Bonnie Wilkins Overcott, 3/7/2016
Current Occupation: Blogger and Writer My blog is workinginthe21stcentury.com and compiles resources and news items, and I write book reviews and editorials about work, careers, pay and benefits, and other 21st century employment issues.
Former Occupation: Besides working in a bakery in high school, I've worked many part time and temporary jobs and newspaper reporting. My professional work history includes Media Buyer for an Advertising Agency. American Red Cross, Disaster Services. Office Manager, Diversified Business Credit. Admissions, Capella University where I was allowed to write for the department's newsletter as part of my responsibilities.
Contact Information: Writer and blogger. I earned a BA in Labor Studies and Communications, University of Minnesota. My fiction and nonfiction writing has appeared in several online journals and newspapers. Besides writing, my interests include gardening, quilting, reading, photography, travel and spending time with family, friends and two cats.
Mindlessly following a routine started 15 years ago, Myrna settles onto the teal, synthetic linen of the upholstered task chair at one of scores of taupe, fabric-covered workstations on the 35th floor of the TCR Tower. On automatic pilot, she flips on the desktop computer. While it boots up, she settles in for the day stashing her purse into the lower, right hand desk drawer. She walks to the employee cafeteria to put her lunch into one of the refrigerators. Removing her coffee cup from the dishwasher, she fills it almost full, then adds a splash of cold water so she can start drinking it immediately.
Myrna is the Administrative Assistant to the HR Vice President, Nancy Brown, at Sel-Mor Insurance. Once the computer is up and running and the caffeine starts coursing through her body, her brain begins to engage as she hunts for news that might impact the insurance industry and human resources. She checks her bookmarked business, insurance, HR and favorite news sites. If she finds something of importance, she forwards it to Nancy or others at Sel-Mor. This morning one article, about a company named Trak-Eze, Inc., attracts her attention. She bookmarks it deciding to read it at home.
Myrna Garner is in her mid 50’s. People try to tease her age out of her, but she doesn’t bite. Co-workers know she is widowed. They know that after her husband died of a lengthy illness; she took a mission trip to Guatemala through her church and ended up adopting a three year old orphan, Ana, from the orphanage near where she helped build a school. Ana is the joy of Myrna’s life. Ana is attending college now, and Myrna is extremely proud of her daughter. Photos documenting Ana’s life adorn Myrna’s workstation.
Preferring to wear navy blue because she thinks navy is slimming and professional, Myrna’s navy dresses, jackets, slacks and pumps are like a uniform. She accessorizes with sparkly scarves around the holidays, a green scarf on St. Patrick’s Day and other scarves and pieces of costume jewelry. Her co-workers joke that Myrna never has to spend time debating what she will wear that day. “It must be awfully dark in her closet,” Sandra said once to peals of laughter.
She brings her own lunch every day and usually sits alone eating and reading in Sel-Mor’s employee dining room. The book is always wrapped inside a homemade cloth book cover. She and a few other women in the company share paperback romance novels bundled inside canvas totes. The book cover hides the steamy covers from view. In Myrna’s opinion, co-workers and fellow train riders don’t need to know she is reading The Cowboy and the Girl in the Hot Pink Chaps, or Love the Way You Lie, or Playing with Fyre. Often new employees ask her what she is reading. Myrna answers, “A novel.” Co-workers answer, “Literature.”
Despite the jokes, Myrna is well-liked. She is always approachable. Sel-Mor’s employees know, if they have a problem, they can bribe Myrna into taking a break by offering to buy her a cup of tea at the coffee shop on the ground floor where she listens and guides them in sorting out their issue. If it is emotional, family-related, financial or legal she refers them to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). With work-related issues Myrna can ask a few questions and usually a solution becomes evident. If the problem needs more attention, Myrna refers them to Sandra Graham, the HR specialist. Employees who get to know Myrna trust her. She will take a lot of secrets to her grave.
Myrna is old enough to remember when HR was Personnel. She prefers that term to Human Resources, a term that reminds her of Animal Husbandry. Raised on a farm, Myrna knows the ramifications of that term. She believes dignity, meaning and community result in the best performance from employees, something she learned in a “Productive Workplaces” seminar. She began a policy of sending greeting cards signed by supervisors, co-workers and HR when anyone is ill, grieving or celebrating the birth of a baby to create a sense of a caring community. She works with direct supervisors on team building events for their staff.
Management views Myrna as the perfect employee. Rare is the day she calls in sick or comes in late. She’s never a source of office friction. The HR VP, Nancy Brown, totally relies on her. Sel-Mor’s management and board members trust her with confidential information. Myrna will question decisions, but never in a confrontational manner. She makes it very easy for management to take her for granted. She’s a widow putting her daughter through college. She is a lifer in their eyes, and management doesn’t feel they must offer her promotions or inducements to stay.
