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January 28, 2009


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I would count myself amongst them assholes, as you so kindly refer to us. I think there's going to be a very short (as in one- or two year-) blip in which the job market will be flooded with people who've been kicked out of organizations who're having to deal with the recession, but the long-term trend is going to be a seller's market. Somebody's going to have to replace the millions of people who are going to be retiring over the next decade and there's just not going to be enough people. It's going to be a big problem.

Well sure as blazes I hope you're right, Ron.

Sorry I called you an asshole.

At least I didn't call you a recruiter.


Q. Why didn't the shark eat the headhunter?

Because sharks aren't cannibals?

Or: Professional courtesy.

Ya know, now that you say it, I'd heard it, but that was buried in the deepest recesses of my brain, obviously. I've been meaning to write you after yesterday's post on trust in business, and this one of a similar nature today. Did you see Mitch Albom's column (it was in the Anchorage Daily News today; don't know if it would have had a different run date elsewhere)? The title was, "A business lie is worse than just a lie." The gist was that business lies affect our lives--lost jobs, unmet promises, fearfulness. Look at that guy yesterday who killed himself, his wife and all his children when the couple lost their jobs. There's a social obligation between employers and employees, and between businesses and their customers, that goes beyond profit. We've lost sight of it; we don't notice it anymore.

When I lived in Juneau, I learned how to cook crabs this way: Ease the live crab into cool water, and then begin to gently warm the water. As the water warms, the crab doesn't notice. By the time it's boiling, it's dead and it never did see the danger coming. If you plunge it in, it'll try to scrabble right out of the pot. But if you just keep changing the temperature, it'll never notice.

I'm beginning to feel like a crab in a pot.

Joan, that analogy (I've heard it involving frogs, but I'm going with lobsters in Juneau from now on) is the very most applicable to the way modern life gets on top of us.

Thanks for the Albom citation. Here's the link, all; it's worth a read.


Joan said: "There's a social obligation between employers and employees, and between businesses and their customers, that goes beyond profit."

I respectfully disagree. Businesses (excluding charities and not-for-profits) are in business to make a profit. It's simple economics, and anyone who runs a small business will, I suspect, back me up.

Businesses just cannot do business based on the idea they have "social obligation" to look after either employees or customers. This may sound harsh, but so is life. What employers DO have an obligation to do is this:

-with employees - provide a job, a salary and (where financially feasible) health benefits based on an agreed-upon contract.

-with customers - provide the products you've advertised at a reasonable market-driven cost.

The employees and customers have responsibilities too. They have the right, and should be looking out for their own best interests.

Employees should be continually networking, and upgrading their skills so that they, and not a market-driven employer is the one deciding how their careers will evolve.

The customers should be carefully reviewing their options in the marketplace to get the best products at the best price for them.

This idea that an employer "owes" you anything is simply foolish, and a recipe for disaster. Maybe this was possible 30 years ago, when the economic situation was more stable, and the employee pool was less volatile, but the concept of a benevolent employer who should, or even can, "take care" of employees has not been a reality in the entirety of my work life (which is now coming up on 25 years total).

Every person who wants to suceed must look out for their, and their family's best interest and stop hoping for a "protector" who will do that for them. This idea is a myth and the sooner we all toss it in the garbage where it belongs, the better off most employees are going to be.

"What employers DO have an obligation to do is ... provide a job, a salary and (where financially feasible) health benefits based on an agreed-upon contract .... with customers - provide the products you've advertised at a reasonable market-driven cost."

Kristen, why do you say employers have this "obligation," if as you say their only purpose in society is to make a profit, and if it's foolish to expect an employer to look after anything but its own bottom line?

I know this won't make me popular (and just for the record, I, too, wish it wasn't the reality) but employees are a resource to most orgnanizations.

Most companies need employees to provide various skills and services to allow the company to produce and deliver whatever its products and services are.

You have to invest in the resources required to run your business effectively, including employees. Since employees, unlike computers or desks, have the choice and right to leave and go work for someone else, it is in the company's best interest to provide pay and benefits that make it more lucrative and positive for employees to stay, than to go.

I'm not saying there are no companies out there who treat their employees well - I'm sure there are. But even those companies who DO treat employees well do NOT do so out of nothing more than the pure goodness of their hearts. They do so because the investment in providing good salaries and generous benefits to their employees provides a solid return for the company, in (ideally) the consistent, excellent work from those employees in delivering the companies products or services to their customers.

Businesses are not benevolence organizations. They simply cannot run indefinitely if they are not making profits.

All I'm saying is that employees should be the masters of their own fate and not hope that the company they work for will take the responsibility to make certain they are okay.

I've seen A LOT of people who took that outdated view of their jobs, who were utterly destroyed and bewildered when their company went under, or did massive down-sizing and they were left with nothing. I don't want to see anyone else I know be in that awful position again.

