For many, the economic meltdown means shelving the idea of a true vocation

In The Four Purposes of Life (2011), Dan Millman identifies a cluster of key criteria for developing a career:

  • “Do I find the work satisfying?”
  • “Can I make good money?”
  • “Does it provide a useful service?”

Some might add factors such as work-life balance, geographic location, and the like, but overall, I’d say that Millman’s three criteria are useful guideposts for most people. And during much of the last half of the 20th century, as America’s post-WWII economy went into high gear and fueled the nation’s growing middle class, having some choice over one’s vocation became a realistic option. Against the backdrop of a robust economy and labor market, people could start thinking about work as being more than a source of income.

Today, however, the scarcity of good jobs is limiting our vistas considerably. Especially for those who have struggled with layoffs and unemployment, finding work that “merely” pays the bills understandably outpaces job satisfaction and notions of service as individual priorities. Millions are just trying to get by.

True, the world doesn’t “owe” anyone a satisfying job that pays well — at least in an individually entitled sense. But we are being ill-served by a labor market that has deteriorated to a point where securing even an okay job is proving difficult for so many. Instead, let’s embrace, as a worthy aspiration, the idea of decent work for all, rather than being quietly resigned to the dog-eat-dog era unfolding before us.

Working Notes: On trust at work, income inequality, and the fate of U.S. democracy

Dear readers, here are three studies worthy of our attention:

1. APA Work and Well-Being Survey

The American Psychological Association’s 2014 Work and Well-Being Survey reveals that a lot of American workers distrust their employers. Here’s a brief summary from Good Company, the newsletter of the APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence:

Despite the rebound in the U.S. economy and an improving job market, nearly one in four workers say they don’t trust their employer and only about half believe their employer is open and upfront with them, according to the American Psychological Association’s 2014 Work and Well-Being Survey released today.

While almost two-thirds (64 percent) of employed adults feel their organization treats them fairly, one in three reported that their employer is not always honest and truthful with them. “This lack of trust should serve as a wake-up call for employers,” says David W. Ballard, PsyD, MBA, head of APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence. “Trust plays an important role in the workplace and affects employees’ well-being and job performance.”

2. Thomas Piketty’s Capital

It’s not every day that a tome on economics is rising to the top of the bestseller charts, but French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014), an exhaustive study of income inequality in some 20 nations (including the U.S.), is doing just that. Using over a century’s worth of income and tax return data, Piketty provides a thorough, data-driven assessment of how unbridled capitalism has led to huge concentrations of wealth benefiting the super rich.

Piketty’s call for more progressive wealth tax and income tax rates to reverse these deep inequalities may play better in Europe than in the U.S. However, as Jennifer Schuessler reports for the New York Times, he is not calling for the end of capitalism:

…Mr. Piketty, who writes in the book that the collapse of Communism in 1989 left him “vaccinated for life” against the “lazy rhetoric of anticapitalism,” is no Marxian revolutionary. “I believe in private property,” he said in the interview. “But capitalism and markets should be the slave of democracy and not the opposite.”

The book is becoming a sensation within economic and policy circles, with many hailing it as a seminal work toward understanding modern economics. For an extended review essay of Capital by Paul Krugman in the New York Review of Books, go here.

3. Gilens & Page on American Oligarchy

Political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page have conducted an extensive empirical study confirming what so many have believed through observation of, and participation in, our political system: America is becoming an oligarchy ruled by the wealthy, rather than a democracy in which political power is shared. The BBC did a quick summary:

The US is dominated by a rich and powerful elite.

So concludes a recent study by Princeton University Prof Martin Gilens and Northwestern University Prof Benjamin I Page.

This is not news, you say.

Perhaps, but the two professors have conducted exhaustive research to try to present data-driven support for this conclusion. Here’s how they explain it:

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

In English: the wealthy few move policy, while the average American has little power.

The study (go here for pdf) will be published this fall in Perspectives on Politics.

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Hmm, we’ve got widespread worker distrust of employers, widespread wealth inequality, and widespread differences in political power between the wealthy and everyone else. It doesn’t take much to connect the dots, does it?