Myrna’s degree is in Library Sciences, and one of the projects she works on is documenting the history of Sel-Mor. She compiled a library in a room across the aisle by her desk containing all the old annual reports, press releases, news articles as well as popular business books and trade publications. If someone has a question, Myrna can look through her digital card file and pull an Insurance Journal article for them to read. Employees can borrow books ranging from Who Moved My Cheese to You Branding: Reinventing Your Personal Identify as a Successful Brand to How to Win Friends and Influence People. Myrna loves this part of her job and views herself as the information and education hub of Sel-Mor.
The economic slow-down and eventual crash of 2008 hit Sel-Mor hard. Nancy was darned glad she had Myrna to confide in during this time. At one point Nancy realized management wasn’t inviting her to their top level meetings. She thought they were planning to fire her and began pondering her future. When one day, Dave Carter, the CEO, called her into his office, she assumed the worst. When she got seated at the conference table with him, Dave said, “The board approved a lay-off and we need to shed 10% of the staff. Work out the details with Department Vice Presidents, come up with a list, and summarize the salaries and benefits so we can see how it will affect the bottom line.” “We don’t want any laws broken, but look at people who are at the top of their pay range, or those with substantial vacation time, and marginal employees” said Dave as he looked directly at Nancy gauging her response. “Any questions?” “Who knows about this?” asked Nancy. “Only the Board of Directors and the Executive Committee,” answered Dave.
That day was one of the few times Nancy cried at work. She cried because the order from Dave was a total shock. She felt so left out of the loop she began to question her own value to Sel-Mor and its management team. Didn’t Dave trust her? He evidently did not value her experience and expertise. A down-sizing was devastating to those let go, and made the remaining staff angry and mistrusting. There was no opportunity for her to suggest alternatives since they didn’t consult her. But the list was drawn up, presented to Dave and approved by the HR committee of the Board. She asked Myrna for help and they carried out the carnage. After it was over, she came back to her office and found a Gardenia bonsai tree on her desk. She opened the gift card and read, “I hope and pray this is the only thing you ever need to prune again. Myrna.”
The down-sizing didn’t solve all Dave Carter’s problems. Sel-Mor’s dip in income required even more cuts in expenses. These are the times that test the mettle of any CEO. The unspoken message of investors is “fix this or the next expense to be excised will be you. There’s plenty of other talent out there who would relish the chance in the top spot, and they will do what needs to be done.” Few can withstand the pressure.
Someone asks Dave at every board meeting to make more cuts. He does, but limiting the number of pencils or the variety of sizes of legal pads doesn’t make a dent in expenses. One VP complained, “If I find a paper clip on the sidewalk, I pick it up to bring to work.” Another said “my assistant is tired of raiding her children’s pencil boxes for supplies.” Dave is miserable. He dreads getting on the elevator with an employee. He fears their accusing eyes. He holes up in his office asking his administrative assistant to bring him a thermos of coffee so he can keep working and avoid meeting anyone in the hallways or kitchen. He looks for ways to cut costs even in his Zolpidem-induced sleep and hounds his department managers. It began to look like they need another lay-off.
Then a salesman, Bryce Morrison, came to introduce his product to Dave. Bryce, familiar with Sel-Mor’s recent downsizing, said, “I want to introduce you to the solution to your financial challenges.” Dave perked up. Bryce works for Trak-Eze, the developer of Corporate Overview, Reporting and Evaluation System (C.O.R.E.), a business productivity software
Bryce told Dave that according to Forbes, “64 percent of employees visit non-work related websites every day at work…21 percent waste five hours per week, and 3 percent said they waste 10 hours or more doing activities unrelated to work.” It didn’t take Dave long to figure out how much all that wasted time cost. “If everyone at Sel-Mor worked at their peak capacity, you could shed more jobs through attrition,” said Bryce.
“The optimal time to install C.O.R.E. is immediately after a lay-off, while the remaining staff is in shock and the memory of the downsizing is fresh,” Bryce told Dave. “It is critical management promise the remaining staff that they are working towards cutting costs without going through another unnerving, demoralizing downsizing. C.O.R.E. identifies underperformers for supervisors to coach so they meet or exceed the goals established. Eventually management can weed out the underperformers and the unmotivated.” “This is the future in management,” said Bryce, “if Sel-Mor doesn’t invest in this software, they won’t be able to compete with companies that do. Right now you can become the first company to implement C.O.R.E. in the United States and be seen as an industry leader as you gain ground on your competition.”
