Tag Archives: Commentary
by Liz Hester
The New York Times’ Ian Urbina wrote an incredible story covering worker safety, unenforced regulations and the role of the government agency tasked with overseeing the nearly 8 million work sites in the U.S.
The story, which details problems in a North Carolina cushion-making factory, shows how chronic under enforcement of safety rules can harm many of those who can least afford a health crisis.
A chemical she handled — known as n-propyl bromide, or nPB — is also used by tens of thousands of workers in auto body shops, dry cleaners and high-tech electronics manufacturing plants across the nation. Medical researchers, government officials and even chemical companies that once manufactured nPB have warned for over a decade that it causes neurological damage and infertility when inhaled at low levels over long periods, but its use has grown 15-fold in the past six years.
Such hazards demonstrate the difficulty, despite decades of effort, of ensuring that Americans can breathe clean air on the job. Even as worker after worker fell ill, records from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration show that managers at Royale Comfort Seating, where Ms. Farley was employed, repeatedly exposed gluers to nPB levels that exceeded levels federal officials considered safe, failed to provide respirators and turned off fans meant to vent fumes.
But the story of the rise of nPB and the decline of Ms. Farley’s health is much more than the tale of one company, or another chapter in the national debate over the need for more, or fewer, government regulations. Instead, it is a parable about the law of unintended consequences.
It shows how an Environmental Protection Agency program meant to prevent the use of harmful chemicals fostered the proliferation of one, and how a hard-fought victory by OSHA in controlling one source of deadly fumes led workers to be exposed to something worse — a phenomenon familiar enough to be lamented in government parlance as “regrettable substitution.”
One of the more interesting parts of the story was about a local doctor who felt compelled to write a letter to OSHA begging them to enforce the rules, but also to keep in mind that many in the area were unemployed and that the state needed the jobs provided by the factory. It was a great way to illustrate some of the problems hourly workers face in the current economy.
Royale workers became regular visitors at local health clinics, including the Clinic for People Without Health Insurance, then run by Dr. Ben Wofford.
Looking like “upright cadavers,” Dr. Wofford said, cushion workers arrived unable to stand on their own, supported under their arms by family members. They had showered and changed out of their work clothes, he said, but their breath still carried an odor he remembered from his boyhood days putting together model airplanes.
He had watched for years as his patients’ suffering worsened with the bottoming out of the state’s tobacco, textile and furniture industries. When people are out of work, he explained in an interview in his office above the pharmacy in Newton, N.C., a diabetic ulcer that would normally cost a toe takes a leg. Their nonfatal hernia bleeds them to death.
“You kill jobs,” Dr. Wofford said, “you kill patients.”
Reluctantly, he wrote a letter in 2005 alerting OSHA about problems at Royale. One worker was in especially bad shape, he wrote: “Indeed he may die as a result of his exposure.”
But Dr. Wofford also urged OSHA not to overreact. “I would hate to see this plant’s multiple shortcomings result in its being shut down,” he wrote, warning of jobs that could be lost. “Many are my patients and are already in dire straits economically.”
The other side of the story is that the plant claims it can’t afford to make changes to the glue or to the factory configuration, saying it’s too costly.
In a recent interview, Mr. Isenhour, Royale’s safety director, said the company never meant to harm anyone and initially did not realize the hazards of nPB. Royale has continued using nPB glues, he added, because alternatives are ineffective or risky.
Glues that use acetone, for example, are popular but highly flammable, he said. Converting the Royale plant to meet federal rules on fire safety would entail replacing the glue-spraying booths with metal walls, installing sprinklers and explosion-proof lighting and retraining workers, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars, he added.
In 2005, when seven workers became seriously ill at one plant, Mr. Isenhour said, Royale had to lay off 40 people, close the facility and spend $50,000 to move operations to another site and upgrade the ventilation there. OSHA found high levels of fumes in subsequent years because no one informed the company that fans and filters needed cleaning for ventilation to work properly, he said.
If the company switched to a more expensive glue, he said, he would have to raise the price of each cushion, and the furniture makers Royale supplies would contract with Chinese competitors instead.
“We are trying to keep jobs in America,” he said. “But that’s expensive.”
Both government officials and employers weigh the costs and benefits of protective measures. Many studies show that investing in workplace safety saves money in the long run, but economists say that does not prove true in every case. This, of course, raises the most difficult calculus of all: comparing the worth of a dangerous job versus no job at all. How should companies and regulators put a dollar value on workers’ quality of life — indeed, on their very lives?
