The Best and Worst of #SHRM15


I wrote my first conference recap post – then called “Rants and Raves” – in March of 2010. This has become my favorite blogging experience of every conference I attend, because it really causes me to think about what is happening around me and whether I love it or hate it – or if I am just momentarily in a mood. This is why I always wait a day or two until conference end. And by focusing on just a few items per section, I can really try to look at the big picture, particularly that part of the picture that is really the responsibility in whole or part of the conference organizer. For example, if I don’t make at least 5 new connections (a magic number proposed by Steve Browne on the Smart Stage), that is my own damn fault.

So with that qualifier . . .


The Smart Stage. If I had known this was going to be one of my “best” while I was actually at the conference, I would have made some effort to find out exactly how long it has existed, instead of trusting my senior memory. I think this was the third year of Smart Stage, and someone will correct me if I am wrong. However long it has existed, it just keeps getting better and better.

For those of you who have never been, the Smart Stage is an open stage in a large common area of the conference, usually near the bookstore, registration, info booth, etc. The speakers talk about relevant topics, but in short intervals of 20-30 minutes. Most of the topics are really fun, and the smaller audiences allow for more interaction. As I mentioned above, Steve Browne gave a talk about how to make personal connections while at the conference, and you can believe that he made some of the people connect right there in the audience. I also watched Jonathan Segal give a talk about Mad Men and HR, which had us singing the Coke “Hilltop” advertisement at the end. (If you aren’t a Mad Men fan, I am not going to try to explain this to you. See below. If you are, no explanation necessary.) Even though I have blogged about Mad Men several times (here, here, and here), I still gained insights into some current business practices compared to the 1960’s world of Mad Men.

It’s topics like these that are perfect for the Smart Stage, and I hope that SHRM continues to find the value in programming that is relevant, informative, and meaningful, which may also be fun, engaging, and a little wacky.

Electronic Delivery. They are not all the way there, but SHRM made another big leap into paperless this year by delivering newsletters and papers via email. Their conference app has been around for a few years now, but even more features made it an even more useful tool. I didn’t stay at a hotel on the SHRM circuit, so I didn’t walk out of my room to find a newspaper on the threshold like I usually do. I am crossing my fingers that SHRM didn’t deliver them at all (I forgot to ask), thanks to electronic delivery. But my inclusion as a “best” comes with a caveat – quit giving attendees paper anything. Force them to become more environmentally friendly and to embrace better business concepts. If you make them use the app and read information electronically, SHRM starts walking the walk. Given the frequent complaint that attendees slow down the flow of people by using their electronics – one woman stopped and started texting right in front of an escalator immediately after a general session – SHRM shouldn’t take any complaints of electronic incompetency too seriously.

There is another benefit of going totally digital – you wouldn’t need to get a sponsor to pay for all of those useless tote bags. I tried to donate my tote on Tuesday and wandered to the registration looking for the donation box (there has been one at other conferences). I couldn’t find it, but there were hundreds and hundreds of bags on tables behind the registration desk. SHRM should be environmentally aware of the cost, in fossil fuels, of those bags to be made and trucked in. Just because someone else paid the bill doesn’t absolve SHRM from responsibility for the destruction caused by their needless presence.

#SHRM15Blogger. The inclusion of this category as a “best” may strike you as unfair, so it probably is on some level. But the bloggers really drive a lot of conversation out into the world at large. Once again, “hashtagSHRMyear” was made a trending topic – no easy feat. And while many people are tweeting, a lot of those tweets are from outsiders seeing the excellent content that the bloggers tend to put up on twitter and repeating it. More exposure for SHRM and the conference is always a good thing. So I would like to personally thank Dice for sponsoring us, and SHRM’s Amy Thompson, Andrew Morton, and Mary Kaylor for doing things in the lounge that were engaging and delightful. Bringing in a caricaturist for everyone to sit for was my favorite perk, and I am told that was Mary’s idea specifically. Sell those things on the convention floor next year as a fundraiser for SHRM Foundation. I had a lot of people ask where mine came from.