Sel-Mor purchased the software with one add-on, the feature that tracks purchases employees make at online shopping sites like Amazon, Costco or Best Buy. Sel-Mor made the down payment on C.O.R.E. and signed an annual contract. Part of the sizeable costs of C.O.R.E. software includes support for management during implementation and IT support once it is in place. The tech team from Trak-Eze loads C.O.R.E. onto the network server and each desktop computer after hours and weekends.
A computer cable with a wrist band containing a sensor at one end is attached with Velcro around each employee’s wrist and plugged into the work station at the other end. C.O.R.E. tracks time logged in, number of keystrokes, volume of work completed, completion time, time in meetings, travel time to and from meetings, personal time away from desks, websites visited, emails sent, and phone calls made on the company phone system. Each task is analyzed and completion averages calculated, and supervisors can use those standards to evaluate their employees’ efficiency. The sensor on the wrist-band keeps employees honest by recording their actual time in their workstation.
At some point, this version of C.O.R.E. is capable of being programmed to measure heart rate and temperature as part of a wellness program through this wrist sensor. Sel-Mor can choose at anytime to add other options constantly being developed.
Myrna was assigned to oversee the implementation and training. After studying the literature, Myrna mentioned to the Project Manager that there are often outliers, tasks that require more time. He reassured her that tasks requiring more than the average time are figured in so no employee is penalized. “C.O.R.E. is a tool to assist supervisors to get employees to perform at their most productive level,” the Project Manager said. “Adjustments can be made at any time. It’s not intended to be punitive.”
Once the installation was thoroughly tested and every assurance made that it was functioning accurately, managers were gathered for introduction to this new management tool. Myrna set up the kick-off event. First, Dave reminded them of the competitiveness of their industry and how difficult it is to find any job, let alone a supervisory or managerial level job in this economic climate. A graph of the decreasing number of middle management jobs in the marketplace and a diagram depicting salaries falling were shown. “The down-sizing was tough on all of us,” Dave said. “We value all of you and want to keep you on our management team.”
Next they viewed a video produced by Trak-Eze’s marketing department. It was a tearjerker. Several employees who lost jobs because their co-workers weren’t productive spoke about their job loss. A single mother, who couldn’t buy new shoes for her children for school, talked of the stigma of hunting through garage sales for the right sizes of used shoes, jeans and backpacks. A father, fighting back tears over his job loss and then his family’s home, railed against his self-centered coworkers for not being productive enough. A department manager, who lost his job because his employees couldn’t meet productivity goals, told of finally finding a position with a commercial cleaning company cleaning offices at night, only to find himself assigned to clean the offices of his former employer including the office that once was his own.
As Sel-Mor’s supervisors sat in stunned silence, the team from Trak-Eze’s promotion department marched in with great fanfare, releasing balloons and confetti. “All is not lost.” they announced. “Your management, in an attempt to avoid any more lay-offs, purchased the C.O.R.E. business productivity software because they care about you, your jobs and your employees.” The cheering went on for a good five minutes while Dave Carter stood beaming just watching his managers’ joy when they heard of his concern and willingness to shell out the dollars needed to keep his staff safe from the market bears.
They broke into smaller work groups and, over coffee, orange juice and bagels with cream cheese, discussed implementation. The moderators told them “You are the key to this organization’s success. Your job and those of your employees is dependent upon the implementation of C.O.R.E. C.O.R.E. insures that some aren’t over-worked while others get by with goofing off.” “Keep an eye out for the few that resist C.O.R.E,” said moderators. Anyone mentioning “ball and chain” or “big brother,” for example, needs a referral to HR. “Myrna is the go-to person and will arrange the necessary counseling,” moderators said. Any manager not possessing the necessary skills to implement C.O.R.E. may request training through Myrna.
Myrna posted signs throughout Sel-Mor’s offices informing employees something new and exciting was coming. She sent out invitations asking staff to sign up for one of the mandatory meetings. Each employee received an ID tag to wear during the meeting. In the conference rooms, C.O.R.E. was already at work filming activities in the room. Cameras fed the video into a computer and an analysis done almost in real time identifying expressions of confusion, anger, fear or other negative reactions, based on facial expressions and body language. It created a report for Supervisors and Trak-Eze counselors using the sensors in the ID tags to identify the employee.
Nancy stopped Myrna one day and asked, “What are your thoughts about C.O.R.E.?” “Well,” said Myrna, “it’s definitely a different way of doing things. I guess if it increases productivity, it’s a good thing for Sel-Mor as well as our employees. To be honest, though, I have a funny feeling about it and can’t put my finger on it.” “How about you,” Myrna asked. “I have concerns, but it seems to be the direction workplaces are heading,” said Nancy. “We’ll see.”