FX’s “The Americans”: Putting on masks at work

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I’ve been making my way through season 2 of “The Americans,” the excellent FX drama series featuring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as a Soviet couple operating as deep cover spies in Washington D.C. during the early 1980s, the decade leading to the end of the Cold War.

On the surface, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are your basic well-scrubbed American couple, living with their two kids, Paige and Henry, in Falls Church, Virginia, a suburb right outside of Washington D.C. They work together in a travel agency, and they mix pretty well with the neighbors. In reality, however, they are KGB sleeper agents who blend the facade of their everyday lives with serious, often deadly intelligence work.

The other day, it hit me that “The Americans” is, at least in part, about putting on masks at work. Elizabeth and Philip must wear these masks almost all the time, even with their kids.

In their work, they take on different roles, identities, and personalities. For example, in an ongoing plot line, Philip poses as government operative “Clark,” who deliberately woos and eventually marries a clerk for the FBI, as a way of keeping tabs on the Bureau’s counter-intelligence efforts. In a shorter story line, Elizabeth poses as a shy single woman in Annapolis to manipulate an innocent young Navy enlisted man to obtain the military records of an officer she claims sexually assaulted her.

Elizabeth and Philip have no purely authentic selves in terms of their structured lives. Although they confide in each other and continue to grow closer, even their marriage isn’t real. They live to serve the Motherland.

Granted, most of us cannot relate to the lives of deep cover spies. But many of us have been in jobs where we couldn’t quite be ourselves. In fact, most jobs require putting parts of our personalities on the shelf. And in the cases of jobs done largely for a paycheck, big chunks of our personalities may be buried while at work.

At the same time, we may be expected to show qualities of friendliness, courtesy, or deference, even when we don’t honestly feel them. Organizational psychologists call this “emotional labor,” and it can be taxing. Think about the ticket taker at the movie theatre who cheerfully says “Welcome to Loews” to every customer entering the theatre, or the lawyer who must be deferential toward a judge she doesn’t respect through a long trial.

When I think about those aspects of work, I have even less desire to go into the espionage business! The freedom to be one’s true self, as much as possible, is a blessing. I’m happy to get my spy-versus-spy thrills vicariously, thank you.

Myths and realities about working in the non-profit sector

It’s possible to make a difference in the non-profit sector, but no one should assume that work life there is a picnic. Like for-profit and public employers, non-profit employers run the gamut. Some are terrific, many are okay, and others are positively dreadful.

In addition to facing the financial pressures of trying to do more with limited resources, non-profits suffer from their own brands of employee relations problems. So steer clear of the myths of non-profit employment, and understand the realities. Here are among the major ones:

1. Myth: Non-profit employers care deeply about their employees.

Reality: Don’t count on it. The non-profit sector sometimes forgets about its own.

In a 2007 piece for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “Guess Who’s Socially Irresponsible?,” fundraising consultant Mal Warwick noted that “philanthropy — the love of humankind — is missing from the practices of many nonprofits.” He urged that non-profits must “come to understand that philanthropy begins at home.”

2. Myth: There’s very little bullying, mobbing, or sexual harassment in non-profits, because people working in that sector watch out for each other.

Reality: Some of the worst bullying, mobbing, and sexual harassment situations I’ve heard of over the past 15 years have come out of the non-profit sector.

A do-gooder organizational mission doesn’t ensure high-character employees. It’s one thing to fight for The Cause; it’s quite another to treat people decently. I’d be surprised if prevalence rates of interpersonal abuse are materially lower at non-profits than in the for-profit or public sectors.

3. Myth: You won’t encounter any psychopathic or narcissistic types in the non-profit sector; they’re only to be found in the big bad corporations.

Reality: Sorry, but these folks can easily turn up as senior administrators and board members in non-profits.

It seems like such a disconnect when people with these personality traits and disorders are hired into institutions that embrace a social mission, but it happens — a lot. Once empowered, they may bully, connive, and manipulate, sometimes while serving as the charismatic, smiling face of the organization.

4. Myth: There’s very little hierarchy in the non-profit sector, because everyone is in it together.

Reality: Oh, don’t get me started on this one.

