waging war on salary

Everything is rooted first in an idea. Seldom are things what they are–seriously, it is what it is is a phrase that needs to be obliterated outright–rather, they are anchored by presupposition, predicate events, definitions, etc.

The present is inextricably linked to the past. Nothing exists in a vacuum. (Come to think of it, isn’t that a brilliantly redundant sentence?)

With recent fiat regulatory changes to the nature of pay for exempt (read: salaried) work authorized by the erstwhile presidential administration, then stayed by a federal judge in Texas, the nature of exempt versus non-exempt work briefly became a point of conversation. In short, exempt workers earning less than $47,476 in salary were to be paid overtime as though they were non-exempt (read: wage-earning) workers.

The first glance take by many was, ‘Cool! MONEEZ!’ And that would make sense, since, hey, who doesn’t like more money? In a sustained economic climate of flat average wages and inflation, it could be seen as government throwing the gray collared class a bone.

A deeper look at the matter, though, showed the rule change for what it is: a bureaucratic and logistical nightmare for businesses and employees. Employees who were not adjusted to above-threshold pay levels would essentially lose their exempt status, the trade-off for more money being meticulously tracking time as though they were not salaried at all. Employers artificially bumped entire sectors of their business, creating a new, unintended impact to the bottom line, putting some employers in a position where they had to cut payroll to keep the books level.

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[Hmmm? Oh, I didn’t say anything. Sorry.]

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These kinds of wholesale changes are almost unilaterally nothing more than cynical pandering. Attempts to jack the minimum wage don’t just cause headaches for small business owners, but they push entire segments of the workforce closer to poverty as the other mechanisms are triggered within the economy adjust to the new baseline. Flat wages lend themselves to flat revenues; starve someone long enough and they’ll eat anything that looks like food. (Hey, they’ll get your vote, too.)

And this is what happens when we fundamentally misunderstand wage and salary. This is neither an economic nor math problem: arbitrarily rewriting numbers higher–even for the most well-intentioned (assuming noble motivation) reasons–does nothing productive when we don’t even comprehend what it is being changed.

Salary and wage are ideas. Salary is more or less an allowance: rooted in the Roman military tradition of paying salt-money in exchange for continued service. It is a forward-thinking payment that sets out to make above and beyond work worth a person’s while. Wage, on the other hand, is a reward for work already done. It is recompense for the past.

Salary, in essence, buys off a person’s commitment to a standard schedule where it is made worth a person’s while to not be confined to a shift. Wage, in contrast, is offered with clearer baseline expectations. (Anyone else ever work in an environment where overtime was discouraged, if not penalized?)

Neither are necessarily bad: some people prefer income stability, while others prefer the budgeted schedule and the chance at making a little more here and there. Some employers prefer people to not worry about the clock, others need to maintain a bottom line. It depends on the business and type of activities within it.

The problem is that workers and managers alike also seem to misunderstand this as much as, if not more than, government bureaucrats and the wage-hike cheerleaders. Salary is not designed to be abused and make people work 50-70 hour work weeks; that is an abuse of workforce and bad faith. Similarly abusive are environs where workers are either subjected to repressed wages or otherwise obligated to work overtime on a regular basis.

Simply jacking salary or wage numbers doesn’t address the actual problems however far beneath the surface. Raising the exempt overtime threshold, or the minimum wage, does not reconcile anything.

If anything, it amplifies fundamental misunderstandings and makes bad situations worse: a jerk of an entrepreneur who expected 80 hours of work per week from an exempt employee for $40,000 will expect that much more from someone when they have been required a nearly 20% raise by bureaucratic decree. That same jerk will either cut working hours or workforce entirely when wage obligations reach an unsustainable level. These are not merely math problems: they’re philosophical problems.

The part about Smith’s Wealth of Nations that people seem to overlook is that the name of the book has nothing to do with capital or capitalism. He’s pretty clear on this point, before laying out–in most comprehensive detail–his capitalist treatise: the wealth of nations is in the goodness of its people. The title is an irony. And, while I quickly veer away from the partisanship and rancor and cause all gradation of grundy such as whenever terms like ‘capitalism’ or ‘socialism’ are implied or invoked, the point I’m making is that if we understand what we’re dealing with, we stand a far better chance of actually solving problems, and doing so together. Further, I believe this is particularly true in matters of compensation.

