Author Archives: Norma Shirk

About Norma Shirk

My company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, helps employers create human resources policies for their employees and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer's size and budget. The goal is to have structure without bureaucracy.

Who are the “Losers”?

These days our country is floundering as our political leaders show they are moral pygmies pandering to ethnic, racial, and religious fears rather than working together to fix the social and political ills facing the country.  Thanks to gerrymandered districts, this rot isn’t confined to either mainstream political party.

It’s so depressing.  Worse, it’s repetitive.  In 1925, about 25,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC.  It was the largest open demonstration of “white power” in that city.  What caused this open display of bigotry and hate?

By 1925, the U.S. had transitioned from a rural population to an urbanized population. The east coast cities were full of European immigrants who were overwhelmingly Catholic while western cities had seen an influx of Chinese workers. The Jewish population grew as they fled pogroms in Russia.  African-Americans were struggling to end Jim Crow inequality.  By 1925, Native Americans had become U.S. citizens and women could vote.

In 1925, the Klan represented the fears of the people who felt they were losers in all this change. The “losers” included Protestants who were afraid that Catholics would change the “Christian” values of America. Poorly educated, unskilled white men feared a loss of income as factory jobs were filled with new immigrants or black Americans. Politicians and business leaders weren’t interested in funding programs that could have helped these workers adjust to the changing economy.

Now take a look at today’s poisonous brew of “losers”. Protestants and Catholics are afraid that Muslim immigrants will change the “Christian” values of the U.S.  The Black Lives Matter movement shows that racial equality is still unresolved.   Men of all races and ethnicities fear a loss of power and prestige as women continue striving for equality at home and at work.

The biggest “losers” are again white men who lack an education. They are afraid of losing their few remaining job opportunities to recent immigrants from Central America and beyond. Their job skills don’t match what is needed for the global economy and they seem unwilling to learn new skills. Besides, no politician or business leader wants to plunk down the money needed for apprenticeships or retraining programs that could alleviate this problem.

Hello 1925 redux.

My fear is not of the bigots and haters.  My fear is that decent people will be so filled with disgust and despair of the current mess that they will stop voting and give up on supporting the civil society institutions we need to fight the bigots and haters.  If that happens, our democracy will die and we will all be losers.

About Norma Shirk

My company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, helps employers create human resources policies for their employees and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to have structure without bureaucracy.

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I Wanna Live Forever!

Gilgamesh and his best friend Enkidu had many adventures together. Then Enkidu died. Gilgamesh was inconsolable with grief and loneliness. But he was also afraid of his own death. So he wandered endlessly in search of the secret to never dying.

Gilgamesh’s story is told in the Epic of Gilgamesh, written between 2150 – 1400 BCE.  It was the first major piece of literature in the western world, predating even Homer’s stories about the destruction of Troy.  Gilgamesh was a mythical king of Uruk, a Sumerian city-state in what is now Iraq.

His story may have been written over 4000 years ago but Gilgamesh was not so different from us today.  We are still looking for the magical elixir of life.  Gilgamesh hoped the gods would tell him the secret to immortality but they never did.

Today, our “gods” are the allegedly scientific studies on the benefits of exercise and food.  I say alleged because the studies usually provide conflicting advice and are often sponsored by industries that have a stake in the outcome.  Consider how the definition of “healthy” food changes constantly.

Years ago a study told us not to eat eggs because they have cholesterol which is bad for us. Then a study told us that eggs are loaded with protein; so they are good for us. The poultry industry celebrated.  Another study told us sugar is bad for us. Then a study arrived claiming that lab rats died from consuming saccharine and other sugar substitutes.  Suddenly sugar is good for us again. Sugar beet farmers and sugarcane refineries rejoice.

Along with diet, we’re told to exercise regularly. What does “regularly” mean? One study tells us to exercise until our hearts are thumping and we’re soaked in sweat. The next study tells us that we can achieve excellent health and long life from as little as fifteen minutes of daily exercise.   Recently, a BBC news story cited a new study which claims that prolonged sitting will kill us no matter how much we exercise.

What no one ever admits is that if we live forever, we’ll outlive all our friends. Then we’ll be as lonely as Gilgamesh was after Enkidu died.  Instead of agonizing over living forever, I’ll support a scientific study that says we should enjoy life with our friends, our favorite foods and exercise when we feel like it.

About Norma Shirk

My company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, helps employers create human resources policies for their employees and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to have structure without bureaucracy.

Like what you see? Feel free to share, but please……give Her Savvy credit. Thanks!

 

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Chicken. Pigeon. Cat. Dog.

