative think tank". Their stated goal is "to defend the principles and improve the institutions of American freedom and democratic capitalism — limited government, private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility, vigilant and effective defense and foreign policies..." and so on. Not only that, but they have "emerged as one of the leading architects of the second Bush administration's public policy. More than two dozen AEI alumni have served either in a Bush administration policy post or on one of the government's many panels and commissions. AEI, along with the more conservative Heritage Foundation, is often cited as a center-right counterpart to the center-left Brookings Institution." The bottom line is that the AEI is scarcely a non-partisan institution, and Tech Central Station querying one of its researchers about the attitudes of the lumpen middle class is like a Confederate general asking the ghost of John C. Calhoun how the field slaves feel about the Emancipation Proclamation.
That said, let us go on. Bowman does indeed admit that a not insignificant minority of poll respondents express grave concern over the American economy. 10 percent expect to lose their jobs in the next year, 12 percent say their finances are "shaky", 10 percent are worried about paying their mortgages, 15 percent are "very worried" about being able to pay their monthly bills, 15 percent have in fact fallen behind on those bills, 20 percent say they have a problem paying medical bills, and 10 percent have declared bankruptcy at some point in their lives. Overall, Bowman says that "there seems to be slice of around 10-20 percent of the population that is very worried about keeping up."
At the other end of the spectrum, 15 percent say their finances are "very secure" - while another 56 percent say they are "fairly secure", which may or may not be a glass-is-half-full approach to a situation that might alarm other people. Bowman compares their recent responses to responses to similar surveys since 1991, declaring the results "very stable". What she does not say is that 1991 saw the start of one of the first really devastating white collar recessions. Ever since, layoffs, downsizing and debt have become familiar features in many middle class communities. 1991 constitutes the beginning of the current anti-worker epoch, and not some Edenic benchmark from happier times.
Bowman attributes some of the negative responses in the surveys as reflections of the "negative bias" of the "national media". She says, "There is rarely a good news story on the evening news..." She got that right - at least in the sense of "good" meaning "optimally informative". The evening news focuses on national and global issues for less than a half hour on network TV. Moreover, it is increasingly a vehicle for selling prescription medications and denture products, with an audience heavily weighted towards the already retired and large portions of its content dedicated to personal health issues and feel-good profiles of good old American folks from all walks of life. All that's unobjectionable enough, but I'd love to see more about Iraq and the economy on the news, not less. The "evening news" is hardly where Americans get their negative attitudes anyway. Large segments of the American working population do not watch the evening news at all, and get most of their info about the "economy" from personal experience.
Tech Central Station eggs Bowman on with its usual libertarian progressivist puffery of how swell everything's become for Americans as opposed to 50 years ago, or whenever. Bowman takes the bait: "The polls show that Americans are aware that life is better for them than it was for their parents and grandparents and that they are optimistic about their children's prospects. But when they answer questions about their job prospects for the next year or whether they have trouble making their mortgage payment, I doubt they think about this larger context." Ouch! Yessiree, the realities of the here and now will trump vague rhetoric about "technological progress" and "our brilliant future" every time. Tech Central Station responds by sputtering something about how "useful" these polls really are, and the interview ends with its head stuck politely in the sand.
Even the American Enterprise Institute admits that nearly one in five Americans is "very worried about keeping up." For all Tech Central Station's lame insinuations that this is actually good news, I wouldn't have expected a higher proportion myself. One in five Americans standing on the edge of the abyss is certainly enough to ring my alarm bells, even if it isn't enough for them.
"So, How Insecure Do Americans Really Feel?" from Tech Central Station
Tuesday, March 06, 2007
Emotions At The Workplace
Here is a sampling of articles about emotions at the workplace, when they occur, what their presence means, whether they are good or bad, and so on.
Bad Moods And "Creativity"
First, there is an article about a recent study I've already mentioned in my blog. A Rice University research team found that "being in a foul mood actually may help get those creative juices flowing." They finished their research convinced that "creativity is at its highest when a mix of negative and positive moods is supported." Uh-huh... Maybe in Hollywood or a Soho art gallery, but not any place where I've ever worked. But then maybe what I do wouldn't be classified as "creative". And that's the rub. Applying that term "creative" to any business activity is suspect to begin with, and already lands us in the realm of bullshit. Pretending to tolerate "negative emotions" only adds to the hypocrisy, and piles the bullshit higher and higher.
The Rice researchers did produce some common sense findings however. They recommend that managers should offer their employees feedback, trust and information about "job-related decisions". When employees are provided these three things, they are "more likely to be creative both when they are in positive moods and when they are in negative moods." But, if management is being nice to them, why would they be in a bad mood anyway? Unless it had something to do with their lives outside of work - or about work, but beyond the control of the managers, in which case managerial behavior might simply have no effect at all.