To date, Royale has paid nearly a half-million dollars — in court settlements, required upgrades and less than $20,000 in OSHA fines related to glue fumes. Those costs — and the harm to workers — accumulated in slow motion. Cushion making is a boom-bust business, subject to the swings of big orders from furniture companies. Royale and others in the industry frequently use transient, nonunion and illegal immigrant laborers, according to workers and court documents, who are less likely to report hazards and document symptoms.
This is long-form journalism at it’s best. It covers the people, the company, the industry and the government agency and regulations that shape it. The business media often overlooks those profiled in the story when they’re covering companies. The piece is an excellent example of work that many organizations can no longer undertake.
by Chris Roush
Ted Reed, a former business reporter for The Miami Herald who now works for TheStreet.com, writes about The Herald’s newsroom now that the paper is moving to another location.
Reed writes, “When I first arrived at The Herald, I was assigned to every business section’s worst beat: real estate development. About four months later, in March 1989, three unions struck Eastern Airlines. At the time, Eastern had been covered for ten years by a very talented veteran reporter. He used to walk around the newsroom muttering to himself about airlines. I thought he was very possibly insane. By the time the long-awaited strike took place, his nerves were shot. He requested a different beat, and was assigned to federal courts. Soon afterwards, the trial of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega began, because at The Herald there was no place to hide from big stories. I landed the Eastern beat because nobody else wanted it. Within months, I was walking around the newsroom muttering to myself.
“I will share just one of my thousands of stories about covering airlines at The Herald. One day I wrote about how American Airlines was seeking concessions from its pilots union. As it happened, on that same day American CEO Bob Crandall came to town. He didn’t care for the story. When I went to a scheduled meeting with him, he called me into a small office, shut the door, and yelled at me, uninterrupted, for about 20 minutes. His general theme was that he was not seeking concessions and that, as he put it, “I hate f….. unions.” I remember thinking, as I stood in that cramped room with the most important executive in the airline industry, perhaps the most important executive in the history of the airline industry, that I was a Miami Herald reporter and I did not remotely care if somebody yelled at me.
“Afterwards, I walked out into a hallway and the station manager, a nice guy named Art Torno, was standing there. He smirked at me. ‘I told him not to do that,’ he said. Commercial aviation is such a small world that last week, maybe 20 years later, I interviewed Art for a story. Also, Bob Crandall was always friendly to me after that.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Loren Steffy, the business columnist for The Houston Chronicle, is leaving the paper to work for a Washington-based think tank.
Richard Connelly of the Houston Press writes, “Steffy is teaming with some former colleagues from Bloomberg to put out white papers and op-ed columns for a Washington, D.C. think tank, and Langford is headed to the bucolic surroundings of New Jersey to become New York City-based public radio WNYC’s investigative reporter for the Garden State.
“Both of them tell Hair Balls they had no intentions of leaving the Chron until the specific opportunities came up.
”I had a really good opportunity to work with some close friends, and I felt I couldn’t pass it up,’ Steffy says. ‘That said, it wasn’t an easy decision. I have really loved writing a column for the Chronicle, and I still believe that there is no better city in which to write a business column than Houston.’”
Read more here. He is the author of “Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit” published by McGraw-Hill in 2010 and “The Man Who Thought Like a Ship,” published by Texas A&M University Press in April 2012.
Steffy is a three-time finalist for the Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism, the business news equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. Since joining the Chronicle in 2004, Steffy’s columns have received awards from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, press clubs of Dallas and Houston, the Associated Press Managing Editors and the Hearst Corporation. He received the Chronicle’s Jesse Award for Commentator of the Year in 2006 and 2011.
Here is a Q&A that Talking Biz News did with Steffy about his BP book.
by Chris Roush
Henry Dubroff, the founder and editor of the Pacific Coast Business Times, writes about the dramatic changes in business journalism in the past five years in the wake of judging Loeb Awards earlier this week.
Dubroff writes, “In financial journalism, it seems the future belongs more and more to the specialists. I know I’ve written about this previously, but the happy faceds at UCLA belong to folks at Bloomberg, Reuters and the Southern California business journals. The panicked folks are at the regional dailies and even the New York Times.
“I can see a future where journalism organizations look more like talent agencies and they put their content in whatever form — digital, broadcast, print or Twitter draws and audience that can be monetized.
“Data and data analysis are driving more and more reporting — sadly at a cost to good old fashioned shoe leather and talking to people.
“Finally, while the barriers to entry for freelances and bloggers are low and getting lower, the path to building a small, privately held company like the Business Times is getting harder and harder.”
