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The Consultants Have No Clothes

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Image: Bob RosnerThis week’s blog should get me in a lot of trouble. But I think it’s time that someone points out that many of the biggest business consultants, authors and speakers run really crappy businesses of their own.

Okay, I’ve heard all the jokes about consultants. All go basically down the same path—a consultant is someone who borrows your watch and then tells you what time it is. But this is someone much worse. I’ve discovered that many of the biggest advisors to business run shops that are much more poorly managed than many of the corporations that pay them such lofty fees.

Ironic isn’t it?

Take consultant number one—I’ve confided the real names to my editor, but dear reader you’ll have to give me some slack here, because these guys are my colleagues, and in some cases my friends.

Consultant number one has had a series of best selling books, he commands top dollar on the speakers circuit and chances are that you’ve heard or seen him at one time during your career. He is so volatile that he is barely able to hold on to staff for more than a year. He says he’s a great listener, but his staff says to me that he yells far too much to ever hear a word they say. His office might as well have a revolving door on it.

Consultant number two is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. But his company is remarkably dysfunctional. Its top leadership seems to change with the seasons. More than any other, this company almost seems to be dedicated to violating every principal that it espouses in its publications and presentations with its own people. It is a rudderless, often contradictory and cruel place that talks about sharing the credit but seldom does.

Consultant number three has built a company with some of the lowest morale anywhere. It’s hard to sort out where the battle lines are worse, in the executive suites or in the trenches. At one point I actually got to see some of the company’s internal survey results and couldn’t imagine that any of this company’s customers own results were that pathetic. Employees felt that management was more likely to knife them in the back then pat them on it. Although there was a lot of talk about values, the organization seems to only hold one value dear, and that is making the sale.

Woody Allen once said that those who can, do. And those who can’t, teach. Clearly those who really can’t do something become top-priced consultants.

So what can we do about this? I’m not suggesting that anyone throw out the baby with the bathwater. Each of these three people I referred to above has an important message and strategies to share. I just believe that corporations need to do a better job of due diligence with the messengers it picks before it starts ramming the fad of the week down its own people’s throats.

Look at each possible vendor as a little laboratory for their own principals. Ask for proof that they eat their own dog food and practice the very principals that they are foisting on you, and the rest of the business world.

Many of you are probably saying to yourself that this doesn’t really matter. It all goes back to the “Hawthorne Effect”, remember, that’s where a company turned up its lights and found that productive increased. Then when productivity stabilized they tried turning the lights down and found—like magic—that productivity magically increased again. The lesson, is that over the short haul almost anything you do can potentially increase productivity.

So Corporate America do your homework. Just because someone is a brand name, don’t assume that their principles work in the real world. That’s the bad news. The good news, is that the due diligence isn’t that hard to do. You just have to take the pulse of the employees who work for the company you are thinking about hiring. Ask to see recently survey results and staff turnover rates. I can guarantee that often you’ll be surprised by what you find.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via [email protected].


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Cubicle Blues

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You’d expect the “father” of the cubicle to be a proud parent. Heck, his invention multiplied faster than rabbits. But you’d be wrong.

Thirty years ago, Robert Probst was seeking to create the perfect place to work for the office furnishings company Herman Miller. In search of the “office of the future,” he designed the perfect environment for maximum satisfaction and productivity. He called his creation “the action office.”

Yep, the cubicle. At the time Probst was looking for something better than the open bullpen that was the norm for much of the last century. He wanted to create a space that would allow privacy, personalization and the maximum in flexibility. For example, his original creation had a variety of surfaces that you could work from each that was a different height.

So much for privacy, personalization and flexibility. Just before his death in 2000, Probst called his creation “monolithic insanity” in Fortune.

There are many reasons why the “action office” devolved in the cube. Soaring real estate prices, corporations trying to get more bang for the buck by packing employees in like sardines and even the tax code (corporations can write off cubicles much faster than they can write off their investment in walls in an office building).