A good and wise business owner will treat her employees with goodness and wisdom in all respects. Granted, this doesn’t happen much, but when the conditions are such that ownership is obligated to conform to a standard, the ability to demonstrate goodness or wisdom is also  necessarily restricted.

So, then, this is how we ought to interpret broad-stroke regulatory changes like the one currently stayed: as a capricious restriction on our ability to be better. The bigger check makes for stronger chains. The law brings death, and that which is dead is connected to nothing at all.

Graves have no roots. Those in them don’t get paid, either.

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brand name recognition

I was sent a link to a piece published earlier today by Pamela Harding to an open LinkedIn group about ‘personal brand’; you know, one of those nausea-inducing pieces of corporate jargon that only seems to serve to further commodify employees and applicants. It’s easy to roll the eyes and dismiss personal branding, just like ‘synergy’, ‘thinking outside the box’, or ‘working smarter, not harder’: one-sided power phrases that tend to be used to move the goalposts and little else.

While I still bristle at the term, there is something to be said for personal brand, and not merely within the sphere of the work- or market- place, but in life. As philosophy taught me, everything’s an argument. What is marketing, if it’s not a form of an argument, in this instance for a particular noun? And what is personal branding but a form of marketing, in this instance for one’s self?

Everything is marketing, from posting a LinkedIn profile to getting Freshly Pressed. And that’s OK; that’s how you get hired, find the right person for the job, develop friendships, find a mate or make a sale.

That said, branding qua branding is not enough: there is a necessary depth dimension that has to exist, lest that brand be connected to nothing at all. Harding shares a quote from Brian Fanzo that is particularly relevant to this point: “Social media won’t replace a handshake but social will provide you more handshakes and even change the first meeting from a handshake to a hug.” Where Fanzo is on point, it should be further noted that the connection between brand and interaction is not about mere physical presence, but relational intimacy, be it personal or professional (and there is such a thing as professional intimacy…and by that I don’t refer to workplace dalliance, either.)

Brand and presentation is about the possibility of closing gaps [social or physical proximity] and exposing vulnerabilities [intimacy]. A blog post, catchy phrase or jingle, an impressive resume, washboard abs or an hourglass figure may close gaps, but it’s what’s behind individual nouns that engages others. In a lot of ways, over seven years of writing here has undoubtedly closed gaps between myself and you, the reader. Someone who regularly reads my work necessarily has developed an intimate understanding of not just my work, but me myself, no different from having listened to and engaged in the catalog of a musician develops a level of intimacy with that musician. The brand is writing or song, whereas the product is the person behind them.

The distance between brand and product, then, is demonstrative of integrity: a predatory sale has a great brand, yet a most toxic product. A musician may write gushing songs about love and yet be abusive and violent. A church may preach Jesus and yet not show Jesus’ compassion or live out his teachings. A writer can put a bunch of words on a page yet say nothing at all. Brands draw, but quality keeps.

All of this comes back around to brand: who am I? What do I want someone to see? What is evident by my output? It’s not merely a marketing question, I’m not commodifying myself, it’s a philosophical question that ought to challenge me on every level. On my Twitter handle, BBM Channel and on the sailerb facebook page, it says ‘writer | thinker | daddy | husband | human’. Those are all extensions of me, as this blog is an extension of me, both part of my personal brand. Twitter is where I’m generally being goofy or pithy; the blog is where I try to keep my skills sharp.

Writer: The first thing someone sees of me online is my written output. It’s what I’ve been skilled at the longest and is what I want to be associated with professionally.

Thinker: What I hope is reflected by my written output is a dividend of the investment I put in academically: that the work is thoughtful and that I take every topic with intellectual and critical zeal. It doesn’t always work, but on the occasion that it doesn’t, it motivates me to be better at what I do, whatever it is I’m doing and wherever it is I happen to be doing it.

Daddy: The center of my existence are my girls. Relationships and experiences define who we are both by what we do and the communities in which we take part. My girls motivate me to be better in who I am.

Husband: The center of my existence would have not been possible without my spouse. Without her patience and support, I wouldn’t have a family, survived graduate school or any number of ordeals, including our current one. (wife is a girl, too, you know.)

