July 19, 2007

Eschewing Collectivism

Years ago I heard it said that software developers don’t need a union. I’m not prepared to launch into an argument for and against unions, or even whether they apply to professional positions like software development. But I want to point out that discussion years ago, the point was that professionals could individually negotiate their own benefits when they are hired. They didn’t need protection from their employer.

The idea of protection from an employer may be a gross over simplification of the benefits of collective decision-making. An example of why comes up in this American Prospect article on the difference between vacation here in the USA and vacation in France.

The virtues of collective decision are highlighted here:

Here in the sweltering D.C. summer, there’s nothing worse than wearing a necktie when the thermometer reads 95 and the humidity is so thick you could swim laps. But on your own, there’s not much you can do about this state of affairs. If you’re the only one who shows up dressed down, you’ll look bad for it. But if your office, or meeting, were to collectively decide to ease the dress code, all would be better off.

This is what the European Union just did, imposing new regulations on its bureaucrats barring ties in the summer. Cutting down on air-conditioning costs was the rationale, but centralized action was the only way to end the practice. Otherwise, every individual would still have had the incentive to show his commitment by dressing in a tie. Only the collective could remove that spur.

The relatively brief article has other points to make about vacation, so I recommend reading it. However, this one point jumped out at me. Sometimes we over focus on individualism in this country to the point where we screw ourselves.

Posted by James at July 19, 2007 7:14 PM
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Two jobs ago, when my so-called fiance was working for the same company in the UK, I was quite indignant when he told me that four weeks' vacation was the MINIMUM. I thought the company was being horribly unfair, letting them start with twice as much vacation as the US employees. Then Gavin explained that 4 weeks was the minimum allowed by law... that just made me madder!

Posted by: Julie at July 19, 2007 8:17 PM

ties should just be banned period. Stupid, useless, uncomfortable article of clothing.

The UK has one of the lowest vacation time levels in the EU. We work with a company in Sweden that you can't even call in July (they shut the company down). They get 6 weeks minimum. Same with our manufacturing facility in Spain. Oh yeah and many of them only work 35 hour weeks.

Posted by: B.O.B. (bob) at July 20, 2007 8:09 AM

So how do we all get UK citizenship?

Posted by: David Grenier at July 20, 2007 9:08 AM

Marry a British person who wouldn't rather live here. :)

Posted by: Julie at July 20, 2007 9:13 AM

Or just get hired by a company in the UK. you don't need to have citizenship for the vacation benefits just a job there.

For many years I've considered looking for work in the UK. Don't really want to move that far away from everyone I know though.

Posted by: B.O.B. (bob) at July 20, 2007 9:27 AM

Of course, the reason we are the richest NATION is because of how badly we exploit our workers. We also have the biggest disparity between rich and poor. The richest nation statistic is misleading. If there was correlation between hours worked and standard of living, we might be able to afford time off.

Posted by: briwei at July 20, 2007 5:51 PM

We could afford time off. Part of the point is that our culture drives us to compete on the basis of material goods rather than things like vacation time. And so, without a collective decision to mitigate that, people end up shorting themselves out of vacation.

One could argue that maybe people just don't like vacation time and the marketplace is working the way it should. But that doesn't seem to square with the opinion you get from people when you ask them. Many people just assume there is no possibility of more vacation.

Posted by: James at July 20, 2007 6:43 PM

People HAVE assumed there was no possibility... maybe being aware that it's the norm elsewhere in the world will cause them to adjust their expectations.

Posted by: Julie at July 20, 2007 11:44 PM

I've thought for years that it would be great if you could take part of your pay raises in time off instead (either as extra vacation days or as fewer hours every week). For example if you were to get a 5% raise you could instead get a 2.5% raise and only work 39 hours a week (assuming you work a 40 hour week). It wouldn't be much at first but after a few years you could wittle your hours down a decent amount.

Posted by: B.O.B. (bob) at July 23, 2007 10:56 AM

You could, if you could negotiate that. However, even if you could individually negotiate that, it would likely have an effect on how you were viewed by your coworkers.

Posted by: James at July 23, 2007 11:08 AM

No, at a large corp you really couldn't do that unless they made it a program across the board. I really couldn't care less how I am viewed by my coworkers. At least not in this regard.

Posted by: B.O.B. (bob) at July 23, 2007 12:00 PM

I assume most people couldn't make that sort of a deal at more corporations, true. You would have to be some ultra-valuable person with rare skills -- some sort of consultant or other.

In any case, more than how your same-level coworkers felt, I meant it might affect your future advancement. Because I don't think the relationship between time off and efficiency is recognized.

Posted by: James at July 23, 2007 12:10 PM

It's a hard situation in this era as most of us do not get the luxury of having a pension or staying with the same company for our whole career. So, the opinion of coworkers has a direct bearing on future employment prospects. If you can't get someone to refer to you as a "hard worker", your prospects diminish.

And I think that it has become ingrained as part of the corporate culture. It will be

Posted by: briwei at July 23, 2007 12:12 PM

...a challenge to change it.

Sorry for the split comment. The touchpad on my laptop is overly sensitive and doesn't seem to want to disable.

Posted by: briwei at July 23, 2007 12:13 PM

Part of the point is that our culture drives us to compete on the basis of material goods rather than things like vacation time.

Remember we were founded by Puritain stock. We work like crazy here because it has been ingrained in us for ages that idleness is bad and work is good.

This country looks down its collective nose at Europe because they have the audacity to take vacations, and long ones at that!

Think how much healthier we would be if we knew that we could take extended vacation and not be punished/ridiculed, etc. I'll never forget the following scenario. I had just returned from my two-week honeymoon when someone from the head office of the publishing house I worked at came into the office. She asked me a question and I replied that I didn't know the answer because I had just come back from two weeks off.

She exclaimed, rather loudly, that two weeks off is like gold and how did I manage to get two weeks off, bla bla bla. I mentioned that a) I had the time, and b) it was my honeymoon, but she was still shocked that I took time off.

It was all I could do not to say, "Well, honey, if you're not smart enought to take your accrued vacation time, that is hardly my fault or my problem."

Sadly, it seems the rest of the world is catching up to America and is cutting back on vacation time. That's the wrong way!

Posted by: Patti M. at July 23, 2007 2:03 PM

Hey, if you want to change the dress code, just hire G. He's the first one to wear shorts and/or sandals into the office and start a trend. He really doesn't give a hoot what people think; he's too practical. If it's hot, he wears shorts. At the moment, he's introducing the camp shirt at his latest place of employment.

Posted by: pippa at July 25, 2007 1:24 AM

Dress code worries don't apply so much to techies. We're barely expected to know what a tie is.

Posted by: James at July 25, 2007 8:02 AM

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