Las Vegas As a Venue. It was crowded. Hot. Expensive. And I generally like Las Vegas. But as a SHRM Annual site it sucked. “Hot” means over 100 degrees, every single damn day. I personally didn’t have to walk much outside, but my heart was crying for those people who even had to travel to the hotel next door for a bus. In Vegas, the hotel next door is a long way away. No wonder the cab line was about 100 people long when I left the convention center on Monday. How hot was it standing there waiting?

Expensive in Vegas isn’t about room rates, although that was pretty bad. My personal example is Starbucks. In sunny (and much cooler) Naples, Florida I pay $3.13 every single day for the iced tea that I drink. In Vegas, I paid $5.00. How much were other things marked up there? I’m not sure, but Vegas being what it is, my guess is everything was. A lot. Quit being an elitist organization, SHRM, and embrace everyone who needs you. Lots of pros need you and can’t afford you, and Las Vegas proves that.

Sugar Overdose. Besides experiencing this myself, I had several people specifically mention it to me, which validates it for inclusion here, it in my opinion. And I am not talking about iced tea (which I drink sweetener-free). I am talking about session content.

I have no problem with keynote speakers being cheerleaders – what SHRM calls “motivational.” If the keynoter doesn’t deliver a certain amount of rah-rah, I am apt to get a bit testy. But once the keynoters have left the stage, the sessions should be about real world practitioners giving usable examples that attendees can take back and implement. Cheerleaders are an important part of the game, but they aren’t on the field or court actually playing it. The players – or attendees – need help. That is the level that the session speaker should work at.

I love the concurrent sessions – it’s the most basic reason I go to SHRM Annual. But other than The Smart Stage speakers I have already mentioned, only one of my session leaders actually delivered specific, real world-usable examples of how to achieve the cheerleaders goal. That speaker was Joe Rotella, who was talking about Social Media Concepts. I am sure there were others, but I can’t go to all of the sessions. SHRM’s job should be to make sure that all of the session leaders are less a cheerleader and more a coach.

Lack of Discussion. The Friday before #SHRM15 started, the US Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision that prevented governments from banning gay marriage. Was it too late for SHRM to have a panel discussion around this issue? They claimed it was when I asked a few people. Did they discuss it in 2014? Or 2013? No. But it wasn’t too late in either of those years, so timing was really just an excuse.

I think SHRM needs to get into the education -not advocacy- business about current issues. If they had a panel discussion encompassing several points of view about minimum wage (an issue that affects my industry profoundly), I would have been in the front row with tongue hanging out. Quit telling me why you can’t (something I heard repeatedly), and start finding ways to do. This is the message we should be telling our attendees about everything. Current affairs shouldn’t be different.

“In all my years I have never heard, seen, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. Hell yes – I’m for debatin’ anything.” – Peter Stone, writing for the character Stephen Hopkins, delegate to the Continental Congress from Rhode Island, in the musical play 1776.


Sleeping With the Boss

Joan Harris Mad Men Season 5
Actor Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris

I’ll admit it – I’m a maddict. “Maddict” is the term that some sarcastic journalists have given to the die-hard, take no prisoners fans of the TV show Mad Men. “Like bordering on Trekkie.”

One of the many – and there ARE many – reasons I love this show is that it makes me think a lot about women in the workforce and their struggles. Some people dismiss those struggles as historical issues, because the show takes place in the 1960’s. But to believe that things are so different now is to deny that women still fight to overcome traditional attitudes about their abilities and suitability for the upper echelons of business.

Last season (“The Other Woman”, Season 5), one of the female characters was asked to sleep with a potential client in order to help her advertising firm land a lucrative account for Jaguar.  The character, Joan Holloway Harris, is the Director of Agency Operations at the ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, a title given to her for a lot of extra work, but with no additional pay, recognition, or reduction of her secretarial duties.

So despite her initial protestations that she was being asked to prostitute herself, Joan ultimately agreed to sleep with the client in exchange for a 5% voting partnership in the agency. She agreed because her marriage was crumbling, she had a young child to support, and she had been unsuccessful in her efforts to break free of the female chains that bound her to a continually subservient position at work, even though she had repeatedly demonstrated her business smarts and talent.

