Democratizing the workplace

I came across this article from the BBC the other day and it absolutely fascinated me. The article focuses on a Swedish software firm , Crisp, and their rather innovative approach to how their business is structured.

Crisp doesn’t have a CEO.

Yassal Sundman, a developer at the firm, explains: “We said, ‘what if we had nobody as our next CEO – what would that look like?’ And then we went through an exercise and listed down the things that the CEO does.” The staff decided that many of the chief executive’s responsibilities overlapped with those of the board, while other roles could be shared among other employees. “When we looked at it we had nothing left in the CEO column, and we said, ‘all right, why don’t we try it out?'” says Ms Sundman.

This is something that I have long suspected about the business world–that in many cases, the boss is completely superfluous. More on that in a bit. So what does a workplace without a designated leader look like?

Crisp holds four-day meetings for all staff two to three times a year. They are used to making decisions on issues that affect everyone, such as an office move, but workers are encouraged to make decisions themselves at other times. It also still has a board – a legal requirement – and this can be used as a last resort to resolve issues if something is not working.

Imagine that, the people who are actually doing the work are making the decisions! Together!

Henrik Kniberg, an organisational coach at the firm, argues that not having to ask a boss for decisions on projects or budgets means the firm can respond faster. “If you want to get something done, you stand up and start driving that,” he says. Yet Mr Kniberg stresses that not having to ask permission does not remove the need for staff to discuss issues or bounce ideas off each other. Because they are all in charge, workers are more motivated, he argues. Crisp regularly measures staff satisfaction, and the average is about 4.1 out of five.

Who would have guessed that giving the worker bees more freedom and self-determination would lead to a happier and more agile workforce? Truly shocking.

What I like about this article is that, for me at least, it dispels some long held myths that people have about business that they apply to their politics. There’s this idea that business is always better at everything than government. I’ve said for years that this patently false for a variety of reasons, but I think this article really drive home on central point:

Businesses can be just as bloated, top-heavy, and overly-administrative as the worst government you can think of. The equivalent of bureaucracy is alive and well in the private sector, and it’s just as detrimental.

I’m not sure how many presidents, vice presidents, junior vice presidents, CFOs and CEOs a company needs, but I’m willing to bet that, as this article from the BBC suggests, the answer is probably “None of them.”

The average CEO in 2014 made $22.6 million dollars per year. That’s a pretty tidy sum for a position, that, if Crisp’s example is any indication of, is essentially worthless. What’s more, that year CEO salaries increased almost 9%–way ahead of the 2.4% that the rest of the economy grew. And a 2000 study found that performance is a weak indicator of CEO compensation. The best predictor of CEO salary was the size of the company–no matter how terrible of a job they did. I’m sure everyone remembers all of those Wall St. folks that gave themselves huge bonuses after they collapsed the economy? The numbers are all here for you to take a look at.

And then there’s the lovely ‘golden parachute’ that we all hear about so much, which sounds like something Donald Trump would pay Russian hookers for, but is really just a giant check they give the top brass upon retirement. Here’s a list of the top 20 golden parachutes according to Bloomberg. I’ll recreate the top five for you here:

  1. Steve Wynn (Wynn Resorts): $358,134,747
  2. David Simon (Simon Property Group): $302,425,834
  3. John Hammergren (McKesson): $198,150,788
  4. David Zaslav (Discovery Communications): $161,119,864
  5. Brent Saunders (Allergan): $140,672,343

Man, what a great deal: getting paid tens of millions of dollars a year no matter how poorly you perform…and then they give you HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS when you retire!

What a fucking joke.

How many billions of dollars are wasted every year on executives that don’t do shit? Billions that could be reinvested in the company or the employees. While everyone else’s hours and benefits are slashed because of taxes or Obamacare or whatever bullshit line they throw out, the CEO gets to retire with hundreds of millions of dollars in his pocket. Notice how it’s never the top earners that are asked to tighten their belts during the lean times?

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But why is it this bad? How do these salaries get set? Well, in many companies, executive compensation is set by the board of directors. And who’s on the board? You guessed it–all of the executives. Executive salaries are out of control and keep going up despite poor job performance because they’re the ones giving themselves the raises and the golden parachutes. Pretty convenient, huh? This article in Forbes covers some of the insane catch-22s that allow this kind of unfettered greed and inefficiency to continue.

