Work ethics (part 2)

               I remember the first time I’ve been told “We want you!”, I really felt my ego popping some of the buttons on my shirt. It felt good, no, that’s an understatement – it felt incredible. I love working, I love challenges, I love the feeling of getting something done. However, I can see things changing around my current corner of happy place. It’s been changing for years, in small steps, which is why I didn’t see it coming until a few years ago. There used to be an understanding between the employees and their employers – the employees worked and the employers paid them. The employer didn’t have to make the worker happy, and the worker didn’t owe the company anything outside of sufficient work of high quality. Sure, you did overtime if it was needed but because overtime was the exception and not a normal situation, both the company and the employees got a fair bargain. Overtime used to be helping the company fulfill an unexpected order, it meant bigger pay for those doing it. You could work more if you needed money but not because you had to. That’s changed. Ethic changed. How?

               It’s more and more obvious to anybody we’re actually disconnected from life. We sleep, we work, we sleep. Life is what happens in between those markers. We are expected to give 150%. We are expected to provide the company with round the clock expertise, and we’re being told we are the company. We substitute life with work. We are ambassadors, we represent the company even outside of work hours, we are expected to identify fully with company and so on. We’re paid more, we’re issued company phones, cars, computers, vacations, lunches, and so on – for looking and acting the role of living advertisement. I wonder if it’s a good thing, the replacement of individual identity with corporate/group identity. I don’t like it, though. No, it’s not because my company is bad – it’s because this idea has the potential to be abused, big time.

               It’s in the best interest of companies to get more from employees. It’s in the best interest of the employees to get a fair price for their work. Where interests converge you find employment. But what if there’s more to it than meets the eye? What if we, as both employees and shareholders (employers), are being manipulated into something we don’t want? Slowly, droplet by droplet, the bucket fills. And we’re taking the role of a frog being slowly but surely boiled alive. We can’t see the change – it’s small, incremental, spanning generations – but the person at the end of the line will feel it. Like that army game – pass the live grenade – eventually one unlucky fellow will get blown to smithereens. But what is it that’s changing, exactly?

               We are. Patience isn’t a virtue, not anymore. We don’t want it. What we want is not important, but it’s got to be now or .. let’s not be that impatient .. let’s say an hour from now. It’s all about timing.

               I’ve seen it decades ago, I see it now – and it’s the new future crisis. We’re more interested in buzzwords and catching the trend than we are in actual work. I’ve never understood (and never will) why all this culture of “start-ups” and nice words would ever get more money than say a shipyard or a factory. It was exactly like that just after 1995. People throwing money at non-existing products, excitement over business plans but not over actual things. It’s like we want others to take advantage of us. It’s something I see both in companies and in individuals. We believe.

               No, contrary to perception, I work and love working. I love it when something exists because of me. I also understand companies, why they exist and how they think. I don’t blame companies for anything – I blame the people who run them or work for them. I won’t ever say things like “Tesco is to blame” or whatever. There is no impersonal superstructure making decisions, the managers make decisions and the shareholders (the owners) support them. Sometimes employees make decisions that prove fatal to the company. Other times even the owners don’t know the decisions of managers. But managers are the most likely source of stupid or dangerous decisions. And it’s the managers who really make such stupid moves, because they know 80% of them won’t stay in the same place for more than five years – so they’re making the best of it. Most won’t think long-term, just short term – because short term results that give them bonuses, shares, money and fame are what’s in their best interest. No need to implement a 10 year plan if you can get more money for maximizing profits in two years, never mind losing good employees to burnout or competition and a lot less profits after that. It’s money in hand, foot in the door. Five years is all it takes before hopping to greener pastures, even if Armageddon will soon visit our former playground.

               Companies don’t want anything, they’re lifeless – it’s the human beings who are there, inside it, that give it life. Owners want to receive money for their investments. Managers want payment for leading the company, either in money, shares or fame/prestige. Workers want money and whatever else others tell them to want. Owners aren’t running the place (especially if there’s alot of them), they give that power to managers – the real bad guys. Managers want the owners to pay the more, but they have to show results. If the owners are legion, it’s easy – the best recipe for success is give them profits quickly, any way you can, get as much money from them as you can, and once you’re smelling winds changing just hoppity-hop-hop to milk somebody else.

               This is why I wouldn’t want to work for corporations (though I did). If I can’t be self-employed, I want to work in a family-owned business, preferably one managed by the owners. It can fail, it can succeed, but if the owners are also managers they also understand the symbiotic relationship between success and employees. They expect the best from you, but if they’re smart they’ll also recognize the stupidity of choosing short-term over long-term profits. They work (or should, if they’re to survive anything) on a win-win scenario. It works if both I (as a business) and you (as an employee, customer, whatever) win. It’s delivering value for receiving a fair price. You, as a company, don’t overdo it. Training new workers to good performance takes more time and money than caring for the ones you already got working for you. It takes a patient owner for any company to succeed, and it’s easier for family-run and owned to be patient than it is for the hundreds or thousands of shareholders of a public one. It’s easier, but not a sure way to success. You have to help, too.

