Dell’s full scale ethical meltdown

Here’s one they’ll be studying in business school ethics classes for years to come: The story of how Dell, one of the world’s leading computer manufacturers, morphed from being an industry icon to the latest ethics-challenged poster company.

As reported by Ashlee Vance for the New York Times, a major lawsuit against Dell is unearthing a corporate cover-up campaign that concealed from customers serious malfunctions in millions of computers sold between 2003 and 2005.  After shipping desktop computers “riddled with faulty electrical components that were leaking chemicals and causing the malfunctions,” Dell then tried to hide the truth from customers who were calling with complaints, even though it knew of systemic problems:

Documents recently unsealed in a three-year-old lawsuit against Dell show that the company’s employees were actually aware that the computers were likely to break. Still, the employees tried to play down the problem to customers and allowed customers to rely on trouble-prone machines, putting their businesses at risk. Even the firm defending Dell in the lawsuit was affected when Dell balked at fixing 1,000 suspect computers, according to e-mail messages revealed in the dispute.

Over and again, Dell misled customers who reported problems with their machines and kept the truth from those who had not contacted them:

“They were fixing bad computers with bad computers and were misleading customers at the same time,” said Ira Winkler, a former computer analyst for the National Security Agency and a technology consultant. “They knew millions of computers would be out there causing inevitable damage and were not giving people an opportunity to fix that damage.”

Okay, some finger-wagging

Yup, I know there are lawyers out there who will dream up trumped-up consumer lawsuits to squeeze out settlements and walk away with some easy money.  But here we have another example of how the legal system can help to shine a light on unethical business practices.  The discovery process of this lawsuit is bringing Dell’s business practices to public scrutiny after the company engaged in a deliberate cover-up with its customers.  We need that check and balance on powerful corporations, because it’s obvious the bad apples won’t police themselves.

Bullying, incivility, and conflict resolution at work

This topic deserves more in-depth consideration than what I can offer here, but it’s been pinging away at me: The intersection of workplace bullying, workplace incivility, and conflict resolution.

At times bullying and incivility are conflated, and I plead guilty to that.  To illustrate, I’ve cited leading studies on workplace incivility in making a case for taking bullying seriously on a legal and organizational level.  Because terms and definitions in this realm are not uniformly adopted, there will be some inevitable sloshing around.

But there are distinctions worth drawing a line in the sand.  For example, in an earlier post, I agreed with those who believe that genuine workplace bullying — targeted, hurtful behavior — cannot, or at least should not, be subject to traditional mediation approaches.  One does not attempt to mediate abuse.

However, I believe that lesser forms of workplace discord definitely may benefit from mediation and other dispute resolution techniques.  The difference lies in the distinction between abusive behavior vs. conflicts between parties with relatively equal institutional and personal power.

Is some incivility necessary, even, umm…useful?

In addition, some forms of incivility may be necessary toward building a psychologically healthy workplace.  After all, honest expressions of emotion, including anger, can be a first step in resolving differences.

Workplaces that expect their employees to neuter their emotions are sorry environments indeed, yet too many of them exist.  (I should know: I’m both a lawyer and an academician, two of the most emotionally repressed vocations imaginable!)  Some of these bottled up places host a lot of bad behaviors, especially of the passive-aggressive variety.  At the same time, their socially dysfunctional cultures frown upon outward expressions of emotion to exhibit concern or exasperation.  It makes for a lot of quietly angry and resentful employees.

Pseudo-relational workplace cultures

Psychologists Linda Hartling and Elizabeth Sparks, whose important analysis of organizational cultures I described in an earlier post, have identified these types of workplaces as hosting “pseudo-relational” cultures that value superficial “niceness” over constructive change.  By keeping everything at this level, the hard stuff of addressing conflicts and difference is ignored.  In fact, those who try to press these issues are labeled as troublemakers and malcontents.

