Monday, September 22, 2014

Ethical Work

Last year, my odd neighbor was diagnosed with a brain tumor that might not have been operable, had it not been for insurance and the nearby Mayo Clinic.  The operation was successful.  He is still an odd character.  He is still alive to prove that.

What interested me the most about this particular event was not the operation or the miracle of his recovery.  I was absolutely amazed at the treatment he received from his very large global corporate employer. 
His doctors told him that he would not be allowed to return to work for several months.  His employer told him that he would be kept on at full salary for the duration of his recovery, that if he were to return within six months, he would go back to his old job and that if his recovery went longer, he’d be put in another equivalent position.  I was shocked when he told this to me.  I have no idea if he’s returned to work yet.  This morning he was walking his dog down the road when I passed him at around nine on the way to my own job so I kind of think that he is still practicing his early retirement. 

During the past few months, my company staff has experienced an incredibly high rate of, well, required time off.  We have pregnancies, difficulties during pregnancies, births, deaths, serious illness within families, children starting school, children participating in school activities and child care issues.  I can’t recall a day in the last month where at least one machine was not idle due to outside requirements.

It surprises me that my company’s staff are still productive and that people are still earning a living.  Work hours are lower than they have been during comparable months in past years and yet we are still producing at a better-than-breakeven rate.  While they seem to have less time to work, employees have begun working even more efficiently and effectively than they have in the past. 

I hear a great deal about the loss of the American Work Ethic these days.  In my own contrary way, I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate.  Really and truly, I don’t think that the work ethic has diminished.  Instead, the extent of non-work duties has increased to the point where our available time for employment is shrinking.  Something has to give and that would seem to be work hours.

Think about it.  We used to have kids, wean them, send them away and we were done with them.  Nowadays, we are most likely taking care of a parent along with the kids.  Not only are there school conferences, there are nursing conferences, benefit planning conferences, medicine purchases, and illnesses and every one of these takes place during the day, when our employees are supposed to be at work.  The responsibilities assigned to them outside of their workplace are huge and it is pretty obvious that while we see less of our employees, they are working just as hard as they ever have.  Their time is just spread a whole lot thinner.
Don’t misunderstand.  I’m convinced that an awful lot of people really don’t want to work very hard.  We see them milking the system and their examples are hard to ignore.   One of my employees said that her children’s school required that mommies attend during the school day every Thursday.  She said (and this is direct from her) that a lot of the mommies could attend because they were collecting welfare instead of working. 

That shroud of negative is covering a whole bed of working individuals who spend their vacations settling Mom and Dad into a nursing home or buying the ten thousand back-to-school items for each child instead of cruising the Caribbean.  When they get back to work, we who remained behind are merciless and unsympathetic.  After all, they got to be away from work, right?  That should have been enough. 

Of course it isn’t enough.  It is exhausting and most of the time, a return to work brings a sigh of relief.  It is one place where those multiple responsibilities can be forgotten for a little bit of time and perhaps something can actually be accomplished.

So here is my own conclusion.  Instead of punishing employees for being gone a whole lot, I’ve decided to make it easy for them to be gone.  My only request of them is that they focus on their work when they are here at the shop.  If they are here six hours a day and they are six focused and productive hours instead of eight or nine less productive hours that are split between coordinating childcare, filling the pantry, picking out clothes for the kids’ first day at school and actually doing some embroidery, I am thrilled.  If they are a little bit happier because they are now relieved of the stress of not doing the best of work while juggling all the other issues in their lives, I am thrilled.

It would seem that there are better ways to create productivity than simply requiring more hours at work.  

Friday, September 12, 2014


Yet another Horse Discussion! 

Yes, we repeat the horse theme quite often, don’t we?  Quite honestly, I learn as much about people by observing horses as I learn about working with horses.

Last weekend we did a horse training clinic at our house.  There were four of us attending, two neighbors, my partner and me.  Our trainer follows a method of training developed by Clinton Anderson who is the current rock star of horse training.  It involves a lot of training at ground level and while not unique, it is my current favorite method.  Horses are generally safer to ride and more compliant after doing lots of groundwork.

All four of us have made unscheduled dismounts.  For the uninitiated, that means we’ve been bucked off or fallen off our horses at one point or another.  One neighbor was bounced off her horse this summer while we were riding together.  Her fall resulted in seven cracked or broken ribs, a punctured lung and a torn rotator cuff.  The other has been trying to get his horse to canter and has been summarily dismissed several times.  His horse has quit taking him seriously.  Both neighbors were afraid.  The one with the broken ribs has been afraid of actually riding her horse.  The other was understandably nervous about cantering.

We worked hard through the morning on Saturday, doing a lot of groundwork, getting corrected by our trainer over methods and techniques and generally preparing the horses for the main event.  By midday, all of our horses were calm enough to be ridden.  After lunch, we saddled them all up and one by one we mounted. 

Our Broken Rib neighbor was last.  She took her time getting her horse to move to a mounting block, messed with his hair and saddle for quite some time and then, took a deep breath and climbed onto him.  It was an anticlimax.  Her horse dropped his head and stood quietly while she went through her riding checks.  Then she moved off and went around the arena several times before it occurred to her that she really ought to get a picture or two for posterity.  It finally occurred to her that this was almost as exciting as her first ride!