And then people wonder why a candidate like Bernie Sanders is so popular with people. Because people are tired of being bullshitted by business leaders and conservative politicians about how dire everything is while they keep making more and more money. They tell us all that they’ll need to get rid of social security and medicare while lowering the tax rates on the guy who just made $358,134,747 simply for retiring.

Because for all the ways they paint the private sector as noble, something for government to aspire to, the same bullshit happens there, too. The same bloating, the same excess, the same waste, the same frivolity. The same lack of accountability for the people at the top. Human greed and ignorance permeates all aspects of society, something that is often lost on conservatives. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Companies like Crisp are showing that. They’re just starting to show that there’s a different way to do things. You can essentially democratize the workplace–give the employees the reigns. Give the employees more of a stake in things. Give the employees the freedom they don’t get with a top-down organizational structure.

Because the same is is true in the workplace as it is in politics: the people have the power. Unions used to be how workers flexed that muscle. And then the bullshit started. “Well, you know, those unions, they just ensure that bad workers can’t be fired.” You hear this bullshit all the time, like with teachers. The teachers union just protects bad teachers!

An argument that seems especially ironic given that of the top 25 paid CEOs in ANY GIVEN YEAR from 1993-2012, one quarter of them worked for firms that took federal bailout money. In other words, these incompetent assholes fucked up, then used your tax money to stay in business and continue to give themselves a massive raise and an even more massive golden parachute. But hey, it’s the unions that are greedy, right?

It’s all bullshit, folks. Did you know that there are countries that don’t have a minimum wage? Doesn’t the sounds like a conservative republican’s idea of paradise!? Well, not so fast. Places like Iceland and Sweden have no minimum wage because workers have the right to collectively bargain. A lot of those evil socialist countries follow that model.

Oh, I get it: when the CEO gets to determine their own outrageous salary, it’s capitalism and moxie, but when the workers try to have a say in how much they’re paid it’s evil socialism. Again, how convenient.

So the next time someone tries to tell you that the government is wasteful and stupid, count for them the many ways the the private sector is also full of corrupt hypocrites.

 

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Litigation nation

Liability. It’s fancy legal talk for “Who’s responsible?” Blame is big in our culture when something goes wrong, and we’ve taken to using the legal system as a way of obtaining closure.

Case in point: I recently came across this story about a family in Texas who is suing Apple because a driver who struck their car, killing their daughter, was using FaceTime at the time of the accident. In their lawsuit, the couple alleges that it was incumbent upon Apple to warn everyone that their app could be dangerous when misused, and that they should have designed a safer app.

Folks who read this blog know that I’m not usually a fan of corporations, but I have to side with Apple here. It’s unreasonable, both in legal terms and in common sense, to expect a company to clairvoyantly predict all the ways in which a product can be misused or abused. And speaking of common sense, it should be painfully obvious to everyone that a video chatting app shouldn’t be used while driving.

There is definitely someone at fault here, but it isn’t Apple. It’s the man who was driving the car that hit them. He’s the one at fault because he’s the one who made the decision to use the app while driving. It was his actions that lead to the accident, not Apple’s.

What this appears to be is simply a grab for money. Why else sue Apple instead of, you know, the man who killed your daughter? Probably because the guy who hit your car isn’t worth billions of dollars. But more importantly, suing Apple doesn’t speak to justice–turning tragedy into financial gain is not justice.

But this case brings to light several important questions.

First, should companies be held responsible when their products are used incorrectly or abused? The answer to that, I should think, is a resounding NO. There was a similar debate about this issue during the democratic primary. Hillary Clinton supported a law that held gun manufacturers liable for incidents involving their products. Bernie Sanders did not support such legislation. I have to side with Bernie on this one (shocking, I know, me agreeing with Bernie). The fact that someone used a gun to commit a murder isn’t the manufacturers fault; that individual chose to use a gun for murder instead of self-defense or sport.

Where would this sort of thing end, holding manufacturer’s liable for the actions of individuals who use their products? Suing the brewery for a drunk driving accident? Suing the waitress who served the alcohol? Charging the gun shop owner who sold the weapon used in a crime as an accomplice or an accessory? Holding manufacturers liable is a very, very dangerous precedent.