A sociology professor who assessed the study approved of its methodology, but offered three qualifications. The study was conducted "among workers on a creative team charged with developing new, creative designs..." The point here is that when being "creative" is essentially your job, becoming more "creative" simply means improving your job performance. Getting the desired feedback and information about "job-related decisions" may put the fear of God into an employee, generating fear and anxiety that pushes him to work harder, despite whether he feels "inspired" or not. Similar managerial behavior, and similar resulting emotions, could motivate an assembly line worker or a waiter just as well, their "creativity" notwithstanding. The study also examined only certain emotions - distress, fear and nervousness. No Van Gogh-like temperamentalism or volatile transcendence of the sort that many associate with "creativity" came into play, only the craven emotions of the dispossessed that make workers desperate to improve their situation. The study was also not longitudinal, in that it did not judge "creativity" by its long term results, but apparently by some glib managerial say-so that the workers were actively engaged at being more "creative". That may only have meant, in a shop where "creativity" was synonymous with doing your job, that the workers were anxiously scrambling to mitigate the whip-crack of managerial feedback, and no more.
Crying On The Job
Next, there is an article - widely reprinted throughout the online press - on whether or not it is "OK to cry at work". The item is inane, and may have been reprinted solely for its inanity. The bottom line is that "emotions are still a squishy subject in the workplace", that most experts believe it is more prudent to restrain strong emotions at work, and that - if you have to cry - excuse yourself to cry in private, and God help you if you are a man. Amen.
Boredom At Work
Finally, there is an article about the scourge of boredom at the workplace. For me, asking a cubicle dweller if he's bored is like asking if the pope is Catholic. "But psychologists believe this boredom epidemic is no joke," the article insists, adding, "Boredom in the workplace... could be more damaging than overwork." Apparently, a third of all British workers are afflicted by boredom. (Only a third?)
The causes of this "epidemic" are rife. Mindless paperwork, the ennui of waiting powerlessly for others to make decisions, the low attention span and inflated expectations of young workers stymied in their quest for instant gratification, and the stale lack of novelty felt by mid-career workers who yearn for something new but lack the balls to reach for it. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the venerable guru of "flow", suggests that employees "restructure the job in [their own minds]" into something that transfixes their attention and pulls them along by its own momentum. Easier said than done, methinks. Other "boredom-busting techniques" involve "gaining control", becoming more "assertive" and demanding "new challenges that stretch your abilities". Ho-hum. The hackneyed literature of job motivation is itself enough to induce tedium, and its precepts ring more hollow than ever. Increasing automation and bureaucratization has only made workers more passive, stripping them of the free will they need to make their lives interesting, and the situation will only get worse, not better. My only hope is that the "science" of management will someday learn to utilize our capacity for action more effectively, and leave our emotions the hell alone.
"Striking a creative balance at work" from The Daily Record (New Jersey)
"Crying on the job. When is it acceptable?" from South Bend Tribune
"Dulling Down" from The Guardian (UK)
Monday, March 05, 2007
Corporate Benefits For Working Mothers Are Oversold
The American Prospect has done a little muckraking on the lists put out by Working Mother and other women's publications that praise corporations for their "family friendly" policies. Many of these purportedly humane and ground-breaking organizations merely provide benefits that are already mandated by law - "Most of the firms that receive the honors are large employers, who are already required by the Family and Medical Leave Act to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the birth of a child or to care for any immediate family member." The value of these benefits are really not so wonderful to begin with. For instance, as the article says, "Benefits such as paid family leave or free or reduced-cost child care are much rarer." Finally, many perqs such as flex-time and job-sharing are made available only to managers, and not to lower-level employees. When Sprint made such a list in 1992, its operators were amazed at all the benefits "working mothers" were supposedly getting at the company, but to which they themselves had no access.
Another issue which these lists do not take into account is that, even when benefits for working mothers are available, taking advantage of them may be tacitly discouraged and may result in stalled careers. As the article says, "the Working Mother list now measures what percentage of employees have access to these policies. But it can be difficult to determine whether working parents are actually encouraged to take advantage of them. In many cases, corporate culture dictates that taking too many personal days, or constantly rejiggering a flex schedule, can mean getting passed over for a promotion." According to one expert, family friendly policies are often window dressing. They are bally-hooed in corporate handbooks and recruitment propaganda, but are rarely practiced as advertised.