The good vacation and why it matters

What makes for a terrific vacation?  How can we maximize our use of precious vacation time?  Are long sojourns better than short trips?

Many of us have personal responses to those questions, likely based on our own experiences.  One especially memorable vacation (good or bad) can fix our opinion about the ideal break. And if money and/or time happen to be in short supply, any vacation may look like paradise.

Researchers weigh in

Drake Bennett, writing for the Boston Globe, assembled advice from psychologists and economists about what makes for a good vacation:

For example, how long we take off probably counts for less than we think, and in the aggregate, taking more short trips leaves us happier than taking a few long ones. We’re often happier planning a trip than actually taking it. And interrupting a vacation — far from being a nuisance — can make us enjoy it more. How a trip ends matters more than how it begins, who you’re with matters as much as where you go, and if you want to remember a vacation vividly, do something during it that you’ve never done before.

Anticipation and memory

For many, the best parts of a vacation may be in anticipating and remembering it, while the vacation itself poses frustrations and glitches.  Bennett reported on a study of vacationers who were asked to record “emotional inventories” of their trips:

…(T)he respondents were least happy about the vacation while they were taking it. Beforehand, they looked forward to it with eager anticipation, and within a few days of returning, they remembered it fondly. But while on it, they found themselves bogged down by the disappointments and logistical headaches of actually going somewhere and doing something, and the pressure they felt to be enjoying themselves.

Americans and vacations

Should we be taking the topic of vacations this, well, seriously?  At least for Americans, the answer is yes.  We take much less vacation time than our counterparts in Europe and other parts of the world.  In some nations, paid vacation time is a legal right.  Our workaholic culture is regarded by many as unhealthy and misguided.  It’s the less attractive flipside of our willingness to dig into work and get the job done.  Google the phrase Americans vacation time and you’ll get countless hits to surveys, studies, and analyses on this phenomenon.

Recession effects

The Great Recession has only made things worse.  Obviously for those who have lost their jobs, “free” time may be in greater supply, but accompanied by the stress of unemployment and much less disposable cash.  For those fortunate to have jobs, the pressures to do more with less and to demonstrate one’s value to the organization are making it harder to get away.  (For a related observation, see my post, “The Masochism Tango” at Work.)

Bigger picture

Overall, Americans are not too good at the work-life balance thing.  Economist Juliet Schor’s seminal work, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (1991) documented and analyzed how Americans are spending a lot of time at work. It triggered a wave of research and commentary that continues to this day.

SHRM opposes workplace bullying legislation

Disappointing but not surprising: The Society for Human Resource Management, the nation’s largest association for human resources professionals, has come out against the Healthy Workplace Bill.  As reported on the Workplace Bullying Institute’s website:

The advocacy group for Human Resources (HR) issued an alert for SHRM members in June 2010 to oppose the NY versions of the HWB. In brief, Bob Carragher, SHRM’s manager of government relations (chief national lobbyist) and Susan Corcoran, NY state legislative director (state lobbyist) claim our legislation is “bad for business and bad for New York.” 

The law firm of Jackson Lewis

Susan Corcoran, mentioned in the excerpt above, is an attorney and partner at Jackson Lewis, a management-side labor law firm well known for its aggressive anti-union tactics and strategies.  As described by American Rights at Work:

Jackson Lewis presents itself as a reputable “national workplace law firm,” yet under its polished veneer lies a for-profit unionbuster. In fact, Jackson Lewis is one of the oldest and largest union avoidance law firms in the nation. Jackson Lewis counsels businesses on labor relations strategies that prevent unions from entering the workplace. By operating in the shadows of corporate unionbusting campaigns, the firm remains virtually unknown to the general public.

HR and workplace bullying

It’s a shame that the nation’s leading association for HR professionals opposes legal protections for workers who have been subjected to malicious psychological abuse at work.  Then again, perhaps that says something about the overall state of the HR profession right now.

