Investing in People

Greed powers the American economy. The vast majority of employers are hellbent on grinding every single ounce of profit out of their employees. If someone gets crushed under the corporate wheel, so be it. Another body will come along soon enough. If it weren’t for unions, most of us would be working 80 hour weeks for subsistence wages.

That may seem like a good idea for your profit margin in the short term, and it may make your investors very happy, but if you’re playing the long game, grinding your staff down is the most idiotic thing that you could possibly do.

The reason you even have a business is because of the people who work for you. If you’re going to invest in anything at all, invest in your people, because without them, you are nothing. Nothing.

Rick Steves understands this. You might be familiar with him because of the PBS show Rick Steves Europe, but here in the Pacific Northwest, he’s an even bigger deal than that. His headquarters are in Edmonds, Washington, and overall, he employs 100 people. (You may have also read my other post about him, which highlights what how he invests in his community.)

According to this article/video, Mr. Steves has made no profit whatsoever this year. As you might imagine, the travel industry isn’t the place to be in the COVID era. He had 20,000 tours booked, and he had to fully refund every single one of them. His office is currently closed.

But he understands the value of his professionals. He wants to keep them around. He could have laid them all off and saved a fortune on the front end, but many of them probably wouldn’t have been able to come back, and the money he would have had to spend on training, and the unknown factor of whether or not new staff would be a good fit would have cost him in the long run.

So Rick Steves is paying his employees to volunteer in their community. Some are working at food banks. Some are cleaning up park trails. Some are working at charitable thrift stores, or manning phone banks to get out the vote.

These people know they’re going to have a job to come back to. They are making a difference in the community. They are not going nuts with boredom, sitting on the couch and gaining weight. They will come back to the office feeling healthy, happy and confident. And I’m willing to bet they’ll be forever loyal to Rick Steves. There’s no better investment than that.

Granted, over the years this man has made a tiny bit a heck of a lot more money than I have. He can afford to be generous. Then again, compared to the bottom line of the greedy Jeff Bezos, he’s small potatoes. But in my estimation, he’s the better man by far.

Rick Steves, in Bruges, Belgium: He spends July and August north of the Alps. (ricksteves.com/MCT via Getty Images)

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Cruise Ship Feudalism

The first time I was called madame it made me blink. But it was our Indonesian cabin steward aboard our cruise ship, so I thought maybe it was a language barrier. He was very polite.

But then it happened again, this time from a Filipino server at the buffet. And again, and again, from various East Asian crew members aboard the Noordam. I began to suspect they were instructed to address me in this way, and it made me squirm. It was courteous, yes, but this isn’t the 1800’s and I’m hardly a madame. I half expected the men to start pulling their forelocks.

In any other situation, I’d be lucky to be considered a member of polite society. I shop at Goodwill more often than I’d care to admit, and my car is 17 years old. And yet, I could afford to take a cruise without having to work thereon for 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, for months on end to do so. So there’s that. And so I took my awkward place in the cruise ship hierarchy.

Never having grown up in a blatant hierarchical system, such as the class system of Elizabethan England, or in India, where Untouchables still exist in some areas, I’ve never felt comfortable with having people considered greater or lesser than I am. I know this type of discrimination is all around me, of course. I can’t relate to people who buy 700 dollar shoes at Nordstrom, and they often look at me with disdain. If I enter a really rich neighborhood (or a really poor one if I’m honest), I feel uncomfortable. But as a white person in America, much of the time I have the luxury of overlooking these nuances.

I don’t know what it is about cruise ships that cause the layers of society to be so sharply defined, but I couldn’t seem to get away from it during my journey. It was a little hard to take. While I enjoyed my time aboard, it also made me chafe and feel a bit ashamed.

From my observations and also from a lazy Google search, there seems to be 4 distinct classes on the Noordam. Where you found yourself in the pecking order determines how many hours you work, the number of roommates you have, the food you eat, the amount you are paid, and the respect that you are given.