At one C.O.R.E. introductory session, Pauline commented that the wristband seemed too much like a ball and chain. Immediately the C.O.R.E. SWAT team interfered and told her they’d answer her concerns. They escorted her from the room. There were no more questions other than how long training would take and when it would start. Each staff member received the wrist band cable to plug into their computer. Myrna told the staff they could borrow the training manuals from the library. She would set up training sessions.
Motivational and introductory posters were hung throughout the offices. The break room had a “Time Killers Harm Us All!” poster showing a young woman with her feet up on a chair chatting on the phone. Another showed a fist with the pointer finger facing forward with the slogan “There Are a Billion People in China Who Want Your Job…C.O.R.E. Keeps Your Job Safe!” There was a photo of an explosion. The slogan was “This is War!” At the bottom it said, “With C.O.R.E. We’re Going to Win!” An email sent out showed bar charts superimposed over a smashed plate labeled “Productivity.” There were lines for each employee and two columns. One was the “Goals” column and the other the “Actual” column. At the bottom it said, “With C.O.R.E., We’ll Smash All Expectations!” Productivity summaries for the past week are sent to everyone on their team by Supervisors each Monday morning. Management expected to see productivity skyrocket.
Sel-Mor became the first major American corporation to install the C.O.R.E. system. Top management received invitations to speak at many business forums about the software, training, management support and results. In fact, the C.O.R.E. sessions were far more popular than the "business legislative agenda" sessions, or the “eliminate the minimum wage” sessions and even the "off-shoring for soaring profits" sessions.
It didn’t take long for the less motivated staff to figure out ways of circumventing C.O.R.E. They could take a couple of minutes before meetings to fill their water glass, make a quick call home or dart into the rest rooms on the way to the meeting. If the meeting started a bit late, C.O.R.E. doesn’t know. They just had to return promptly. They discovered if they wanted to make a phone call privately or run a quick errand, they could hand the wrist monitor to their neighbor. C.O.R.E. was incapable of differentiating.
A few weeks after C.O.R.E. was in use, people began approaching Myrna with their gripes. They complained they hadn’t signed up to work in an electronic sweatshop. Some felt it demeaning to have to check out for bathroom breaks. Myrna’s usual response was, “change is hard, but management is asking us to buy in to this to prevent more lay-offs. Let’s give it a try and see the result in a few months.”
“Can I see you for a moment?” Nancy asked one morning. As Myrna came in, Nancy said, “Shut the door behind you.” Myrna sat in front of Nancy’s desk. “I wanted to tell you first,” said Nancy, “that I’m leaving Sel-Mor at the end of the month.” “Frankly, Myrna, the downsizing was hard for me. I want to work where I’m not dealing with unhappy people and justifying practices I’m not even sure are legal. I also feel my role has been diminished. I’ve been hired as the Executive VP of HR at Comity Insurance. I really like their business philosophy and corporate culture. I’ll give my notice here in six weeks. There may be an opportunity for you too, if you are interested.” “I would be interested,” said Myrna with no hesitation.
“Great!” said Nancy, “I don’t think you will regret leaving here and moving to Comity. I think we can create a position for you that you will really enjoy and raise you to an officer level.” “Give me a couple of months to settle in, then I’ll ask my staff to send you the benefits package, a job description and letter of employment. As Myrna rose to leave, Nancy said, “I’m glad we’ll be working together at Comity.”
Myrna heard more distressing things. Work was oppressive. It seemed there are more exceptions to the norm than C.O.R.E. allows so formerly good employees found themselves below productivity. Jeanine, always slender, is losing more weight. Married to a deployed serviceman, she needs this job to supplement his income to care for their three kids and keep up the car and house payments. She is always stressed out when he is gone, but she seems even more so these days. Every Monday, she checks to see how she compares to the others in her department. Usually her productivity is the lowest.
Jeanine’s co-workers began complaining that she isn’t pulling her weight. “I know she is struggling to get all her housework, yard work and errands done while raising three children when her husband is gone, but we all need to meet expectations, not just some of us,” grumbled one employee. “At least she has a husband,” said another, “we all have personal problems.” Forgotten were the accolades and many customer service awards she won over the years because of all the complimentary letters and phone calls Sel-Mor got from customers who appreciated her patience and cheerful assistance. They aren’t factored in by C.O.R.E. anyway.
After a month, management announced that employees not meeting or exceeding expectations wouldn’t get raises. Employees started hurrying and that caused errors. The errors cost Sel-Mor time, money and disgruntled customers. An employee error column was added to the productivity chart. C.O.R.E. recalculated productivity factoring in the errors. Too often it seemed anyone who slowed down to research everything accurately then slid below expectations in productivity.