Human: Beyond accomplishments or accolades or occupations, all we are is inspired, animated dust. It’s one thing to be incisive, intellectual or accomplished: it’s something quite different to live in a way that is complementary to the world and people around me. It motivates me to, however great or small, make the world–or, at least, my world–a better place.

This is my argument, this is my brand. I hope it reflects me, and I it. The only way I’ll ever know is through you.

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A related postscript: I’m always grateful to you, the reader, for taking time to read my work. Whether you agree or disagree, want to offer feedback or comments or just say hello, you’re always welcome to do so in the comment section, by e-mail (see About the Proprietor) or on Twitter (@8sirvio) or through BBM (C001223C6). The idea is always to generate conversation and build relationships and understanding, or at least it should be.

Regardless, thank you for reading. Hope to hear from you soon.

h/t AF.

take your time: briefly, a case for limitless PTO

Earlier this year, Virgin Group announced a new policy allowing unlimited vacation time, or in the preferred current corporate nomenclature, paid time off. Virgin is likely the most prominent firm in the world to have moved to such a position, though they aren’t the first–a number of Silicon Valley companies have done something similar, including the very group whose subsidiary is the platform for this blog, Automattic.

Branson’s cache and prominence, though, is what caused a stir in culture: is it a good idea? More importantly, will it work?

The common reasoning is that if employees are permitted unlimited time off, then they’ll abuse the policy, productivity will slide and bottom lines will be undermined by a lazy workforce. Or something like that.

Based on the findings of companies researched by the Society of Human Resource Management, however, perhaps we ought to have a little more faith in our fellow humans.

First, unlimited paid time off, like representative democracy, works best with a virtuous workforce. Perhaps ‘virtuous’ is a loaded modifier, but it works. Unlimited PTO is not an invitation to not show up for work, but rather a sign that an employer trusts its workforce. To wit, why would an employer hire–or retain–someone she fundamentally doesn’t trust?

Decent people deserve to be treated decently, and that includes not hammering someone because he is undergoing treatment for a serious illness (FMLA provisions notwithstanding), or putting strictures on someone who has an opportunity to travel, study or otherwise pursue her interests or a charitable cause.

A company that holds an unlimited PTO policy and fails likely has far more serious issues than allowing its workers to take two weeks to fully recover from the flu.

Second, and not entirely unrelated to the first point, unlimited PTO demonstrates to a workforce that an employer is confident and capable in staffing his workplace. Frankly put, a person taking two weeks to vacate or two months for paternity leave should not mean that a company is then incapable of fulfilling its raison d’etre. Taking the caps off sick and vacation time should spur productivity, which reasonably should spur gross receipts, which reasonably should foster additional job growth. Companies moving toward this model are a classic example of the marketplace adapting to employee’s needs and increased desirability for potential future workers–the free market in action.

Third, in an era when work is increasingly virtual, what is the point of having banks of accumulated time-off hours? Certainly, not all work is virtual, but many people can do far more outside of a typical office than they ever could do before. The aforementioned worker recovering from the flu could theoretically take a few days and then telecommute for a few more until she’s back at full strength.

Fourth, it puts weight behind the clichéd and ultimately worthless phrase ‘work-life balance’. If an employer truly values his employees and their equilibria, he’ll do what is needed to make sure they’re in the best position possible to do the best job possible. That includes being generous and understanding, including (and especially) when people need time off.

People burn out if they’re pressed too hard for too long, and while it is important to maintain standards for performance and conduct in and around the workplace, it is not healthy to leave workers dreading to come back to work after falling ill, needing time to address family situations, having a child, moving to a new residence or seizing an opportunity that otherwise might not be available.

Finally, with great benefits comes great responsibility–some companies reported that those who work in an uncapped PTO environment actually use less time than those who feel like they have to use as much as they can before an arbitrary turning of the calendar resets the banks. Freedom, in workplace praxis, engenders loyalty. Arbitrary restraint, contempt. In this era of jobless recoveries and political and economic chicanery, good employees with great potential and/or track records of performance are worth keeping and taking the necessary measures to demonstrate mutual commitment.

umm…right?