Taking responsibility for doing what is best for ourselves and our families when it comes to our livlihoods should be a given. If we're lucky we will find companies who make it easier to do that, but we just cannot "hope" that a company can be counted on to do that for us anymore.

"But even those companies who DO treat employees well do NOT do so out of nothing more than the pure goodness of their hearts. ... Businesses are not benevolence organizations. They simply cannot run indefinitely if they are not making profits."

I'm not sure who you think this comes as news to, Kristen.

What Joan said was:

"There's a social obligation between employers and employees, and between businesses and their customers, that goes beyond profit. We've lost sight of it; we don't notice it anymore."

Businesses exist because various social communities give them permission to exist--not, as it sometimes feels, the other way around. Businesses get to do business because customers buy their products, investors give them capital, and employees work for them.

If customers, investors and employees were to join and ask more from these companies--more honesty (per Mitch Albom's column), better quality, better working conditions--we would get it to the extent the company could give it and continue to survive financially.

I understand your point, Kristen, and why you're making it. But I don't think it's helpful to bark "corporations are not benevolence organizations" at every person who asks corporations to acknowledge their obligations to the various communities whose permission they need to continue to do business.

We'll have to agree to disagree on this one.

I think you're kidding yourself that the "joining" of customers, investors and employees you suggest can ever happen - the interests of these three group are frequently in direct conflict with one another in my experience.

That said, I'll be completely happy to admit I was wrong if it does happen someday.

I'd say the joining of lots of members of any one or two of those groups would move companies.

But if we indeed live in a system of commerce where employees and investors and customers of an organization are "frequently in direct conflict," I think I can be forgiven for yearning for ways to change that system.

And your defense of that system as "simple economics" (especially coming as it does with your acknowledgment that some companies are better actors than others) strikes me as a premature surrender on your part.

Just don't tell the rest of us we have to give up too.

David, please don't misrepresent what I said. I did not say anyone should "give up" on anything nor did I say I wouldn't like to see a system where employers were AS focused on meeting the needs and best interests of their employees as they currently are on those of their shareholders. Of course I'd LIKE to see that, I'm just not content to base everything on that hope.

My main point (perhaps I didn't make it clearly) is that it is not a good idea as an employee, to rest all your hopes, and, more importantly, your financial security, on the idea that businesses should be responsible for making sure you are successful as one of their employees.

Human nature being what it is, there are too many people out there who will see this idea of a "social contract" and have too much of an expectation about that happening, to do the hard work that is involved in making certain they are financially secure. Hope is wonderful, but you also have to act on today's reality.

All I'm saying is put some effort and care into your own security independent of the better world we hope to someday create. That way, if this social contract materializes, you're ahead of the game. If it doesn't you aren't behind the eight ball.

Really, Kristen, I think the only difference between us is that you talking to people who think companies will take care of them.

I'm not talking to them, because I really didn't know they still existed.

I think I'm with you on this one, Kristen. But maybe part of the issue is the way many employers speak to their employees. They talk about being "one big family" and "caring about their employees and their families" and I think that often creates the false hope in some (perhaps naive) employees that when things get tight their employer will put their interests first. But of course the employer has to put the organization's bottom line first. And that applies in the corporate world just as surely as it does in the public sector where I work. Employers "care" because they know happy, engaged employees are productive and less likely to leave. But there is a limit to the caring.

The demographic shift that you began this whole discussion with, David, is also a big factor. We have a good share of employees in our organization that seem to have a pretty strong sense of entitlement born, in part, from years of that perceived social contract with the employer - and the fact that we have a strong union culture probably played a big role in that. But there's increasing indications that the next generation of employees actually don't expect or even really want that "family tie" to their employer. Their perceptions may change as their careers lengthen, but it is an interesting contrast. And maybe it's the result of that tight labour market talk - they don't need the perception of security because they'll be able to find a new job easily enough. To a certain extent, they probably will.

As for your original point, I'm one of those assholes too. (Is there something in the water here in BC, Ron, that makes us both assholes?) My organization has done a bunch of actuarial analyis and the forecasts are that we'll likely end up being about 30% smaller (maybe much higher) in the next 5-8 years simply because we won't be able to recruit enough people to fill the whole left by pending retirements. While the current economic situation has slowed our hiring for now, we still predict we'll have a serious shortage down the road. Of course, we're trusting the number crunchers and their crystal ball on all that stuff. And if we've all learned anything lately it's that the numbers don't always turn out how you thought.

Well, B.C. government problems be damned, shouldn't all of us be freaking ecstatic that we'll be so much in demand from now until the end of our careers??

As for the caring: I believe if corporations behave in their own LONG-TERM financial best interest, they'll treat employees better than they currently do and build better products than they currently do, interact in a more satisfying way with all of their publics.

Imagine if the quarterly earnings release became the five-year earnings release. How would that make companies behave differently?

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