Friday, July 31, 2009

What Happened to Health Benefits?

Yes, I said benefits.

Raise your hand if you remember when you had medical insurance coverage as a benefit from your employer, that didn’t require a monthly contribution from you… and it covered your entire family at no extra cost… and it covered dental… and eye care… and you could get prescriptions filled at a local drugstore.

I remember having a health benefits plan where insurance covered 80% and I paid 20% after an annual deductible. I went to whatever doctor I chose to see and paid my share. There were annual limits so the cost of a catastrophic illness was contained. Yeah, I complained about having to fill out a form to get that 80% sent from the insurance company to the doctor, but in retrospect the plan was, well – sensible.

Put your hand down if you now have to contribute an increasingly large portion of your hard-earned salary every year for medical insurance… or if your contribution goes up per person covered… or if you have to get a referral to see a specialist… or if you have to get your prescriptions filled through the mail.

Unless you work for the government, chances are there are no hands in the air.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not blaming the corporations for the excruciatingly high cost of medical insurance coverage. That one is on the insurance companies, the drug companies, and the HMOs.

But, I do believe the corporations started to abdicate their responsibility to their employees when they accepted, heck maybe even endorsed, HMOs as a way to keep their cost per employee low. Employees chose these plans initially on the promise of better preventive care, better overall coverage, and lower out of pocket costs.

Hmmm… that didn’t quite turn out the way anyone expected, did it…

And at the bottom of the slippery slope (or at least I sure hope it’s the bottom) we see enormous administrative costs, huge gaps in coverage, and plans so complex to decipher that they make your head spin. Coverage levels, deductibles, pre-existing conditions, COBRA, primary care physicians, referrals, qualified status changes, coverage gaps… well, let’s just say that the only thing I can think of that is more complex than medical insurance coverage is taxes.

Let’s get real -- the problem is not about coverage -- it’s about cost.

That form I had to fill out in the old days may have been annoying, but it served a purpose – I actually knew how much that doctor visit cost. That 20% I had to pay out of pocket also had a purpose – I made a cost-based decision about what I needed.

So the answer to this problem must be adding the bureaucracy of government health care, right? Oh, and maybe we could fund that with taxpayer dollars. Or wait… maybe we could make the employees pay taxes on the medical benefits they get from their employers, in addition to paying the sky-rocketing premiums they already pay.

I think I’m getting a migraine. Oops -- better hold off on that -- my prescription refill hasn’t arrived in the mail yet.

What do you think? Comment here….

Friday, July 24, 2009

Can You Really Have it All?

At a recent Human Resource Management conference in New Orleans, former General Electric CEO, Jack Welch, told the group the answer was essentially, no.

The Wall Street Journal reported Mr. Welch as saying, "There's no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences."

Welch’s comments reflect the fact that the phrase ‘work-life balance’ has become almost synonymous with ‘having everything you want.’ He is telling us we have to make choices.

This may be a difficult pill to swallow, especially for the Generation Y-ers described by Bruce Tulgan in his recent book Not Everyone Gets a Trophy.

But the truth is… not everyone can get the big raise, not everyone can get the promotion, not everyone can be the boss, and not everyone can be the CEO.


I think most of us understand this on some level. Women of my generation were determined to change the rules and break through the glass ceiling … something we are largely still striving to do today. We made choices like delaying having children, or foregoing a family altogether. Some chose to put their careers above all else.

I made the choice to become a manager before having children. I chose to ride the Mommy Track for a few years, until I woke up one day bored to death with my job. I chose not to have my children raised by a nanny. I could go on.

Did my choices affect my career? Absolutely! Did they affect my family? Absolutely!

Think about the choices you make every day…

It might be something simple like deciding to take that call from home instead of driving into the office so you can be at your son’s little league game on time. Reasonable, right?

Sure, but your colleague made the drive and was there in person. Which of you will the big bosses in the room remember?

Or, it might be something big, like turning down a chance at an overseas assignment because you don’t want to uproot your family. Again, reasonable, right?

Absolutely, but one of your colleagues will jump at that job and get that coveted ‘international experience.’ Who will have the edge when it’s time for that next big promotion?

And even though we may dwell on it more, this is not an issue that affects only women. At the risk of being plagued with negative comments, I might argue that it’s easier for men… traditional gender roles make it more acceptable for men to consistently choose work over family. But whether it’s leaving work early to coach a soccer team, taking paternity leave, or just leaving work on time to get to rock band practice (because you always wanted to be a rock star), balancing work and life affects everyone in Corporate America.

I, for one, agree with Jack Welch and appreciate his straight talk on this topic. What do you think?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Mail, e-Mail, and More e-Mail

Most people believe that e-mail was invented after the internet.

These are not the same people who believe that Al Gore invented the internet. I am referring to the majority of folks out there who never experienced e-mail until they were on the internet. In fact it’s totally reasonable to believe that e-mail was invented after the internet… but it’s just not true.

Take a trip down nostalgia lane with me….

When I first became a manager in late 1984, the highlight of my day was the mail delivery. My secretary spent most of her day preparing this special bundle. (This was long before it became politically incorrect to call assistants secretaries.)

Each day my mail was delivered to me at 3pm. in a manila folder, opened and sorted. All the important stuff I had to do came in that folder. I would handwrite responses for the action items, which my secretary would type and return to me the next day for my review and signature before it went out…. with a stamp.

And, despite the fact that I worked for a large IT corporation, the secretaries used typewriters for this illustrious task.

But that wasn’t the only mail we had. From the very first day I started work in 1979, we had electronic mail.