On the top level are the officers. Since Noordam is a Dutch ship, most of them seem to come from the Netherlands, or Northern Europe at the very least. They tend to carry themselves like Gods, and keep themselves separate from everyone else, including the passengers. They eat the best food and often have their own staterooms. Being at the top of the heap, they of course do not appear at all uncomfortable with the system, and in fact can be quite condescending to those below them.

Next come the passengers. We, of course, are a necessary part of the system because we are the cash cows. In fact, a great deal of time and effort is expended on extracting as much money from us as is humanly possible. Upselling is the order of the day. Of course, we have good rooms, based on what we are willing to pay, and good food, with access to even better food, if we are willing to pay. Many of us are decent and kind and probably work hard for the money that we use to pay for the trip. Others are whiny, complaining, entitled a$$hats who seem to expect to be catered to at every waking moment.

The third level is comprised of members of the staff. Mostly they came from the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia. They are in charge of the entertainment and administrative aspects of the cruise. They work hard, but their hours are not as long as those of the crew. They often have one roommate, and get more days off in port. Their food is not as good as ours, but it is tolerable.

And then there is the crew. I really felt sorry for the crew. They are predominantly East Asian, particularly from the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia. They often work 10 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for months on end without a day off. Their pay is abysmal, and their food is even worse. They usually share a room with three to five other people. I honestly don’t know how they manage to remain so courteous, other than the fact that there would be dire consequences for them if they did not.

The entire boat seemed to be full of shining happy people. Everyone acted like they loved their jobs and wanted to be there. Everyone said hello as they passed in the halls, and we were made to feel very comfortable and pampered. But every once in a while, cracks would show on the surface. The exhaustion would become evident. Stress would peek through behind the smiles. Sometimes I had to work really hard not to feel sad and uncomfortable.

I overheard one crew member mention that she just found out on that very day that she lost a loved one, but she wouldn’t let the company know because she didn’t want to break her contract and lose her job. That, and she had no way to get home for the funeral anyway. All this while catering to passengers and smiling, smiling, smiling. It broke my heart.

One of the places where the class division was most evident was in the Vista Lounge, the largest entertainment venue aboard. I always enjoyed my experiences there. Comedians, musicians, demonstrators, educators. It was all good. But I’ve always felt as though cruise ship entertainment was a bit too nervous, a bit too slick and over the top. It didn’t occur to me until my Google search that they were being watched and could lose their jobs if they didn’t give it their all, despite any illness or injury they were experiencing. That’s got to make you feel like a puppet on a string.

One night, volunteers from the Filipino members of the crew put on a variety show for us. It was late at night. Their set pieces were made out of plywood and cardboard, as opposed to all the glitzy, high-end productions on other days. And at the end, a few of the cast members had to rush off to get back to work rather than take a final bow and experience our praise and applause for their efforts.

Come on, Holland America. These people were providing your passengers with free entertainment. Couldn’t you pay them and allow them to miss one hour of work? Couldn’t you provide them with a production budget? That, in a nutshell, is how the hierarchy works on these ships. And there’s no justification for it.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved my time aboard the Noordam. I’m glad I did it. I’d recommend it to others. I’ll take away many happy memories from the cruise. I’m sure there were passengers who looked at the entire trip through a different lens. As a matter of fact, I often felt like I was seeing things through two different lenses at the same time. The luxury, the fun, the beauty were there as well. But I still felt the things going on below the surface. That’s just how my brain is wired.

One comedian said it best. “How many officers does it take to change a lightbulb? None. They need a Filipino for that.”

Noordam

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George Washington vs. Donald Trump

Can you imagine what it must have been like to be the first president? I mean, the first, ever. In the history of the world. No pressure, right?

George Washington was quite a character. First of all, he was hellbent on making sure that no one mistook the presidency for a kingdom. He absolutely refused to wear outlandish, royal clothes. No thrones. None of this fancy stuff for him. He was not a vain man. He didn’t want to be perceived as superior to the people. He wanted to be considered a unifier.

