Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The delicate dance behind agency decrees

This is a two-prong post, basically bitching about inartful use of language by agencies and the total ineffectiveness of that inartful use of language in dealing with temps. Gotta bitch about something.

First of all, it is important to remember that temp agencies are very PC places. Speech codes, behavior codes, all kinds of standards to try and keep the temps in line and keep them from offending each other which, left to their own devices, temps would do all the time. Too many lack the regulating sense that keeps many people from simply blurting things out. Because everyone, of course, has The Right to Never Be Offended By Anything, No Matter How Inoffensive, I think fear of workplace lawsuits lies behind most agency actions in attempting to control speech and behavior. I am reasonably certain that somewhere at every agency there is a copy of "HR Management of Lowest-Common Denominator Employees for Dummies." All agencies take the same approach: as if they are dealing with unruly middle-schoolers with thin skins, chips on their shoulders and law degrees. 

This mandates that not only must agencies try to keep the temps from offending each other, they must try to keep from offending the temps in the process. That is no mean feat considering the inherently insulting place temps hold in the legal community hierarchy, but leave that aside.

It gives rise to a vocabulary that might be common in a lot of workplaces but that I had never encountered before coming to Temp Town. A favorite word of agencies -- and I've heard this used at every agency I've ever worked for -- is "mindful." They use it in a "please be mindful of others" every time they issue a directive on speech or behavior.

The problem with this is it tends to turn a directive into a suggestion, or at least something that can be construed as a suggestion. For instance, the agency I'm at is pretty busy right now and has a number of projects in the facility, which has a central kitchen/dining area where, just like at parties in college, people tend to congregate and socialize. It can get pretty boisterous, which led to the posting yesterday of the following notice: "While in the kitchen please be mindful of other projects and keep the volume low. Thank you."

Now, arguably, the use of "keep the volume low" makes this a more forceful statement than we sometimes see when "mindful" is employed, but the problem here is the use of "mindful" in and of itself. The word could mean "keep in mind," as in "be aware of." That is actually the most literal and sensible interpretation. The implication is that if you are aware of the presence of others and the potential impact of your behavior on them, then you will modify your behavior or, in this case, keep the noise down. 

Problem is, a lot of temps don't do "implications." They see no conflict with being aware of and keeping in mind the presence of others and then just not giving a fuck about the others. Being aware of bugs on the ground doesn't mean you won't step on them because there are no deleterious consequences to you if you do. Unlike, say, stepping in dogshit. So "mindful" used to mean "be aware of" does not necessarily dictate caution with respect to what you are doing.

Another possible meaning for "mindful" incorporates the implications discussed above: to be "mindful" is to show consideration and act according. Like implications, though, lots of temps don't do consideration. If an action of theirs, like stepping on bugs, has no real impact on them, unlike stepping in dogshit, then they see no need to alter their behavior. Asking them to be "mindful" won't change that.

Unfortunately, far too many temps need a more direct approach. Things are better than they use to be in that respect -- in the last four years or so, a lot of good people have lost jobs and found themselves in Temp Town, which tends to squeeze out the bottom-tier folks who used to make up the bulk of Temp Town's residents. But way too many temps still require a two-by-four between the eyes to get their attention. Thus, my sign in the kitchen would read more like, "Be quiet in this kitchen or be fired." Simple, direct, with explicit consequences. And I don't give a fuck whether you are mindful of anything other than the risk to your continuted employment posed by your unacceptable behavior.

Now we know why I'm not an HR director.

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