Tag Archives: Work

No Good Work Goes Unpunished

There is a school of though, which I have seen advocated on certain online forums, that no matter what your job is you should be willing to do anything your boss tells you. For example, if you were a highly paid specialist engineer and your boss told you to make him some coffee and then mop the floor, your response should be a cheerful, “Yes sir!” You will then be rewarded by raises and promotions.

I have to shake my head in cynical amazement at these optimists (some of whom at least claim to have gotten actual promotions through cheerfully doing whatever shit job is thrown at them). In any company I’ve ever worked at, or any company everyone I know has ever worked at, that sort of attitude is only going to get you more shit jobs to do. As the saying goes, “If every day you do a little more than people expect from you, pretty soon people will expect a little more from you every day.”

It is an unfortunate fact that advancement in the workplace has nothing to do with hard work. If anything, working hard will make it less likely that you will be promoted. The way your boss sees it, the more work you do, the bigger the hole in his department when you leave. He might have to hire two people to do the work you’re doing. Or spread the work around to other people, which is not going to please his other subordinates. Or even the nearly unthinkable option of having to do some of the work himself.

Faced with the choice of keeping you in your place and piling work on your desk, or piling the work on his own desk, your boss is going to keep you where you are every time. He isn’t concerned about what’s good for the company and he sure as hell isn’t concerned about what’s best for you; he’s concerned about his departmental budget and keeping his own ass and desk clear.

I’ve seen this first hand. My wife has a very strong work ethic. She kept working long days, over my objections, right up to the day before our son was born. She was constantly working late, taking work home, frantically working away at every project that landed on her desk, in every job she ever had.

It got her precisely nowhere. She never once got a promotion at any of those jobs. When she finally moved on to another company (or, in the case of her last job, quit to be a full-time mom for a while) it usually took two or three people to replace her.

(A variation on this situation is when the company wants you to start at some low-level job — frequently, though not always, clerical — but promises that they will promote you to something else later. They won’t. Ever. Once a secretary, always a secretary, at least as far as that company is concerned. Don’t fall for it.)

It isn’t only your boss that you have to watch out for, of course. Your co-workers will be more than happy to slack off and let you pick up the workload. Work will flow to you to match your willingness to accept it. The rewards will flow to the guy who goes out drinking with the boss while you’re working late.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t work hard at your job. You should do the best job you can. I’m saying that when it comes time to decide if you’re going to go that extra mile, take on that overtime, take all that work home, think about if your boss or your company would go that extra mile for you. Odds are they wouldn’t. Do your job and do it well, but never forget that your first responsibility is to yourself and your family, not your employer.

How do you get ahead then, if hard work won’t do it? By jumping ship. Move to another company. (Or, if your company is big enough, another department, but don’t count on that; your boss will be working against you. Something else I have firsthand experience of.) You’ll be in the same trap there, but if you played your cards right you’ve got a better position and higher pay. Then, when you’re ready, jump ship again. If you’ve been in the same position for three years, start checking out the job market. You are probably underpaid and overworked.

Does that seem harsh? Disloyal to your employer? Well, if they are loyal to you, you’ll find no advantage to be gained by jumping ship. Your salary is already as good as it’s likely to get. If it isn’t, ask yourself this: Why should you put your employer’s well-being ahead of your own? What have they done to deserve such loyalty.

You’ll probably find that the answer is: Nothing.

Once More Unto the Breach

The past several weeks have been very frustrating ones at work, not just for me but for one of my clients as well. What with one thing and another I’ve been averaging six long days every week. That’s a lot of time in front of computers.

It started with a client’s move to a new office space. From the client’s point of view it went well enough, but I had to work my ass off to make it so. Due to some organizational changes on their side my input on their IT structure was cut off and I had to work with the result of decisions made by non-technical people, who used criteria that I have not yet been able to decipher.

At any rate, the move itself went well, but not long afterwards they began to have odd networking issues, mainly people intermittently not being able to print to certain network printers. While I was still trying to figure that one out, their Exchange email server began to go offline.

The problem with the email server was that the database size had grown to the limit Microsoft had set for that particular server license, and it was going offline periodically as punishment. Part of the networking problem was that they were out of user licenses. (They use a lot of seasonal workers, swelling the user list, which then shrinks down again, so we typically only have to add users there about once a year.)

A big part of the blame for those things falls on me. I screwed up. Partly through distraction from the several other projects I was working on at the time, partly through disgust with the way decisions were being made (or not made) at that organization (and quite specific indications that any input from me would be ignored anyway), I wasn’t paying close enough attention to those things.

