The Hardest Job

In 1977, I thought I knew what hard work was. In rural Illinois, corn detasseling, mowing grass and shoveling snow were not odd jobs—they were necessary.

Going to college was not necessary. But I was determined to go and necessary became less about mother nature or buying a car and more about the green I’d need to become someone new.

I applied to all of the summer jobs listed in the Decatur Herald. The most important-sounding one at Taylor Pharmaceuticals was the one I was lucky enough to get. Minimum wage was $2.30 and this job paid $3 an hour. Forty hours a week. With my student loans, I would be rich enough to attend Illinois State by the end of the summer.

I don’t remember the requirement of a uniform. Just to be there before my 7 a.m. shift, which I knew would be the hardest part. But it wasn’t.

My high school had two study carrels, both reserved for juniors and seniors who could listen to either John Denver or Bachman Turner Overdrive on headphones. At Taylor, about 100 mostly middle-aged women didn’t listen to anything but the clinks of glass vials as we lifted them from their corrugated nests stacked in boxes, inches from our right arms.

These carrels’ interior walls were painted white and black. A naked light bulb lit up the box so that we could detect “foreign particles” in each vial’s suspension. How animal, vegetable or mineral ended up in a tube of tetracycline was the most interesting thing about the job, but we were not to ask.

The job required nothing but decent eyesight, which was not tested. You picked up a vial, shook it and held it up to the light against the white wall and then the black one. If you could see a chunk of something floating around, you put it in the reject pile. If the specks were small enough, it passed.

My future college roommate Mary and I worked the same shift, and experienced that first morning’s 15-minute break together. As we watched all the women walk out into the sunshine, pulling Marlboro and Salem packs out of their pockets, we looked at each other. One of the women came over: “Well, was it what you thought?”  She chuckled, but the skin around her grey eyes didn’t crinkle. Her eyeballs just sat in their nests of dark circles. Mary and I must have smiled and said no or that it was alright. The last thing I wanted, I thought, was to be seen as an uppity college girl.

When the woman walked away, a conversation between my roommate and me seemed redundant. We stood together under a tree for what could have been an hour or 10 more minutes.  In the distance, I watched a farmer mow a pasture. I thought I heard Takin’ Care of Business on his tractor’s radio. Mary said something about remembering to bring cigarettes tomorrow as we slowly walked back inside to what was now required.

Posted in meaning, motivation, purpose, Uncategorized, work | Leave a comment

Uploading the truth

After months of job searches with keywords like HR, change management and organizational development, I’ve noticed that these jobs are no longer people-focused. Instead, SAP, PeopleSoft and certifications in PMP, six sigma, GMP and dozens of other systems and best practices define the sought human interface between employer and worker.

I’m not anti-technology, but I believe that people need people with human-relating skills —  not merely relational database skills. So, in my somewhat frustrating search today, here’s the resume I really wanted to upload:

Jodi Barnes, PhD (I went to school for 24 years and learned a lot, but I wouldn’t judge a person’s competence or worth on the basis of formal education if I were you.)

Objective: If I can’t play a role in changing your company’s culture so that it’s more inclusive, participative, innovative and open-minded, then my heart and soul won’t be in a job you might offer. But I might take it for a year if it comes with a decent wage and you don’t expect me to work over 45 hours a week, ever.

Education: Four higher education degrees. Detailed info available, but see what I wrote after my name, above.

Technological skills: You know the drill (Microsoft’s monopoly). Two major brands of statistical software when I was in graduate school, the years I probably shouldn’t reveal in case you want someone younger.

Communication skills: I am a good writer and editor. I have written for all corporate stakeholders, as a journalist and in various research and literary journals.  As for spoken communication, I speak to everyone, especially workers who are paid the least and have the shittiest hours. Their perspectives tend to be the most accurate and helpful, given they have the most to lose and the least to gain from lying.

Teaching/training skills: Almost 25 years (please don’t do the math) in combined fields. I’ve consulted or taught: change management, performance systems, managerial communication, diversity, leadership, ethics, career change, conflict management, culture change and other traditional HR areas. I could go back to university or do online teaching, but I don’t like spoon-feeding people slides and grading what they purge. This is the problem I have with higher education and companies that think memorization, multiple choice and writing what’s desired will change behavior.