                                                                         

Chicken.

Pigeon.

Cat.

Dog.

How would you categorize these animals?

Years ago, an anthropology professor of mine posed this question. It was based on the experiences of one of her students who came from Africa. He was smart with excellent grades but he repeatedly failed biology.

One day, he suddenly leaped up from his desk and yelled, “I’ve got it!” He wrote “chicken, pigeon, cat, dog” on the board and asked his classmates to sort them into categories.  American students instantly grouped together the chicken and pigeon because they are birds and the cat and dog because they are household pets.

“Wrong,” he said, “here’s how they should be grouped. Chicken and dog belong together because if you feed them, they will stay at home. Pigeon and cat go together because if you feed them, they may still leave home to go wandering”.

We group animals, people, and things in specific ways based on our cultural expectations. Our cultural expectations are based on assumptions that are so old, so ingrained they are invisible just like the air we breathe. These assumptions then shape our world view.

When our assumptions are harmless, like how to categorize four common animals, it’s mildly amusing. But some assumptions lead to the “us v. “them” world view.  We are convinced that our world view is the “right” view because we never want to question our assumptions.

That’s why it’s naïve to believe that different groups of people can overcome their differences simply by talking to each other.  That’s also why it is so difficult to overcome prejudices.  The earthquake that reshapes our assumptions is internal.

I’ve been fascinated by the question of cultural expectations ever since my anthropology professor posed her question to a classroom of college kids who thought they were really smart but who couldn’t see the assumptions that shaped their cultural expectations.

About Norma Shirk

My company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, helps employers create human resources policies for their employees and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to have structure without bureaucracy.

Like what you see? Feel free to share, but please……give Her Savvy credit. Thanks!

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What Makes a Hero?

What makes a hero? I cogitate on this question every year as July 20th approaches.  On July 20, 1944, a group of German Army officers came darned close to killing Adolf Hitler with a bomb.  Today those officers are considered heroes of the anti-Nazi resistance. It wasn’t always that way, though.

 

In 1944, the officers were considered traitors by their fellow Germans and by the people on the Allied side of the war.  In 1944, only anarchists, traitors and Communists were so morally challenged as to commit political murder.  No one wanted to believe that respectable, educated, upper-class men would commit pre-meditated murder.

 

So who were the German officers who tried to kill Hitler? They were primarily Junkers or German aristocrats and most of them were related to each other. They tended to be devout Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant. They thought, incorrectly, that if they killed Hitler, the western Allies (U.S., Britain, and France) would sign a ceasefire and agree to join them in fighting the Russian Communists.

 

Alas, their bomb failed to kill Hitler and the Nazis took revenge.  Henning von Tresckow, the mastermind, died on the eastern front hours before Gestapo agents stepped off a plane to arrest him. Graf von Stauffenberg, who planted the bomb, was shot by firing squad on the evening of July 20th. They were the lucky ones.  Most of the other plotters, and quite a few innocents, were taken to Gestapo headquarters in Berlin where they were tortured before being tried in kangaroo courts and hanged.

 

Their wives and children ended the war in prison or in concentration camps. The youngest children were sent to orphanages. Stauffenberg’s widow gave birth to her daughter in prison and spent about 10 years searching orphanages trying to find her sons.  The widows were ostracized after the war until the 1960’s when their dead husbands were proclaimed as heroes.

 

The plotters became heroes because West Germany needed heroes. In 1945, Germany was split in two. East Germany was occupied by the Russians. West Germany was created from the American, French and British occupation zones. By the 1960’s, West Germany needed heroes to give the country a sense of continuity with the past but without the taint of the Nazis.  The German officers who plotted to kill Hitler fit the requirements and became heroes.

 

So what makes a person a hero?  In the case of the July 20th conspirators, it was political necessity. But I like to think that the July 20th conspirators would have been recognized as heroes even without political necessity. They were truly brave men who knew they were risking the lives of their families in their quest to build a better future for all.

About Norma Shirk

My company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, helps employers create human resources policies for their employees and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to have structure without bureaucracy. Contact me at norma.shirk@complianceriskadvisor.com.

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Living with Fear

Fear is a universal emotion.  Every person alive is afraid of something. It’s what we do next that matters most.

Fear can be a motivator. It drives us to meet our goals. But too much fear can overwhelm us, paralyzing our emotional and physical responses.  As a person who has experienced both these effects of fear, I wanted to know how other people managed their responses to fear.

I’m a history buff so I looked for historical examples. An excellent study in fear is provided by the men and women who were in the French Resistance in World War II.  Every Nazi-occupied country had resistance movements, of course. But the French are notable for their tradition of writing books about their political activities. As a result, the survivors of the French Resistance were more likely to write about their experiences than resisters in other European countries.

