The Price of a Job: “De ducks are flying”

charityThis past weekend I spent some time at the Louisiana Art and Science Museum. Currently showcasing local artists (past and present) in a gallery show called “Monuments & Metaphors: Art in Public Spaces,” the museum is a pretty nifty gem here in the heart of downtown Baton Rouge.

One of the pieces currently on display is a digital model of some art (an aluminum relief piece) that has been embedded above the main entrance of New Orleans’ Charity Hospital. The hospital, opened in 1736 just 18 years after the city was founded by France in 1718, has been the second oldest continually operated public hospital in the US. As some of you may know, the hospital has been closed since the flooding of Hurricane Katrina. Hope, however, springs eternal that something will eventually move into the space.

On the placard next to the model of “Louisiana at Work and Play” created in 1939) it was related that artist Enrique Alferez included a duck as a reference to some shenanigans (and there were numerous shenanigans) of Governor Huey P. Long. A few enticing details were given so I went home to look up the story.

The book Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long by Richard White gave me the details:

“With the Depression putting thousands of Louisianians out of work, state jobs became even more precious and patronage an incredibly important tool. Huey hired extra game wardens, bridge tenders, state policemen, and added thousands of jobs with his huge road building program, with every new job securing at least one new vote. By 1931, Louisiana employed over 22,000 men working on highways, more than any other state in the country.”

 “He funded his political organization with money given by wealthy supporters,,,,, and from the collection of “deducts” from state workers. State employees paid 5 to 10 percent of their salaries, a total of $1 million a year, for the upkeep of his political machine. If the refused to pay, the ‘come or quit” employees lost their jobs. When the squeeze was put on them for more contributions, they uttered the expression “de ducks are flying” and shelled out for tickets to the machine-controlled baseball park or took out another subscription to the machine-owned newspaper.”

I found this fascinating.

It also got me thinking about the reality of not only securing a job but also having a satisfactory experience as a job seeker or employee 85 years hence.

We know, with certainty, we don’t want to go back to the days of Huey and paying for the right to maintain our employment status. Yet, to combat the sort of crap that was de rigueur in the good-old-days, we have created complex processes in order for people to secure, let alone maintain, employment. Want to work for government or big business? You have hoops to jump through and HR ladies with whom you have to deal. HR ladies who could care less that you come personally recommended by Ms. Big Shot VP tell you to “fill out this 10 page on line application” if you want to be considered. Jesus himself may be your close personal friend but there are still rules.

We can, in a round about way, thank Huey and his brethren for this. But is is, perhaps, the price we pay today in order to gain employment. There’s no longer the need to toss a few bucks into the governor’s pocket but it is necessary to waste countless hours pleading like a supplicant at the altar of the ATS.

Huey may have looked damn dashing in his summer seersucker. It’s quite likely, as many will point out, that while he was nothing short of a dictator the people of Louisiana loved him and in his time as governor and later US Senator he did more for the regular Louisiana citizen than any other state politician who came before or after him. He certainly enjoyed, as do I, a perfectly blended Ramos Gin Fizz. He even wrote a song.

I, for one, would rather create my own kingdom than rely on someone else’s patronage.

Or at least create my own kingdom without the need to spend 55 minutes completing your online application only to get a canned “thanks but no thanks” reply 10 minutes later.


Image: LSU School of Medicine (New Orleans)


Do Something Awesome Every Day

it-is-ok-to-be-awesomeI recently had lunch with a woman I worked with several years ago; she and I had interacted somewhat frequently to attend to business but we also genuinely liked each other. Simpatico and compatible.

After catching up on the phone lamenting the fact that too much time had passed, we decided to get together, have a cocktail, laugh and giggle (yes…I admit to actual giggling), and swap war stories.

At one point during this lunch she said to me (paraphrasing a bit) “you’ve been my favorite HR person at any organization. You kept me sane. Remember when I told you that you were the first HR person who actually acted “human?”

I did indeed remember that.

This story is not, of course, unique to me. I’m sure many of you who work in human resources have heard this, or a variation of it, from employees. “You’re not like other HR people.” “Thanks for helping me through that situation.” “I appreciate you.” “You’re easy to talk to.” “You’re fun.”

Sometimes, when we hear those sorts of things, it makes our crazy jobs in HR a bit better.

That lunch conversation also reinforced something I have long believed and staunchly advocated for: it’s OK for human resources professionals to have a personality. In fact…it’s preferable.