The early e-mail systems were primitive… arguably something that only computer types would bother with… but it was fast! If you sent a note, the receiver had it instantly. By the early 1980’s we were using a more advanced electronic mail system. It was called a Professional Office System (great name, huh?). It ran on a mainframe.

You could send electronic mail to anyone in the company. There were no ‘lost’ e-mails… no servers that went down… no e-mails stuck in the limbo of the system somewhere… and no need for firewalls. The system was secure because it never left the company. It ran on the company’s intranet and stayed inside the company’s hallowed walls.

There was no such thing as SPAM. And virtually every e-mail I received I wanted to read. Of course, the number of e-mails I received each day could be counted on one hand.

When do you remember your first electronic mail?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Fine Example of Corporate Speak

On a recent trip to New York City I noticed a sign that was too good not to share --- prompting me to write this uncharacteristic mid-week blog post. The two-sentence paragraph said:

“As the world’s leading (industry) business, (company name) continues to innovate in the geographies, sales formats, and a range of services that are offered to clients. Ongoing initiatives in new and middle markets, as well as global infrastructure and talented teams underpin our continuous success.”

Pretty good, right? I mean, what large corporation doesn’t want to expand into new markets? They mentioned their clients… good… and innovation… even better…. and declared their leadership all in one sentence!

And hey – what company doesn’t consider their people and global infrastructure among their keys to competitive advantage?

The only thing I can think of that would made this more perfect as a generic buzz-word-laden corporate message is if there were a third sentence that said:

And we are committed to increasing shareholder value from quarter to quarter and year to year by decreasing costs and improving profitability.

Now that’s a vision!

I should mention that this message was prominently displayed – almost reverently – in a large window at street level so that everyone walking by would see it and be in awe of this company’s brilliance… or at least that of the marketing person who came up with these fine words. Go figure….

Friday, July 10, 2009

My First Computer

It wasn’t a desktop. It wasn’t a laptop. It didn’t run Windows or OS/2, or even DOS.

It wasn’t a PC or a Mac.

My first computer was the size of a small refrigerator, and ran a proprietary operating system. We called it a distributed system. It was 1980, and it was born before its time.

This was long before ‘open’ systems even existed, and ‘proprietary’ was a very good thing. It was also in the days when customers ruled. Customer service was… well… everything in the IT business.

I worked in a customer service division where we answered customer calls, found errors, and fixed them. Yes, we actually fixed them. Imagine if you can (close your eyes and try) a call center than was manned with trained experts… people who actually knew what you were talking about… who didn’t read from a script… who spoke English as their first language… and worked in the US.

Yeah, the good old days.

Imagine that it was entirely up to the customer to decide when his problem was resolved.

So we needed computers to work on to find these problems and fix them. Initially we worked on terminals connected to a mainframe that ran programs to simulate the operating system. But before I get too techie… suffice it to say that it worked, but not all the time. Sometimes you just needed a real computer to test on.

The day they arrived it was like Christmas.

Our first computers were black, with a small display panel, and a single drawer for a large floppy disk. They had less than 2 megabytes of storage. Total. They were beautiful. I could sign up for machine time and have the computer all to myself.
Very cool.

This job had immediate satisfaction. Every day I solved problems. Every day I helped customers. The best part was… when I went home at the end of the day I was done until tomorrow. It may have been the best job ever.

Tell me abut your best corporate job or your first computer by posting a comment.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Working 9:00 to 5:00

Well, actually it was more like 8:00 to 4:42.

Officially we had four hours of work in the morning with one 15-minute break. 42 minutes for lunch. Then another four hours of work in the afternoon with a 15-minute break. Anything more than that was considered overtime, regardless of whether we got paid for it. It counted.

The 42 minutes for lunch was discussed at great length among my friends. Why not an hour? Why not 45 minutes? There were lots of theories roaming around as to why 42 minutes. The most prevalent of those was the ‘walk to the cafeteria’ theory. Legend held that it took exactly six minutes to walk to the cafeteria. Six minutes to walk there, 30 minutes for lunch, and six minutes to walk back. I should explain that it was a bit of a hike across buildings to get to the cafeteria. Nevertheless, it didn’t matter if you had long legs or short, or how far away your office was from the cafeteria, it was exactly a six-minute walk.

We timed it. Multiple times.

Timecards needed to be filled in by the end of day Monday for the prior week, and placed in the inbox at the secretary’s desk for the boss. These were the paper version of the time clock, and the pre-cursor to the electronic versions we would use in a few years.

Managers stressed the importance of the accuracy of the timecard. It was a contract. It had to be right. Was someone watching us? Well, maybe they were. But filling out the timecard was part of the job, and so we each spent 10 to 15 minutes a week filling it out.

In the mid-80’s we moved to an online version of the timecards, and in the mid-90’s we did away with them altogether. I’m pretty sure that was the result of a productivity study that showed we could save one headcount for every 160 still there by saving up those 15 minutes.

The electronic timecards caused more frustration than the paper versions – there were more codes to choose from and more details to log. But this was also the beginning of an era where we had more choices.

When ‘flextime’ was first introduced it was groundbreaking. It earned the company accolades. In retrospect it was a very limited morsel of flexibility, but one that would lead to a lot more progress over time.

And of course it caused more rules. You could start your entire workday either one hour earlier, or one hour later than the official start time. So you could work 7:00 to 3:42, or 9:00 to 5:42, on specific days that you chose… assuming that your manager approved your schedule… in advance. Yes, there was a special code on the timecard for flextime.

Now, if you needed to drop off your car for service you could start an hour later. If you needed to go to the dentist you could end an hour earlier… instead of taking personal time.

This was progress, right? What do you remember?