What a life they lived! Living in occupied France meant living with fear. The Gestapo could stop any person at any time and demand to see their identity papers. Resistance workers knew if they were detained in one of these street sweeps, their forged identity papers would probably not withstand scrutiny. Or their forged identity might already have been revealed by a tortured colleague or a collaborator. In either case, it meant their worst fear would come true; they would be arrested.

Another quick path to arrest was violating the nightly curfew.  Resistance workers constantly broke curfew to travel to rendezvous sites to retrieve supplies flown in on moonless nights. They also conducted most radio communications with their leaders in London at night. Resistance workers caught at rendezvous sites or with a radio could be shot “resisting arrest” or arrested and taken in for interrogation.

Interrogation meant torture and probable death. Resistance workers were tortured in an effort to make them name names since the Gestapo was attempting to wipe out all resistance efforts.  The standard rule for Resistance workers was that they should hold out for at least 48 hours under torture to allow other Resistance workers to move to new, unknown locations.

Many Resistance members died due to the torture. If they didn’t die while being tortured, they were sent to prison in France to await deportation to a concentration camp.  Resistance workers were not covered by The Hague or Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of prisoners of war. They were not legally soldiers. They were legally defined as spies, criminals, or “enemy combatants”.  That meant they could be tortured, starved, murdered, or used as slave laborers.

Resistance activities could be deadly for a worker’s family. If the Gestapo knew or suspected the true identity of a Resistance worker, they would arrest family members of the Resistance worker.  Family members could be tortured, imprisoned, murdered, or deported to a death camp in retaliation for the Resistance worker’s activities.  Resistance workers knew they were jeopardizing the lives of their loved ones and this knowledge caused their greatest fear.

French Resistance workers lived with overwhelming fear that left psychological scars for the rest of their lives.  So why would anyone choose to join the Resistance when they could have kept their heads down and sat out the war?  Sitting out the war could have meant staying neutral, not collaborating, and waiting for it all to end.

French Resistance workers spanned the political spectrum from communist to fascist; but they had one thing in common. They were all French patriots. They wanted to end the occupation and free France.  That goal kept them going through deprivation, torture and fear.

Fear is often synonymous with weakness which is synonymous with cowardice in books and movies. That is wrong. Only an idiot or a liar claims to be constantly brave, never knowing fear. The bravest people are those who acknowledge their fear and still do their job.

That is the lesson about living with fear that I learned from the French Resistance. We are all afraid of something. But if we don’t allow fear to stop us, we can do anything that we want and reach any goal.

About Norma Shirk

Norma started her company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, to help employers create human resources policies for their employees and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to have structure without bureaucracy. Visit Norma’s website: www.complianceriskadvisor.com.

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When Should I Quit?

when-to-quit

I was raised to believe in perseverance and not giving up. Quitters were often labeled as losers who gave up too soon and therefore never achieved success. Think of childhood sports, like T-ball or soccer, where the coach and parents scream at the children to keep trying even when it is obvious their team can’t win.  No one wants to be a quitter.

The dilemma of whether to quit becomes riskier when one reaches adulthood. Adults who quit are often risking the loss of a job, ending a marriage, or losing money on a failed business venture. The emotional burden is much more severe than losing a kid’s game.

I’ve spent years of misery in jobs I hated before finally accepting the obvious fact that my values were incompatible with my employers. I’ve continued supporting ventures that sank faster than the Titanic because I didn’t want to be branded a quitter. But at some point, our “gut reaction” can’t be ignored. We need to accept that failure is probably the only realistic option.

Recently I’ve been struggling with the decision to quit a commitment I made less than a year ago. True to my usual form, I spent months stewing about it before I finally asked my trusted friends to help me decide what to do. They asked three questions.

  1. What goal am I trying to achieve? I joined an organization because I believed in their mission. Unfortunately, they were already in crisis and I realize now that I was recruited because I have skills that could help them resolve their problems.
  1. What support do I have to achieve the goal? I knew the answer to this question, but had been delaying accepting it. I lack support from the organization because key insiders are comfortable with the status quo and afraid of what change means for them personally. I can continue to suggest needed changes but my perseverance won’t change their resistance.
  1. What will I gain by quitting? Quitting would end the emotional toll of trying to change an organization that doesn’t actually want to change.

There is no bright line test to know when it is best to persevere and when it is best to cut one’s losses and quit.  Asking trusted friends or family for advice is a great starting point for making the final decision because their vision is not clouded by the emotional attachment that makes it difficult for us decide.