Jack, the senior employee in the life insurance department was the go-to guy because he was so knowledgeable. People noticed he was wearing his power suit and tie more often. Then he gave his two-week notice. Myrna did his exit interview. He assured her that the new job was an opportunity he couldn’t refuse. There were other exits, and each time one person left, productivity for the entire group slipped below expectations. Supervisors complained that when they are constantly training new staff, the old productivity figures are meaningless. No one laughs or talks during the day anymore. Most people don’t even greet each other when they come and go. The office is totally quiet except for the tapping on keyboards. Management announced that the entire staff working in departments not meeting or exceeding their goals wouldn’t get raises.
People came to talk to Myrna. She felt helpless. She could counsel better ways of communicating or recommend training or make referrals to professionals. But Myrna could not think of a way of reducing the stress of staff trying to meet C.O.R.E.’s expectations. She started researching the issue to see if she could find a solution. She called her contact at Trak-Eze and asked for her input. She was told those not meeting goals would have to go.
Myrna slipped a note onto the desks of several employees throughout Sel-Mor. The note asked them to meet after work at The Factory, a downtown restaurant and bar, for happy hour. She asked people not to mention the meeting to anyone and to leave one-by-one.
By 5:15 p.m. nine of Sel-Mor’s long-term employees gathered with Myrna at The Factory at a large table near the back. As they chatted, ordered drinks and hors d’hoerves, Myrna handed out copies of a newspaper article. “This is the reason I wanted to get together,” said Myrna. “Once you’re done reading, we can talk about it.”
“The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), today, announced a campaign against Trak-Eze, Inc., a software company headquartered in the Cayman Islands, to induce them to immediately stop selling their software, Hu-Op (Human Optimizer). Trak-Eze markets other forms of the productivity software in the United States, Europe, and Australia, known as C.O.R.E. That software is not included in the requested ban.
Hu-Op is sold to companies operating in developing countries. It incorporates C.O.R.E.’s productivity software and is Trak-Eze’s most intensive productivity and management tool. Each new employee has a port surgically inserted into a vein on the inside of an arm. Each day the employee hooks the monitoring node into the port. When hooked to the computer, Hu-Op can monitor heart rate, blood pressure, enzymes, cholesterol levels, infections, diet, DNA, red and white blood cell levels, and drug use.
Trak-Eze’s marketing materials state Hu-Ops’ capabilities benefits workers as well as corporations. Early detection of illnesses, behaviors leading to absenteeism, pregnancies and stress levels can result in early referrals of employees to the health advisor in HR to start a lifestyle change program. It leads to early prenatal care leading to healthier babies and counseling about the high costs of having a child. Hu-Op tracks heart rates and blood pressure to predict health issues and insure the employee is functioning at the highest level without being under undue stress.
Former workers say company foremen pressured pregnant women to have abortions. Women choosing to continue the pregnancy lost their jobs. Some employees were fired and later diagnosed with diabetes or high blood pressure. Hu-Op is used, according to ILRF, to weed out employees who develop chronic illnesses or pregnancies, leaving only the youngest, healthiest employees working in the factories.
Workers told of struggling to meet expectations only to have them raised. Employers fired those who couldn’t meet or exceed productivity. Usually the very young girls were the only employees who could keep up productivity demands. Many employees develop infections around the port that need medical attention. One woman’s infection was so bad she lost her arm. Employees often work off the clock to bolster their productivity. They prefer working a few hours a week without pay to losing their job.”
After watching each reader’s expression go from curious to stunned or horrified, Myrna spoke. “I just wanted you all to know about this,” said Myrna, “feel free to share the article.” “Can they do this?” asked Mari. “I doubt they would market Hu-Op in the United States at this point,” said Myrna. “I knew C.O.R.E. wasn’t a good thing. Can we get rid of it?” asked Bette. “Not at this time” said Myrna. “C.O.R.E. cost Sel-Mor too much money to even consider that. Dave Carter sold this to the Board and his neck is on the line. If profits go up at the end of the year, it’s going to be hard to make an argument against it. We can meet periodically to brainstorm ways of making it more palatable.”
“Darn,” said Joan, “I actually thought things would get better and go back to the way they were before the layoffs. I used to love coming to work. Now I dread it and this makes it looks like it may get even worse.” “We could all go and talk to Nancy Brown,” said Sherm. Everyone looked at Myrna. “There’s a couple of other things I want to tell you about,” said Myrna, “but first let’s ask the waiter to bring another round of drinks.”