Corporate Oppression

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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.

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My Brilliant Career, Part 6

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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!

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My Brilliant Career, Part 4

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Horror of horrors, I was now another empty suit. I had never wanted, dreamed of or even considered the possibility that someday I would be a business executive. I had never wanted to get to the top of my profession. I never even wanted a goddamned profession in the first place! I wanted to play music and get laid! And now, here I was, the youngest executive in company history, and, for the fourth time in my career, the recipient of a promotion that was breathtakingly undeserved.

If this was the fulfillment of the American dream, where was the hard work that was supposed to lead to that fulfillment? My ascension to the executive suite was the result of a series of accidents. Anyone looking at my trajectory would say, “Man, you got pretty damned lucky.”

I sure didn’t feel lucky, though. I felt like a sell-out. And now I had to go to my first executive team meeting with all those conservative Republicans with trophy wives whose primary goal in life was to gain power, whose energies were devoted to political manipulation and who didn’t give a shit about the people who worked their asses off to pay for their country club memberships.

I trudged down the long hallway to the executive conference room like a prisoner facing execution, found the least conspicuous seat at the table and resolved to speak only when spoken to. As I have learned over my career, this is how most HR executives play the game, which explains why most of them are terribly ineffective.

After a few minutes of bullshit pleasantries, the executive team got down to business. Business consisted of looking at a spreadsheet projected onto a screen showing the monthly financials. The President would call on one of the suits to explain an unhappy figure and the suit would inevitably point the finger at another suit whose department was fucking everything up. The other suits carefully watched the President to see which side he would take and once the President had made that call, descended on the victim like a pack of hungry lions picking off the slowest in the herd.

This went on for three fucking hours, during which I had the revelation of a lifetime.

These people were human beings. Frightened human beings.

You didn’t need to be a psychologist to make that diagnosis. They all displayed the symptoms of a person in fear. Defensive body language. Fight-flight responses. Shifty eyes, darting around the room in a desperate search for support. They were absolutely terrified of losing their jobs, their status, and above all, the meaning they had attached to making it to the top. Instead of seeing them as arrogant and all-powerful, I realized they were extremely vulnerable and psychologically fragile. They were only frightening in the sense that all frightened animals are dangerous. They derived power from their fear.

I wasn’t frightened of them anymore. I felt sorry for them and wanted to help, but I also knew that they would never allow me to help. To do that, they would have to drop the thing shielding their vulnerability and that was simply out of the question. They lived by the credo of never letting an opponent see your weak spot—and everyone in the world had to considered an opponent.

I figured that if I did what they asked (as long as they didn’t ask me to do anything illegal or unethical), I could handle them. Falling back on my earlier revelation that I had a team of people who were there to help me, I asked them lots of questions and took their input seriously. We solved the previously unsolvable sales turnover problem in about six months. We handled employee relations problems with exceptional finesse and kept the company out of court. The one area where we could make no headway was with our managers, who were desperately in need of training. The President wouldn’t spend a dime on that, believing that leadership was a genetic trait. So, we organized our efforts towards protecting the company and the employees from the stupid things our asshole managers always wound up doing.

In other words, I kept my head down and did my job. The President was happy that I confirmed his belief in the Portuguese work ethic and left me alone. Things were . . . okay. I still felt uncomfortable with the whole executive hoo-hah.

Then things really got interesting. The short version of the story is this: The President and CFO were in cahoots to manipulate the numbers so they could get their annual bonuses. A cozy relationship with the financial auditors facilitated their scheme. When the parent conglomerate decided to sell our entire line of business to a group of outside investors, a fresh team of accountants was sent to evaluate the American company. The President hightailed it out of there and wound up with our leading competitor. The CFO stayed on, figuring he he held a strong hand: he was an expert on the financial mess he had created and was probably the only person on the planet who could explain it. He also divined that the new owners would want to cut, cut, cut and with the President gone, he could do the dirty work and get rid of the excessive fat at the top of the organization in exchange for a very sweet severance package.