The email problem was quickly diagnosed and it was easy enough to keep things moving along while waiting for a new mail server to come in (which had originally been planned for a month earlier, right after their move). The network oddities, however, had me pulling out my hair and took much longer than I would have liked to track down. It turned out to not be just a matter of the user licenses, but also the switch that one of the network printers was attached to, a hardware failure with the printer itself, a bad network switch, and a bad cable connecting two switches back in the server room. Six different intermittent problems, in other words, all showing similar symptoms, and it took a while to track them all down.

Shortly after getting all those problems finally exorcised, the new mail server came in. I started setting it up and the new software told me that I had to apply a patch to the old server before setting up the new one. OK, no problem, it’s a routine patch.

Except this time. That patch blew the old server from Hell to Christmas. I worked furiously all night to try and get it back up and running before people came in to work the next morning, and was only partially successful. I started installing the patch at 9pm and it was 3pm the following day before I had everything fully up and running again.

(Then the next day I had to go in and try to install the patch again. A process I faced with some trepidation, after my ordeal of the days before, but I did it.)

The point of all this is that the client has had several days recently when their computer infrastructure wasn’t working worth a damn. There are some lessons to be learned here.

First, the client is not, so far as I know, particularly unhappy with me. I am sure they are not thrilled about the problems, but I haven’t taken too much of a hit because of it. The key here is that I’ve been working with them for a number of years now and the systems have generally worked quite well, and I worked my ass off trying to resolve the various problems as quickly as possible. Also, because of the way I had things set up, the impact of some of the problems was minimized. During the hours in which their mail server wasn’t talking to the outside world, for example, they could still use the Internet and the rest of the network, and inbound mail was queueing up on the email gateway so nothing was lost.

Everyone screws up now and then, and things break sometimes. If you consistently do a good job for your clients (or your boss, though that’s more problematical), you’re building up credit that will serve you well when something goes wrong. Relatively major problems at rare intervals are more tolerable than constant annoyances.

Second, I had to go outside the organization’s chain of command and bother some people whose job it wasn’t (but who were willing, much to their credit, to make some noise and make things happen) in order to get some decisions made. As a result, we’ve done some reorganizing and clarified the lines of communication and generally made it a lot easier — I hope — to get things done in the future.

When everything is going well, there’s no motivation to reorganize and try to make things work more smoothly. If you bust your tail holding everything together with chewing gum and duct tape, no one is going to notice, because you are holding it together. Things that work well are invisible, and eventually taken for granted. That’s not a bad thing, usually. A company’s computer network, for example, shouldn’t call attention to itself. But, like an economic downturn that shakes out weak companies and makes the economy stronger in the long run, sometimes it takes a failure somewhere to bring problems to light and provide the motivation for a proper fix. Every failure is a source of lessons to be learned.

Looking at all of this work from another angle (and all that fuss and bother with that one client was only part of it; there were lightning-blown computers, server migrations, and so on and so forth), I’m bloody exhausted. My wife asked me if I was going to bill the client for all of the many hours I spent fighting that crashed mail server. “Most of them,” I told her. I’ll probably give them a bit of a break, but for the most part, they’re going to get billed what I worked. I didn’t make any mistakes on that one; it was just a bad break and unfortunately the nature of computers is such that every now and then you’re going to have to deal with a crash. The big wad of hours I’m going to bill as a result is, to me, like collecting on life insurance. I wish it hadn’t come to pass, but since it did I’m not going to turn down the money.

Speaking of which, the money has been pretty good these past couple of month, but there comes a point when I just want some free time to spend with my family and to get some rest. As I believe I’ve said before, no on ever lay on their death bed wishing they’d spent more time at the office.

Minor disasters in the workplace can sometimes be made to turn out well, even an improvement over the pre-disaster state. The price can be high, though, for everyone involved. Sometimes there’s nothing for it but to throw yourself into the breach and do what needs to be done, close up the wall with the bodies of your English dead, and afterwards collect your pay. But no amount of money is worth not being there while your child grows up.

This Best of all Possible Worlds

The recession is over, and now it seems like everyone is waiting for the jobs to come back. There is talk of a ‘jobless recovery’ and the financial press counts every tick in the latest unemployment numbers while new college graduates and the unemployed sweat and scramble for any scrap of a job that comes along, and wait for things to get better.

The trouble is, there is every indication that there is no more better. This is as good as it’s going to get.

Oh, employment numbers may tick up a little bit. Even accounting for all the people who just give up on looking for a job, or are working at a much lower level than they were two years ago, the job market may improve a little compared to the worst. But I see no reason to think that it will ever be as good again as it once was. At least not for a generation or two.

When job markets were local, there was an ebb and flow in the demand for and availability of workers. When the economy boomed, companies hired more people, the pool of available workers shrank, and in the best practices of supply and demand, wages went up as employers competed for the best workers.

