I was tweeting and Facebook-ing last weekend about clichés that really get on my nerves. One I didn’t tweet or Facebook about, but I could do so very easily, is “workplace culture” and its companion, “work-life balance.” These are good original concepts that have devolved into empty clichés. Let me explain in more detail.

Work-Life Balance

This has become a very popular buzz-phrase in large corporations. As the 21st century unfolded, and more people of the Millennials generation entered the workplace, with their unique set of expectations around benefits and flexible schedules, the “balance” concept got more popular. At the same time, people like me in the Generation X group were advancing to mid- and late-career time, which also included becoming caretakers for family members. We also needed some “work-life balance.”

The way this balance concept was put into practice was usually a non-traditional schedule or shift. The need for something other than 8 AM – 5 PM, Monday – Friday became greater. Yes, different start/end times and days worked were a part of it, as was needing the flexibility to step away during those traditional work hours and days. This was needed to support a child at an earlier-than-normal athletic event or to get an ill/elderly family member to specialist visits. Most large companies wove these items into official HR policies, which they believed would address the employees’ needs. In a lot of ways it did, but there were still some gaps. And many of those gaps could be attributed to…

Workplace Culture

Have you ever heard the proverb, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”? A lot of the benefits discussed above were part of very good intentions that never quite got fully implemented. Here’s an example:

I was recently listening to a podcast where the guest told a terrifying story. The guest was working at a company in the corporate headquarters. A colleague of his came to work one day and mentioned that his wife was, at that moment, in the hospital delivering their first child. “What was he doing at work,” any rational human being is thinking right now. The expectation at this company was that work comes first, even at the expense of family. In accordance with their culture, the brand-new father was lauded and celebrated for abandoning his wife during the birth of the baby. The podcast guest left the company almost immediately, never wanting to get caught in that situation himself.

While companies talk a very good game about balance and good culture, you have to go to the areas where the rank-and-file workers actually sit, and see what happens when life events show up. I would say that in most large companies, people who do not use all of their vacation days or sick allowances are held in higher regard than those who do, especially the sick allowance. In the era of the cube farm – and especially in the era of increasing numbers of cube farms with low cube walls – a virus will spread through the floor like wildfire. But people will be applauded for “pushing through” or “hanging tough” or whatever turn of a phrase you want to use to describe people who come to work sick.

Compensation

I’ve written before about how frustrating, infuriating, and soul-killing the current corporate compensation model is. It’s pretty much 49% of the profits going to the top 20 people on the org chart, 49% to the shareholders, and 2% going to the rank-and-file workers, which result in payouts so small that their health insurance premium increases are larger than their raises. Essentially, rank-and-file workers are seeing their take-home pay decrease almost every year, even when receiving stellar performance reviews.

I can hear some critics now. “You shouldn’t be 100% focused on money.” I agree. But you still have to pay for a place to live every month (rent or mortgage/property tax). You still have to pay for food and clothing. You still have to pay utilities. Those are basic things you need to live, and the cost for them increases each year for the most part. Having lower take-home pay, while these expenses increase, is frustrating and  infuriating.

I saw this on Facebook the other day: “Salary – the bribe you take to forget your dreams.” 

That sums it up pretty well.

Personally, my 25 years in the corporate featured managers that bucked most of these trends. I was encouraged to use my sick time when needed and to use all my vacation days. Most of my direct bosses knew my wife and our unique physical challenges. They were happy to accommodate sudden schedule changes needed to address things that came up. But not everyone is so fortunate. Too often, “work-life balance” and “workplace culture” are merely ideas that don’t find their way into real life.

What do you think? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

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