Unfortunately, he needed an accomplice, and when you terminate people, that accomplice has to be the HR person. Not having any other job options and having a family to support, I had little choice but to go along. Together, we fired ten executives in the space of one month. The CFO handled the financial negotiations, I handled the human considerations. All of the conversations were extraordinarily painful and intensely embarrassing to the victim and despite their arrogance, their threats and abusive language, I felt terribly sorry for all of them.

Now we were five . . . five executives without a CEO now leading a near-bankrupt company that had just been bought by a group of faceless investors. It didn’t help our optimism that America was in the midst of a recession and the job market for executives with experience in failing companies was not particularly bright. There was nothing we could do but wait for the new CEO to come in and finish off the rest of us.

—to be continued—

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My Brilliant Career, Part 3

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First, a quick review of my career progress at this point in the story:

1. Worked my way through school as a flunky on the graveyard shift. Got a useless degree in English.

2. Was promoted to a job for which I was not qualified.

3. Was promoted to a job for which I was not qualified.

4. Went to another company and was hired into a job for which I was not qualified.

It had now been four years since I’d found the employee relations job and everything seemed okay. The primary reason things seemed okay is that I had no idea what was going on at the very top. At this point, I wasn’t part of the management structure, so I could easily slip back into my lower-middle-class upbringing and bitch a blue streak about that bunch of dimwits in the executive suite who didn’t give a crap about the rest of us. I’d had very little contact with any of the executives except my boss, who, like all the other executives, believed that information was power and shared very little inside information with his direct reports.

That wasn’t why he got fired. He got fired because he screwed up the sales compensation plan and caused a million dollar shortfall in the budget.

My colleagues and I speculated about a replacement. I thought for sure it would go to a person we’ll call Andrea. She had the most knowledge and experience and had worked closely with several executives on key initiatives. The Compensation Manager might have had a shot due to her Ivy League affiliations, but she was part of the sales compensation fiasco and the CEO had publicly humiliated her for her incompetence, an incident that was the talk of the town for several weeks. There was also some speculation that, this being a French company, they would bring in one of their own from Paris and fire the rest of us. Given my relative lack of experience and the fact that I’d only supervised manufacturing people several years before, no one thought I had a shot, self included. I didn’t want the frigging job anyway. I had no desire to be a golf-playing country-clubbing bonus-padding loser Mercedes owner. I still had dreams of escaping the world of business and somehow making it in a more artistic field and living a more bohemian existence. The last thing I wanted was to be a Vice President.

It had to happen.

One day Andrea walked in and said she and her hubby were headed for Honolulu to pursue their shared music careers in the soft jazz market. Later that afternoon, the CFO came to my office and told me to follow him. We headed for the CEO’s office, which was appropriately and significantly hidden from public view down a long hallway where all the human noise of the company was shut out as effectively as if he had been working in a sound isolation booth.

The CEO asked me a question. “What’s your ancestry?” I supposed the question was still legal in France, so I answered, “My father’s side is Portuguese.”

He said, “Portuguese! Good! That means you’re hard-working.” He then told me I was in charge of HR and that he wanted me to fix the turnover problem in the sales force and keep him out of jail. I was then dismissed.

So, here I was, a newly-minted executive who had no qualifications for the job and no desire to do the job. They gave me a modest increase and I later learned that what made me the top candidate was that they knew I’d come cheap. Having Portuguese ancestry somehow confirmed the wisdom of their decision.

To say I was stunned would I have been an understatement, but the people in HR were all very excited for me. The head of sales came down and gave me a bear hug and said, “Welcome to the executive suite.” I wanted to throw up, but I mustered up a pathetic smile.

It was all put into perspective that evening around the family dinner table. By then I was married with two sons, aged eight and five. Once we all sat down, I took a deep breath and said, “Well, guys, I’m a Vice President.”

There was a moment of silence, then my youngest said, “You mean like Dan Quayle?”

Oh God, I thought. I am a loser.

—to be continued—

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