Claims of expanding opportunities for minority women and for female executives are similarly exaggerated by corporations, and these exaggerations are uncritically passed on to the pages of women's magazines. The magazines themselves are forced to apply loose standards to include any corporations in such lists at all. "The list-makers cherry-pick the data," says author Martha Burk. "If they had a stringent external standard, they'd never be able to give any awards."
For more details, please visit the link below.
"Grade Inflation" from The American Prospect
Sunday, March 04, 2007
Some Facts And Figures
Here's a sample of interesting statistics garnered from various surveys:
45 percent of U.S. workers have been told that their use of computer technology is monitored by management.
69 percent of U.S. workers surf the web while at work.
69 percent of U.S. workers make or receive personal calls at work using their office phone.
55 percent of U.S. workers send and receive personal messages through their work email accounts.
1.02 billion cellphones were shipped to consumers worldwide in 2006.
833 billion cellphones were shipped in 2005.
90 percent of women in management and the professions have taken advantage of flexible work arrangements at some point in their careers.
70 percent of U.S. executives say their companies do not deserve their customers' loyalty.
These and other facts and figures can be found at the link below.
"Figuratively Speaking" from The Arizona Daily Star
Friday, March 02, 2007
The Novel And The Wage Slave
Here is an amusing review of Then We Came To The End, a novel by Jonathan Ferris. It's the story of wage slaves in an advertising firm, buzzing along on auto-pilot when times are good, and then awaiting the end on tenterhooks when the economy falters and the layoffs start. Apparently, the book captures the attitude of most of us towards office work. Some of the best lines actually come from the review itself. I read the following while I gobbled down a blueberry muffin, ensconsed in a warm, dry office while a sleety winter storm drizzled on outside. "Mr. Ferris has our number. He smells our fear, our vulnerability. The life of an office worker— the diner lunches, the ergonomic chairs, the brainstorm meetings and water-cooler gossip—is defined by ambivalence. It’s lined with a richly insidious comfort: There’s no such thing as a free morning bagel." True enough. Office life lulls us with its bland likability, even while the work may be deadening and our positions precarious. As the novelist puts it, "We were delighted to have jobs. We bitched about them constantly."
As the end approaches, the office turns into a quietly grim and faintly puckish Beckettian landscape, with Vladimir and Estragon seated in adjoining cubicles, each awaiting his turn with oblivion. The reviewer tells us, "The layoffs begin as a steady trickle, like sniper attacks, and build to a torrent, leaving whole swathes of the office desolate, cubicle ghost towns." The book sounds interesting, if a little self-consciously restrained and droll.
"Wage Slaves in Their Natural Habitat" from The New York Observer
Thursday, March 01, 2007
Nearshoring - Could This Nova Scotian Shark Eat Your Job?
Many high tech companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are switching from traditional "offshoring" to far-flung places like India and China to a more local version called "nearshoring", which taps the labor pool in countries in the Western Hemisphere like Mexico, Costa Rica and Canada.
There are numerous reasons for the shift. Part of it is language. Telemarketers and technical support in Latin American countries can interface seamlessly with the Hispanic market in the United States, and English itself is spoken in Canada and in much of the Caribbean. Sun Microsystems, for instance, moved its offshore technical support center from India to Nova Scotia because Americans are better able to understand English spoken with a Canadian accent. Certainly, both languages are spoken in the local markets that many U.S. corporations already serve in the countries where this nearshoring would take place.
The range of time zones is essentially identical with those in the United States, which has the great benefit of synchronizing business hours and eliminating the need for, say, programmers in Asia to stay up past their bedtime to confer on technical matters with their counterparts in the United States - as well as minimizing those occasions on which the time difference precludes any real-time communication between Asian and American workers. (If you ask me however, I still think having Indian programmers performing batch support in broad daylight on IT processes that run at night in the U.S. is way better than being awakened at 3:00 AM to resuscitate some foundering triple-A application.)
Another factor I did not see mentioned in the article at the link below is the greatly reduced expense and inconvenience of flying managers and workers back and forth between the U.S. and the offshoring site. This happens all the time, and I think everyone would agree that it is cheaper and faster to fly to Boston from Halifax, or to Los Angeles from Mexico City, than to fly to either place from Mumbai or Bangalore. There is also a sneaky psychological advantage to nearshoring to the Americas, as opposed to offshoring to Asia or Eastern Europe. Since it remains within the Western hemisphere, it makes it easier for executives to pretend to themselves, not to mention to others, that they aren't really employing labor resources that are not on "American soil". Sometimes it all boils down to spin.
"Moving tech support jobs closer to home" from The Mercury News (San Jose, CA)