About Norma Shirk

Norma started her company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, to help employers create human resources policies for their employees and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to have structure without bureaucracy. Visit Norma’s website: www.complianceriskadvisor.com.

Like what you’ve read? Feel free to share, but please… Give HerSavvy credit. Thanks!

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Was Duchamp Really An Artist?

 

duchamp2Marcel Duchamp is considered one of the brightest artists of the 20th century.  Not to me.  I pretty much hate everything he did and wouldn’t pay a plugged nickel for any of it.  But that’s okay because it’s my opinion.  Art is subjective. If a piece of art doesn’t “speak” to you emotionally, it’s not worth a plugged nickel.

I learned that lesson from an English professor who taught a class in Renaissance English poetry. (It was the only English class that fit my schedule that semester.)  At first, none of us wanted to voice our opinion on the poetry we were reading because we didn’t want to sound gauche or uninformed.  Then the professor told us that any work of art, regardless of the medium used, only has value if it speaks to us emotionally.  Without that emotional connection, art has no value.

Years later I was invited to a special exhibit in Dallas, Texas of the private collection of one of the city’s leading citizens.  The collection was a mishmash of Benin sculptures, Anasazi pots, Mayan knickknacks, some random Asian artefacts and so on.  It was a 30 or 40 year history lesson in art collecting based on what the avant-garde defined as “art.”  The owner of the collection had buckets of money but apparently collected only what everyone else collected.

That brings me back to Duchamp.  This guy is famous for displaying three panes of glass.  When one pane of glass was broken during transit, Duchamp claimed he liked the piece even more. It’s still on display somewhere with one cracked pane.

Most famously Duchamp put a urinal on display.  Viewers proclaimed that it had classic lines rather than pointing out that it was a bathroom fixture that should be returned to the men’s room down the hall.  No one wanted to be mocked by the avant-garde crowd for lacking artistic sensibilities.

It’s amazing how much guff and abuse we are willing to take to remain part of the “in” crowd.  Duchamp always reminds me of that human trait.  He not only convinced people that panes of glass and a urinal were “art,” he induced them to pay huge sums of money to own one of his pieces.  So I admire his chutzpah and think he was one of the greatest marketers of the 20th century.  But, in my opinion, Duchamp was not an artist.

About Norma Shirk

Norma started her company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, to help employers create human resources policies for their employees and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to have structure without bureaucracy. Visit Norma’s website: www.complianceriskadvisor.com/.

Like what you’ve read? Feel free to share, but please… Give HerSavvy credit. Thanks!

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Finding Inspiration in Losses

soccer-panoramic

I am constantly searching for examples of how other businesses stay successful despite losses. Examples are everywhere, but one of my favorite examples is Southampton Football Club (Southampton FC).

Southampton FC is based (obviously) in Southampton, England and it plays in England’s top football (soccer) league, the English Premier League.  Each year the club loses their best players to rival clubs with more money to spend on acquisitions. Each year they lose their head coach (manager, in England) to rival clubs.

Any business that consistently loses its best performers would be expected to slide into oblivion.  Southampton FC temporarily appeared doomed to such a fate. In 2008, Southampton FC was bankrupt and demoted. They began the 2009/2010 season in the third tier of English football. (By comparison, the U.S. has two tiers of professional soccer.)

Then a group of new owners bought the club and initiated two key strategies. First, they brought financial stability with a cash infusion and a new team of experienced financial advisers to run the back office. Southampton’s problems were apparently rooted in poor financial practices.

Second, the new owners reinforced the existing corporate culture of the club. The club has a reputation for developing young talent. Their corporate culture requires everyone from the youth academy to the senior players to use the same system of training and learn the same game tactics or style of play.  That may sound like a no-brainer, but an amazing number of businesses try to change their corporate culture each time they choose a new manager.

Southampton FC hires managers (coaches) that fit their system. The corporate culture is so resilient that each year the manager changes and the top players are sold but the club remains competitive.  It’s called “the Southampton way”.

By the 2012/2013 season, the club had played its way back into the English Premier League and has finished in the top ten every year since.  Other businesses now regularly travel to Southampton to study the club’s business model.  Southampton FC’s four-year journey from loss to success is truly inspirational.

About Norma Shirk

Norma started her company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, to help employers create human resources policies for their employees and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to have structure without bureaucracy. Visit Norma’s website: www.complianceriskadvisor.com/.

Like what you’ve read? Feel free to share, but please… Give HerSavvy credit. Thanks!