As I pointed out in one of this blog’s most popular posts, “HR was useless”, in workplaces where the leadership is insular, insecure, exclusionary, and secretive, it is more likely that the HR office is there to cover for and protect the top leaders from hassles, scrutiny, and accountability.  Unfortunately, these are the kinds of places where bullying — especially of the top-down variety — is likely to thrive.

Indeed, it remains telling that out of the scores of severely bullied workers who have shared their stories with me, not one has said anything like, as horrible as this was, at least HR was there for me.  Think of how many HR professionals at lousy organizations have been complicit in the destruction of careers, livelihoods, and human psyches.

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Read why the Healthy Workplace Bill actually is “HR friendly” in this post here.

Nursing as a Calling: Aspirations and Realities

Let’s take a few minutes to consider the profession of nursing and working conditions that face nurses in today’s healthcare system.

Christoffer Grundmann, writing in The Cresset (a journal published at my undergraduate alma mater, Valparaiso University), traces the historical evolution of nursing as a profession.  His article starts by observing that:

The advent of professional nursing is a fairly recent phenomenon in history. This is a remarkable achieve­­ment in human civilization, since the profession of nursing defies natural instinct. It is perfectly natural to care for one’s own kin in times of sickness or when they have become too frail to care for themselves due to age or physi­cal or mental challenges. It is anything but natural to do so for those outside one’s very own family and clan. What is natural instead is to instinc­tively shun suffering and wailing. It is also only natural to dissociate oneself from failing life, from dying, and death….

It’s an interesting and informative piece.  If you’ve never thought of how the nursing profession originated and developed, I’d suggest taking a look at it.

Realities

Though Grundmann’s article conveys the remarkable advancement of nursing as a healing profession, the contemporary practice of nursing is fraught with challenges, not the least of which are stressful working conditions.

Several years ago, I was co-convenor of two New Workplace Institute roundtable sessions about workplace bullying and violence confronting nurses, held with members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA), and it was an eye-opening discussion.  Too many nurses are on the receiving ends of aggressive behaviors from all angles — they get it from patients, physicians, and fellow nurses. 

I heard stories of bullying from supervisors, peers, and physicians, and of physical violence committed by patients.  In addition, I learned about how economic pressures facing the healthcare system often fall on the shoulders of nurses, who are asked to care for more patients under stressful working conditions.

Workplace bullying

There is growing recognition of workplace bullying in the nursing profession.  Cheryl Painter’s article about bullying and turnover among nurses captures the problem (some citations omitted):

Destructive workplace behaviors contribute to the inability to retain nurses in the healthcare environment because of the stress associated with these behaviors. Briles (2003) defined the problem of destructive workplace behavior as “working manners, habits, and styles that can directly and negatively affect the bottom line of a unit, department, and the entire organization”…

These destructive workplace behaviors cause targeted employees to experience serious physical and psychological damage…, resulting in negative aspects of the EVLN model, which consists of exit – leaving employment, voice – verbal threats of retaliation, loyalty – entrapment by the organization, and neglect – willful negligence to work duties.  The resulting organizational decline costs the healthcare organization both time in retraining new employees and money to mitigate the effects of EVLN.

Considering the nursing shortage and the increasing demand for healthcare services, strategies need implemented to improve satisfaction, increase motivation, augment productivity, and improve retention to ensure safe and quality healthcare.

Staffing levels

In many hospitals, nurses are being asked to care for a greater number of patients.  Concerns about overwork and increased risk of patient errors have led MNA and other unions to support legislation that will set nurse-patient ratios.  Here’s a summary from the MNA’s legislative agenda:

We have a disturbing crisis in Massachusetts hospitals. Registered nurses are being forced to care for too many patients at once, and patients are suffering the consequences in the form of preventable errors, avoidable complications, increased lengths of stay and readmissions. The Patient Safety Act calls upon DPH to set a safe limit on the number of hospital patients a nurse is assigned at one time. In addition, the bill calls for staffing limits to be adjusted based on patient needs. It also bans mandatory overtime and includes initiatives to increase nursing faculty and nurse recruitment.