Ombudsman skills: I’ll guess that you either don’t know what this term means or you know and think I’m snobby. I put it here because it’s probably the thing that I do best, besides communicating. I’ve helped companies avert law suits (e.g., legitimate sexual harassment, gender, race and religion discrimination claims) by helping people figure out the equitable and just thing to do. My conciliation and mediation skills are very good. You should know, though: I won’t lie to employees to save your company’s ass because unlike the Supreme Court, I don’t view corporations as people.

Experience: Assistant professor, HR manager, short-order cook, adviser, trainer, cocktail waitress, consultant, journalist, bakery sales, coach, mentor, multicultural education advocate, program developer, poet, mother to three daughters and two puppies, wife, grandmother.

Values/beliefs: Respectfulness, honesty, literacy, equality, high-protein/low-carbs, (80%) open mind with (20%) closed mouth, civility, libraries, agnosticism, “say what you mean, mean what you say and don’t say it in a mean way,” 4-day workweek, love is the ultimate outlaw, health care and education for all.

Low-tech love to you all.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

I’d be thrilled if you spilled what drives you

One of my daughters posted a video clip on Dan Pink’s book Drive. My husband bought the book a year ago and I’d read about half of it. My academic head (why didn’t he reference so and so? How can he make such blanket statements?) got in the way of appreciating the book for what it is (no snobby sarcasm intended, BTW).

Pink’s book is a good way to motivate people who haven’t spent years studying motivation to think about what motivates them and the people they work with. If you haven’t read it, Pink highlights three motivators:

Autonomy (self direction)

Mastery (learning to do better the things that matter to us)

Purpose (doing something meaningful outside of ourselves)

He also warns against the dangers of throwing pay at people to make them more creative and productive. Of course, if he or anyone else knew how to make GDP or Gross National Happiness (yes, there is such a thing, thanks to Bhutan) increase among all of us, then the motivation industry might join the ranks of 8-track tapes and small pox.

But motivation is an interesting hard nut because it’s about us. Collectively and individually. How many times have you wondered: Why does she stay there? He could make so much more somewhere else. I guess he’s just satisfied doing the same thing over and over. If I were her, I’d quit that job. Look at how the boss treats her. He’s so unhappy!

Because motivation is about us, you can’t pin it down. We’re all different with some tendencies to act and react similarly most of the time within similar circumstances. And how we love to prove researchers wrong.

A brief example: I worked part-time for a bakery for four months last year. Very low pay, dealings with management nonexistent or poor much of the time, not enough hours (spread among too many employees). What motivated me? I liked the people I worked with. I liked (most of) the customers. And I liked working with my hands, learning and being helpful. The food was high quality; I believed in what I was selling.

Quitting was very hard for me, but I didn’t work enough hours to pay for our monthly health insurance. I had the luxury of making just over minimum wage because my spouse had a decent job. My bakery job told me that I need people and to be part of something outside of me. As a writer, I have autonomy, mastery and purpose but little money. I’m also alone much of the time, although that’s part of the job.

What drives you? Why do you do (or don’t do) what you do?  And as Count Rugen says in The Princess Bride: and remember, this is for posterity, so be honest.

Posted in autonomy, drive Dan Pink, meaning, motivation, purpose, Uncategorized, work, work mastery, worker | Leave a comment

Whispers from WI: It’s about the voice, stupid

I’m always surprised at how complex issues become fences with two sides: Pro or anti, right and wrong, with us or against us, Republican and Democrat. Regardless of where you stand on Wisconsin’s virtual ban of collective bargaining for its public sector workers, there’s one thing we might agree on: we’re bombarded with sound bites from bleeding-heart liberals and heartless conservatives.

If collective bargaining were strictly an economic issue, it might be easier to decide whether Scott Walker is a fame-hungry union ball-buster or a dude who’s willing to take an unpopular stand because unions prevent government and business from making unilateral decisions about wages, hours and other working conditions.