He spent a lot of time traveling, talking to the people. That’s why so many places can claim, “Washington slept here.” I guess you could say he slept around. In that way, the presidency hasn’t changed much. But it definitely has in other ways.

For example, Washington had a staff of two, as opposed to the thousands that are on staff today. Granted, he didn’t have the population, or nearly as much need to be an international player, that the position has now. Back then, you could walk right up to the White House door and knock without being tackled. People picnicked on the White House lawn. Those days are gone.

According to Wikipedia, Washington was also the first (and last) president to ride at the head of an army to suppress an insurgency. He did so during the Whiskey Rebellion.

I can sort of understand why people were so upset. Here’s this federally imposed tax on a commodity that was often used as a trade good in lieu of currency, when they had just fought the Revolutionary War because of taxation. But governments can’t operate for free, so Washington had to nip that in the bud.

Speaking of nipping things in the bud, I’d like to put to rest two rumors about Washington that seem to persist. First of all, he never had wooden teeth. I mean, hello. Wood expands when exposed to moisture, and who wants to risk splinters in their mouth? No, his extremely uncomfortable dentures were a combination of ivory and human teeth. While they often looked brown, that doesn’t mean they were wooden.

The other myth is that Washington was foul-mouthed. Not only was he not prone to cursing, even though he often had good reason to, but he prohibited cursing amongst his troops. All his writings indicate that he was a dignified man, not inclined to outbursts. He would have sooner died than utter the words “pussy” or “shithole”. In fact, according to NPR, he swore by a set of precepts called the Rules of Civility, as taught to him by Jesuit instructors, which included the following: “Use no reproachful language against any one; neither curse nor revile.”

George Washington was an honorable man. He’d have been horrified by Trump’s language and behavior. He would be sickened by Trump’s mocking attitude. It would have never occurred to him to ask for a military parade in his honor, and he certainly wouldn’t be upset that people did not applaud him when he thought they should. Washington was not about being worshipped or adored. And Washington would never, not in a million years, have dodged the draft.

George Washington was far from perfect, but in terms of ethics, morality, dignity and class, you might say that these two presidents are, indeed, centuries apart.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

11_07-2014_washington_teeth.jpg__800x600_q85_crop
Yep. These are George’s choppers. Ouch.

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Seventeen Fatal Mistakes Managers Make

I have been working since I was 10 years old, and have experienced every type of manager conceivable. There is quite a bell curve on the spectrum of competence. I’ve seen many of the same mistakes made over and over and over again. These professional landmines should be easy to spot and avoid, but apparently not, because they get stepped on with annoying frequency, and it’s all so unnecessary.

In no particular order, here are some of the most common errors.