For all of us

The future of the nursing profession matters to all of us.  As we struggle to keep healthcare costs under control, and as our population ages and requires more assistance from healthcare providers, nurses will play an increasingly important role in keeping us well.  For example, the New York Times ran a piece yesterday reporting how one health insurer is paying for more nursing care to assist doctors treating patients with chronic diseases:

As an insurer, Geisinger now pays the salaries of extra nurses in doctors’ offices, whose full-time job is to help patients with chronic diseases stay on top of their conditions and, ideally, out of the hospital. The doctors, including Dr. Kilduff, help hire the nurses, who work closely with the doctors to oversee the patients’ care.

The nurses make sure patients who need quick appointments are squeezed in, and they alert the doctors to any early indications of trouble by keeping in close contact with the patients and looking out for the results of patients’ lab tests.

In sum, we should take seriously the working conditions for nurses.  It’s both the right thing to do and in our own self-interest.

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Additional info

Nurse Beth Boynton writes and consults on nurses and emotional health.  You can subscribe to her e-newsletter, Confident Voices for Nurses, for free.  Current issues of the newsletter are highlighting the topic of disruptive interpersonal behaviors.

If you’re on Facebook, you might look up Alaka McConnell, who has been posting extensively about bullying and violence facing nurses, with links to articles and studies.

Earlier this year, I wrote a series of posts on workplace bullying in the healthcare professions, including nursing.

Law schools and the legal job market

Law professor Brian Tamanaha (recently of St. John’s University in New York; now at Washington University in St. Louis) challenged law professors at regional law schools in a blog post to consider the ethical implications of attracting thousands of students to pursue an expensive legal education at a time when the job market cannot provide them with meaningful employment.  Citing to angry, despairing posts on blogs by law students and recently graduated lawyers, he writes:

Their complaint is that non-elite law schools are selling a fraudulent bill of goods. Law schools advertise deceptively high rates of employment and misleading income figures. Many graduates can’t get jobs. Many graduates end up as temp attorneys working for $15 to $20 dollars an hour on two week gigs, with no benefits. The luckier graduates land jobs in government or small firms for maybe $45,000, with limited prospects for improvement. A handful of lottery winners score big firm jobs.

Raw testimony

I’ve looked at some of these blogs, and agree with Tamanaha:

It’s grim reading. The observations are raw, bitter, and filled with despair. It is easier to avert our eyes and carry on with our pursuits. But please, take a few moments and force yourself to look at Third Tier Reality, Esq. Never, Exposing the Law School Scam, Jobless Juris Doctor, Temporary Attorney: The Sweatshop Edition, and linked sites. Read the posts and the comments. These sites are proliferating, with thousands of hits.

Look past the occasional vulgarity and disgusting pictures. Don’t dismiss the posters as whiners. To a person they accept responsibility for their poor decisions. But they make a strong case that something is deeply wrong with law schools.

Responses

Tamanaha’s post hits home for me.  My employer, Suffolk University Law School, is a known quantity in Boston and New England generally, but it places modestly in national rankings.  Historically, the school’s graduates have found places in smaller law firms and government service (such as district attorney’s offices and legislative positions), with some managing to obtain jobs in large law firms.  However, severe restructuring within the legal profession and the effects of the recession have had a devastating impact on job prospects for our graduates.

As I see it, there are several important questions to consider:

Cutting the net costs of legal education

Law schools have been raising tuition at rates far outpacing inflation, not to mention the ability of their graduates to comfortably repay student loans. Today, the real cost of a legal education must be measured in student loan debt and anticipated earnings.  Even before the recession, law schools falling outside the top rank could not reasonably assure the bulk of their graduates that lucrative jobs awaited them.  Controlling tuition and increasing grant and scholarship assistance are crucial toward capping student indebtedness.