Read more here.
by Liz Hester
When a friend texted a picture of an alert from our local television station that said “Video: Coverage of Sunshine,” I laughed out loud. Then I went to see what the story was really about since I was fairly sure that the sun rising didn’t count for news (at least not yet). It’s Sunshine Week.
The first thing I found was the site for the week-long spotlight tagged “Open government is good government,” which is sponsored by John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Bloomberg LP, American Society of New Editors, and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
There’s a brief history of the initiative’s purpose:
Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.
In 2002, the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors started Sunshine Sunday after some of the state’s government officials tried to create exemptions to Florida’s public record laws. The idea spread after their efforts prevented nearly 300 exemptions to open government laws from going onto the books.
Though created by journalists, Sunshine Week is about the public’s right to know what its government is doing, and why.
Sunshine Week seeks to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger.
Participants include news media, government officials at all levels, schools and universities, libraries and archives, individuals, non-profit and civic organizations, historians and anyone with an interest in open government.
Everyone can be a part of Sunshine Week. Our coalition of supporters is broad and deep. And individual participation can make all the difference.
The only requirement is that you do something to engage in a discussion about the importance of open government. It could be a large public forum or a classroom discussion, an article or series of articles about access to important information, or an editorial.
There’s a tool kit for people interested in participating in the conversation, an impressive list of events across the country, and an idea bank of records to ask for or highlighting the use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
But my favorite part was reading through the stories created by asking for open records. Here are a few from the site.
Using Kentucky’s Open Records Act, the Lexington Herald-Leader discovered that the chief executive of two state agencies that lend money to college students had spent more than $50,000 on out-of-state trips, often exceeding the daily per diem limits and treating guests to $100-plus a person meals. Story
St. Louis Post Dispatch reporters filed public records requests to find out more about the environmental cleanup of a long-abandoned coke plant designed to make way for a new business park. The request generated 11,000 pages of records, which the reporters reviewed on site, rather than getting copies and likely prompting an environmental cleanup in the newsroom. The records search showed the $6.7 million project estimate was much too low, which officials knew at the time; that there was no public bidding; and that the original polluters paid only a fraction of the cleanup cost. Story
Using data gathered from a FOIA request, the Asbury Park Press reported that the federal government paid its civilian work force $105 billion in salaries in 2011 — then gave them another $439 million in bonuses. The database has been posted online. Story
It’s inspirational. My grad school fervor about the power of the media was rekindled. We often overlook the great stories in regional papers that bring about so much public good. It made me miss that heady feeling of being in the newsroom when you find something in a filing or just keep pushing until you break a story.
I thought about the late, great Mark Pittman, who had the nerve to sue the Federal Reserve and was such an inspiration to so many of us:
Pittman’s push to open the Fed to more scrutiny resulted in an Aug. 24 victory in Manhattan Federal Court affirming the public’s right to know about the central bank’s more than $2 trillion in assistance to financial firms. He drew the attention of filmmakers Leslie and Andrew Cockburn, who featured him prominently in their documentary about subprime mortgages, “American Casino,” which was shown at New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival in May.
“Who sues the Fed? One reporter on the planet,” said Emma Moody, a Wall Street Journal editor who worked with Pittman at Bloomberg News. “The more complex the issue, the more he wanted to dig into it. Years ago, he forced us to learn what a credit- default swap was. He dragged us kicking and screaming.”
Then there was the story on my local TV station, a panel discussion talking about the football scandal at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
A panel discussion at 1:40 p.m. will include key parties involved in the lawsuit filed by local media against the University of North Carolina. Dick Baddour, former UNC director of athletics, and Jon Sasser, attorney for former UNC football coach Butch Davis, will join journalists and other lawyers to discuss the three-year legal battle over emails, phone records and parking tickets waged by those trying to report on allegations of athletic and academic improprieties.
Davis was fired and Baddour retired from UNC as scandal swirled that football players accepted gifts, trips and cash and were registered for classes that never met. The university, in a series of internal and external investigations, has said that the problems with changed grades and no-show classes were limited to one department and did not benefit student-athletes any more than other students.
It’s good to be reminded of why being a reporter is important and why fighting to protect open records is essential to holding government officials and others accountable. Go out and file a request – it’s an important and sometimes overlooked tool, especially in today’s fast-paced, commentary heavy news world.
by Peter Himler
Last week my former Associated Press client Tori Ekstrand invited me to speak at the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After a two–hour snow delay in New York, I finally found my way to the Freedom Forum Center on campus where Tori, now an assistant professor, and a handful of her undergraduate students gathered to hear my point-of-view on the evolution of the communications industries.