Second, are companies obligated to warn people about the potential dangers of their products? This is a slippery slope. How much hand-holding do we expect these companies to do? This is why we have labels that say things like, “Do not stick hand in while lawnmower is running” or “caution: this hot drink is hot.” At some point, individuals have to exercise common sense and personal responsibility.

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The fact that we have to tell people this is sad

Third, is litigation the best way to get closure? Suing Apple isn’t going to bring the family’s daughter back. Even if they did win, say, a billion dollars, that still isn’t going to change the fact that their daughter died. But I think more importantly, we as a culture have to realize that getting money isn’t the same thing as grieving. We have a tendency in this country to throw money at problems.

But sometimes that simply doesn’t work. In the case of losing a loved one this is particularly true. Money does not replace loved ones and it isn’t a substitute for grief. Sorry. But I expect that our cultural solution to intense emotional angst would involve money somehow, because everything in this country revolves around money.

Perhaps what disturbs me the most about cases that seek to hold a manufacturer liable is that they absolve individuals of the need or expectation that they use common sense, critical thinking, and have a little personal responsibility for their actions. We’re becoming a nation where everything is always someone else’s fault, we’re never the ones in the wrong. We always try to point the finger at others when we screw up. “How was I supposed to know that my child could choke on tiny toy parts if he wasn’t supervised?! Give me money!” Maybe you could try, I don’t know, parenting your child. I don’t think it’s too much to expect people to know that hot coffee is hot or that you shouldn’t stick your hand in a lawnmower while it’s running. It’s dangerous to me to allow people to use the law to obviate their own lack of foresight, responsibility, or common sense.

Now, all of this doesn’t mean that people who experience what the family in that article went through don’t deserve closure. After all, the accident was not due to a lack of vigilance on their part; someone else’s poor choices directly affected them. But that person wasn’t Apple. It was the man driving the car. Who can and will be prosecuted for his crime–manslaughter. That’s where the legal system is supposed to provide closure to grieving people. In the fact that the person was caught, held responsible for their actions, and won’t be allowed to do it again. That they’ll be punished for their poor choices. That’s justice.

The charity conundrum

There’s no “i” in charity! Oh, wait a minute…

I was talking to a friend of mine today and it got me thinking about charity in this country. She was working at an automobile auction wherein the proceeds were going to charity. One vehicle even fetched $270,000. And my first thought is, if you have that much money just burning a hole in your pocket for charity, why not just give it straight to the charity? Why go to a public affair and bid on cars and all this other crap? Can’t you just cut a check to the charity and stuff it in the mailbox and go back to whatever you were doing? When I stopped to think about this, there really was only one answer:

Some people want others to see them being charitable. It’s not enough to pat yourself on a back and bask in your own good feelings; some people need other people to think better of them, to have their good works validated by their peers. To me, making a public spectacle out of charity kind of defeats the point or the spirit of charity. Like those stupid celebrity golf tournaments, or celebrity Jeopardy! It’s more about the celebrity and their publicity; the charity is almost an afterthought. It’s more so that people can say, “Oh wow, look at how much Brad Pitt cares about the homeless” or whatever. I can presume that auctions like the one my friend staffed above have a similar component: not only do you get to show your community how wealthy you are (sure to impress, right?), but you get to prove to them that you’re a good person!

Now, I realize that this isn’t the case for everyone. There are plenty of people–celebrities alike–who are quiet, anonymous Samaritans. Which is how it should be. There’s an inherent humbleness involved in charity. Here’s how the dictionary defines charity:

1:  benevolent goodwill toward or love of humanity
2:  a gift for public benevolent purposes
Nowhere in there does it say anything about making your generosity public. It’s the same reason why I think that claiming charity on your tax returns is kind of an unsavory thing to do: if you’re getting something back, then there’s no charity and generosity involved. It becomes a transaction, a mutual exchange. And charity, to me at least, is a one way street.
You aren’t being charitable or generous if you expect to get something back in return, whether that’s five minutes of televised PR, the adoration of your neighbors, or a tax deduction.