Corporate Oppression



Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Sometimes the stupidity of the American people is breathtaking.

Over the past few years, those on the right have issued dire warnings about America turning into a socialist paradise. They claim that Obama and his cohorts are on a mission (Muslim-influenced, no doubt) to take away our sacred rights of freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the freedom to shoot one another from the safety of one’s home. We hear again and again how Obamacare is a badly-disguised ruse to strip us of our freedom to choose whatever incompetent medical professional we want and to deny us our right to pray that the one we choose wasn’t one of the medical professionals responsible for one or more of the 300,000 deaths caused every year through medical errors.

Okay, so I’ve editorialized a teeny bit here, but what I really want to address is the fact that these pundits and politicians actually believe that the Obama government is hell-bent on taking away our freedoms.

What’s so stupid about that notion is that the corporations who pay their salaries or contribute to their political campaigns have already taken away more freedoms than the limited imaginations of those in government could ever conceive.

Corporate health plans now routinely penalize the overweight and the nicotine-addicted by either jacking up their  insurance premiums or by not hiring them at all.Many corporations have personnel policy manuals loaded with rules that deny all kinds of freedoms: the freedom to wear what you want, the freedom to bring your kids or pets to work, the freedom to eat at your desk, and above all, your allegedly inalienable right to freedom of speech.

Although I regularly read the annual polls that tell us that Americans don’t know dick about their history or their form of government, I’m still astonished by the attempts of some employees to assert rights that do not and never have had legal standing in the American workplace. A short while ago, I actually had an employee defend some comments he’d made that amounted to sexual and racial harassment by claiming his constitutional right to “freedom of speech.”

“Have you ever actually read The Bill of Rights?”

“Of course I have!” he replied, lying through his teeth.

“Hmm. Maybe you missed the introduction. The First Amendment says that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. It doesn’t say anything about corporations or other private institutions. Corporations can restrict freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association and freedom of the press within the corporation. They do it all the time. Plus, if you’ve read anything about The Founding Fathers, you’ll remember that most of them were Masons, an organization that has always had strict rules restricting freedom of speech in order to protect their secrecy. Those guys knew exactly what they were doing when they wrote that little phrase “Congress shall make no laws” into the First Amendment.”

I could have gone on to tell him that a corporation’s right to restrict various freedoms is somewhat limited by laws designed to facilitate unionization and by the need to consider an employee’s religious practices in relation to scheduling work, but for the most part a corporation is given a great deal of latitude to do what it takes to manage the business and the people in it. This is why you can’t do certain things in the workplace even if they are First Amendment rights. You can’t tell your boss he’s an idiot or that you’re not going to do the stupid thing he asked you to do: that’s insubordination. You can’t tell someone that their butt looks good in those jeans: that’s harassment. Many corporations forbid wearing religious icons or “offensive” t-shirts with religion-tinged slogans. You can’t publish an alternative newsletter on the company network sharing your belief that the executives are a bunch of no-talent losers. You can associate with others for the purpose of discussing working conditions and the possibility of unionization, but even that right can be limited to specific times and places.

Corporations also have more power to promote social conformity. Despite the press about all the really cool places to work, most companies still have dress codes, fixed work schedules and both rules and norms about how one should behave in the workplace or interact with co-workers. Modern work life imposes a routine; routines become fixed patterns; fixed patterns deaden the brain. At the end of the work day, once you get through a commute that inevitably worsens with the passage of time, the last thing you want to do is think. You want a few hours of escape before the cycle repeats itself the following morning . . . and the morning after that . . . and the one after that.

The worst part of it all is that unlike the government, corporations have real power over you. They control your paycheck. They control whether or not you make your mortgage payment or feed the kids. Of course you’re going to conform, limit your self-expression and behave appropriately—you need the money!

The reason why businesses are allowed to order people around and shut them up in a country that proclaims the inalienable nature of certain rights is because America is a capitalist country first, and a democracy second, third or fourth. Democracy has never really gained a foothold in the workplace, despite various movements and initiatives that fall under the headings of “employee empowerment” and “workplace democracy.” Even those initiatives are pretty limp; I’ve never heard of one that gives the employees the right to vote on who’s going to be their boss or on who’s going to be the next CEO.