There is a part of me that believes that the successor to the cube will be emptying out our huge office buildings in a massive wave of telecommuting. This makes sense for so many reasons—spiraling gas prices, increasing real estate costs and the fact that so many homes now have broadband access. The only problem with this picture is that we barely know how to manage the people we can see at work, so few of us have the foggiest idea of how to manage people we can’t see.

Which leads back to the “action office.” It’s clear that business is now 0 for 2. The bullpen didn’t work. The cubicle has spawned Dilbert and a massive amount of griping from most of the people who’ve worked in one.

So what is the answer? I think it involves combining the best of the future with the best of the past. The first part of the equation is really figuring out what jobs can be done by telecommuting. And what workers and managers are up to this challenge. Once these jobs are moved out of our buildings then we’ll actually have the room to turn the cube back into the “action office” that Probst originally envisioned. With fewer people they can be bigger and hopefully employees can have the ability to tailor them to their needs.

For all the talk of productivity, I’m surprised at how little of the conversation addresses the place where most of our work actually gets done. If more of us engage in this conversation, hopefully, we’ll be able to put the “action” back into the “action office.”

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Also check out his newly revised best-seller “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via [email protected]


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How to Date a Corporation: Dating Rules for a Post-Citizens United World

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The Supreme Court recently determined that corporations are entitled to freedom of speech because they are legally persons. The ramifications of this decision, Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, cannot be overstated: it introduces an entirely new and untapped population into the dating pool.

Chances are you’ve never dated a corporation before. But don’t be intimidated. This can be a fun and exciting opportunity… as long as you follow the corporation-dating rules.

1. Consider your options. There are a lot of corporations out there. Is this really the best corporation out there? Is this corporation “the one?” Or should you keep looking?
2. Don’t seem too eager to get involved. Remember, corporations are predatory by nature and enjoy a chase.
3. Do a background check. What kind of relationships has this corporation had in the past? What is the corporation’s history
4. Investigate the company the corporation keeps. Who is on its board of directors? Have any been indicted?
5. Check out the corporation’s assets and figures. How do they look? Are they appealing to you?
6. Say that you’re fiscally conservative but socially liberal. Corporations find this very sexy.
7. Make sure you wait before you give up any of your assets. Corporations lose interest when you give it up right away.
8. Don’t over invest. Nothing hurts more than giving without getting.
9. Resist the “urge to merge.” Mergers often look appealing but they tend to be messy and almost always hurt party.
10. Assume the worst. Corporations have a one track mind and they can’t wait to get their hands on your goods.
11. And last but not least…Protect yourself. Corporations can be very reckless and you never really know how many people this corporation has screwed.

*This post originally appeared in Working Life. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Katie Harper is a co-founder of Laughing Liberally, a political comedy group, with whom she performs regularly at venues including Netroots Nation (the convention formerly known as Yearly Kos). Katie blogs for Huffington Post, TakePart, 23/6, Nerve, Culture Kitchen, and Campus Progress. Katie is also an Artistic Director and Comedy Curator at The Tank, a non-profit performing arts space for emerging artists. Her award winning documentary, La memoria es vaga, about historical memory in Spain, has been screened throughout Spain and the U.S. Katie is currently developing a one-woman show and a documentary film about her summer camp, Camp Kinderland, and their “peace Olympics” games. For more information, check out http:// katiehalper.com


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How Things Really Get Done

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Image: Bob RosnerOne of the most creative bits of problem solving I’ve ever heard of came during Hurrican Katrina. In the French Quarter, Addie Hall and Zackery Bowen found an unusual way to make sure that police officers regularly patrolled their house. Ms. Hall, 28, a bartender, flashed her breasts at the police vehicles that passed by, ensuring a regular flow of traffic (from the New York Times).

I’m a fan of New Orleans. And let’s face it, if you had gone through the hell of hurricane Katrina, would you be able to draw on years of experience at Mardi Gras to get the police attention you needed? Ms. Hall, like so many residents of the Big Easy, has the most creative problem solving skills I’ve ever seen.

Ms. Hall also reminds us that there are the ways that things are supposed to get done and the ways that they actually get done. I’m not suggesting that flashing is a career enhancing move for most of us. But there are times at work, and in life, where creativity and bold action are not only called for, they’re a requirement.