Reconnecting supply and demand

If you’re not a lawyer (and perhaps even if you are one), think fast: A personal or business crisis suddenly emerges, and you need legal advice.  How do you get it?

For many folks, it would involve a mad rush of phone calls, e-mails, and Internet searches, with very uneven results.

Fact is, even though there are lots of underemployed, able lawyers out there, most of us do not have ready access to quality, affordable legal advice to guide us through our personal and business affairs.  From the standpoint of access and price, even the oft-criticized HMO model for healthcare looks a heckuva lot better than any delivery system for legal services.

In sum, we need to develop a business model for providing legal assistance that bridges this perverse gap between supply and demand.  In doing so, the public will be served better by the legal profession, and more talented lawyers will be employed.

Too many lawyers

Even if we do develop this business model, it’s likely that our law schools will still be producing an oversupply of lawyers.  When law school tuition was a fraction of its current level and students graduated with minimal debt, perhaps that wasn’t a big disaster.  But what do you do when you graduate with $100,000 in student loans and limited job prospects?

Law schools are regarded as money makers.  They take in lots of students, provide instruction in mostly large, impersonal classes, and charge a heap of money for the privilege.  They are loathe to cut entering classes because each student represents, generally speaking, well over $100,000 in tuition payments.  Reduce the new class by 10 students, and that’s $1 million in “lost” income.  For law schools unwilling or unable to engage in effective fundraising from alums and other supporters, it’s a lot easier simply to load up on new students.

The need for legally literate professionals

Even if we don’t need a lot more lawyers, we do need people in business, government, and the non-profit sector who understand legal issues.  The law permeates so many aspects of everyday life, commerce, and activity.  Law schools should play a greater role in educating people about the law and legal systems, without requiring them to earn a law degree.  Law schools that successfully develop such offerings will not only create new revenue streams, but also play an important role in bringing legal literacy to the broader public.

***

These are among the ethical questions that law schools should face, and very few are doing so right now.  Tamanaha suggests that addressing these concerns effectively may involve faculty doing more with less, and that’s a real possibility.  I do know that schools choosing to grapple with the situation now rather than later will be in better shape in the long run, in terms of both opportunities for their students and graduates and overall institutional health.  The ones that ignore it may find themselves out of business, and perhaps deservedly so.

An even bigger question

The problems facing law graduates are not occurring in a vacuum.  In the U.S., and around the world, we are seeing an emerging jobs crisis for young people.  Levels of unemployment for high school and college graduates are spiking upward.  Vocations once regarded as safe havens (such as law) are no longer so.  I understand if the specter of unemployed lawyers is not the stuff of public sympathy, but we all should be deeply concerned that our labor markets are not providing gainful employment to their latest entrants.

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Jan. 2011 update — David Segal of the New York Times penned this long feature, “Is Law School a Losing Game?,” examining the state of the legal job market, the cost of a legal education, and law student debt.

From stupid to stupider: BP promotes its crusader for “the small people”

I promise I won’t waste too much space belaboring the terrible management of BP in the midst of the oil disaster in the Gulf, but this story is too loopy to be ignored:

Earlier this week, BP executive Carl-Henric Svanberg just had to unburden himself of his populist sentiments on camera: “I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are greedy companies or don’t care, but that is not the case with BP. We care about the small people.”

Wait, there’s more

In a shakeup at BP akin to a post-iceberg change of command on the bridge of the Titanic, Svanberg has been rewarded for his sensitivity to working stiffs everywhere by being promoted to head up BP’s public relations operations!  Yahoo! writer Holly Bailey could not resist a dig:

Yes, you read that right — the BP executive who famously expressed his compassion for “the small people” will be tasked with enhancing the company’s public image.

Is it any wonder?

This heartbreaking disaster has killed workers, endangered countless livelihoods, and destroyed an eco-system.  Corporate personnel moves like this one explain a lot about how company cultures lead to catastrophes.

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