If it's a story about me, then I'll say so up front.

This is a blog about Truth, Justice and the American Way. The stories are true. No names have been changed to protect anyone's identity, including my own. If the story is about me, then I'll say so right up front. If I don't use a name to identify whom the story is about, then it's because it's not relevant. So please do not call me or e-mail me with your kind condolences or unwarranted congratulations about something that you believe is a cleverly disguised bio from my alter ego. These stories, like my photo, are unretouched.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Get Outta Dodge!

There was a time this past Spring when I was a mess. Sure, some of you would say, “So what’s new?” But frankly, I was more of a mess than usual. My mother was ending a nasty, lengthy bout with terminal cancer and died in our house early on Memorial Day morning. Down at the Hawaii Women’s Business Center, we were the lucky recipients of a random federal audit by the SBA and the pressure was so great that after following my mother’s body to the mortuary that morning, I racked up nearly 86 hours of work over the next six days.

By the following week I was exhausted, emotionally drained, and strung tighter than a piano wire (high E over C, for those of you obsessed with detail). Some excellent friends urged me to get as far out of town as possible. In fact, they practically insisted that I join them in England. When I broached the subject with my husband he ask, “When were you thinking of leaving?"

“Tomorrow,” I answered. Bless his heart, he supported my impetuosity and kissed me goodbye.

It was the best decision I had made in years. I returned refreshed, renewed, calm and back on my game. I arrived home a different person than the one who left.

I am a great believer in the need to periodically step away and recharge the batteries. It is for this reason that when I negotiated my last job position, I voluntarily traded additional salary for five weeks of annual paid vacation to begin during the first year of employment. I tried not to be a jerk about it. My understanding was that I would never take more than 15 days at a time.

I have a Greek foreign-exchange student “sister.” Leda is frankly appalled by our American “work ethic.” In the 15 nations of the European Union, by law all full-time employees must be given a minimum of four weeks’ paid vacation per year. The same is true for part-time employees who have worked for at least 13 weeks. (In Greece, the standard is six weeks.) Even workers in McDonald’s get 4-5 weeks of paid vacation. Also, the notion of “accruing” vacation time doesn’t apply; employees are generally entitled to their four (or more) weeks of vacation time from the moment they are hired. It’s not considered an earned perk; it’s considered part of the job.

In all my years as an employer, I have never turned down an employee’s request for vacation time. I know for a certainty that exhaustion and stress equals depression and in turn, poor productivity. Speaking of productivity, did you know that when France reduced its official work week to 35 hours a few years ago, studies showed that there was no loss in productivity. How can this be? The answer was found in the way employees spend their time at work. Europeans generally work – then they go home.

Americans on the other hand spend large amounts of work time socializing with clients and other employees, dealing with personal e-mail and non-business phone calls – in other words, avoiding work in order to cope with the high level of workplace stress.

On May 21, 2009, Florida Congressman Alan Grayson introduced a bill amending the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The bill is called the 2009 Paid Vacation Act. Google it and read some fascinating and horrific statistics showing that at in least 148 countries, including all industrialized nations and all developed countries, only the U.S. fails to provide a minimum annual paid leave statute. American workers suffer twice the rate of clinical depression as their European counterparts. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American works one month (160 hours) more today than in 1976. In 1980, we ranked 11th in the world in life expectancy; we now rank 42nd. While you’re Googling on the web (probably during work hours), also check out the movement “Take Back Your Time Day” at Timeday.org or read the May 19th issue of US Business Week. The info will curl your toenails.

In the meantime, try these tips on your next vacation:

• Don’t check your business e-mail. I placed an “out of the office” automatic response on my office account with the message that if it was an absolute emergency, my staff knew how to reach me in Europe (and they did – twice).

• Resist the urge to call the office to see how things are going. They are going fine, thank you. The world will rotate without your assistance. In circumstances where there is a real emergency, see the above paragraph.

• If you are unable to get through your vacation day without “checking in” at least once, see the telephone directory yellow pages under the listing “Psychiatrists.”

• If your job requires that you check in at least once a day, even on vacation, or be available 24/7, see the CareerBuilder section of your local newspaper under the listing, “Jobs Available.” (This advice does not apply if you hold the title National Director of Homeland Security or President of the United States.)

It’s off-peak season in most parts of the world. There are surprising deals out there for the taking, particularly in the area of cruise ships, which are overbuilt and underbooked. For instance, right now Expedia.com is having a sale on 3 & 4-day cruises in the Bahamas from $149 per person. Those prices aren’t per day – it’s the whole enchilada including stateroom, 5 meals a day, nightly entertainment, baggage transfers, everything. You can’t do Zippys and Motel 6 for that kind of money.

The kids are back at school. Taking a vacation from them isn’t the worst idea either. Ask grandma to move in for a week or make a deal with another parent (you’ll watch theirs if they’ll watch yours). GO AWAY! Do not stay home and paint the garage. Do NOT attend a career-related seminar, even if it is held at Disney World. Do something mindless; something you’ve never done before.