In a nutshell, I explained, we’ve entered an age when every company and every individual is a media outlet with the capacity to create and syndicate content. At the same time, nimble media upstarts with names like Buzzfeed, Politico, Huffington Post, TechCrunch, TMZ, Drudge, and a myriad others have mastered the art of headline histrionics. In so doing, they have siphoned off a growing share of the public’s ever-divided attention spans from legacy media, which today are struggling to retain the influence they once enjoyed.
I was surprised to learn from Tori that some 60 percent of the students in UNC’s journalism program are not majoring in journalism at all. Instead, they’re pursuing careers in advertising and public relations, which may be a smart move given the economic challenges the media industry continues to face, i.e., Maureen Dowd’s column in The New York Times, and the industry’s embrace of new hybrid ad/edit revenue-generating schemes such as “native advertising” and sponsored content.
Separately, I had forgotten that Talking Biz News’ founder Chris Roush was a senior associate dean and the Walter E. Hussman Sr. Distinguished Scholar in Business Journalism at the university. Talking Biz News is a must-read for those working as or with business journalists. Chris invited me to pen a post for the site on “what’s wrong with the relationship between PR people and business journalists.”
Clearly there’s much wrong in this symbiotic relationship, but it doesn’t end with the business/financial news beat. The historical love-hate relationship between journalists and PR professionals has taken a distinct turn toward the latter in recent years and cuts across virtually every media beat.
There are a number of reasons feeding the growing acrimony between the two professions, or at least the short fuses journalists have today for PR operatives:
1. The ratio of PR people to “pitchable” journalists is now estimated at 4 to 1, resulting in email inbox overload.
2. New data-driven vendors let PR pros automate the media relations process, producing greater volumes of often misguided story pitches.
3. Journalists have many other sources for their story ideas, including those they follow in real-time on Twitter and Facebook.
4. Media relations is pushed to junior staffers at many big agencies — and in-house communications departments — with relatively little supervision or mentoring
With that said, I have to disagree with Chris’s premise that the relationship between PR people and business journalists is completely broken. The New York Times’s Andrew Ross Sorkin, The Wall Street Journal’s Peter Kafka, CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo, Bloomberg News, Reuters, the FT and countless others – including local media outlets — frequently turn to PR professionals whom they’ve come to trust for delivering timely and accurate information.
The relative number of these trustworthy PR pros may have dwindled in recent years, but I assure readers of Talking Biz News that time and information-strapped business journalists continue to appreciate and value the responsive PR pro who “gets it.”
The discipline of “earned media,” as it has become know, is alive and well and still drives the fortunes of the vast majority of PR organizations. Call it what you want – media relations, publicity, media engagement, story pitching – the task of capturing the affections of beleaguered journalists thrives. As an art, however, media relations has seen better days. Here are some likely pleas from both sides of the media relations equation.
Journalists to the PR professional:
• Do not send a story pitch without first researching what I cover.
• In fact do not send a story pitch to a target list of reporters without knowing what each and every person on that list covers.
• Please refrain from sending me a manifesto. If you cannot articulate the story in a couple of sentences, then don’t bother sending.
• Keep the email subject line newsy, not cutesy.
• Take the time to learn and understand what you are pitching.
• Deliver on the promise, i.e., don’t offer an executive for an interview and then be unable to produce him or her.
PR professionals to journalists:
• In spite of the voluminous number of pitches landing in your inbox, please try to reply – even in the negative — if the pitch is within your coverage area. We just want closure.
• If the pitch is not in your specific coverage area, but still editorial valid, please forward to an appropriate colleague.
• Please know that if you do not respond to our overtures, we will be free to take the story idea elsewhere.
• Please know that we would be happy to serve as your arms and legs when you’re in a bind.
• Just as you have a job to do, so do we. Civility is preferred.
Of course, the savvy communications professional today is no longer solely reliant on (and suppliant to) editorial decision makers to have their stories or POVs shared. The PR profession now has the creative capacity and a range of publicly accessible media platforms to deliver content directly to the public, bypassing the media filter altogether.
Does the profession (and its clients) still covet a business feature in The FT or on the Bloomberg News wire? You bet.
But as public consumption of news and information migrates to mobile and social, the PR pros no longer have to endure the indignity of getting dissed by a stressed out reporter who paints all PR people as evil. Alternative means for engaging end audiences via independently produced content are on the rise.