I would love to have an intelligent conversation about freedom in America, but such a conversation would force people to look at some fundamental contradictions in American society that people really don’t want to deal with.

When It’s Time to Leave Your Lousy Job


reprinted from


There are generally two kinds of people who inhabit organizations: those that are there to earn a paycheck and those that are there to make a difference.

This post is targeted to those who want to make a difference, because they have the hardest time leaving an organization behind. Ironically, the reason why they find it hard to leave has to do with their greatest strength: a strong sense of responsibility to the organization. These people made a commitment to make a difference and it’s very hard for them to admit defeat.

Still, it’s better to admit that the organization is making it impossible for you to make a difference instead of burning yourself out by becoming a martyr to the cause. You haven’t been defeated and you’re not a failure. Sometimes organizations become so dysfunctional and stupid that they refuse to listen to any input that doesn’t validate the self-destructive course they’ve chosen to follow. Here’s how to tell when an organization is on that course so you can take your valuable talents elsewhere, to a place that will appreciate what you have to offer:

  1. It’s impossible to get a straight answer from anyone. Top leadership becomes secretive and starts speaking in unintelligible code. Your colleagues think carefully about what they’re going to say before they say it, and what comes out is full of hints, suggestions and innuendos because everyone’s afraid that telling the truth will get them into hot water. Conversations are conducted in whispers and occur behind closed doors. Resistance cells form, but instead of challenging the process publicly, they live a meager existence sharing rumors and speculation with trusted dissidents. People are terrified of making a mistake, so there’s extensive cover-up activity and finger-pointing to divert people away from the truth.
  2. You feel that you’re fighting more frequently for things that should be obvious to anyone. No one has told you that things have changed, so you keep generating ideas to make things better. Now, however, your ideas are met with surprising resistance from colleagues who used to be open-minded but whose fear has led them to play it safe. What’s happened is that your colleagues have correctly perceived that the environment is becoming more political and exclusive while you’re still working under the assumption that the environment is apolitical and inclusive. The final stage of this sad transition is when you hear that people are labeling you a troublemaker or a “pain in the ass.” If you hear someone telling you that you’re not a team player, what they probably mean is that you’re not cut out to be an obedient, compliant team member, which makes you a “problem child.”
  3. You think you’re right and everyone else is wrong. One possibility is that the organization is simply moving in a different direction and you either don’t perceive that or are in denial about it because you were happy with the way things were. Whatever the cause, if you find yourself constantly arguing for what was, you really need to consider the possibility that the problem is you simply don’t want to play under the new rules and it’s time to go somewhere more compatible with your values.
  4. You’re excluded from certain groups and people stop coming to you for input on matters that involve your area of expertise. If you find yourself frequently surprised by decisions that have been made without your involvement, what is likely happening is that people have chosen to work around you rather than with you. It could be because they don’t have the courage to give you honest feedback; it could be that they know that you won’t like the idea and don’t want to deal with opposition; or it could be that they’re hoping you’ll get the hint and move on. For whatever reason, the people in power have decided that you are not part of the future, and either don’t have the courage to tell you or they feel your functional job talents are useful but don’t value your ideas.
  5. The organization is operating more out of fear than intent. All of these signals indicate an organization that is likely running on fear rather than intelligent strategy. Leadership doesn’t know what it’s doing but can’t admit it for fear of losing face. Instead, they begin suppressing the truth and begin classifying people into two camps: those who are willing to maintain the conspiracy of silence and those who can’t be trusted to keep the cover-up going. When the organization starts acting more like a victim of its environment and stops experimenting with new ideas, it creates a very difficult environment for a person who wants to make a difference.

As a great philosopher once said, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.” Often when faced with these circumstances, we blame ourselves and our self-confidence withers. Rid yourself of such nonsensical thinking. Strong organizations encourage diverse thinking and face reality. If you’re truly trying to make a difference in the world, you deserve to work for an organization with enlightened leadership that isn’t afraid of either new ideas or the truth.

Go find one and be happy!


My Brilliant Career, Part 6


I had my consulting business for ten years and was profitable every year. There were a couple of soft patches that were pretty scary when I was going through them, but they were always followed by more work than I could handle. My primary product was leadership development, but during the course of a program, a client would ask, “Do you know how to do this?” and I’d usually know how. So, I wound up doing recruiting, compensation, team building, coaching . . . all kinds of things. Although most of the money came from the business world, most of the work involved nonprofits, because those experiences were always more meaningful and the people more appreciative.