This reminds me of a story that I heard as a graduate business student. Our professor told us that he wanted to talk to people who actually implemented programs in corporations. So he arranged a meeting with no consultants, authors or other hangers on. He only allowed corporate doers in the room. He asked them to tell success stories and he marveled at how the techniques for getting things done in the real world had little resemblance to what was being taught in MBA programs.

For example, there was the change agent who tried to get his program implemented for years with no success. He’d long since given up. Then one day he was having lunch with his friend, the company speechwriter. The topic of his failed program came up. He told the sad story of defeat after defeat on the corporate battlefield. Cut to the CEO two weeks later announcing his latest initiative, the change agent’s program. One conversation with the speechwriter breathed more life into his program than years of banging his head against the corporate hierarchy.

For every rule of how things should get done in organizations there are often at least two exceptions. That’s why it’s so important to get to know the network of doers in your organization. They’re in there, but chances are that they’re operating beneath the radar. So you’re going to have to go looking for them. Once you get their confidence, they’ll have many stories that will both surprise you and teach you new ways to get from point A to point B within your organization.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. If you have a question for Bob, contact him via [email protected]


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The Commencement Speech You Didn’t Hear

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In 1989 I gave my first Commencement Speech at the University of Puget Sound. Even though I wasn’t asked to speak to graduates this year, I decided to not let that hold me back. Actually the speech below is much less for the graduates and really directed at the corporations that seem to value these graduates so highly—much too highly. Without further ado…

Dear Graduates—after wandering the halls of academe for 16, or more years, congratulations. The good news, no more homework. The bad news, say goodbye to summer, your ten-month year is about to come to an end.

My undergraduate years were a valuable time for me. I learned how to do my own laundry, how to drink Jell-o shots, how to use a cafeteria tray as a sleigh, how to kiss with one leg on the floor, how to cram all night for a test and how to forget everything the moment that the test was over—all helpful skills to possess.

Okay, I did learn a few things along the way. Unfortunately none immediately leap to mind. (Lest I seem like a total slacker, Dear Reader, what information do you remember from your college years?)

Which is exactly my point. I think that all graduates deserve congratulations. But this is not about you. I’m concerned that far too many corporations hold the lack of a college education against employees who want to get into management.

Just last week I talked to a woman who had run an office for two U.S. Senators, been a successful entrepreneur and was currently thriving in an entirely new career. She accomplished all of this without a college degree. Yet, there are many jobs that she cannot apply for.

This isn’t coming from a place of envy. I not only have a B.S. degree (a perfect description of my undergraduate years). But I also have a Masters of Business Administration (and isn’t that what the business world needs today, more administrators?). And I’ve served as an Adjunct Professor to MBA students on four separate occasions (in case you are wondering, “Adjunct” is Latin for “poorly paid”). 

So my criticism comes from a person who has “paid his dues.” I’ve got the degrees. And I think college is a totally B.S. test for how you’ll perform in today’s workplace. There is nothing wrong with a college education. To use a dessert analogy, the degree is the icing, the cake is the person’s other experiences, expertise and insight.

That does leave us with a problem. If we are going to level the playing field in terms of those with, and those without a college education, how will we decide who is the better person to hire? We’ll have to look at the person and not use a convenient, and inappropriate, yardstick.

A few considerations: What has the person accomplished at work? How do the people they’ve worked with feel about their contributions? Has the person traveled abroad? Have they done volunteer work? Do they speak another language? Do they know what’s going on in the world? Do they understand your industry and its competitors? I would argue that all of these are more reliable measures of what a person can contribute to your organization than a tired, old piece of sheepskin.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a beef with college. I just believe that the life experiences and minds of many who have not graced the hallowed halls of academia is a terrible thing to waste. So enjoy your degree. Just don’t look down on people who don’t have one. Heck, you just might be able to learn something from them. 

About the Author Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. If you have a question for Bob, contact him via [email protected]


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Why I am Pro-Corporate

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I am pro-corporate. I’ll go a step further with that and proclaim that I believe that there are no bad corporations, and that I haven’t seen any corporations do anything wrong.