The cantering was equally as exciting.  All four of us rode the outside track in the arena for awhile and then grouped ourselves at the center.  The cantering lad started out by trotting his horse for a few minutes.  As he rode, our trainer suggested that he move his horse to a canter ‘when he felt comfortable’.  Not long after, he was making circuit after circuit without a single buck, hop or side step.

The thing about learning is that it is rarely exciting.  Oh, our Broken Rib friend learned a really painful lesson about warming up her horse and actually working with him from the ground, which is why she attended the clinic.  That sort of lesson is not terribly desirable.  The better types are ones that aren’t accompanied by pain, danger, near death or broken bones.  The best lessons don’t even come with fanfare, they just get absorbed right into our lives without so much as a bruise.  That was the case last weekend.

Fear.  It locates us and paralyzes us.  We spend sleepless nights wondering what monster is lurking under the mattress, inside the closet or outside the window.  We start to believe that our horse hates us, that the world is against us or that the unfamiliar crowd at a party is all watching just us.  Fear. 

We learn, if we survive, that facing our fear is not necessarily a scary thing in and of itself.  Most of the time, nearly all of the time, we have made the fearsome thing so large in our own minds that it looks insurmountable.  Once we finally think our way through it, do a little bit of prep work and actually start to overcome the object, it becomes a non-event.  As often as television tries to make us believe that there should be a full orchestra and victory music at the successful conclusion, we discover that it really wasn’t worth being afraid in the first place. 

I am going to ride Sam some more this weekend.  He has launched me a couple of times now.  The last time really hurt.  I really hope I can get up the nerve to canter again.  The thought is frightening.  Oh wait, it’s a matter of preparing my horse.  Got it.  Sigh of relief in progress.  Sorry for the scare there. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Responsible parties

The other day, I presented a letter of reprimand to one of my employees.  He's worked for me for eight years and has been a mainstay of the business during that time.  He is a good person, a reliable employee and a good family man.  His attention to quality has been outstanding until the past year or so.  

He has ruined three large embroidery jobs during the past eight months.  The combined total loss has been greater than the rest of our embroiderers combined.   His most recent mistake was so bad that we had to order and send the replacement goods to another embroiderer because the customer had very little faith in our ability to do the job.

Only a week after the latest quality issue, he made the ultimate in foolish mistakes by putting a needle through his finger.  This became a worker’s compensation claim.  Normally this is something that is only committed by rookies and it only happens once.  The only way that a needle can pierce a finger is by putting that finger under a needle while the machine is running.  Rookies learn quickly that when the needles are going up and down at a rate of four hundred fifty and a thousand times per minute, the wise choice is to stop the machine before clearing a stray thread or adjusting fabric.  For a veteran to do this is unthinkable.  Turning off the machine before clearing threads becomes second nature to experienced embroiderers.

As a side note, in twenty two years, we have not paid out a worker’s comp claim on this sort of injury until this year.  This is not a common occurrence at all. 

So my employee and I had a conversation.  I read him the letter, we spoke of the issues at hand and I asked if something was wrong in his life that was causing him to slip up so much.  His answer was that there was nothing wrong. 

We discussed the most recent mistake.  I was informed that he had done a sample and that it was approved.  I asked why the rest of the order was not like the sample.  I received a shoulder shrug.

We moved on.  The needle-through-finger trick.    How did it happen?  He said that it was an accident.  I asked if maybe he wasn't a little bit responsible for the accident.  He said that he was not.  It was the machine's fault.

I asked who had pushed the start button?  He did.  Who had put his finger under the machine after it was moving?  He did.  "So", I asked, "didn't you have some responsibility for this happening?"

"No," he replied.  "It was an accident."

"How did you get married?" I asked.  Sometimes I'll change the subject.

"My wife and I decided to do so," he said.

"Who asked whom?"

"I asked her."

"So you are responsible?"

"Yes," he said.

"And how about the accident?" I asked.

"It was an accident."

I gave up.  Our conversation was finished, save for one final request on his part.  "Since I am agreeing to the letter of reprimand," he said, "I would like a raise of fifty cents an hour.  You should take some risks as well."

I am older and calmer than I once was.  I politely told him that we would consider a raise if he actually survives the next six months without an issue.  I did not commit an assault upon his person. 

As my employee talked, I discovered that he will take responsibility for the good things in his life.  He does not take any credit for the bad things.  They are someone else’s fault.  That was his consistent assertion throughout the course of our discussion.  At the end of our discussion, I learned two lessons. 

The first was that I could not help but consider him to be a Victim.  His life is a complete loss because he chooses to assert no control over the bad things that happen to him.  They are always the result of someone or something other than him. 

The second was something that I told him.  As he continued to take responsibility for the good and deny the bad, I mentioned to him that we live in the United States.  I said that one of the fundamentals of our country is something called Freedom.  When a person takes responsibility for the good AND the bad, they set themselves free. 

Think about it and get back to me, okay?