But collective bargaining is first and foremost about voice. A right to be heard. (Cue God Bless America in background.) Yes, I know it sounds quaint to have a right to anything except compensation for the work you do. Work has become, again (doesn’t history repeat itself unless we’ve learned anything?), merely an economic transaction.

I could tell you how many centuries it took for America to pass the Wagner Act and for Kennedy to give a watered-down version to federal workers in 1962; you can look up photos of kids in factories, mill workers’ missing fingers, The Ludlow Massacre of Colorado miners. Pathos is an effective tool.

But we all know that things have changed. OSHA protects worker health and safety, Title VII and its amendments prevent discrimination and focus on job-related criteria. No more child labor and minimum wage thanks to the Fair Labor Standards Act. We don’t need unions, anymore! Right?

If a worker were just a resource to be fed, sheltered and maintained, maybe.  But there’s something infinitely interesting and irritating about humans: they have brains and they have a voice. Both need regular exercise.

I’m not a governor or an employer. I can relate to the fears of Wisconsin’s teachers, fire fighters, police and sanitation workers. To villanize them into over-paid, entitled tax teat-suckers is to reduce them and the meaning of work to the lower rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy. Maybe their benefits are costing the state a small fortune (whose are affordable?), but health benefits and even pay are not the main reasons workers seek union representation.

Workers’ number one reason for wanting a collective voice is that they perceive their employer as unfair. Employers whose workers want a union deserve a union.

When public and private employers recognize that one size does not fit all workers, that voice and equity are just as important as good wages and benefits, and that most of us understand that with voice comes responsibility – we seek to make our jobs better to do a better job – only then will unions or their threat become quaint memories.

Sure the states’ tax bases are bleeding. Unions and employers are in bed with politicians at every level. Campaign reform needs reformed. But as I used to tell my students: There’s only an obligation to bargain in good faith, NOT an obligation to give a union what it asks for. There’s always someone on the other side of the table who agreed to an unaffordable demand.

And, Scott, dude, you may have cut their rights, but you didn’t remove their larynx or their brains.

Posted in collective bargaining, labor unions, meaning, work, worker, worker voice | Leave a comment

If it’s about the journey, I’m in trouble

As I open the back door for our black lab puppies this morning, I hear the cars and trucks. Zooming, fast braking, occasional honks. We live just off of a main street, close to a high school where speed is posted 25 miles per hour, max. Few drivers obey the signs. They are on their way to make their living, some already late, some trying not to be, others just speeding out of habit.

I don’t like it but I understand, remember the anxiety of getting kids to school, loading up a briefcase, reminding myself that once I got to my office, my stress would ease. That was a good morning for me. If I crawled on the beltline for more than 10 minutes, anxiety turned to anger, sometimes rage.

Although I knew it was no one’s fault, not even the idiot who kept weaving into and out of my lane, I couldn’t let it go until I was in a parking garage that was occasionally full, and my anger would well up all over again. When I began teaching classes at our RTP campus at 6 p.m. I got worse. I knew better, left earlier, but my attitude didn’t change.

I didn’t leave my job because of the commutes, expensive gas, my carbon monoxide contribution, climate change and the wasted time – although I thought about all of these behind the wheel, making me even more unpleasant. I’d once had a job that required a good bit of air travel.  And, as my husband would remind me, “We could live in Atlanta.” Didn’t I have a relatively good situation?

Work in the age of telecommuting, web conferencing, instant messaging and being strapped to various tech lifelines hasn’t seemed to free many of us from highway or airport hell.  Although, even in North Carolina, there are alternatives. One of my friends takes public transportation from Durham to downtown Raleigh several days a week. (She is my role model.) Two other people I know bike to work about eight months of the year.

How much of getting there and back taints what might otherwise be a good thing? In my search to hear about your search for meaning, I realize the intrinsic value of work (the nature of the work, itself) is not our only source of satisfaction or complaint. So please spill: what’s your journey like? Have you found a better way there and back or simply a better way to cope?

Oh, and a friendly reminder: I’ll take your comments off-road.