Now the job market is global. There are no more labor shortages, and there won’t be until the whole civilized world is at approximately the same level of prosperity and economic development. When times are bad, companies lay off expensive Americans and move operations to cheaper countries, and when times are good they keep doing that and pocket the higher profits. They are, in fact, required by law to do so. (A corporation has a fiduciary duty to make as much money as possible for the stockholders, and they can be–and some have been–sued if they let little things like morals or ethics get in the way of making a bigger profit.)

With no more labor shortages, all the power is in the hands of the employer. They know that most of their employees have no options, and are terrified of losing their jobs, and many of them use that power ruthlessly. I know people who have been fired for refusing to spend practically every waking hour at work (without compensation for the overtime), requiring them to never see their children. That is the work environment we have now; do what your employer says, whatever they say, or risk being fired and not being able to find another job for months, or years, or ever again. They can replace you tomorrow.

Even worse, if you try to stand up to your employer you risk losing your healthcare. In many cases, that gives employers the literal power of life and death over their employees.

This is the reality for most American workers now. The employer holds all the cards, you have little or no bargaining power. Welcome to part-time jobs, the low pay and oppressive work environment of the service industry, and wondering every day if you are going to have enough money to pay your bills, and if you are even going to have a job at all next week.

People have become angry when I attempt to point out that is may be about as good as the job market is going to get. I can’t really blame them; it’s easier to get mad at someone for pointing out a problem than to get mad at the people who caused the problem. Those people are powerful and scary and far away.

However much the government might be talking about jobs and job creation right now, they really don’t care. They haven’t for decades, at least. They can’t care; it’s against policy.

The official US policy for years now has been globalization. Reducing barriers to trade, encouraging multi-national corporations, and whatever is good for business. Globalization may be great for big corporations, but it is as bad as can be for the average worker.

I can’t really blame the government either, though. They’re just doing what their constituency wants. That, of course, being the big corporations. They are who put our elected representatives in office, and keep them there, so that is who those representatives listen to.

(Sure the voters count, but you can only vote for the people on the ballot, and no one who hasn’t been approved by the big interest groups is going to get on the ballot. That is the fundamental fact that you must keep in mind whenever you watch ‘our’ government in action; it’s not our government.)

So, the middle class shrinks, the divide between the rich and poor gets bigger, and people spend more and more of their free time playing games like Farmville, because it gives the illusion that they have control over some part of their lives. Is there anything we can do, besides wait for the global economy to reach equilibrium, leaving no low-wage regions for the corporations to flee to?

Take back the government. That’s more easily said than done, but the government will not act in the best interests of the average person as long as it represents interest groups rather than people.

This was your county once. Take it back.

Money and Motivation

This is a very interesting illustrated discussion of how people aren’t motivated by what most employers (and even many employees) think that they’re motivated by.

From my own experience, I see a great deal of truth in this. I could make more money in my business if I wanted to, but at this point in my life I begrudge every day not spent with my son. I work enough to meet our financial needs, and that usually leaves some time for more important things, like playing catch with my son. Not as much time as we’d like, and he always gets upset when I leave for work and tries to stop me, but as I tell him, “Daddy has to go work to support you and mommy in your luxurious mommy and little boy lifestyle.” It doesn’t really help.

And on a good week, though, we’ll have a couple of days to go to on Daddy and Nathaniel Adventures, a couple of days that most dads don’t get to spend with their kids because they’re working, chasing one more handful of dollars.

I can always make more money, but a life only holds so much time.

Your Job Sucks

And your boss doesn’t care.

Enjoy Your Workday

You would have to work 24 hours a day, five days a week at a minimum-wage job, to convince Mitt Romney that you’re responsible.

Enjoy. Also enjoy the thousands of dollars in payroll taxes you’ll be paying that Romney considers so negligible that they don’t even count as taxes. And your state and local taxes like property tax and sales tax….

Hiring Cultural Fits

It seems that “Hiring for cultural fit” is a thing in the workplace now.

“I once hired a woman who really didn’t have the right background or experience for the job, but who I hit it off with during the interview,” says Rebecca Grossman-Cohen, a marketing executive at News Corp. (NWS). “And because we got along so well, I was able to train her easily, and she ended up doing great things for us.”

I’m not a degreed and highly trained human resources professional, but it seems to me that ‘hiring people I like whether they can do the job or not’ is an ancient tradition in the workplace. They’ve just come up with a new buzzword to make hiring your buddy over someone more skilled sound like a wise business strategy.

[Update: 14/01/13] A first hand account of an extreme case of hiring for ‘cultural fit.’ Talked to someone who got to screen applicants for a consulting company, back in the 1990s. One of the managers took her aside and said, “We want people like him,” pointing out one of their consultants. Fit, clean-cut, white guys. No blacks, she was told. No women. No guys with beards, no fat people, no smokers. Just people who looked like that guy.

I visited that place once, and was struck by how everyone looked alike. I literally could not tell most of them apart. They stuck to their standards.

The company doesn’t exist anymore.