A Good Man Down

We lost another friend yesterday.  A colleague from work, Tom passed away after a short but valiant battle with pancreatic cancer.  He was only 60.

meteorWe met 31 years ago when I joined the law firm and was assigned to an office next to his.  We shared the same curse, both being diehard fans of Cleveland sports teams, and became workplace friends.  Because I had worked for a few years between college and law school, he was already a seasoned associate when I was a raw rookie, and he happily served as a sounding board for the kinds of questions that inevitably arise when you start working at a new place.  It quickly became apparent that he was extremely smart, a very talented lawyer, and somebody who was viewed by firm partners as a rising star.  He invited me to join a group of older associates who went out for lunch from time to time and swapped stories about the firm at a place that specialized in apple dumplings, and it made me feel included, and a little bit more like a part of the firm.  He didn’t have to do it, but he was just that kind of person.

After a few years in neighboring offices he exercised his seniority and moved to a better office, and we saw less of each other.  He got married and we both focused on our families and things like trying to build our law practices, but he remained the kind of guy who would send along an article and funny observation about the latest crushing Cleveland sports disappointment or email a wry comment about national politics or a development at the firm.  Since his death yesterday, several people have said that he had no enemies — and that’s true.  He was a person who was happy with his wife, happy with his life, and happy in his work, content with his circumstances and satisfied with how things worked out.

And that’s one of the things that made the news about his discovery, only a few months ago, that he had already advanced pancreatic cancer so difficult to accept.  It simply doesn’t seem fair that such a friendly, mild-mannered, fundamentally decent person could be taken so cruelly and never given the opportunity to retire and enjoy the fruits of his years of very hard work.  But after you’ve seen untimely death take a number of good people, you realize that fairness really has nothing to do with it and stop trying to make sense of it.  The key thing is to live a life that, when the time comes, hopefully leaves those who must move on with fond memories of a good person who will be missed.

Tom Ruby accomplished that.

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Thanks, And Thanks!

We got into a discussion the other day about proper etiquette when it comes to the ubiquitous “thanks” email in the workplace.  Put aside the fact that some people hate it, and accept that the “thanks” email needs to be sent as a matter of common courtesy — and also, by the way, to confirm that the prior email has been received and read.

rapkprhNo, the question is: should the email be “Thanks.” or “Thanks!”?  How important is it to put that ending exclamation point on your expression of personal gratitude?

Exclamation points are, of course, used to add emphasis, and can express excitement, surprise, astonishment, or other strong sentiments.  Interestingly, exclamation points were apparently originally called the “note of admiration” — and admiration seems pretty close to gratitude.  Also, the “Thanks.” email comes across as just a little bit flat, doesn’t it?  If you’ve asked someone a question or made a request and they’ve provided you with the information or response you want, the least you can do is put a little emphasis on your expression of appreciation.  If you then ask a follow-up question and get a follow-up response, you can always go with the “Thanks again.” email on the second go-round.

I do think, however, that we need to guard against overuse of the exclamation point in workplace communications.  For example, one exclamation point is perfectly sufficient, and multiple exclamation points should be reserved only for the most extraordinary circumstances.  And let’s remember that the exclamation point should be used rarely, and it is the good old period that should be liberally employed.  Too many exclamation points make the writer seem breathless and overly excitable.

But none of that should prevent the use of the exclamation point on that initial “Thanks!” email.  As in, to all of the readers of this blog:  Thanks!

Addressing Homelessness, One Job At A Time

What should cities do to address the issues with their homeless populations?  It’s a persistent, nagging question that often seems impossible to solve.  For decades, cities and charities have offered support and services to help homeless people, and yet the homeless remain.  And advocates for the homeless remind us that giving money to people who are panhandling isn’t really helping them.  So what should be done?

545479804_1280x720In Albuquerque, New Mexico, the mayor decided to take a job-oriented approach to the homelessness issue.  From his conversations with members of the city’s homeless population, he learned that many of the homeless just wanted to work, but didn’t know how to go about getting a job.  So the mayor worked with a charity to give some of the homeless people jobs cleaning up city streets and helping with landscaping of city properties.  The homeless people who perform the jobs are paid $9 an hour for their work, receive lunch, and are offered shelter at night.  The program has been operating for a year and has helped 100 people move on to permanent employment.  And while there is a cost, the city benefits from the work performed by the participants.  The Albuquerque program is called “There a Better Way.”

Cities seem to take different approaches to the problem of homelessness.  As the article linked above notes, many cities have begun criminalizing panhandling.  Other cities seem to simply put up with homelessness and begging, or institutionalize it.  On our recent trip to New Orleans, we saw many homeless people sleeping on the streets, with only a bit of cardboard for shelter; New Orleans seems to tolerate its homeless people and expects visitors to do so, too.  In Columbus, on the other hand, some of the homeless people participate in a program in which they receive a license and sell newspapers about homelessness at designated locations.  It’s better than aggressive panhandling, I suppose, but it doesn’t seem to be moving people on to private-sector employment.  At the street corner near our firm, for example, the same pleasant and polite woman has been selling the papers for years; she even refers to what she’s doing as her “job.”

