American View: Are You Truly Viewed as a “Valued Professional” Or Just as a Disposable Labour Unit?

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Most job interviews are a complete waste of everyone’s time. I’ve argued for years that most businesspeople have never been trained how to interview. My experience on both sides of the table suggests that far too many interviews don’t reveal enough useful information for either the hiring manager or the candidate to make a good decision about whether there’s a good “fit.”

That in mind, I prefer to skip over the usual “best interview questions” nonsense and HR how-to scripts and ask my own challenging questions that lay bare those crucial factors that predict whether the person I’m chatting with it likely to be an intolerable jackwagon. As a cheeky example, I can tell if a potential hiring manager will be impossible to work for with just one (seemingly innocuous) pop-culture question: “Do you believe the future America portrayed in 2006 film Idiocracy was a utopia or dystopia?”

I know … Some of you are likely shouting something along the lines of “Idiocracy was a social satire that touched on issues like dysgenics, commercialism, and anti-intellectualism!” Yes, I know! [1] That was writer/director/producer Mike Judge’s intent with the film. I ask the obvious question to prompt the obvious answer because people who are dangerously out of touch with pop culture are almost always out of touch with professional ethics as well.

Here’s what I mean: look at the people running your company and answer me this: do the people writing and enforcing your corporate policies trust their workers to use professional expertise and common sense to solve problems? Or do they demand that their workforce robotically obeys procedures even when unquestioning obedience is bad for the customer, the worker, and/or the organisation overall? If you answered “the latter” then it’s highly likely that your boss(es) walked out of Idiocracy depressed that the film’s main character had needlessly destabilized an optimized consumer market.

Taken to its logical extreme, people like this were responsible for the American prescription opioid epidemic. An addicted customer base is a finically reliable revenue channel!

In all seriousness, modern American businesses seem to be run by “leaders” that are blithely out of touch with reality. These are people who value compliance over success to the point that alienating suppliers and customers becomes an acceptable cost of doing business. For such people, it’s better to do things “the approved way” than it is to build quality products, provide excellent service, or empower their so-called “most important assets” (that is to say, you).

As a practical example, I submit this conversation I had last Friday night with my mate Arturo. I could tell Arturo was frustrated when he walked through the door. After fetching him a beer, he tried to explain why he looked so haggard.

“I’ve just wasted an entire week,” he groused. “five days spent trying to fulfil an order shot completely to hell.”

I asked what had happened while surreptitiously grabbing my notebook and pen. Arturo’s stories are consistently excellent fodder for this column.

“So … okay. First thing Monday, I reviewed the overdue orders left over from the weekend shifts and I found an order that should have gone out last week. The customer wanted three [technobabble] widgets. I did a stock lookup and confirmed that we had a dozen of the widgets in stock. So, I scheduled the order to be picked, palletized, and shipped out by ground courier.”

“As you do,” I said.

“As I do. I took care of it.”

“So, what’s the drama?”

“So, every time I pulled up the status of my orders, this one for the three widgets was still sitting in the ‘not started’ work queue. No one in the warehouse had touched it!”

Maybe they were too busy crashing their forklifts to do any actual work.

“Why?” I asked.

“I didn’t know, so I called down to the floor and told the shift boss to get it sorted. He said he’d look into it … then the rest of the day went by … When I checked on the order status before shift change, I saw that it had been automatically cancelled by the computer.”

“Is that normal?”

“Yeah, if an order isn’t processed in a certain number of days the computer will drop the order entirely and tell the customer that we no longer want to sell then what they’d already ordered and paid for.”

“That must be infuriating.”

“It is,” Arturo sighed. “It gets us bad press and creates an ugly relationship with the huge retailers we sell to.”

“So why wasn’t the order processed?”

“I ran down to the warehouse and cornered the shift boss. I told him that we had four widgets in stock for every one the customer had ordered. This was an easy ship. Just plastic wrap the three boxes in a column, put them on a pallet, and add them to one of several trucks that we already had scheduled to pick up partial loads for the customer this week. It was an easy revenue ‘win.’”

“But they didn’t touch it,” I said.