I know how hard this is. Prior to my little escapade to England this spring, I confess to having taken only a few days off over the past two years (making that carefully negotiated vacation deal a complete waste of time). But when I did finally go, it changed my life and I cannot too highly recommend it.

Slip out the back, Jack. Make a new plan, Stan. And if your work is a hodgepodge – Just Get Outta Dodge!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Let's Blame Amy!

Long ago, I owned a film production company and we had a summer intern named Amy Kohn. She was only with us for a few months and she didn’t have much in the way of job responsibilities but Amy was a lovely young lady and we all liked her a lot. After Amy had gone back to college for the fall term, whenever something went wrong around the office, it became a running joke to blame it on some bonehead thing that we pretended Amy had done or forgotten to do or, more often than not, something with which she had never even been involved. It was just a handy way to avoid taking responsibility for anything problematic.

This became such a useful pretext that years later employees who had never even met Amy regularly blamed things on her. It was part joke and part convenient excuse. Paperwork that was long overdue was in a folder labeled “Amy’s file.” A broken drawer had a post-it note stuck to it that said, “Amy, would you PLEASE fix this!!” Sometimes you would only need say, “Amy,” and roll your eyes and everyone understood that someone had screwed up big time but it sure wasn’t going to get hung on anybody present.

Everyone has an Amy in his or her office or life – a scapegoat for whatever is going wrong at the moment. Something for which you just can’t bring yourself to take responsibility. I don’t have a job right now, but it’s not my fault. Between the economic downturn and the cutting of federal funds, they couldn’t pay me so my position was eliminated. See, totally not my fault! I haven’t gotten a new job yet but in this dismal job market that’s not my fault either. In fact, I have several friends who are out of work and dead broke but they are not to blame. I also have a couple of friends who are single and wish that they weren’t but there’s nothing they can do about it. Their inability to get a mate or even a steady date in no way reflects their looks or their self-centeredness or their arrogance or boorish mindset or lack of commitment or (insert your excuse here).

Taking responsibility for your own actions is a bitch.

I’d like to write more about this but I really ought to be plowing through the heap of unironed shirts that are sitting on my dining room chairs. I meant to finish them yesterday but then we took my visiting brother-in-law out to brunch and it was so hot out that we escaped into a movie theater and by the time we got home it was too dark to iron. I mean, am I responsible for the sun going down? Of course not. The sun is up now but it’s getting hot again and, to tell you the truth, I didn’t sleep all that well last night. Also, I’m pretty hungry. I think I’ll wander into the kitchen and make myself a sandwich and then catch a little nap. After all, I gotta eat and get some rest. Who could blame me for that?

“Amy, would you PAH-LEESE get to the ironing?” (head shake and deep sigh here).

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Death Wish Café

“I’m sorry, Brad, but I can’t serve you the grilled focaccia for breakfast any more. We have it in the kitchen, ready for lunch hour, but the chef won’t let me sell it to you at breakfast.”

Now my husband has been a good customer since they opened their doors for business. The whole staff knows him by name. He often brings in friends at lunch, which helps to increase their exposure to new clientele.

Brad doesn’t eat red meat, fast food, milk, visible eggs or cheese. He’s weird that way. He also gets sick of oatmeal every day for breakfast so when his favorite restaurant added focaccia to their menu, he began ordering it grilled and was in seventh heaven. I don’t know why, because to me it’s just wads o’ starch, but he likes it. He’s weird that way.

So after months of this treat, he objected to getting it snatched from his jaws. “Why can’t I get the grilled focaccia?” he asked.

“I don’t know. The chef just won’t do it.”

“Go try again. Tell him Brad is asking politely.” So off she goes, into the open kitchen. Brad can see her in discussion with the chef. The manager of the restaurant eventually joins the group. Frankly, it’s a long conversation for one lousy piece of focaccia.

“I’m sorry, Brad. But he says, no. We’re trying to cut down on food costs.”

Now how refusing to sell focaccia to a waiting customer cuts down on food costs is a mystery. Brad thought that maybe it is a time factor: maybe the chef is too busy to be stopping to grill a special focaccia order. But he looked around the restaurant. It’s after 9:00 a.m. and there’s only one other couple in the joint. He can see into the open kitchen and the chef is just standing there, chatting with a waitperson. Frankly, I’m a multi-tasker: I can chat and grill focaccia at the VERY SAME TIME. But maybe that’s just me.

So Brad tells the waitress, “Go back and tell the manager that I’m willing to pay extra. I don’t care how much it costs. I want a piece of grilled focaccia.”

More three-way huddling in the kitchen. The Geneva Convention took less time to negotiate. Finally the waitress emerges beaming, “The chef says that he will serve you a piece of ungrilled focaccia and the manager gave me permission to toast it in the toaster.”

