Work: calling a spade a spade

One of my oceanography professor’s favourite expressions was, “Let’s call a spade a geotome.” I was never sure whether he was just having fun with us, trying to impress us with his knowledge of Greek, or showing us the depth of his subtle sense of humour where, in this case, the joke was the expression.

It’s been a few years since he lectured to us about the Coriolis effect, but I think he may have been using his dry wit to say something about human nature. Namely, that we use words to complicate what are basically simple concepts to make ourselves appear authoritative or to spare ourselves embarrassment or to hide some unpleasant truth. A friend once pointed out that there’s only one word for “not drunk”. The word is “sober”. But there are many words to soften the blow when sobriety goes before a fall—usually the heavy drinker’s and off their feet.

We tell our children to put the loose tooth that just fell out under their pillow so that the Tooth Fairy will leave money for them. Has anybody asked where the Tooth Fairy takes those teeth to dispose of them? Is the facility environmentally friendly? Can they be recycled?

Consider the concept of “work”. My father left home at 6:30 in the morning to go to “work” six days a week. I thought “work” was a place with a street address. At the ripe old age of somewhere on the near side of 10, I hadn’t connected the idea of “work” the street address with “work” as something he did there that put food on the table and a roof over our head—by standing on his feet all day from morning ‘til night. It takes a lot more than “Bring Your Child to Work Day” to get across how that feels.

PDD defines work as, “the production of goods and services for trade and the creation of wealth”, because that’s what it is and that’s what it’s always been. Anything other than that is a bonus if the employer delivers. Otherwise it’s just muddying the waters.

There’s nothing in that definition that talks about visits to a dentist or self-expression or fitness club memberships or subsidized drug plans or cafeterias or motivational speakers or performance appraisals or team building or matching contributions to a savings plan or Human Resources departments.

Speaking of which, do you remember when those departments were called Personnel? Some companies, WestJet for example, refer to them as their People Department. That’s encouraging. It’s human and it’s honest.

The list goes on: no mention of genuine respect for the individual or career development or managers who actually know how to manage or on-the-job training. How about, “We would never dream of shipping your job offshore.” Or, “Sure we could do what you do overseas, but what kind of corporate citizen would we be if we did?” Yeah, right!

PS: For all the flak it’s been taking lately, Apple just announced its new Mac Pro. It’s designed and will be built on American soil. Apple wants you to notice.

Remember those careers we used to advertise in the Careers section? I did when I was a recruiter. Does anyone even have a Careers section that’s bigger than one page any more? How about respect for the customer? Oh, here’s one: “quality” as in, “It’s built so well you won’t need that extra-charge extended warranty.”

One of my favourite muddying-the-water buzz phrases is “job creation” as though governments and employers do it out of the goodness of their heart. Governments create policy. People who innovate and build and sell and service create demand: it’s the need to satisfy that demand that creates jobs. Employees and employment are expenses to be tracked and accounted for so that employers can apply that expense against gross sales to calculate taxable income. That’s why we have payrolls and T4’s.

You have the right to want to provide your services to and solicit an employer who’ll treat you like a human being because they want to, not because the laws of the land say that they have to. You have the right to seek them out just as you do to compete against other people who have precisely the same right.

On November 21st of last year, PDD began tracking articles about Canada’s economy, Canada’s household debt, management stress and work related stress. As of today, Google Alerts has returned 746 links to articles about those subjects as follows:

  • Canada’s economy: 442
  • Canada’s household debt: 68
  • Management stress: 28
  • Work related stress: 208

There are OK employers out there, good employers out there, and as Steve Jobs used to day, insanely great employers out there. Work can be more than “the production of goods and services for trade and the creation of wealth”. If you want it, you can plan for it. Finding work that matters to you is hard work, but it can be done. If you want us to help you, it would be our pleasure.

L’Oréal Paris is fond of saying, “Because you’re worth it.” PDD thinks you’re worth it. And that’s calling a spade a spade.

3 thoughts on “Work: calling a spade a spade

  1. brucem123

    Your definition is quite good, but still problematic. It seems that your definition only includes labor and manufacturing, but leave out motherhood, slave labor, work under compulsion with profits withheld (i.e., high school work, business internship), intellectual labor and work, artistic creation, and entertainment. The answer I expect is an ad hoc “Well, yeah, that’s work too,” which seems to gut your original definition. On the pro-author side, your definition sure beats “being busy busy busy.” (I’m using Hannah Arendt’s distinction of work and labor, loosely being that work creates something freestanding and labor is related to the consumed needs of the body).

    1. Bruce Stewart

      Any definition of work that’s useful in an economic context is likely to suffer from missing out too many elements (on the one hand) or being so all-encompassing as to not be useful (on the other).

      Our clients here at PDD are looking for us to help them navigate the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Some have been dumped into the street (Neil Morris has dealt with almost 2,000 of these situations) and, because they’re deeply enmeshed in the debt economy of our times, are generally looking to go right back to organization life as quickly as they can. Neil has a personal interest in the whole problem of higher education’s fit with these times, and has going back to the 1980s. We all deplore the abuse of individuals with unpaid internships masquerading as a path to permanent, paid employment; we also observe the challenges imposed now by massive debt hanging over students’ heads as they start out.

      In my own case, I have interests in sustainable enterprises, in alternative forms of organization and governance, and in answering the work-life balance question differently by making it possible to turn the scale from at-home partner to externally successful (however defined, but let’s just use “bringing home much more than the family unit needs” as a pin on the map) a smooth one, rather than the one with rather lumpy choices that tends to exist today. That’s why most of my PDD client interactions tend to be with those who want to go down the self-employment route, or the “portfolio of things I do” approach to managing risk and reward in their lives.

      That last bit — “risk and reward” — is fundamentally why we started PDD. The risks inherent in an economy and society that are undergoing fundamental changes — the implied social contract is definitely under strain — are what we try to help clients to minimize. That leads us, in turn, to put limits around certain simple words (like “work”).

      But the philosopher in me (that is my academic background and avocation) agrees it’s not enough. Sadly, for here, it might need to be.

  2. Neil Morris

    Dear Dr. Meyer,

    Thank you for following Personal Due Diligence and for your comment re our use of the word “work” in our recent post.

    We’ve chosen to confine ourselves to the Employer/Employee relationship as described by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. It’s one of the ways in which the Canada Revenue Agency determines what constitutes taxable income and it’s one with which most working Canadians and non-Canadians who are entitled by law to work here are familiar.

    Your points are well taken and we appreciate your bringing them to our attention. We hope to hear from you again and often.


    Neil Morris


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