Love it or Leave it

Voice Card  -  Volume 24  -  John Card Number 3  -  Wed, Apr 22, 1992 4:01 PM

This is ONE OF 2 responses to VC 24 Drury 5 ("Club sandwiches")...

Dear Drury:

My my! I seem to have touched a nerve. Actually though, I'm glad you took the time to write a serious reply to my proposal for an intelligent workplace. You raise many good points and now I have so much to say it will be hard to pack it all into a single card. I'll respond to your points in the order you raised them.

1. "How would you like your grocery bag person taking a siesta or reading the "Zen of Bagging" when you were in a hurry to get your groceries home?" I think you are absolutely right that "kilns and libraries" won't work for all job situations. The fast food industry is another good example; since they are in the business of selling FAST food, slow service simply won't do.

But even at McDonald's there is room for intelligence in the workplace. My fundamental message is simply this: employers should treat their employees as human beings first and workers second. This does not mean giving each employee her own hot tub or making the workplace look like a "country club." It DOES mean treating employees with the same consideration and respect you would treat a colleague. It means being flexible, compassionate, and open. And it means motivating employees with more than just money.

Yes, employees are hired to get the job done. But the attitude that the employer "owns" the employee, or that paying a salary means you can treat people like cogs, is counterproductive not just to the hapless worker, but in the long run, to the employer as well. Good help is indeed hard to find. And today's worker resents being treated like an idiot or a mule.

Actually, I think I'd prefer an enlightened bagboy. If he is reading "Zen of Bagging" INSTEAD of actually bagging my groceries, he should be fired. But if he is encouraged to read "Zen of Bagging" between shifts he might just become a better bagboy. And if that means his bagging style is a little quirky, so much the better! I am sick to death of the automatons that most supermarkets employ, chanting a monotone "paper or plastic?" without ever making eye contact. It's spooky. It's inhuman. And it doesn't have to be that way.

2. "I don't want ... to spend MY valuable time cleaning the damn cage!" Frankly, Drury, I think it might just do you some good to clean a few cages. Yes, the work you do is very important, and yes, with your years of training it would seem a waste to spend even a minute cleaning a cage. But I think a little role-reversal, even if it's only one day a year, could do wonders for office morale. It would give you a chance to gain a little humility and some valuable insights into the problems your workers face every day.

This idea of trading places with employees for one day a year is always popular with the "menial" workers but never with their bosses. Try suggesting to a surgeon that he spend a day cleaning bed pans. "What?! ME! Clean bed pans?! My time is FAR too important!" And yet if the surgeon ever did spend even a single day as an orderly she might be surprised. She might even learn something.

I am sure you have cleaned many cages in your day, Drury. You are one of the hardest working people I know. But if you ever start placing yourself above your co-workers you will do yourself an enourmous disservice. This upstairs-downstairs mentality is absolutely fatal to all concerned. It's a big part of why we're losing out to the Japanese. If you treat your employees as colleagues instead of "cage-cleaners" you will earn their loyalty and dedication.

Deep down, whether CEO or streetsweeper, we are all human beings facing the same fundamental problems. We are interconnected. And if an occassional cage cleaning will remind you of that, then the sooner you pick up a sponge the better.

3. "If you find your "jobs" boring and stifling, FIND ANOTHER JOB." In fact, that's exactly what I did (or to be more precise, I allowed that job to come to a quick end and I am now looking for another). But many people are not as lucky as you and I.

Perhaps you do not fully appreciate how desperate the current job market is. We are not just in a recession. I believe we are in an honest-to-god depression. There are a LOT of people who are regularly mistreated and harassed in the workplace, and would give anything to get out, but they just can't. They are trapped. And all too many employers take shameless advantage of this situation.

I believe that your notion of "suggesting improvements" is naive. A good manager will listen to suggestions if they're delivered in a respectful fashion. But many MANY managers absolutely will not. In fact many corporations do everything they can to discourage initiative. The unrelenting message is "You were paid to do a job. Now shut up and do it." This attitude is an inevitable consequence of the upstairs - downstairs mentality.

If you have not encountered this phenomenon then you are very lucky indeed.

4. "Let's try getting day care, commuting groups, ergonomic work stations introduced BEFORE the libraries, kilns, or siestas." Bravo! I completely agree. I would only point out that the people who first proposed THOSE ideas were greeted with the same arguments you have espoused. And before that, the people who proposed child labor laws and laws banning unsafe factories were hooted down in just the same fashion. Siestas, incidentally, are an accepted practice in many European countries.

5. "Middle management is not as evil and no-brainer as you described them. I wouldn't bad-mouth them until you do their job." I never said and I do not believe that middle management is inherently evil. Over the years I've seen good managers and bad managers - there are plenty of both.

You raise a valid point when you say it is far easier to criticize the boss than to do the job yourself. I've never really been a manager but I have been a teacher and perhaps the most profound lesson I learned was that, no matter how hard I tried, I could never be the perfect teacher to every student in my classes. Anyone who has ever been in a position of responsibility quickly comes face to face with time limits and other constraints that prevent us from even approaching perfection. You will make mistakes. And there will always be a certain amount of friction with your workers/students.

Thus I am quite willing to forgive managers for occasional oversights or misjudgments. But I insist on being treated with respect. Far too many managers assume the worst of their employees and treat them like idiots or naughty children. I was told how to sit in my chair. Janine is regularly spied upon. A 36-year-old mother of two was recently asked to bring a note from her doctor verifying that she had been ill.

These are symptoms of a pervasive problem in the workplace. Yes, I will leave a job where I am mistreated. But when I see idiocy and injustice on this scale I will also speak out against it. If that makes me a "snobby over-educated" troublemaker then so be it! These things will not change until people start saying ENOUGH!