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A Christmas Truce

a-christmas-truce

December is a difficult time of year for many people.  December can be especially lonely for soldiers who are far from home.  In 1914, lonely soldiers caused one of the most extraordinary Christmas events.  They (briefly) stopped the First World War.

The impromptu ceasefire began on December 7, 1914, when Pope Benedict XV suggested a temporary ceasefire so that the soldiers in the trenches could celebrate Christmas.  The governments of Britain, France and Germany refused to observe an official ceasefire.

It’s not clear why they said no, but there were probably two main reasons for refusing a ceasefire.  First, no one was tired of the war.  In December 1914, the war was only about five months old.  The major slaughters, like the Battle of the Somme when a million men were casualties, didn’t happen until 1916.

Second, and I think more importantly, the governments opposed a ceasefire out of fear.  Specifically, fear of fraternization.  Soldiers are better able to do their job of killing the enemy if they don’t know their enemy.  It’s why we demonize our opponents as a faceless “other” and use derogatory nicknames to dehumanize them.  If a soldier sees the enemy as human with a family and personal aspirations, it becomes difficult to shoot to kill.

Consider the line “from a distance, you look like my friend, even though we are at war.”  It’s taken from an anti-war song called “From a Distance.”  The song became popular during the First Persian Gulf War in the early 1990’s and it evokes a universal sentiment.

In 1914, the soldiers in the trenches ignored their governments and saw the enemy as a friend.  On Christmas Eve, they sang Christmas carols to each other across no-man’s land.  On Christmas Day, they crossed no-man’s land to exchange food and talk of their families back home.  In one instance, they played a game of football (i.e., soccer).

After Christmas, some of the soldiers decided they couldn’t return to war.  One anecdote says that some French and German soldiers refused to fight each other.  Their commanders threatened them with all sorts of disciplinary action to no avail.  Eventually, the affected French and German units were pulled out of their trenches and sent to fight in other sectors.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 has never been repeated.  As wars continue around the world, that is one of the saddest commentaries on this holiday season.

About Norma Shirk

Norma started her company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, to help employers create human resources policies for their employees and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to have structure without bureaucracy. Visit Norma’s website: www.complianceriskadvisor.com/.

Like what you’ve read? Feel free to share, but please… Give HerSavvy credit. Thanks!

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From First Lady to FLOTUS

eleanor-roosevelt-2

When the founders of the U.S. created the office of President they didn’t waste any time on the role of the First Lady.  That’s not surprising.  The founders were all men and in the 1780’s, married women were expected to keep quiet, have lots of babies and not interfere in politics.

Martha Washington was the original First Lady and she followed the social standards of her day.  She hosted salons, genteel affairs where the upper crust of society could hobnob with the President and members of the Cabinet.  But she stayed firmly in the background and had no political opinions.

The women who succeeded Martha Washington are mostly cyphers forgotten by history.  The one exception in the 19th century is Mary Todd Lincoln.  She is remembered because she had a dreadful life in the White House.

Her husband was despised by half the country, including many northerners and Mary lacked the political smarts to be an asset to him.  Her political follies could fill a book. For example, she decided to redecorate the White House and was shocked when journalists attacked her for wasting money on new curtains and china while the country was at war.

She also endured personal tragedy.  Most of her family sided with the Confederacy which led the newspapers to brand her a traitor living in the White House.  She lost her son Willie to a lingering illness.  The crowning sorrow was the assassination of her husband.

For decades after that, First Ladies kept a low profile until social standards changed the role of women.  The epitome of the modern First Lady is Eleanor Roosevelt.  She entered the White House with her own political agenda.  She wrote a daily newspaper column arguing for labor rights, an end to racial segregation, and much more.  She was so busy she developed her own office and a staff.

Since then, each First Lady is given an official staff and expected to support her own causes. Recently, she even became an acronym: First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS).  However, First Ladies must still avoid being too overtly political.  Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton were criticized for interfering in politics.  As a result, First Ladies tend to support “women’s issues” such as children’s health and education. Michelle Obama supported healthier lifestyles to reduce childhood obesity.

It will be months before the in-coming First Lady defines her role as FLOTUS. She certainly has a wide range of role models to choose from.  But her choices may be more limited than other recent First Ladies because the last time an incoming president was this unpopular was 1861.  The only certainty is that the newest FLOTUS will mirror some aspect of current social standards for women.

About Norma Shirk

Norma started her company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, to help employers create human resources policies for their employees and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to have structure without bureaucracy. Visit Norma’s website: www.complianceriskadvisor.com/.

Like what you’ve read? Feel free to share, but please… Give HerSavvy credit. Thanks!

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