Peter Himler is a principal at New York-based Flatiron Communications.
A few weeks ago I used this column to complain about how marketing fundamentals were invading the public relations field and eroding media relations basics. New tools for a new era of engagement has had a sweeping impact on the public relations field.
While I firmly believe that this new way of thinking has been largely detrimental to media relations, there has been some interesting new ways to use media relations for a marketing effect.
The idea came to me when I was looking at Twitter and saw that a notable technology editor at a national business publication had blasted out a tweet about a bad PR pitch she had received. Apparently, some PR agency had sent her a pitch about a limited time deal at everyone’s favorite doughnut shop.
At first glance, this made absolutely zero sense. Why would a tech editor care about donuts?
Reporters, especially business reporters who tend to focus on specific, often times esoteric topics like the mechanics of a leveraged buyout, are flooded with poorly targeted emails. In fact, it happens so often most reporters I know are completely unfazed by these wandering bits of mail.
However, after a closer look I am a believer that the wayward doughnut pitch was not in fact poorly targeted, but perhaps a clever new way of utilizing media relations. (Full disclaimer, I was not involved in this pitch, so my theory below is only rooted in an understanding of current practices that may or may not have been applied to this email.)
The impact of the internet and social media on news media has been talked about ad nauseum, so without diving into a broad examination of this changing field there is one important evolution reporters should understand. Journalists are no longer simply the arbiters of information for their specific beat but are now influencers of the general population (especially those that engage on social media). For public relations in the modern era, influencers are fundamental tools to deliver a message.
Consider that this tech editor maintains an active Twitter account with thousands of followers. The information she shares with her community of followers is not confined to technology news, but is filled with updates about her day, opinions about the tech industry and general musings on life.
In this light, one can certainly argue that the doughnut pitch was not a common PR misfire, but perhaps a targeted approach to a highly influential consumer.
What if she had tweeted in the past about her love for this brand? Would a PR person then be off-base to assume she wouldn’t be interested in what’s happening with this brand? Either way, when she took to twitter to alert her followers about the pitch, and the marketing promotion it highlighted, a PR objective was achieved.
Is this the best way to practice media relations? Absolutely not.
I can’t imagine there is a reporter out there who would condone increasing the number of bad pitches they get.
To be clear, I am not condoning sending business reporters consumer PR pitches just because they have an active twitter account. Targeting and thoughtfulness in any approach to media are still the most important considerations, but in a new media era carefully targeted pitches don’t necessarily have to address a reporter’s beat.
by Chris Roush
Dana Blankenhorn muses on TheStreet.com about the business journalism profession and what it means to the public.
Blankenhorn writes, “As a journalist, I make calls on companies all the time. As a fan of journalism, I get a kick out of recent posts by the TheStreet’s Rocco Pendola: His demanding the firings of business titans including Reed Hastings of Netflix, Rob Johnson of J.C. Penney and Apple CEO Tim Cook.
“Rocco and I are like sportswriters at a baseball game. We can spot a promising rookie, a veteran on the decline and can spin stories that entertain. But you wouldn’t hire a sportswriter to manage a ball club, and you shouldn’t trust a journalist with your money.
“Trust is the problem. There are millions of people who should be in the market, who are about to take huge losses as bond prices drop and interest rates rise. But they’re not in the market because they don’t trust anyone. Nor is there much reason for them to trust anyone.
“Here at TheStreet, there are people who entertain and people we trust, people we cover who deserve your trust. I entertain. Doug Kass, by contrast, deserves your trust. Warren Buffett and Berkshire-Hathaway deserve your trust. Jack Bogle and Vanguard, as I wrote at my personal blog, deserve your trust.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Debbie Baratz of ValueWalk.com writes that business news network CNBC needs to stop telling its on-air guests that they can’t talk to anyone else.
Baratz writes, “A reporter’s source is either likely to speak to a few different media outlets and at times, the same quotes are repeated thanks to digital media (see above quotes).
“For media consumers, they can now look to numerous sources for their news, which is a good thing. Sure some outlets have better quality that others and for CNBC, it is at the top of the heap. It’s not the only one on the mountain but to act like a gatekeeper in today’s fast media with its numerous options is unfair and unwise.
“You have to think that at the end of the day, actions will speak louder than words. Consumers will go to sources they trust, just as corporate executives and experts will speak to the outlets they want, portraying their story and opinions through their message.
“ESPN has seen the rise of other sports outlets and now attributes breaking stories to its competitors, it’s time for CNBC to adapt as well.”
