Business Bestiary: A Big Fat Hen
Remember the Mother Goose rhyme:
One, two, buckle my shoe? ...
Nine, ten, a big fat hen.
Why a big fat hen? Who knows. But we know the image it conjures, of a henhouse full of comfortable creatures who figure the world owes them a living just for sitting on their fat behinds all day. Fine for an egg farm, but bad news for your business -- or your country.
Judith Bardwick, author of Danger in the Comfort Zone, describes this demand for the easy life as entitlement. Entitlement, Bardwick says, is responsible for the decay and destruction of numerous Fortune 100 companies over the past decade. It is the entitlement attitude that has crippled organizations in Japan, Europe, and the United States. The assumptions of entitlement are:
Many of us in this country hold these values, people especially in government and education. But America is way more flexible than some economies. The fact that we are cutting jobs, in good times and in bad, shows that we are at least aware there is a problem. The welfare democracies of Europe and the large companies of Japan are so deep in denial over the global economy that it is hard to imagine them waking up any time soon.
France, Bardwick's favorite entitlement haven, has the highest unemployment in the west. One person in five under the age of 25 is out of work. The attitude is that, unless you can generate a job you enjoy, you shouldn't have to work.
It gets better. Besides paying people to stay home, the French nation subsidizes them for the cost of transportation to resorts, paying for housekeeping, free education, free meals, free home care for older people, paid moving expenses, and a brand new washing machine. In Paris, employers must pay workers half of the cost of commuting. Landlords can't evict in winter. People in high-stress jobs like medicine and journalism receive tax breaks, and the mandatory five weeks of vacation is extended to nine for them. And every French office employee, according to Bardwick, has the right to a window, for the productivity-enhancing experience of witnessing each day's sunrise or sunset!
German labor is the most expensive in the world, averaging $30 an hour, plus social costs that raise the actual per-hour cost to $55. While German labor is the most expensive, German workers work the shortest week -- not a recipe for high productivity.
In overregulated Japan, people are chosen over machines to the extent that a full third of all employees are redundant. In France, Germany, and Japan, labor is expensive, and the cost of living is really expensive.
Our downsizing stories are seen abroad as "ruthless and rotten . . . cruel, not shrewd. To them, we are hardly even human," Bardwick said. But they are the ones with much to answer for. Such as:
The sad paradox is that good intentions often lead to unintended results, Bardwick said. The artificial attempt by government to protect people from the bruises of the market actually makes them more susceptible. The fear of causing pain, and the avoidance of unpleasantness, virtually guarantees a platter of roast chicken to the first competitor that comes along.
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by MICHAEL FINLEY
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Comments on this column:Michael Finlay mentions in the column titled "Big Fat Hen" that he doesn't know why that imagery is there. I can't remember the details, but the whole nursery rhyme (just like many of them) was never really meant for kids, but was composed during the Stuart era in England as either a form of ridicule, or as a way of passing on messages without being accused of treason. Every line in this nursery rhyme refers to specific actions and people. The big fat hen is one of the powers that be - the king, Cromwell, church prelate, or whatever. As I said, I don't remember the details.
Other well-known nursery rhymes that were really political commentary or subversion are Ding, Dong, Dell, The Pussy's in the Well; London Bridge; Oranges and Lemons; Hey, Diddle, Diddle; and The Grand Old Duke of York.
Sometimes nursery rhymes merely recorded history. For example, Ring Around the Rosie refers to the Great Plague in the Middle Ages in Europe. People put rings of posies around those suffering from the plague in an effort to prevent the illness from progressing. Then, as people were approaching death from the plague, it was very common to sneeze. The English words to the rhyme are not "husha" but "atishoo". After sneezing, the sufferer would fall down (dead.)
Sylvia (transplanted Brit)
Judith Bardwick may mean well. But her theory is just that.... theory, and paper is patient.....
A case I personally know of from the US:
A case I personally know of from France:
Has Ms Bardwick ever seen people being evicted in winter? Old people, ailing people, or single parents?
Europe is not perfect, but people here still count as the basis of civilization, then come markets, multinationals, shareholders and rat race. Theory is one thing, life another. Maybe Ms Bardwick should have a look at human beings and diversity, she could discover something worth her while. And I hope she will never meet with hardship....
I always like your writing; frequently rave over it. The same is not true regarding your sources. The sources for this collumn were purely scary!
I fully understand that this is a capitalist country, and that keeping $$ growing is considered an important value. At the same time, the "reduce the surplus population", anti-governmental, "the people with the gold should make the rules" themes you quote are just a bit too far from John Donne for me to find them palatable.
Are there really people who think like that author? That's a serious question.
You and other people who appear to be praising high productivity levels have left out some important things from the balance sheet, namely the absence of full social cost accounting. The productivity and the profits seemingly achieved by transnationals organized from the US do not have to account for: the damage they do to the water, soil, and air. Makes it easy to be right.
In Japan, notoriously un competitive. In my neighborhood in fukuoka there were dozens of little food stalls, mom and pops selling fish, produce, paper, almost corner groceries. Southland corporation and others franchised the corner store back to people as 7-11s. The Hyper Center, actual name, opened while I was there, kind of a K-Mart with a grocery on one big end. An improvement in productivity no doubt, and remember at whose expense. They made the moms and pops into temp clerks. Feudal.
The p & p of transnational corporations is nearly all due to the things they use up that they don't have to pay for. Think globally and comprehensively and the productivity, short term as it is, disappears.
I would want to actually visit those "unproductive" countries before making a judgement. What about the entitlement executives feel to multi-million dollar annual salaries and stock options when their companies are losing money, throwing thousands out of work, and paying the lowest-level employees wages that practically qualify them for welfare, with few or no benefits? Why do execs who ruin their companies still get enormous bonuses while regular workers are constantly afraid of losing their paychecks? Those executives are the big fat hens.
I have to say, its hard for me as a working stiff to read this without wondering if there might not be some happy medium. It sounds like France goes a little far, but isn't there some way to recognize workers' human needs, to treat them as something other than units of production? And I have to admit I, too, sometimes see downsizing as cruel rather than shrewd. In fact, I'll be honest: I kind of admire what the French, in their nutty, way-overboard way, are trying to do. Is capitalism with a human face such in impossible dream?
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