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Enhancing Organizational Performance

…and the Pursuit of Happiness

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“CPR kit available upon request”, were the neatly lettered words in black ink on the somewhat smallish framed white sign near the front door of a Manhattan restaurant where I was having a business lunch. The wording of the sign caused me break into a grin – specifically the words “upon request”. A picture formed in my mind of me clutching my chest, and as I sank to the floor losing consciousness with no assistance being provided, the hostess stationed by the front door explains to the other patrons waiting in line, “if only he had requested the CPR kit before he lost consciousness, oh well…table for 2?” I began to think “you know there are some things in life you really shouldn’t have to ask for – things that should be…inalienable”. Others have felt the same way.

The next day there was a cartoon in the paper that showed a flight attendant giving the standard speech at the start of a flight. She indicated that should a sudden decompression occur that an oxygen mask would fall from the ceiling and for an additional $15 you could have it activated. I wonder if that could be paid in advance or whether you should wait to see if you really needed it and then you could just pass the money to the flight attendant to have it turned on. Correct change appreciated to expedite things. What makes the cartoon funny though, at least to me, is the notion that you have to pay extra for what you would think would be something that you shouldn’t have to ask for, namely supplemental oxygen should one find oneself unexpectedly on a plane with oxygen in short supply. Don’t you just hate it when that happens? (The cartoon was poking fun at a US airline that now charges $15 extra to bring a bag along on your vacation or business trip. Who in their right mind would bring a bag packed with clothes or other essentials on a vacation or a business trip? So given the unusual nature of people traveling with a suitcase I can see the justification for charging extra for a piece of luggage instead of building the cost into the ticket itself.)

Thomas Jefferson in writing the United States Declaration of Independence listed “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” as among the inalienable rights of mankind – supposedly things you shouldn’t have to ask for, things that are guaranteed and can not be taken away. (It says nothing about CPR kits or airline luggage however, but perhaps he did not fly much). This phrase has shown up in a number of Supreme Court cases aimed at defining just what is covered by that broad statement. For instance, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in a 1967 ruling that helped to define the Pursuit of Happiness, “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.” That judicial rendering was given to protect the rights of people from differing races to intermarry, and that same logic is beginning to be applied to people desiring same sex marriages, given their inalienable right to “the Pursuit of Happiness”.

There are many other documents that carve out other inalienable rights such as “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions” (John Locke). In the “Rights of Man”, Thomas Paine wrote in 1791 regarding the equality of all men and their right to liberty. He stated that these rights should not be codified or put into legislation because that would imply that these rights are privileges that could be granted by legislation but then also taken away by legislation.  Early Islamic law held much the same view point (and may have influenced Paine) with fundamental rights of man existing that no ruler could put aside covering social, cultural, political, economic and civic rights. The concepts also included room for an independent judiciary that was not to discriminate against those appearing before it on the basis of “religion, race, color, kinship or prejudice”. These were inalienable rights with all that implied.

Alienable rights though are rights that are given either legislatively or through the grace of someone in power and can easily be taken away. Do employees have any inalienable rights? What about customers? In order to make a stab at answering those questions I would like to propose several concepts.

The first concept is that the difference between inalienable and alienable rights is a by-product of the times in which we live. We choose to make certain rights inalienable. The inalienable rights we enjoy in the USA in the 21st century look nothing like the inalienable rights enjoyed by some living in other parts of the world or by those from different time periods. Inalienable rights if they were truly inalienable would be universally recognized by mankind rather than rights that needed to be secured, sometimes through the use of force. “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”, are those really inalienable rights, or are they rights that those living at this moment in time have decided to call inalienable? They are certainly noble and it makes you feel good to say that all mankind has certain inalienable rights, but I would suggest that we are a product and inalienable rights are a product of our times. Certainly there have been times, including right now, where Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are not a given for a significant portion of the world’s population, as much as we might think that they should be. Inalienable rights are a product of paradigm, precedent and principle, but sometimes, as with the Declaration of Independence, people are able to stand up and say it is time to change the paradigm.

The second concept is the notion that Darwin’s principles of evolution can be applied to organizations as well as to living organisms. When organizations express variation, employees and customers have the ability to select the most appropriate organizations for them, the ones they want to work for, or be customers of, and the most robust organizations, the fittest (those that attract employees and customers for the long-term) will be the ones to survive. Other organizations, with their desire to survive as well, will copy the ideas and strategies of those organizations that they believe are being successful and hence those ideas, practices and procedures will be passed along to other organizations not through heredity but by the spread of ideas – some would call them memes. Organizations have the right to deliver products and services as they see fit and customers have the right to utilize or not to utilize that organizations products and/or services.