Malcolm Warwick observed that many non-profits use “strictly hierarchical, command-and-control” management techniques. Check out a typically large, multi-layered non-profit organization, and you’ll see what I mean.

5. Myth: Non-profit board members really care about the organization’s employees.

Reality: Non-profit boards often are comprised of business executives, many of whom don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the well-being of rank-and-file workers.

To the degree that employee relations matters are brought to their attention, they usually will be filtered through the organization’s top management. Workers’ concerns are more likely to be regarded as a nuisance than as a priority.

6. Myth: Lawyers who represent non-profits take on a more humanistic approach to employment disputes.

Reality: Do not make that assumption, ever.

Many non-profits, especially larger and more prestigious ones, are represented by corporate law firms that specialize in advising management. Especially if a non-profit has a track record of treating its workers poorly, one can expect its lawyers to echo those values and practices.

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Related posts

Prestigious honorary society president may be a bullying boss (2013)

Bullying of volunteers (2013)

Burnout in the non-profit sector (2012)

When the bullying comes from a board member (2011)

When bad employers retain thuggish employment lawyers (2011)

Workplace bullying in the non-profit sector (2011)

As Millennials enter the workforce, many are clinically depressed

Duke University psychiatrist Doris Iarovici, blogging for the New York Times, believes that anti-depressant medications can help her patients, but she also expresses deep concern over an increasing share of young people who are using them:

…(A) growing number of young adults are taking psychiatric medicines for longer and longer periods, at the very age when they are also consolidating their identities, making plans for the future and navigating adult relationships.

This trend is especially significant for people finishing school and entering the workforce:

Indeed, the psychologist Jeffrey Arnett calls the young adult years “the age of instability.” Dr. Arnett coined the term “emerging adulthood” to define a new psychological developmental stage for 18- to 29-year-olds in industrialized countries. But now, growing numbers of young people experience rapidly changing living situations, classes, jobs and relationships only while taking an antidepressant.

Iarovici adds that some of these younger people are arriving at college “so burned out by the pressures of high school that they get to college unable to engage in the work,” and they are “so fragile or overprotected in their formative years that they fall apart at the first stress they encounter.”

In a piece for PsychCentral.com, Dr. John Grohol echoes some of these observations, noting high levels of depression and weak emotional coping skills among many Millennials:

All of this is informed conjecture, of course, as there’s not much research that’s been done in this area. But some of it rings true to me, and from talking with others — both therapists and young adults — I’m not the only who sees more and more young adults who just don’t seem to have the emotional and psychological coping skills as young adults that were once more commonplace.

Implications for workers and workplaces

These trends do not bode well for those individuals and the places that employ them.  Some folks will arrive at work dependent upon anti-depressants to get them through the day. Some will struggle to deal with stressful work situations that inevitably arise. They also may lack the means to build personal resilience toward life’s ups and downs, some of which will be related to work and careers.

Their employers also will pay a price, dealing with a larger share of a workforce pushing the boundaries of psychological well-being and less capable of handling the emotionally challenging aspects of employment.

I can’t say I’m surprised about burnout symptoms appearing as early as college. The competition to get into the “best” schools has become brutal, and the treadmill of activities, prep classes, and AP classes necessary to play that game has become steeper and faster. Young people are being pushed to relentlessly chase their futures before they know what they want those futures to look like.

Let’s not blame the Millennials

These observations should not be taken as a slam on a generation. As an NPR program this week noted:

The “millennial generation” has been getting a bad rap in popular culture in recent years. Millennials, roughly defined as people born in the 1980s and ’90s, frequently see themselves depicted as entitled, coddled and narcissistic.

But many — including millennials themselves — dispute those characterizations. Young adults today are tolerant, civic-minded and entrepreneurial, they note, and are thriving despite entering into a tight job market, often with significant amounts of student loan debt.

Lots of Millennials are being raised a certain way and then pushed into a world that has raised the credential bar for their success and saddled them with other burdens passed on by preceding generations. In terms of weaker coping skills, Grohol points to the “helicopter parent” mentality and overly protective upbringings as likely culprits.

As a university professor for over 20 years, I’ve now taught students spanning three generations — Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials. In the aggregate, I do see generational differences, and I can offer generalizations about each, some positive, others less so.

Like any generation, the Millennials bring their strong and weak qualities to the workplace. It is disturbing, in any event, that depression appears to be disproportionately present among them. This reflects most critically not on the Millennials themselves, but rather on the preceding generations that have ushered them into the world.

LOL: Humor as a salve for a lousy workplace

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If you’re dealing with a less-than-wonderful workplace, then maybe a dose of humor can help to ease the experience.

Recently I posted an article, “Dealing with a bad workplace: Getting to tolerance,” that offered some coping points for those in unpleasant work situations. I’d like to supplement the post by suggesting that some hearty laughter may make a positive difference too.

For some, being able to kick back and enjoy a funny movie, television show, or book may be a healthy way of dealing with a bad workplace. I’ve offered some suggestions in the photo, while conceding that my sense of humor is not exactly, well, refined. For those whose emotional ages have transcended adolescence, some other selections may be more appropriate.

I fully acknowledge that humor is not a cure-all. If you’re experiencing an abusive work situation (as opposed to a “merely” unpleasant or dysfunctional one), then this suggestion probably isn’t for you. Humorous distractions are of limited value if you’re feeling targeted or mistreated. Also, while a good laugh or three may be a salve for a bad workplace, it’s not a fix for the situation itself.

But maybe, just maybe, that LOL movie may be enough to put you in a better mood. It sure does beat the opposite.

Should HR be eliminated?

Lauren Weber and Rachel Feintzeig, in a piece for the Wall Street Journal, examine an emerging trend of employers replacing their human resources departments with outsourced personnel management firms and even software programs that perform basic HR tasks:

Companies seeking flat management structures and more accountability for employees are frequently taking aim at human resources. Executives say the traditional HR department—which claims dominion over everything from hiring and firing to maintaining workplace diversity—stifles innovation and bogs down businesses with inefficient policies and processes. At the same time, a booming HR software industry has made it easier than ever to automate or outsource personnel-related functions such as payroll and benefits administration.

Misguided cheers?

From those who have had terrible experiences with an HR office, I can practically hear the (understandable) cheering. Eliminate HR, and you’ve taken care of the problem.

But it’s not that easy.

In fact, Weber and Feintzeig go on to examine the functions that may fall through the cracks by closing down the HR office, including ensuring that managers comply with employment laws and resolving interpersonal disputes between employees.

In a post for Workplace Prof, law professor Charles Sullivan (Seton Hall) largely concurs with the assessment of the potential downsides:

While outsourcing many of the mechanical operations of HR is much easier today with technological advances, it remains true that both managing “human resources” and complying with the law requires a more sophisticated understanding of both than a typical outside firm can provide.

The real culprits

Long-time readers know that I can be hard on HR, especially HR offices that are complicit in advancing bad, unfair, or abusive management practices. But when it comes to acknowledging the importance of an in-house office charged with implementing employee relations policies and practices, I see the HR function as essential.

Good HR offices serve a valuable training, compliance, and mediating role in the workplace. They do so with a much better understanding of the organization’s people and culture than any outside firm could provide. And they can troubleshoot issues over pay and benefits better than any software program.

Bad HR offices, by contrast, are often tools (negative connotation intended) of bad executive leadership. HR offices may get the lion’s share of blame for poor handling of employee relations, but in reality they may simply reflect and advance the values of their equally terrible (or worse) bosses. Show me a nasty HR director and I’ll show you the organization’s nasty CEO.

In some workplaces with lousy top leaders, “rogue” HR officers with conscience and heart may serve a mitigating presence by helping to stave off or soften the impact of bad personnel decisions and practices that reduce morale and increase liability risks.

As I’ve suggested before, to get to the core of what makes for a good or bad place to work, we typically need to look higher up on the organizational chart. The character and values of those at the top commonly dictate the kind of HR office that you can expect to encounter.

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Related posts

HR, workplace bullying, and the abandoned target (2013)

Quiet cover-ups (2011)

Can an ethical HR officer survive at a bad company? (2010)

Don’t assume that HR is your buddy (2010)

“HR was useless” (2009)

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