HR ladies are people too. We drink, smoke, swear and tell dirty jokes. We’re the parents of rebellious teenagers and rambunctious toddlers. We have dogs, cats, horses and hamsters. We wonder how we’re going to get the car repaired because finances are tight. We have tattoos and piercings, we do inappropriate things, and a fair number of us like to sing karaoke after one too many margaritas.

Yet, for some reason, many an HR professional trudges off to an office building and erects an invisible shield in an attempt to sanitize and remove all personal uniqueness. He dons his blue suit, she buttons up her jacket, and both of them go about their daily business with all the personality of a come-to-life corporate stock photo. Soulless bureaucrats.

Afraid to be human. Afraid to do something awesome.

I’m not talking about doing something in order to add it to the resume: being strategic, adding value, or successfully navigating a major change management initiative.

I’m talking about doing the human things:

  • Taking someone from another department to lunch
  • Writing a Thank You note to an employee
  • Keeping your door open … and meaning it
  • Eating lunch in the company cafeteria
  • Going to Happy Hour with the Sales Department
  • Singing Karaoke

Being human. Being vulnerable. Being awesome.


“Do one thing every day that scares you.”

Eleanor Roosevelt


h/t for the image


Just Because You Can…Doesn’t Mean You Should

can openerWhen contemplating a course of action or implementing a new procedure/policy HR practitioners stand at a metaphorical crossroads.

In general the process begins with the question “can we do X?” which is a perfectly acceptable, and appropriate, place to start.  After all, as much as we may take umbrage at the relentless HR stereotype that we’re rule-enforcing bureaucrats who take great delight in policing every action there’s no denying that ensuring compliance and mitigating potential risk is an important part of what we do.

Yet…once it’s determined that “yes we CAN do X” it’s quite rare that the follow up question “but SHOULD we do X” is ever asked.

This doesn’t seem to rear its head in relation to matters that are fairly clear cut; wage and hour issues, EEO requirements and the like. Rather it pops up when there are nuanced decisions to be made or when one can opt to domore than is required.  You know… those times when one has the opportunity to enhance the employment experience and treat people like, well, people.

This has come to mind again after a number of recent conversations, discussions and consultations when business owners, HR colleagues and others have sought clarity on things such as:

  • Eliminating paid vacation and paid holidays for some (but not all) classifications of employees
  • Drastically alternating work schedules/work hours. Immediately. Like tomorrow.
  • Deciding that an internal applicant is not worthy of an interview because “we know we wouldn’t put him in that position anyway.”
  • Requiring an exempt employee to be on-site (8 AM to 5 PM) for the 40 hour Mon-Fri workweek even though a project deadline necessitated her working 16+ hours the previous weekend.  Not at the office Mon – Fri for full 40 hours? Just make sure missed work time is accompanied by a deduction from the PTO bank.
  • Charging employees’ time to their PTO bank for breaks needed to express milk
  • Opting to not disclose to an employee the reason for his termination

Ah yes.

Please…by all means…ask if you can. But don’t forget to wonder if you should.


“All The Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas

Layin’ In The Sun,

Talkin’ ‘Bout The Things

They Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda Done…

But All Those Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas

All Ran Away And Hid

From One Little Did.”

Shel Silverstein


this post originally ran at the HR Schoolhouse


3 Things Your HR Department is Doing Right Now

old officeManaging employee data on spreadsheets

I recently read a job posting for an HR Director position with a mid-sized organization (several thousand employees). There, amongst the laundry list of job duties, was “Provide annual wage adjustments on Excel spreadsheet and relay wage increase information to the Payroll Department.”

Lesson: If you work in HR please don’t think you’re the only one who is behind the times. You’re not the only HR professional cobbling together your systems of record and HR data using spreadsheets, word documents and paper files.

Watching you

I had a conversation at a gathering this past weekend and a friend mentioned that his employer is “putting cameras everywhere. They’re all over the building now. They just want to catch us doing something wrong I guess.”

Lesson: No matter the reason for increasing the amount of cameras at a workplace (safety for staff, 24 hour monitoring for security reasons) rest assured that employees will be convinced the HR Lady decided to install cameras so she could catch employees in the midst of sinful transgressions. An employee once accused me of placing a camera in her office because we knew she changed clothes in there before heading to the gym; she was convinced someone in the security department was enthralled with sneaking peeks at her bra and panties.