Posted in HR, meaning, Uncategorized, work, worker | 6 Comments

When there’s no meaning

A few days ago, a good friend of my teenaged daughter died. Senseless that it happened, even more senseless why. I’ve not been able to think of anything except his face, his laugh, his parents, and the many high school friends who mourn him.

This senseless loss of a wonderful boy matters. It has and will always have meaning for us who knew him although no one can explain it.

I’ve not posted anything for several days because my blog, as important as it is to me, was not that important. Sometimes due to tragedy, we’re reminded of some hierarchy of important, of meaningful. Being kind, listening to each other (regardless of age, status, power), not taking life or our ability to make a difference for granted, among other benevolent thoughts and acts, are what matters.

We don’t have to be social workers or therapists, counselors or have a savior complex to do good work. Work doesn’t have to be paid to give meaning. Work doesn’t even have to feel like work. When we’re relating to someone, helping them in some way, we’re meaningful. Even if we tried and failed to help, we did something outside of our needy, myopic selves.

If you have a paid job, regardless or whether it gives you meaning, be kind today. Maybe in the kindness extended to someone, even someone least deserving, you can find meaning. For those of us who want work but can’t find it, remember the lack of paid work does not translate into lack of meaning in our lives. (I confess this has been difficult for me at times.)

If we all found the job or entrepreneurial venture of our dreams, we’d still be left with the one thing that matters: each other. Human beings are not resources. Not interchangeable parts. Not measured by wage or salary. Work has meaning because as long as we live, we are meaningful. And if your life doesn’t feel meaningful, reach out. Be selfish and grab it by being kind.

Posted in HR, meaning, Uncategorized, work, worker | 4 Comments

Stepping out, getting dirty

Even if stepping out doesn’t offer immediate rewards – maybe you trip and fall, in fact – it provides feedback and sometimes, opportunity. I was reminded of this when a friend from my University of Georgia grad school days messaged me. He liked the blog and was interested in how I might help him grow a management program on the west coast.

The next day I drove to Charlotte to see a close friend, an artist, who has made her living from stepping out. Although I’d seen Ellen Kochansky just weeks ago in South Carolina; I intuited that she could give me something I needed. Fortunately, I listened to myself.

At the McColl Center, Ellen teaches executives how to frame innovation while dismantling the box of what we’ve assumed creativity is and what it’s not.  I saw this on her classroom wall:

A bit of advice given to a young Native American at the time of his initiation: As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm. Jump. It is not as wide as you think.Joseph Campbell

On the tables were organic found objects – fungi, pods, feathers, hemp, flowers. A couple CEOs told me about an empty lot behind the center where the class had spent part of the day discovering sculpture a local artist had created with deconstruction debris.

Over a drink, dinner and a religious experience watching MOMIX Botanica at Knight Theater, connections began to form around what might be my sole conviction about work and life, in general — any lasting, intrinsic change is organic. Peter Senge in The Dance of Change describes change as a sigmoidal (S-curve) pattern found in biology, not the linear slope (always forward, upward!) used in business and academia as evidence of success. When I used that book in my change management courses, I’d believed it. Why wasn’t I acknowledging an organic model in my search for meaningful work?

The dancers were rocks and bees, primordial aquatic creatures and florescent DNA. I remembered what my friend from UGA had said in a follow-up call, “The business model we still insist on using today is completely unsustainable,” that we had to work within the context of our ecology, our biology and the human issues of the world. I knew that! I’d wanted to say, but was ecstatic he’d declared it so sincerely.

Before I headed home the next morning, I told Ellen about my dream that night: I’d cheerfully helped a virtual enemy, the only person I’ve held a grudge against since leaving the university over two years ago. She told me I had lightened my step.

The last thing we talked about was what is our doing and what is divine. I told her that if there is One who can tell us the meaning of life when we die, we’d laugh because it would be SO obvious! She laughed, “You know, I’ve heard the theory of the divine as dirt. We’re made of it and return to it. Think about it: we depend on dirt for just about everything.”

Will you share how you’ve tried to jump what you thought was a great chasm? If you haven’t jumped yet, are you stepping out? And, um, how dirty are your feet?

Posted in HR, meaning, work, worker | 4 Comments