               We now live in a culture of fast reward and slow delivery. Here, we can’t blame companies – we should blame the employees instead. We were told we could be anything we want – and we didn’t understand what they told us. Yes, we can be anything we want (within reason) but that doesn’t mean it had to happen overnight. We added that part. Yes, they said I can be a manager if I worked hard – but what I understood was I can be one, right now. No need to wait. Just work hard for a few years and I’m supposed to be CEO. Sounds familiar? It should. No, work wasn’t all rosy and peachy before, but the one thing we didn’t keep but should have is the principle of patience.

               Nobody gets born with instant knowledge and skills – you learn those. It takes time and a good education to learn, and also a lot of practice. Even if employees get more and more specialized, for better quality – it also means less things to learn, which in turn means we reach the level of competence needed for our job faster. And we know that. We get bored, too. Being told you’re doing good, fantastic even, because well, you are – doesn’t mean you’re automatically qualified for doing something else. A good welder doesn’t also mean a good foreman. A good car salesman doesn’t mean he’s qualified to run the place. A good accountant can’t give you sound investment advice, even if the company he works for is an investment bank. A product manager at Google, even if he’s the very best, can’t be expected to know programming at the level of the programmers at the same company.

               Everybody eventually reaches the point of incompetence. It’s not about skill, it’s about psychology. If one does a good job, they get increased responsibilities – more work. It’s certain, too. If you’re not doing it, you’re doing something wrong. Over 30 or 40 years of work, you’ll have on average 10 bosses. If your work is good and you’re not pushy, you’ll go up one stair once every 10 years. If you’re just pushy, you’ll do it in half that time or even faster. However, the higher you go, the less specialized you’re expected to be, which is why training managers is important but it’s also why job-hopping happens. Identifying with the company we work for has an unexpected benefit for the employee, if the company has a good image – others assume we’re competent because we work for a good company. It’s easier to go up the rank and pay by working for somebody else, because the current company already knows our worth and they’re less inclined to believe we’re god’s gift to the workplace. But others don’t know that. If we work for a rising star of a company, the competition is more likely to think we’re also undiscovered diamonds – so they give us either a more money, a flashier job title or both for this belief. They’re gambling, actually. Real skills don’t matter, presentation does. Very few actually test what we do or ask for proof, and references here don’t matter. The best way to get rid of unwanted employees is to give them a good reference. Other than that, it’s easy to change places. Too easy. And if we’re believers, if we listen to our ego (and there’s a sound yes for both), we’re on our way to failure city, next stop on the right.

               The word I was looking for all this time is gambling addiction. We’re addicts. We’re gambling our future value for fast cash now. Some win, some lose, but the house always wins, ye’ know? It’s something we see in companies, too. Watch people’s reactions to a Warren Buffett speach – one in which he tells them the same thing he’s been telling them for the past 50 years: only buy something if you’re confortable keeping it for 10 years or more. They’ll politely clap, nod, smile for the camera but their eyes will tell you the truth – they don’t like such advice. They don’t want it, even if it’s from the wealthiest self-made man in the world. They don’t want to know fast growth is a market distortion and isn’t natural. They don’t want to know fast growth equals hard fall if there’s no substance to it. Startups don’t matter, unless they deliver – but we’re gambling our hard earned money on a glittery, eye-catching business plan from a few nice looking men or women who can’t seem to take no for an answer. Sometimes they don’t even have a business plan, sometimes they’re fresh out of school with no experience and nothing to show but crayon drawings – but they’re driven, enthusiastic and so certain of success it’s almost contagious. No, there is no problem with being driven, enthusiastic or confident. But I’d never ever give them money. You know why? It’s the same reason I don’t play the lottery – if there was a sure way of doing it, they’d find a way to do it without my money. Why would I believe the advice of brokers? I use their information, their data and their services but I never ever use their advice. If they were always right, they’d be the ones getting rich. Right now, people exit expensive limousines driven by liveried chaffeurs to receive advice on how to invest their money from people who use the bus or subway to get to work (another W.B. favourite). Seems legit, innit?

               We mistake confidence with skill and it’s hurting us. Employees want to earn more and go up the corporate ladder – and it’s faster to do that by changing companies, because job openings aren’t just popping overnight. Managers want to earn more – but good employees are hard to find and others compete over them too – so they’re picking up the slack by hiring outside experts for increasing benefit packages while focusing on short term gains – and they’re also jumping ships every once in a while. Over time, this culture of fast money gets to investors too, to the actual owners of companies, and they want more, now. It’s a vicious world and if you’ve got no other interest in a company other than money you don’t have an attachment to it. Shareholders don’t have to keep the shares they own, they can sell them – and bet on the price going up. It’s reinforcing this idea of living in the present and not the future so much, it’s working against them. They want managers to focus on the short term profits, because if they’re fast enough, their gain will become somebody else’s loss. As such, the best scenario for getting rich becomes a game of pass the hot potato – the last one holding it gets burned. Somebody’s always getting burned.

               You can’t always predict success by guessing, it would be like asking a psychic to tell you who you are.

  • Hello, Priscilla the Psychic?
  • Yes, who’s calling?
  • What do the stars tell ye?
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