Brad’s response: “Are you f***ing kidding me?” OK, no that wasn’t his response – at least not out loud. He sure was thinking it. But he’s a nice guy and so he merely said, “Never mind. I’ll just drink my coffee and leave.” When he went to the cash register the manager told him, “The coffee is on the house, Brad. I’m sorry about your breakfast.”

Brad tipped the waitress generously, walked out the door and has never returned.

In a lousy economy you’ve got to get creative in order to stay alive. And one surefire way is to increase your customer service. Sure, you’re constantly trying to find new customers, but your number one priority is keeping the customers that you already have – keeping them happy and comin’ back for more.

By the way, back in February, the manager of this same restaurant was complaining to Brad that business was way down and they were worried about making it through to the other end of this recession. Their answer: They increased the prices on some of their most popular dishes. They INCREASED their prices at a time when people were watching their money.

I notice that when Downtown restaurant in the State Art Museum began seeing customer numbers drop they countered by adding a $9.95 combo dish to their sit-down menu. You can pick any three items from a daily list of five or six selections. They made sure that you could still have lunch with your client at Downtown and guarantee keeping your expenditure under $10. Now that’s smart thinking.

Raising your prices and lowering your customer service. That’s a death wish. Gee, but I miss that place…..

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Please Don't Pee in the Pool

What is it about people who make trouble where they work? I’m talking about everything from emotionally destructive petty office politics to downright theft. There’s a reason that the old phrase “Don’t sh*t where you eat” has stood the test of time.

Here’s a doozy of a true example that happened just this week: A business acquaintance (let’s call him “the client”) contracted with a web designer that I know slightly (“the supplier”) to acquire a domain name and set up a basic website. For this task, the supplier was paid somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000 (depending on whose version you believe at any given time). The website turned out to be nothing special but perfectly adequate. Over the years, I’ve seen better and I’ve seen worse.

At some point, the supplier wanted more money. I don’t know why. I don’t care why. They had a dispute about additional funds and at some point the client asked for the passwords associated with his account so that the client could obtain control over the content. Not only did the supplier refuse to relinquish the passwords, but the supplier hijacked the site, and began posting derogatory comments about the client on it. This was not just the occasional snide remark, but genuinely outrageous and slanderous accusations posted on the client’s own website!

Is there anyone out there who thinks that this will end well? Me neither.

I live in Honolulu and, believe me, we may have a large population but Honolulu is a small town when it comes to doing business. If you have a dispute, take it to court. But hijacking a website to print ill words against your client, any client, is just plain business suicide. I can’t imagine anyone who would risk hiring this web designer given this behavior. Whatever anger this guy is publicly venting, the price that he is going to pay is his livelihood. Is that worth $10,000? Or $15,000?

I have another story about an idiot who violated the “Don’t sh*t where you eat” rule and killed a lucrative job as a video editor. If you want to hear it, let me know. Meanwhile, play nicely in the sandbox, kids. Don’t steal each other’s toys. And, please, don’t pee in the pool.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Didn't Their Mothers Teach Them Anything?

These are strange times in business. OK, these are strange times in life outside business, too. But I am particularly interested in the ethics and the basic courtesy that seem to be disappearing in the workplace: endless personal phone calls while clients stand waiting to be served; blatant abuse of sick days; monitoring employees’ personal emails; firing employees by email.

Didn’t their mothers teach them anything?

As a long-time business executive, I have witnessed all of the above and so much more taking place on a daily basis and I shake my head and wonder, “When did this sort of rude and, occasionally, downright unethical behavior get to be normal business practice?”

Last Friday, a friend of mine was fired. She has spent this weekend in tears. I feel terrible for her, but I recognize that people are losing their jobs every day. My problem is the manner in which she was fired: She didn't do anything wrong, she was merely the victim of the current economy. Last hired - first fired. I live in a state where employees are "at will," which means that they can be outsted with no notice and for no reason whatsoever. And there’s the rub.

My friend had no advance warning. They waited until the end of the business day on Friday and then called her into the office, confiscated her keys and escorted her out the door. Over the weekend, she discovered that they had made the decision to cut staff (primarily her) several weeks ago, but kept it to themselves. With a two-week warning, she could have started looking for a new job. She could have avoided buying that terrific but expensive new outfit, canceled her hair bleach (a blessing in disguise because, let's face it - it makes her look cheap) skipped the recent weekend Vegas getaway (he's only using her), and started tightening her belt. But instead she was blind-sided, shocked, humiliated. She was later told that this is just “standard business practice.”

When did this kind of callous, unconscionable behavior become standard business practice? Am I the only person shocked by these policies?

I am a virgin….well, OK, technically I have been married several times. But I am a virgin blogger who would like to discuss these strange times in life and business. I am hoping that others will share with me their adventures in the trauma unit that has become modern business and, with any luck, we will try to impart a few survival skills for coping in what is becoming an increasingly strange working environment.

And, along the way, maybe we can figure out the answer to the question: “Didn’t their mothers teach them ANYTHING?”