“The shift boss insisted they ‘couldn’t.’ He kept insisting that they didn’t have the product.”

“But you had twelve in stock?”

You’d think that a company paying to store massive piles of goods would want to ship as many of those goods to paying customers as humanly possible. But what do I know?

“Yeah, and this is where it gets congressional level stupid: the shift boss showed me on the order where the customer had ordered a ‘three pack’ of the widgets. All the widgets we had in stock were single units. Therefore, since we didn’t have what the customer had specifically ordered, the pickers weren’t allowed to process the order.”

“Is there a difference between the three-pack widget set and three individual widgets?”

“Yes: the three pack consists of three individual units shrink wrapped together at the factory.”

“It doesn’t come with different packaging or extra parts or anything? It’s just three regular widget boxes bundled together?”

“Right,” Arturo growled.

“So why didn’t your shippers just shrink wrap three individual units you had together and fill the order?”

“That’s what I asked. The shift lead insisted that the three-pack ‘product’ had a completely different SKU so therefore it was a totally different item. Even though it’s 100% identical.”

“That’s [deleted] ludicrous,” I said … trying not to laugh.

“It’s [vehement invective] crazy!” Arturo shouted. “I asked the [euphemism] why he didn’t just contact the customer and ask if they’d accept a SKU change. He insisted that corporate policy forbade him from ever communicating directly with a customer. He and his team were required to fulfil orders exactly as they posted in the computer if they wanted to keep their jobs.”

And there it is! Every time an organisation forces workers to choose between their personal survival and the company’s, the American worker is going to prioritise their own. This isn’t selfishness; it’s Maslow’s pyramid of human needs put into practice.

“… even though there’s a global supply chain snarl, and retailers are desperate for product to sell, and your team can fulfil the order on the spot.”

“Right!”

“So, your facility … what? … sabotaged a completed sale?”

“Yes.”

“Because of poorly written policy?”

“Yes.”

“And no one at your entire site has been delegated the authority to use their professional judgment to override bad policy during an emergency?”

“Nope,” Arturo said, waggling his empty lagger bottle at me to suggest he needed a replacement. “Not even the executive director running the entire site can. As far as the corporation is concerned, an ‘employee’ is just a ‘machine that poops once per shift.’”

“Your company is run by idiots,” I said and got up to fetch Arturo a tumbler of whisky to go with his fresh lager.

It’s easy to listen to Arturo’s story about a wasted week and chuckle. I did. To be fair, this kind of institutional stupidity is funny when it happens to someone else.

I assume y’all keep coming back for the funny stories; I can’t imagine you’re eager to see me branch out into TikTok dance videos …

That said, I challenge you to take a hard look at your organisational culture … Have you ever found yourself thwarted by poorly written, counterproductive policies or procedures? Have you run into metaphorical brick walls because of your upper management’s demand for robotic compliance even when such dogmatic tractability is counterproductive? Does keeping your job depend on delivering what your company promised to a client, or does it depend on following an inflexible process even if that alienates the customer?

If you’re nodding along thinking “yeah, that’s happened to me,” then I submit for consideration that your organisation might be run by one or more damned fools who don’t trust their “employees.” I further submit that you’re not viewed as a “professional” by your overlord(s) but as a “labour unit.” More importantly, “leaders” like that will not hesitate to discard you like a greasy takeaway bag the moment you’re no longer “necessary.” Forget trying to find “fulfilment” through your job … you’re an expendable meat robot.  

If you’re in that boat – like Arturo clearly is – you have my condolences. Get out on your own terms while you still can. Polish your résumé and find somewhere else to trade your health and sanity for not nearly enough money and benefits. If you can find a gig at a place where you’re truly trusted and empowered to use your judgment, that would be awesome.

Finding such a place it likely to be a challenge, though. I suggest you cut to the chase by asking your interviewer(s) whether they consider the future America portrayed in Idiocracy to be a utopia or dystopia. If they’re foolish enough to answer honestly and say the latter, thank them for their time and move on to a sane potential new employer.

[1] Also, excellent work memorizing the film’s Wikipedia page.

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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