Hiding Out

Last week a friend mentioned that her company’s HR Department (already well known for having a locked HR Department that requires employees to buzz for admittance) has recently spent a considerable amount of money ‘frosting’ the plate glass windows of the HR lobby. The explanation, as it has been relayed, is so that employees don’t see their co-workers and colleagues sitting in the HR Department.

Lesson: If your HR collateral claims your organization is warm-hearted, compassionate and open you need to make sure the HR Department understands the symbolism behind their actions. Ensuring privacy for sensitive conversations is a good thing thing but this group is sending the message (no one can see in our windows!) that the HR Department is a bad evil place just barely removed from the circles of hell. Even though the rest of the company’s employees dwell in cubicles and gather in collaborative work pods no one just pops in to chat with HR staff.

And that’s what your HR Department is doing right now.

They’re also probably on Facebook trading inspirational quotes and sharing pictures of puppies; you know, before updating the internet access policy that blocks your access to Facebook and YouTube and Twitter and…..


The Pace of Business. The Pace of HR.

Atlas Rockefeller CenterI grew up in Wisconsin. I spent my childhood and HS years in the Milwaukee suburbs, headed off to college in central Wisconsin, and then returned to live and work in Milwaukee. It’s a bustling city and I’ve found that unless you’re from the area or have reason to visit you generally don’t have any awareness that the MSA is quite so sizable. We moved at a brisk clip and took care of business; might be that whole Socialist and Germanic heritage. Or because we knew a beer was waiting at the end of the day. I dunno.

Thirteen years ago we moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. One hour up the I-10 from New Orleans (let’s face it, the most unique city in the USofA), Baton Rouge suffers from an identity crisis usually articulated as “we are NOT New Orleans!”

There are certainly many things to love here in the Red Stick; the food, the ever-present music, a fascinating history, and super friendly and welcoming people. We have gorgeous scenery, exotic wildlife, and LSU football … if that’s your thing. There are also characteristics that reside firmly in the negative column; a general aversion to anything progressive, the absolute worst traffic ever, an atrocious education system, and institutional racism and sexism that still snuggle companionably alongside the Sazeracs served to Tripp and Tiffany at the local country club or at the annual power-broker crawfish boils.

Oh…and we move slowly. V-E-R-Y slowly. And that, other than learning how to pronounce a whole new bunch of words, was the biggest area of acclimation for me.

Is it because of the heat? Any day now we’re destined to hit the upper 80’s/90’s and then resolutely remain there until October and, of course, our heat is like wrapping yourself in a wet woolen blanket. Do we take our time because we’ll break into a sweat if we pick up the pace?

Or is it, as some have postulated, because we believe in enjoying life? We like to stop and smell the roses (or magnolias)? We wonder “what’s the rush?” Laissez les bon temps rouler.

There’s something to be said for that.

Yet whenever I head out of town I notice the remarkable differences in how we not only “live” but also in how we “work.”

I spent part of last week in NYC with a colleague working with an HR team full of energized, super smart, young, and hip HR professionals. Well, certainly more hip than me. We rocked through a ton of content at a fast clip all day long and then, because unlike Baton Rouge there are things to do in NYC past 8 PM, we went out for drinks and festivities.

No moss growing under their feet.

And, it goes without saying, this team was not an anomaly.

I took a stroll through Grand Central Station, purposefully at commute time, to revel in the frenzied activity of harried suburbanites catching their trains. I sat at a table, mid-day, in Bryant Park to watch the go-go young investment bankers grab some Jamba Juice before continuing on with their important phone calls. While scoring some cocktails I chatted up a marketing dude (finance industry) at the bar; he was still in his suit (tie loosened) and had his computer bag at his feet…4 hours after the workday ended. He paused, mid-conversation, to take a 30 second phone call, send off a quick email (another 30 seconds), and then resumed our conversation.

That shit doesn’t happen in Baton Rouge.

Is that good…or bad? Certainly the desire for a certain lifestyle…fast pace vs. slow pace… boils down to personal preference. There are many individuals who purposefully choose to escape (isn’t that how it’s usually put?) so they leave DC or Chicago or pick-a-big-city and relocate to a less frenetic metro area or even a small town.

More power to ‘em.

I got to thinking though; does the speed at which the overall business community moves impact how HR moves? Does an HR team or an HR professional working in a sluggish environ become … well…sluggish? Can human resources professionals ideate and innovate and ACT when those around them are content to live by the mantra “don’t be in such a hurry; we’ll get there someday.”

What would Atlas do?


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