The Albuquerque approach clearly is preferable to ignoring the problem, and those of us who have always worked know the value of having a job and earning a paycheck, but the article doesn’t say what Albuquerque does with homeless people who don’t want to participate in the program.  Those are the people who present the real challenge.  No one wants to see people living on the streets, suffering from exposure to the elements and in harm’s way, but most cities also don’t want homeless people accosting pedestrians and begging for money on street corners, either.

A Tale Of Two Jobs

The New York Times published an interesting story over the weekend that compared two jobs, and in the process provided some insight into how the economy is changing and what it means for workers trying to get ahead.

The two jobs were janitorial jobs:  one held by a woman working at Kodak in Rochester, New York in the 1980s, and the other by a woman currently working at the Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California.  The two women earned about the same amount, adjusted for inflation, and performed the same kinds of work.

mop-and-bucketThe Kodak worker, however, was a full-time employee of the company.  She received more than four weeks of paid vacation annually as well as a bonus payment, and the company also reimbursed some of the tuition she paid going to college part time.  When the building she was charged with cleaning closed down, the company found her a different job.  The janitor at Apple, on the other hand, doesn’t work for Apple at all; she works for a service that Apple contracts with to keep its buildings clean.  She can’t afford to take a vacation because she can’t afford any lost pay, and there are no opportunities for bonuses or transfers to different work at Apple.

Although the Times article veers off into the unusual story of the Kodak worker — who ended up taking computer classes, getting transferred to a professional job in information technology, and ultimately becoming the chief technology officer at Kodak — the more interesting point is the macroeconomic lesson.  As the Times describes it, American companies have “flocked to a new management theory:  Focus on core competence and outsource the rest.”  The Times article notes that the outsourcing approach has made companies “more nimble and more productive, and delivered huge profits for shareholders,” but “has also fueled inequality and helps explain why many working-class Americans are struggling even in an ostensibly healthy economy.”

There’s no doubt that outsourcing has been a huge trend in the American economy.  But what the Times presents as a kind of optional management theory designed to reap windfall profits for shareholders while shortchanging working-class Americans seems to me to be more of the inevitable consequence of the cold hard reality of global competition.  The business world has changed, and companies that want to compete with low-cost providers overseas have to keep their intellectual capital while cutting costs wherever they can.  Outsourcing is one result of that reality; the disappearance of company-funded health care benefits and pensions, the rise of employee-funded retirement plans, and movements of company headquarters to the states and cities that offer the most favorable tax abatement schemes are some of the others.

The proof of the cold hard reality is in the outcome:  Apple is thriving, while Kodak — which once was one of the most successful, innovative companies in America — has gone through bankruptcy, laid off thousands of workers, and repurposed itself into a much smaller concern.  Kodak may have paid a price for its generosity.  And for workers, the lesson is clear:  do what you can to become one of those intellectual capital assets that companies want to keep around.

Mysterious Object 

We’ve been doing some cleaning today, and I ran across this unknown metal object.  I put a buckeye next to it to give an idea of its size.

I have no idea of its function, but it’s nicely made and appears to be pretty old.  Anybody have an idea what this object is?  It’s destined to become a desk toy at my office.

Managing That Workplace “Vibe”

The New York Post reports that some companies and hotels are looking to hire people for a new kind of job with an evocative title:  “Vibe Manager.”

That would look pretty good on an office door sign, wouldn’t it?

img_6247-2“Vibe Managers” apparently are generally responsible for making employees feel good about the “vibe” at their workplace.  They’re supposed to plan parties and activities like scavenger hunts and other events for the workers, make playlists for office soundtracks, assist in recruiting “talent,” make sure everybody’s birthday is properly recognized, and consider whether the company should offer benefits like lunch-hour yoga and chair massages.  The position also might involve more mundane activities, like making sure that the office kitchen and coffee stations are stocked with healthy snacks.

Why, after decades of muddling through without them, do companies suddenly need a “Vibe Manager”?  Because surveys apparently show that 70 percent of American workers are not focused on their work and aren’t feeling “engaged.”  It’s interesting, too, that the solution to the lack of “focus” and “engagement” is to create a new job designed to make sure that the employer offers non-work activities that some naysayers might consider to be nothing more than frivolous window dressing.  Seriously, is a scavenger hunt really going to materially change a disgruntled employee’s perspective on his or her workplace?  If so, what does that say about the worker in the first place?

A workplace “vibe” seems to be a lot different from a workplace “culture.”  Many of the most successful companies in the history of capitalism have thrived because they established a culture that incorporated core concepts like excellence, teamwork, loyalty, pride, innovation, and quality — all concepts that, unlike a “vibe,” were directly related to, and directly supported, the company’s business activities.  Employees embraced and bought into the strong cultures of these successful companies and, so long as they were fairly compensated and evaluated, were satisfied and happy in their work because they felt that they were part of something larger that was doing something worthwhile.  It wasn’t office birthday parties that made the difference.

Any company that is worried about something superficial, like its “vibe,” probably isn’t sufficiently attentive to more fundamental issues like culture.  And that’s probably going to undercut the efforts to have a cool “vibe” down the road.  Anybody who’s ever experienced the “vibe” of a company that is going down the tubes knows what I mean.