I see the way you are looking at me. I’d better explain.

The reason I say there are no “bad” corporations is because corporations are not sentient beings that can “do” things or that can be good or bad. They can’t make decisions. Corporations are just a bundle of contracts that allow groups of people to more easily raise capital and amass resources. Corporations are things, like chairs, and things do not make decisions, any more than a chair does. Corporations are tools and tools are neither good nor bad.

When I say I am pro-corporate, this is what I mean: The things that the corporate legal structure enables people to do are good for society. This is why We, the People decided to enact the laws that created corporations. If we want to be able to accomplish things on a large scale, like build a railroad or airports and airplanes or skyscrapers – or solar power plants to replace coal power plants – we want to enable people to more easily raise the necessary capital and amass the resources needed to get the job done. The legal structure of the corporate form of a business accomplishes this.

Corporations, a bundle of contracts, don’t “do” anything, people do. And that is why this discussion is important right now. We are looking here at how to restructure our economy, but before we can do that, we have to correctly identify what went wrong. We have to understand who the good and bad actors were.

So what are some of the things that companies have been doing that we as progressives think should change? Let’s use the highly-publicized example of Wal-Mart and their low wages and benefits and Chinese imports. Wal-Mart always complained about being cast as the bad-actor. They said that if Wal-Mart raised wages and benefits and their competitor Target didn’t, then they would be at a competitive disadvantage and Target would take over the business. And, by extension, any company that tries to “do the right thing” is immediately at a disadvantage to a company that does not.

Looked at this way, if we make Wal-Mart raise wages and Target doesn’t, then not only is Wal-Mart in trouble as a company but now we’re starting all over again trying to get Target to raise wages. And if THEY do so, then along comes K-Mart or Costco or a new company X-Co to pay the low wages, charge lower prices and take away the business. This feels like it is going around in a circle, trying to fix a problem in one place and the pressures of the system immediately make the problem appear somewhere else.

I think blaming companies for the things they “do” also places a lot of stress on people inside of them who might agree with us, and even can alienate them from otherwise supporting progressives. People in the corporate world often feel trapped because the rules of the game require them to engage in what we think of as bad behavior. These are good people who would be very helpful to us in making the correct changes but they feel forced by the system to do the things they do. They are pulled two ways. Executives at Wal-Mart on the one hand can be want to raise wages, and on the other hand have a responsibility to compete with Target.

So what am I getting at here? The companies are not the problem, the rules we set up for them are. Companies operate on a playing field on which the rules of the game are supposed to be decided by US. We, the People are supposed to set up the ground rules and then the companies are supposed to follow those rules. Wal-Mart followed those rules. If we didn’t like the wages and benefits that companies pay, why don’t we change the rules and tell them they all have to pay higher wages and provide better benefits?

Now we’re getting somewhere. Many progressives have been trying to get companies to “behave” in better ways, and haven’t been getting much done — I think due to not correctly identifying the problem. The real problem is that we haven’t set up the rules of the playing field to require these companies – all of them – to provide good wages and benefits, etc. It is our job to regulate what these corporations do. So why didn’t we, through our government, change the rules for all the companies, so they all had a level playing field and clear rules? Identifying why we have not fixed the rules is the path to fixing the larger problem.

What has been happening is that a few people in the bigger companies have been using the resources of those big corporations to influence our system and set the rules of that playing field to give an edge to their companies. They do this so they can personally gain.

This is where we need to focus to fix the corporate system. There should be no way for people in companies to have any say whatsoever in how the playing field on which they operate is set up. How to accomplish this is a subject for future posts.

As I said above, corporations are just a tool, like a hammer. But a hammer can do a lot of damage if a person hits you upside the head with it. That is what we have to stop: a few people using corporate resources and hitting us upside the head.

Oh, and for the record, I am pro-chair, too, though my wife will probably insist I am a pro-couch partisan.

Dave Johnson:Dave is at Fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and a Fellow at the Commonwealth Institute.

This article originally appeared at Blog for Our Future and is reprinted here with permission from the author.


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