Those of us living in the USA at this moment in time have the tremendous good fortune of living in the wealthiest, most successful country that has ever existed on the face of this planet. You could easily make the argument that no one living in the USA should be hungry, should be living on the street, or should be denied access to medical care. That food, shelter and medical care are inalienable rights. After all are we so barbaric that we would step over homeless, hungry people sleeping on the street, likely in need of medical attention, as though they were somehow less than human? I have and it is very likely that a large number of those reading this probably have as well. It makes us uncomfortable and we are wary of the potential danger to ourselves so we hesitate to reach out to those in need. How much better would you feel if you had a mechanism to help those you see living on the street? But for those living on the street is it an inalienable right that they should expect that help?  Let’s explore one topic, heath care a little more closely for a possible answer.

Heath care which some purchase through their employer as a shared expense employee benefit does not have a lengthy history. It was only very recently that this expense became shared and not borne solely by the employer. But it was also not that much longer ago that it did not exist at all. Prior to WWII heath care was a rare commodity and became prevalent only as a way for employers to compete for hard to find employees. They provided health care insurance in order to increase the likelihood of their survival. During World War II, wage and price controls prevented employers from using wages to compete for scarce labor. Under the 1942 Stabilization Act, Congress limited the wage increases that could be offered by firms, but permitted the adoption of employee insurance plans. In this way, health benefit packages offered one means of securing workers… Under the 1954 Internal Revenue Code (IRC), employer contributions to employee health plans were exempt from employee taxable income. As a result of this tax-advantaged form of compensation, the demand for health insurance further increased throughout the 1950s.” (Thomasson, Melissa. “Health Insurance in the United States”.  April 2003).

So employer provided heath care insurance, with the expense borne solely by the employer really only existed from the mid-1940s to the 1990s as by and large most organizations now require employees to share the cost. But does that mean that medical care is not an inalienable right?

Broadly speaking the inalienable rights of employees consists of those things that either the organization must offer to remain viable (to attract employees), or things that our society deems as basic to whom we are as a society. If society deems that universal health coverage is an inalienable right and that notion is broadly accepted then that is what it becomes. Other rights that could be deemed as inalienable might include employment at will, a two-way street, benefiting both the employer and the employee, the ability to actually work at your trade (another Supreme Court definition of “the Pursuit of Happiness) and not be restrained in your trade, but broadly it would seem that the one truly inalienable right that employees have is the right to choose whether they will stay with their current employer or not. However, these rights however you want to characterize them are inalienable only when people are willing to vote with their feet and stand up for them, to create a paradigm that says they are in fact inalienable. When employees and customers exercise their options by utilizing or being employed by organizations of their choice then they are creating the inalienable rights – those things that become part of the fabric of how business gets conducted because organizations will behave in such as fashion that maximizes their survival potential.  

Organizations will sometimes conduct themselves in such a manner that leads the casual observer to question their viability. I was at LaGuardia about to board a flight when the woman in front of me, who was returning home, was asked to put her bag into the metal frame to see if it would fit and be allowed on the plane. She did, it didn’t and she was told she would have to gate check her bag. When she told the gate agent that she was allowed to bring the bag on the plane on the way to LaGuardia from Minneapolis the response she was given was that they cared less about those things in Minneapolis than in NYC. She was predictably upset. Does she have an inalienable right to expect consistency in standards applied within one airline from airport to airport? Only if she and all those affected by arbitrarily applied rules demand it. She needs to vote with her feet and fly another airline on her next trip. In a non-perfect world however we do not have completely free choice as sometimes our options can be limited.

With respect to safety, I would think that customers would have the reasonable expectation that certain practices and procedures to ensure their safety would be followed when they engage with organizations in activities that carry with it a certain amount of risk, such as flying in an airplane. But I don’t think that rises to the level of inalienable rights. Airlines will practice safe procedures either because they need to, in order to comply with legislation and be allowed to keep flying, or because if they get a reputation as an unsafe airline, no one is going to use them. Restaurants will operate with cleanliness for the same reasons, legislative necessity or reputation and on and on.

There are some things in life you shouldn’t have to ask for, but they come about not because we have naturally given inalienable rights simply because we are human but because we choose to live our lives in such as fashion and to conduct ourselves towards others that these rights can be inferred. And while these rights may change over the ages and depending on which political system you live within, one thing does seem certain, that each of us alone and as a group will determine the inalienable rights generally acknowledged to exist.  But I still would prefer not having to specifically ask for the CPR kit prior to passing out.

Personal aside: At this time, in this place I would argue, and I think our society’s standards would argue that access to medical care in whatever form that takes is in fact an inalienable right and that there should be no employee out there – in fact no person in the USA without access to care. But the reason for that is not that it has to be. The reason for that, is that given what we are now capable of as a country, as a society, it is not only right that it should be, but that it is in our own best interests to ensure that the people who live within our borders have access to health care.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Visit OV: www.orgvitality.com

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 9, 2009 at 8:07 am

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