Between the Lines

Though it stands to reason that a person who believes they are mindful of the comings and goings of life should in fact be; it would appear that many of us are negligent. Our focus (mine included) has long been on the substances we’ve perceived of great alarm but in the end it’s the matters of small concern that should be treated most vigorously. If history has taught us anything, it’s that the moments of seemingly little consequence can have a tremendous impact. War fare is always the most obvious but what about things in every day life that occur in increasing fashion that in theory should sound some type of alarm. Whether it effects the entirety of a nation (the housing crises) or a tiny collective (employees of a company) the signs are everywhere.

The key has been, and always will be, reading between the lines. Case and point from the aforementioned. Back in the early 2000s I worked as a shift coordinator in the mail service division of what is a now defunct bank. This bank was at a time one of the 10 largest in the Midwest. We had a division called ‘CLS’ or consumer loan services which as the name implies handled consumer lending. As films such as ‘The Big Short’ have depicted there was a massive run-up in home sales, building, construction, etc. – in what I can only guess was an attempt to alleviate the financial recession resulting from (in my opinion) not the events surrounding the 11th of September but the still collapsing tech market – fueled by insane lending practices.

I still remember to this day opening an improperly addressed manila envelop (no department locator code or even an ‘attn:to’) and seeing a home loan application for a property that’s purchase price was in excess of 186,000 dollars. Along with this application was…what for it…no W2 or w2’s, no employment history, just a ‘statement of income’.  I’m not sure if this couple was approved for the loan but as time has shown there is a strong possibility they were. This was more than three years before the recession of 07’. I’m not intelligent but I could see a clear problem with this. Obviously, the events surrounding this and the resulting fallout were terrible on millions of people. But what about the later part, the “tiny collective” I spoke of?

The example I’ll use in this case is my present company. Within the last 10 months I’ve lost 6 (that I’m aware of) co-workers all under the age of 55 to either a heart attack or stroke. Shortly after the lost of the last of them, he was 38, we received information in our company email that we were being afforded the right to participate in a healthy study of our industry conductive by Harvard. Within a couple weeks of the close date of the study I received a letter in the mail stating that the company had increased its’ life insurance policy it had on me to 120,000 (keep in mind the policy it pays out to my parents in the event of my death is only 40,000). I briefly found this rather odd before coming to my senses and realizing the company literally makes money if I die.

So, how does this all tie together…these seemingly tiny, inconspicuous things? Think about it, the company (an airline) is actively engaged in a competitive work practice that it begins to realize (or likely already knew) is waging hell on its employee’s health. What better way to gauge the accurate extent to which individuals in the company are suffering to predict the future, everything from potential medical costs, to establishing levels of upcoming attrition, up to but not ending with how much longer they can continue said practices before something comes out to shed light on an otherwise unfortunate way of conducting business. This logic may not gel with you and frankly I’m not concerned if it does but finding these events, as small as they are, to be unrelated and completely random is a tremendous disservice to oneself. These fractional occurrences happen on a monthly, weekly, even daily basis and if a person chooses to mind them no attention they will ultimately become a victim like countless others.

The Linked In Principle

Flashback to the 1960’s, a decade of immense change, civil unrest and the height of the counter-culture revolution. While many famous faces and names came and went during that time there’s one in particular I’d like to draw attention to. As you probably already guessed if you’ve read any of my other posts this person was not only keenly observant but willing to share his thoughts on what he discovered despite the potential backlash. The man I’m speaking of was Canadian-born educator Laurence Peter and the gift he gave the world came in the 1969 publication of his book ‘The Peter Principle’.

For those of you unfamiliar with the work I’ll give you the cliff notes version (though I suggest you read it because a) it’s insightful and b) it’s short). Peter states that “in a [business] hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence,” that “in most hierarchies, super-competence is more objectionable than incompetence” and that the presence of extremely skilled and productive employees “disrupts and…violates the first commandment of hierarchical life: the hierarchy must be preserved.” At the time such an attack on American business culture was likely out of the question. Dr. Laurence therefore wrote the book as more of a satire than say in Chomsky-like prose.

While it was at the time and to an extent still popular today amongst certain circles I feel it’s still not as well known as it should be. The way in which this system has continued to grow and evolve in modern times is equally impressive. In fact, an almost entirely new principled system has emerged and at the expense of using a term some other writer may already have (for which I apologize and will certainly give she or he credit in a later revision) I’m going to call it ‘The Linked in Principle.’ Yes, this is a direct shot at the website of the same name (which the author fully admits to have had an account with). The site, much like the structure of countless organizations throughout the US, is tantamount to a game of career musical chairs cleverly hidden behind the façade of being a business version of Facebook©.

I’m not going to argue the central causes of employment instability nor am I going to fault career focused individuals for watching their backs so to speak but Dr. Laurence hit the nail on the head when he revealed the “skills required to get a job often have nothing to do with what is required to do the job itself.” It is here we have the central thesis of the ‘linked in principle’ – that a majority of jobs are not obtained by demonstrated ability or even necessarily a perceived set – but rather through a popularity contest. The direct result of our desire to be sociable triumphing over the lesser need to be correct in the decision-making process.

The other caveat, and subsequent observation, is that because many of these individuals (often white-collar workers) tend to be placed in teams and are therefore more easily able to stake the success of an idea or program to their contributed efforts – when in fact they may have either had nothing to do with the action or the said decision may even have had serious unfortunate longer-term consequences – results in the inability of company’s to properly identify truly incompetent employees. It is to this I lead in to the last point of the principle, a slight deviation from Peter’s, which states ‘a person will rise or fall directly in proportion to their ability to network and market themselves.’  At the end of the day the structure and struggle of corporations, particularly larger ones, is a result of none of the smart kids being allowed to sit at the cool kid table.