Initially, I was shocked. I didn’t believe the character Joan (one of my two favorites on the whole show) would have made that decision, and I was terribly judgmental about her sleeping with the ultimate boss – the client. In fact, Joan had already slept with one of the partners (Roger Sterling, father of her baby) with absolutely no positive impact on her career.

“Where’s her self-esteem?” I cried. “How could she possibly do this to herself?”

But the more I thought about her situation – it aired in May 2012 so I have been thinking a long time – I thought “who am I to judge this woman?”

This was not a case of sexual harassment, where negative employment consequences were going to rain down on her if she didn’t consent, presenting her with a false choice. Her career was already suffering because simply she was a female. Joan chose to use the best advantage she had to further a stalled career. She chose to do with her own body what she thought was best for her.

This was not a case of rape, like the recent Steubenville case where a teenaged girl did not have enough physical and mental capacity to consent, or make a choice.

If I believe that a woman has the right to make a choice NOT to use her sexuality and to maintain control over her own body, then I must – MUST – believe that she has the right to do the opposite. If I believe in the right of a woman to control her own body and have an abortion, then I must give her the right to control her body to sleep with her boss if she wants to, for whatever her reasons. I will feel sad for our working women that are still confronted with the sexism that makes these choices necessary, but I will no longer judge the woman for doing what she thinks it takes.

Her body, her choice.

It’s not a lot different than landing a job because your partner is in a position to influence the person doing the hiring. I went to work for my husband’s company, so I guess I got a job because I slept with the boss.

I was a good hire for my employer and good at my job – so who should care?

Not you.




Mad Men and the Trivialization of Workplace Violence

Suppose for a moment that someone in your small business workplace – a manager, perhaps – entered the empty building on the weekend, locked their office door and committed suicide by hanging. S/he was discovered by another manager on Monday morning. Can you imagine what would happen to your business and its employees?

I can tell you what would not happen: the partners or people in charge would not send everyone home, and then sit around for several hours with the body waiting for “the coroner” to come and “cut the body down”, while the office and corpse remained undisturbed. Then two more partners or managers would show up and decide to force their way into the office to cut the body down themselves.

But this is precisely what happened on the last episode of Mad Men, that popular television series about the personal and professional lives of a small group of people at a fictional New York advertising agency in the 1960’s. Junior partner Lane Pryce hung himself in his office after having embezzled company money and gotten fired for it. His body was discovered by others looking over the top of the wall partition into his office; it was blocking the door so no one could enter.

There was no chaos, no police presence, no investigation. When other partners broke into his office, they cut down the body and also found the resignation letter he was asked to write. It was all very controlled and neat and quiet.

And it was all bullshit.

Anyone who has ever experienced a violent death in the workplace knows that it’s messy. It means calling the police. It means further disruption of your business while the police conducts an investigation, often making other workers sit around waiting for the police to interview and release them. Then the police call the coroner (or medical examiner, depending on jurisdiction) and there is more waiting. After the body is finally removed, the police decide whether to preserve the scene as a crime scene or release it.

Workplace violence actually started to rise to prominence in the 1960’s, although the focus back then was on outsiders or non-employees who were assaulting workers. Today, workplace violence is so prevalent that around 2 million people every year are victims. It is one of the leading causes of work related death in the country. And sometime it is just not preventable, despite OSHA education and suggestions to the contrary.

I recall an incident in my former Detroit suburban neighborhood where a man walked into the dental office where his estranged wife worked and shot and killed her. Ugly and messy? Of course it was. Preventable? Not really. Ultimately, that business was forced to close because it could never recover.

There have been other incidents of workplace violence on this show, notably a fistfight that took place between the now deceased Lane Pryce and Peter Campbell. But that incident, and others, were intended to be comical so the trivial attitude was softened.  And I know that Mad Men is a fictional world, and the creative genius behind the show, Matthew Weiner, has no duty to tell his stories realistically.

But for a TV series that prides itself on realism, this trivialization of the devastation of  a workplace suicide, and the total refusal to deal with what really occurs after it happens, missed the mark. Big time.



Why Mad Men Should Bring Back Sal Romano

Bryan Batt as Sal Romano

Wait . . . what?

