Mouser's View

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A fish stinks from the top

[I rerun this from September 2015 hoping some changes will be on the way, reserving judgment for a year or two.]

The late George Corley Wallace Jr., never one to pussyfoot, railed during his presidential campaigns about “pointy-headed bureaucrats” in Washington.

Researchers from Vanderbilt recently were asked to survey more than 3,500 federal executives about personnel matters. Many complained about not being able to hire and retain top talent.

The survey, reported on by Aaron Boyd of Federal Times, concluded that “merit is often not sufficiently incorporated into promotions and, especially, dismissals.”

And whose fault might that be? Someone who owns a business is raising his hand…

It’s the government’s fault.

By burying businesses in laws and regulations designed to stamp out every form of discrimination — real, imagined or theoretical — Uncle Sam has also wiped out the ability to discriminate against sloth and incompetence. Excessive regulation is why people are reluctant to start businesses.

Bureaucrats, once public servants, have appointed themselves public overlords. Can’t the federal executives see this? Their heads might be pointy for a reason: To accommodate dunce caps.

A note on Wallace: When he is remembered at all, the contemporary narrative portrays him as strictly a segregationist. But after he left the national stage, he properly apologized to the black community, saying, “Those days are over, and they ought to be over.”

In 1982, Wallace won a fourth term as Alabama’s governor and appointed record numbers of African-Americans to state positions.

Wallace was a lifelong Democrat. An inconvenient fact for many.

The complexities of HR

[This originally ran March 10.]

Not long ago, the human resources department at a company consisted of hard-working, humble and often-lovely creatures who didn’t even have last names. Returning from lunch you might find a note telling you to call “Debbie in insurance” or “Angela in accounting.”

Those notes were delivered by a secretary, a/k/a the brains of the operation and the only person who knew what was going on. Now secretaries have been banned, replaced by a new species called the administrative assistant. AAs too often are pawns for executives and contribute little to the common good.

Early HR departments were often a single person. The first one I remember was in “Gone with the Wind.” Jonas Wilkerson was the overseer at Tara. He often delegated duties to his foreman, Big Sam, including when to call “quittin’ time.” Mr. Wilkerson eventually lost that job and most of his friends when he threw in with the carpetbaggers after the war.

From those humble beginnings grew the HR departments of today, overstaffed with people eager to stick their noses into areas like employee recruitment, which should be handled by managers familiar with the company’s product or service. Others have noted this, and a growing number of companies are sending the meddlers packing. Notes Nolan Gray at

“In bygone years, HR was much less complex. There was hiring, firing, payroll and working out the occasional kerfuffle. But since the late 1970s, HR has grown increasingly more challenging. And in recent years, FMLA, ADA and now Obamacare have made compliance a series of flaming hoops to jump through!”

Against such an imposing government gauntlet, companies knew when to say “quittin’ time.” A man of good sense, Big Sam would approve.

A scholarly view of ‘yes’ men

[This originally ran April 19.]

Like most cats, I read the Harvard Business Review. A recent article by Jennifer Porter explained why so many organizations reek of “yes” men, starting with the story of a guy cut loose from senior management at a Fortune 100 company:

“As I considered Joe’s story, I thought about other leaders and executive teams I have worked with where similar patterns have existed. I recognized an ‘opposer’ in virtually every team I’ve worked with in the last decade. Not only did every team have an oppose (or two), but almost every team was annoyed by the behavior, considered it unhelpful, and wished it (and the person) would go away. In some cases, reactions to the opposer were quite intense, ranging from stonewalling or the silent treatment to aggressive outbursts.”

She goes on to explain how naysayers are vital to the effectiveness of teams and why no company ever sees that on a micro level. Opposition to groupthink slows the process down. Some team leaders take disagreement personally. Opponents to ideas are seen as derailing the conversation. People are uncomfortable with conflict (think about candyass college students terrorized by chalk). A lack of unity is not appreciated.

Ms. Porter, managing partner at The Boda Group, outlines steps bosses can take, which mostly boil down to listening (oh, the horror). She concludes: “When you separate the behavior from the person … and take explicit steps to encourage and reward opposition, you will be moving toward moving toward building stronger teams.”

Many topics inspire BS books, but the business of business seems to lead the pack. The best work on the subject was published 46 years ago. It’s called “Up the Organization.” The author, former Avis Rent-a-Car CEO Robert Townsend, passed away in 1977. It’s too bad too few people listened to him.

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