I liked the variety of the work and I loved the gaps between assignments that allowed me time to explore my creative side. It was during these years that I wrote my first book,  launched Acoustic Disturbance and began Ringing True. It was great to work in my pajamas or to be on a conference call with an executive team while sitting in a bathtub. I worked out of my home office in San Francisco, so whenever I needed a break, there were plenty of cafes, restaurants and unusual people right outside my door to shake up the day.

What I hated was the travel. I did a program for one of the Baby Bells that had me crisscrossing the country for six months, staying in some of the most forgettable locales in the United States. I spent an entire winter in Evansville, Indiana. I was in Tucson during 9/11 and for six weeks after. I did some business in the U.K. and Canada, which were always fun, but the domestic travel became a real drag, especially after the Patriot Act.

I also had to admit that the work wasn’t as fulfilling as it was when I was inside. There was no continuity to the experience. I’d teach people leadership but I was never around for the day-to-day where you see if what you were teaching made its way into the real world. There was no feeling of shared experience.

Eventually I’d had enough and went back into the working world in a small company where I’ve had the opportunity to build an entire people-side function from the ground up. This has turned out to be a mixed bag, as this company, like organizations everywhere, has become more focused on the bottom line than on achieving excellence. I also find myself missing the freedom I had when I was on my own. Perhaps I’ll go back and do that, but what I really need is to figure out the thing I want to do for which I am uniquely unqualified.

It works every time!

I’d like to wrap up this series by summarizing the many things I’ve learned from my experience in the working world, in the hope that these insights might be of help to those of you who feel frustrated by the entire career experience. Here goes:

1. Business isn’t that difficult. I remember reading somewhere that initially there was a very strong protest against the concept of a Master’s degree in Business because it lacked a body of knowledge. I wholeheartedly agree. Any moron can make money—look around you! If a business succeeds, people with nothing better to do reinvent the story and conjure up lessons that others can use, usually in the form of simplistic nonsense. Get it through your head that success is cyclical; Jack Welch was a hero in the 90’s and is a bum now; Steve Jobs was a hero and a bum so many times in his career that I’ve lost count. No one predicted the success of the pet rock or even the iPod; it was luck, timing and simple common sense. A lot of the reason people think business is difficult is because we’ve placed businesses into different categories called “industries” and each industry is armed with an intimidating set of buzzwords that work as secret codes for those who are “in the know.” The true purpose of buzzwords is to make things seem more complicated than they are. I find the whole “must have industry experience” requirement in many employment ads to be incredibly insulting; you could describe the challenges in any industry on a half of sheet of paper if you used simple English. There have been maybe two or three original business books in the entire history of that genre; all the rest are piles of rehash made fresh by new buzzwords.

2. There is no such thing as a career path. I was an extreme example of this truism, but it’s something everyone needs to accept as reality. Some say that half of the jobs that exist today didn’t exist five or ten years ago. When I was a young lad in the Valley, everyone was flocking to get a Bachelor’s of Science in Electrical Engineering. When they graduated, there were no jobs . . . the world had shifted to software. A few years later, software engineers without web skills were wiped out by the thousands. Most of us are going to have to improvise and scratch to make a living and often we’ll wind up doing things we’d never thought we’d do. Get used to it. Embrace the opportunity instead of feeling like you’re settling.

3. All your planning, hopes and dreams can be ruined by a single asshole. This happened to me with that anal-retentive trainer and when one company almost went belly-up due to the CEO’s financial hanky-panky. Some trace the financial crisis that shook the world to one guy somewhere in Norway. You may have a great team of people you work with now, but bring in one devious person and the entire team will go to hell. The lesson is no matter how secure you feel, always have a back-up plan and plenty of escape routes. If there is one lesson I wished I’d learned earlier, this is the one. It sucks to feel trapped in a company whose values are offensive or whose managers are arrogant and abusive.