  • Creating adversarial situations. Believe it or not, most employees want their company to succeed, and want to feel like they are part of the reason for that success. When you force them into a position where they are made to feel that you are on opposite sides, or when you pit one employee or department against another, it’s demoralizing. Imagine how much more functional your company would be if everyone were allowed to feel as if they were on the same team.
  • Not allowing employees to have dignity. If an employee needs to be disciplined, for God’s sake, don’t do it in front of coworkers or, even worse, customers. Allow them to save face by taking them aside and discussing the situation one on one. Your goal should be to correct, not to humiliate. And there’s never any reason to shout. You’re talking to an adult, and odds are good that they can hear you when you speak in a reasonable tone of voice.
  • Not trusting staff. If you treat employees as though they do not deserve your confidence, they will eventually lose the desire to be trustworthy. What’s the point of striving for trust that can never be achieved? If you truly have no faith in your staff, why did you hire them in the first place?
  • Enacting changes without consulting employees. This is one of the most costly mistakes an employer can make. Your front line employees are your best and most vital knowledge base. They can usually tell you what will work and what won’t and why. Before making a policy change, run it by them. You’re not trying to get their permission. You don’t necessarily have to take their advice. Most people, after all, are resistant to change. But they can point out problems that you may not have considered. If you have their input, they will be more likely to buy into your change. Time and again I’ve heard of large companies that pay consultants 250k to help them improve efficiency, when they could have simply asked the people who actually do the job. What a concept.
  • Wasting time. Don’t have a meeting just so you can look like you communicate. Own it. Actually make it worth the effort. If you have nothing important to say, let them go do their jobs. Likewise, don’t make employees sit through training just so you can say you’ve trained them. If the information isn’t relevant, or if it’s self-evident, don’t take up time that could be better spent.
  • Turf guarding. If you allow your employees to shine, you will be bathed in the glow as well. Why, why, WHY can’t managers grasp this basic concept? Don’t take credit for things that your employees have done. Don’t hold people back. Recognize the accomplishments of your staff, and sing their praises from the rooftops. This will make them want to do even better, which in turn will reflect well on you. It’s sort of like a perpetual motion machine of success, but one which is hardly ever taken advantage of.
  • Micromanaging. Have you ever heard of anyone who likes this behavior? Of course you haven’t. People like to feel as if they can be trusted to think independently. If you weigh them down with an ever-increasing mountain of petty rules, you will create anxiety, resentment, and a whole lot of people who are coming up with ingenious ways to look as if they’re complying without actually doing so. Worst of all, you will lose any respect that you might have had. Before imposing a rule, ask yourself what would happen if that rule didn’t exist.
  • Being inflexible. Employees are human beings, not robots. Sometimes you need to accommodate them. This does not mean you play favorites. It means you take unique circumstances into account. If you are reasonable with people, you will gain their loyalty. If you are rigid, they’ll simply consider you to be an a**hole, and won’t cooperate with you.
  • Weak link-itis. If you have an employee who isn’t up to snuff, you might think it is easier to have your more competent employees pick up the slack, but all this does is eventually burn out the good employees, causing them to become less productive as well. It also breeds resentment. Rather than lower everyone to the level of the weak link, form a backbone and get the weak link to rise up to the appropriate level or get rid of that person.
  • Throwing people under the bus. If you’ve screwed up, or cause your department to screw up, own it. Don’t blame it on your staff. If you cause a traffic jam in New Jersey, fall on your sword of stupidity and pettiness. Don’t fire your underlings and act as if the crisis has been averted. Everyone will know you’re lying.
  • Forcing employees to make fools of themselves. If you insist that your employees wear silly uniforms or say inane and insincere things like, “How can I provide you with excellent customer service today?” You are going to be the one who winds up looking like an idiot, and if they take the opportunity to run you down with their car no reasonable court in the land would convict them.
  • Creating anxiety in terms of job stability. People aren’t working for you for the fun of it. They have families to feed and bills to pay. Don’t make them live under the constant threat of possible discharge. That’s their livelihood you are messing with, and it causes unnecessary anxiety, a distinct lack of concentration, and probably a lot more turnover than you would have otherwise.
  • Not being open to suggestion. Your employees spend a lot of time thinking about their jobs and how best to do them. Every now and then they may actually come up with something that you haven’t considered that will greatly improve production. You’ll never know this if you behave as if there’s a brick wall between you, or if you get angry when someone seems to be trying to upset the apple cart.
  • Losing perspective. There are at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe. In the overall scheme of things, there is very little that we do on this tiny little planet that is worth getting spun up about. Relax. It’ll be all right.
  • Lack of appreciation. Everyone wants to be acknowledged for their hard work. You don’t have to like your employees, but you do have to realize that if they weren’t there, your company wouldn’t exist.
  • Putting your pride before logic. If you come up with a stupid idea, own it, rescind it and move on. Don’t continue with the insane policy simply to save face. It’s counterproductive.
  • Not sticking up for your people. In all my years of employment, I’ve only had one boss who was willing to stick his neck out for me, and that’s my current one. Because of that, when he needs me to go the extra mile, I’ll go an extra ten. He has my loyalty, because I know he has my back. On the other hand, if a boss lets me be unjustly attacked by upper management or clients, he or she is dead to me, and I’ll only do the bare minimum to remain employed. The customer may always be right, but don’t assume that means that your employee is always wrong.

bad-boss-2

[Image credit: wanttoworkintelevision.com]