Read more here.
by Liz Hester
When Yahoo’s new CEO Marissa Mayer banned working from home at the company, everyone from working moms to Richard Branson piled on saying the decision was a terrible one. The resulting debate and coverage from news organizations around the country makes for interesting reading.
It seems that nearly everyone has an opinion on the matter, so let’s look at a few.
First, there was the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who writes that while Mayer had to make a tough decision, her money and ability to build a nursery next to her office made life easier for her.
It flies in the face of tech companies’ success in creating a cloud office rather than a conventional one. Mayer’s friend Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook wrote in her new feminist manifesto, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” that technology could revolutionize women’s lives by “changing the emphasis on strict office hours since so much work can be conducted online.”
She added that “the traditional practice of judging employees by face time rather than results unfortunately persists” when it would be more efficient to focus on results.
Many women were appalled at the Yahoo news, noting that Mayer, with her penthouse atop the San Francisco Four Seasons, her Oscar de la Rentas and her $117 million five-year contract, seems oblivious to the fact that for many of her less-privileged sisters with young children, telecommuting is a lifeline to a manageable life.
The dictatorial decree to work “side by side” had some dubbing Mayer not “the Steinem of Silicon Valley” but “the Stalin of Silicon Valley.”
Mayer and Sandberg are in an elite cocoon and in USA Today, Joanne Bamberger fretted that they are “setting back the cause of working mothers.” She wrote that Sandberg’s exhortation for “women to pull themselves up by the Louboutin straps” is damaging, as is “Mayer’s office-only work proclamation that sends us back to the pre-Internet era of power suits with floppy bow ties.”
Counter to that point was a CBS commentator:
CBS News contributor and analyst Mellody Hobson said Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has “a real turnaround on her hands,” and said the new edict is “smart,” not “ruthless.”
“She’s looking at the situation saying ‘I need innovation to change this company.’ And ones of the things that drives innovation is collaboration. People working next to each other, shoulder to shoulder, coming up with ideas,” Hobson explained Tuesday on “CBS This Morning.”
“She’s saying you can’t build a culture via email,” Hobson said of Mayer’s effort to bolster the Yahoo community. “She needs these people in the office.”
Hobson went on to address common misconceptions about telecommuters, saying “The average person who telecommutes is a 40-year-old male. We think of it as a stay-at-home mom,” she said, but added that that is only one type of telecommuter.
A Boston Globe piece by Deborah Kotz invoked a new study showing that working from home increased productivity, but may ultimately hamper your ability to be promoted.
The Stanford University study of 249 call center workers at a Chinese travel agency found that those who were randomly selected to work from home four days a week for nine months — after they volunteered to do so — experienced a 13 percent increase in their work performance.
The improvement came mainly from a 9 percent increase in the number of minutes worked during their shifts due to a reduction in breaks and sick-days taken. The remaining 4 percent came from an increase in the number of calls home workers took per minute worked, compared with those in the control group who weren’t selected to work at home.
Home workers also had more job satisfaction and were also less likely to quit their positions during the study. And the company saved about $2,000 per year for each employee who worked at home. (Reduced costs is one of the reasons federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health have strongly encouraged employees to work at home at least one day each week.)
Despite all of these work gains, however, the study also found an important downside to working at home: It reduced rates of promotion by 50 percent when measured against job performance. While those who worked at home had about the same number of promotions as those who worked on site, they should have had more considering how much extra work they performed.
No matter how you feel about the situation, Businessweek points out that Mayer’s decision is getting more attention because she’s the female head of a technology company, many of which are known for flexible work policies.
The tiny sisterhood of women CEOs who have made it to the top of technology companies (and non-tech companies for that matter) can attest to the difficulty of running a huge corporation when even the most banal strategic move is picked apart so obsessively. Carol Bartz, the former head of Yahoo and Autodesk (ADSK), enjoyed similar treatment while she was CEO of Yahoo, most notably inviting ridicule for her un-ladylike habit of dropping the f-bomb. Carly Fiorina, the chief executive of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) from 1999 to 2005, confronted constant peanut-gallery analysis of her hair and her mannerisms by a business press that both glorified her and tore her down. Like Mayer, these women were trying to turn around complicated companies badly in need of new ideas.
No one knows whether the decision to require all Yahoo employees to work in an office will prove to be positive or negative for the company; it may be personally disastrous for some of the individuals affected and the best thing that ever happened to others. But if one of the hundreds of men running American companies had made a similar move, it’s unlikely that anyone would have even noticed.