4. Never underestimate your abilities, especially the ones you don’t think you have. There is a concept in improvisational theater called “the offer.” If you’re in a skit with a partner, any suggestion that partner makes is an offer. The fundamental rule of improv is to always say yes to an offer. If you say no, you’ll kill the scene—the action can’t move forward. People will present you with some opportunities that you will want to dismiss immediately as “off the wall.” Don’t do that. Go with the suggestion for a while. You may think you’re completely unqualified to do what the suggestion requires, but that’s because you’re looking at yourself as you would look at a resume. All of us have comparable, analogous or surprisingly useful skills that can be applied to a task. The fact that you know nothing can be a huge advantage because you’re bringing a completely new perspective to the problem. I said yes to many things and I learned things about myself and my capabilities that I never would have learned otherwise. Learn to play with possibilities and listen to all possibilities before dismissing them as silly.

Back to work!

Photo Credit:© Witch81 | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

My Brilliant Career, Part 5


The guy they hired as our new CEO had been a consultant with us for a couple of years. In those two years, we had only had one interaction and that interaction was an argument. I thought I was fucking doomed.

Confirmation of my suspicions came in the form of a phone call from his executive assistant to the effect that the CEO wanted to see me early on his first day on the job. No CEO meets with the HR person on the first day unless the HR person is toast. A CEO will meet with the finance, marketing, sales, operations and probably the facilities and janitorial service people before bothering with HR. On my walk down the long hallway, I prepared my negotiating position for the severance package.

I came in and the first thing he did was get out from behind the imposing desk and walk over to a small conference table where we could speak as colleagues. He wasted no time getting to the point, although it wasn’t the point I had expected.

“There are only two things wrong with this company: the financials and the people. I’ll take care of the financials. What do we need to do to fix the people side?”

I asked him what he thought was wrong with the people side. “Simple,” he said. “Our managers are a bunch of clowns more interested in pissing on each other than doing anything for the customer. What do we need to do to fix it?”

“We need a massive leadership development program for the whole bunch,” I blurted out.

“What will it cost?”

I quickly calculated travel costs (we had twenty-five locations in North America) and design costs and said, “$150,000.” I expected his response to be, “Shit, I can fire you for a lot less than that.”

Instead, he said, “Okay. Go figure it out.”

We then embarked on what turned out to be a remarkably successful journey that turned a company losing over $10M a year into a company paying profit-sharing checks to every employee. I often look back on the experience and say, “Damn, I’d wish I’d written a book about that experience. I coulda been a management guru!”

Oh, well. I never wanted to be a guru anyway. But I did want to use my skills in support of some very important personal values to make a difference for all of the people I’d worked with over the last four or five years. I knew these people, their stories, their problems. They mattered to me, in spite of my tendency to keep an emotional distance from my work. If we could give the leaders a strong set of skills and get them committed to an ethic of personal responsibility for the company’s success, I knew we could change this company into something worth fighting for and working for.

For the first time in my career, I didn’t hold back. I threw everything I had into the leadership program. Because I designed it as a 48-hour course, it meant I would be spending six days a week for six months delivering the class and traveling about half of that time. Even that kind of schedule failed to dampen my commitment. During those six months I was on a strange sort of high, full of energy and creativity, totally engaged with the people whose minds and hearts I was trying to reach. Part of the secret was that I had designed the course with plenty of humor, doing crazy skits and exercises that made the practice of management both the object of satire and something that people could begin to see as a fun thing to do. The program worked miracles; people came in skeptics and left believing in themselves and each other. In the end, I have to say that the leadership program was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

When the program was over, we worked hard to make it real by changing policies, procedures and practices to align them with our new reality. Backstabbing disappeared and collaboration became the norm. Scores in our annual leadership survey went up every year. Turnover fell to an all-time low. We also went five years without an employment-related lawsuit, which in California was nothing less than miraculous.

After a few years, though, I was getting restless. I had done all I could do and was beginning to feel a change would do both me and the company some good. I talked to my CEO about it. “Why don’t you hang out your own shingle?” he asked. “What—go into business for myself?” “Sure,” he said. “You’ve got the smarts for it.”

I had a business trip to Atlanta and used that dreary alone time in the cookie-cutter hotel room to mull it over. Once again, here was an opportunity right up my alley. I had no idea how to open or run my own business. I had no core business skills, very little in the way of connections and I had very little money in the bank.

Perfect! I was uniquely unqualified! Let’s do it! Hooray!

—to be continued

© Pamelajane | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos