Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Is It Selfish To Become Less Devoted To The Company?

Chapter 1: My Corporate Idolatry Part 8

Change is often painful, and this was no exception.  Doing my part to help other people, and to help the group, is important to me.  I wondered if I were being selfish by pulling back from the company.  Messages at work about being a team player, reinforced this notion.  Doing less for the company meant doing less for the people on my team. Somehow, it didn’t seem right, until I came across the following, written by Rabbi Hillel ~2,000 years ago[1. Pirkei Avot 1:14]. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I?”

This was like a lightning bolt – of course I have a right to take care of myself. And my life got better.  When I cut back on my devotion to the company, it gave me space to allow many positive things to happen.

And, I was mentally prepared when I was laid off a year later.  If I had still been caught up in the company, I would have been devastated.  But I was exhilarated and my wife was thrilled.  I packed up my stuff, said a few goodbyes and drove up the Central Expressway to the Peninsula Creamery, where I had a burger medium rare and a milkshake with coffee ice cream and hot fudge.

The next two months were great, a paid vacation.  I went to the gym every morning, came home for lunch, took a nap, watched Star Trek and cooked dinner.  Not only was my blood pressure down, but life was much less stressful for my wife and kids too.

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Footnotes:

The Truth About Sacrifices For The Company

Chapter 1 My Corporate Idolatry Part 5

I had been a true believer in my company. I thought the company had a mission to change the world, and I needed to devote myself to help the company achieve these laudable goals.  I was getting paid a lot of money to change the world – what is not to like about that picture?  Nothing, if that is a true picture of what is going on.  In reality, the company’s first, second and third priorities were to make money.  Some very good things did come from the company, cutting edge tools for scientific research that led to thousands of papers in the top journals.  However, the price I paid in terms of my health and happiness was very high.  I was literally killing myself for the company.

At that time, the most important thing in my life was the company.  I am embarrassed and ashamed to admit it, but it was true.  I had always told myself that my wife and children were the top priority, but when I look at my actions, decisions and time spent, it was all about the company. I thought about work in the shower.  I talked on my cell phone as I drove in to work, and as I drove home at night.  I worked after dinner, and I had trouble falling asleep because I was going over the day in my head.  The next day I would get up at five AM, to work on email, and to call my colleagues in Europe.  I worked at least a little on most weekend days.  The more I sacrificed, the more important the company became to me, which in turn led to more sacrifices.

But it didn’t have to be that way, and in the next post I will start to outline what I did to change things.

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Not Ready to Pull a Greg Smith? Three Quiet Ways To Take a Moral Stand.

Anonymous Employee Review of Goldman Sachs from the website Glassdoor.com

Last week, I wrote Goldman Sachs Is Busted in response to Greg Smith’s public resignation from Goldman Sachs.  Smith declared in a very public way that  he could no longer identify with the company value system.  A reader commented after my post:

“Most people are afraid to speak up even when their lives are not in danger.”

The reader raises an interesting point.  There are over 30,000 employees at Goldman Sachs, but only one Op-Ed resignation.  Assuming Smith is making a legitimate point, why was he the only one to speak up?    Part of it is cultural – Goldman Sachs attracts and promotes people who share the company values.  Smith is at the other end of the spectrum.  And everyone else sits in between, including  the people quietly looking for a new career, and people who are afraid to speak up.

Needless to say, Greg Smith’s solution is not for everyone.  In my opinion, it would be unrealistic to expect that anyone who has doubts about his or her company’s values to immediately resign, and many people don’t speak out as much as they would like too.  In my opinion, one reason for silence is stress. According to the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program, one third of US employees are chronically overworked and 41% say they they feel stressed during the workday.  When life is really overwhelming, taking a public stand against the company culture is a lot to ask.  At the same time, I think there is a price to pay for acting counter to one’s values.  George is in the financial services industry.  He saw practices that went against his values, and  spoke out “enough to be a little disliked but not absolutely fired.”  George shared the following

“I told myself this was a soul killing experience.  It messed with who I was fundamentally.  It did not make me happy.”

There is no substitute for leaving the company, which is what George eventually did.  But for people who aren’t ready or feel they can’t leave…

What to do?

I am a big fan of guerrilla marketing, that uses unconventional means to get a message across.  Speaking out against company culture is a situation where guerilla marketing can have a big impact. A frontal assault, the method chosen by Greg Smith, takes courage and a lot of resources.  It is also dangerous.  The objective here is not dramatic change, but rather a way to ease the conscience, and to nudge change in a slow incremental way.  The following “guerilla morality” tactics also help other people by providing the truth about the company, and the knowledge that they are not alone in their doubts about the company values.

Three Quiet Ways To Take A Moral Stand 

1. Speak Anonymously using social media to help get the truth out. Glassdoor.com describes itself as a career website that provides “an inside look at jobs and companies.”   Glassdoor.com allows its members to rate companies on a scale of 1-5 in 8 different categories, such as compensation, communication, and work/life balance.  In addition, there are open fields where each reviewer gives the pro’s and con’s of working at the company.  For example, there are 684 reviews of Goldman Sachs, one of which is shown above.  Glassdoor.com uses a “give-to-get” model, meaning that users can gain unlimited access to reviews, salaries and interviewing tips only after they share information anonymously about a current or past company.  A member of Glassdoor.com doesn’t need to make a big public statement to get the information about a company into the public view.  In my opinion, companies who treat their employees badly or that practice suspect values will be at a competitive disadvantage.

If you want to be a bit more aggressive, print a summary of the Glassdoor reviews and leave it on the printer.  (I always peaked at documents left on the printer.)  If I worked for Life Technologies, this document would get my attention.  If I worked at Hewlett Packard and felt demoralized, I might get a boost if I found this document and saw that other people felt as I do.

2. Withhold your public support by not attending company meetings.  In many companies, the quarterly company meeting is a “rah rah” event where senior management reviews development milestones and financial performance.  I have worked at companies where it was expected that everyone attend the meeting, and it was noticed is someone was absent. If you are concerned about getting in trouble, find a defensible excuse, like a doctor’s visit, or a call with a customer.

3. Try to influence the company using a Business Case For Good,  which is a financial forecast or other business case to support “the right thing to do.”  Often, a company needs to choose between two courses of action, where one course clearly seems to be the right thing to do according to personal values.  In my experience, advocating a business decision based on “the right thing to do” is an uphill battle and usually loses to an argument based on “the best thing for the company.”

Business Case For Good Template

Business Case For Good Forecast Template

The key to a Business Case For Good is a financial forecast like the example to the right, that compares two alternate scenarios.  In this example,  the right thing to do corresponds to Scenario 1 that brings in $123 million dollars additional revenue over five years.

Here is the secret to effective forecasting – make a picture, with red bad and blue good.  The numbers can tell any story, depending on the assumptions.*   (One more suggestion: never say that Scenario 1 is “the right thing to do.”  It will undermine the financial argument.  If someone brings it up, look confused and move on without comment.)

There are a lot of places to get data to support a Business Case For Good, such as a customer complaints database, performance data from product development, or cost-related data from manufacturing .  Things get changed by coalitions of people, and the data may open a door to win over someone in finance or marketing.

Could this hurt my career?

The short answer is yes, following the tactics above might slow down your career in the short run.  The sad reality is that on average, people who are more closely aligned with the company values (whatever they may be at your company,) will advance more quickly than those who are not.   This is a post with advice on how to quietly take a moral stand, not a post on how to get promoted more quickly. There can only be one top priority, and it is a personal choice whether values or career comes first.

It is impossible to predict the future, and a quiet moral stand might help your career in the short run.  I am convinced that a strong moral compass will help both career and company in the long run.  I think Greg Smith would agree.  His resignation letter ended with the following:

“Weed out the morally bankrupt people, no matter how much money they make for the firm… People who care only about making money will not sustain this firm — or the trust of its clients — for very much longer.”

 

The Common Good or The Good of the Company?

The Common Good is a value that puts the welfare of other people ahead of our own short-term interest.  Unfortunately, there is a strong headwind against The Common Good from another value – The Good of the Company.  “We need to do what is best for the company” is a stock phrase I heard again and again to justify decisions that were unpopular, like layoffs or canceled projects.  In short, The Good of the Company is a value that puts the corporation ahead of people.

A corporation by its nature is an institution founded to make money for its owners.  And when seventy percent of all outstanding stock is traded in less than one year, the owners have an incentive to ignore anything other than short-term financial return.  So The Good Of The Company often translates into short term financial returns.

The Good of the Company is very different from things like ‘The Good of the Customers’, or ‘The Good of the Employees.’  And is certainly is very different from ‘The Good of My Family’, or ‘The Good of My Health.’  In this world where we are always on, where we are expected to check email at night or on weekends for The Good of the Company, the company first values become internalized.  It doesn’t matter whether we are checking that email out of fear, love, or habit.  Checking that email takes time and mental focus away from our family and our life outside of work.

Paradoxically, I think the way to bring back The Common Good is to focus more on the self. Not to be selfish, but to create an identity that is independent of the company.  For values, I take my cues from Rabbi Hillel, who 2000 years ago said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I?  If not now, when?”

This post was written in response to What Ever Happened To The Common Good by Ted Coine? Posted on December 16, 2011 on the Sustainable Business Forum