You’re probably thinking that whatever link or feed you used to get here is totally screwed up, because I write about HR and workplace issues, not television shows. I don’t even watch television. Except Mad Men. And that just started, because I watched the first 4 seasons on DVD, not on television.

So what’s this all about, Joanie?

Hopefully you know a little bit about Mad Men, that highly stylistic and realistically detailed look at the business and personal life of an ensemble of characters who work together at a New York ad agency in the 1960’s. There was no separation of work and personal back then, either. But because the show takes place in the 60’s, we tend to be forgiving of all of the negative workplace behavior that does take place at the ad agency of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.  After all, it’s the 60’s, and everything has changed for the better, right?

Well, maybe not everything.

One of the earlier characters on the show was Salvatore Romano, a deeply closeted homosexual man. When Mad Men started he was the agency art director, who later showed talent directing television commercials. He married, as closeted gays of the 60’s did, and laughed with his co-workers as they disparaged another openly gay male who briefly worked at the agency. He joined in demeaning sexual conversations about women with his co-workers. He did what the culture of the times demanded he do to keep his true self a secret.

But in the 3rd season, Sal is forced to rebuff the drunken sexual advances of the firm’s largest client. Sal is then fired by Don, the main character in the show, who has recently witnessed an encounter between Sal and a male bell boy during a business trip. At the end of the episode where Sal is fired, we see him calling his wife from a Central Park pay phone, gay men cruising in the background. He tells her he will be home late.

Sal hasn’t appeared on Mad Men since.

So why do I want Sal Romano to come back?

Because sexual orientation remains a common source of workplace discrimination, and it still is not a federally protected class that enjoys the same anti-discrimination rights as gender, national origin, race or color, and religion. I would like to see Matthew Weiner, series creator, use his considerable influence to take a stand against sexual discrimination in the workplace.

That same influence would also send a message of hope to the current working  population that bad things happen at work, but sometimes those bad things can be overcome through perseverance, hard work, a positive attitude, and not being afraid to fail. Career and workplace writers trumpet those messages all of the time, particularly in the last few years when so many workers lost their jobs. It would be nice to see some examples in popular culture of how things can get better. In fact, Sal could return as a successful television director, while we view his setbacks and struggles through flashbacks or dreams. Matthew Weiner likes to use dreams and flashbacks, and this could be done without any compromise to the authenticity and artistic quality of the show.

After all, sometimes there really is a happy ending.

Google Image Search – Here’s Mine. What’s Yours?

HR pros and recruiters repeat this message constantly:  Don’t post incriminating photos of yourself anywhere on the web.  Unless, of course, you want to be incriminated.  People giving career and job seeking advice also tell you to monitor your personal brand on the web.  That means keeping tabs on what you say, and what is said about you.  I heard this lesson repeated several times by the presenters at the recently held online conference The Career  Summit.

One of the tips made at The Career Summit is to use Google Alerts.  With Google Alerts, you can choose any topic or phrase and have “alerts” sent to you anytime that name or phrase appears in the computing cloud. Experts suggest using any name or company whose brand you want to monitor, starting with your own name.  I have my name searched once a day, and results are emailed to me.

It had been a while, though, since I did a Google image search on my name to see which pictures would be found by anyone searching my name. So, in a  fit of procrastination, I did one today.   Happily, the first page of search was my familiar head-over-my-right-shoulder avatar which appears on this blog and basically everywhere else on the web my name can be found.  Here are some of the other pictures that a “Joan Ginsberg”  Google image search yields:

A picture of me at United Meat & Deli. I think I know how this got on the Web - but it wasn't by my hand.
My friend Benjamin McCall. He posted a comment after mine on a blog. Google thinks he's me. It's a good thing he is so handsome!
The famous folk singer Joan Baez
Actress Christina Hendricks, who plays a character named Joan on the TV series Mad Men. I wish I looked like her. :-)
Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Ruth Bader Joan Ginsburg. I jokingly call her my Auntie Ruth.

How about you?  What kind of images does a search of your name yield?  Show me or tell me in the comments below before December 23rd, 2010 and I will enter your name in a drawing for a $25 Starbucks card.

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