Things I learned on vacation

I just got home from a fabulous vacation in Sharm El Sheik, Egypt. I’d never heard of it before we moved to Europe, but it’s a very popular vacation spot. We went and it was wonderful. Plus, I learned a few things about business.

Fancy isn’t always better: We ate some really fancy desserts. They looked incredible. But, honestly, the brownies at a church potluck taste better.

Before you go spend all that money on the high priced consultant, see if you’ve got any brownie bakers in your company. You may be surprised that their view of the situation and proposed solution is actually more palatable then the one dreamed up by the B school grads with the fancy power point presentations. After all, your people are in the trenches every day.

Under promising and over delivering really works: We flew on Edelweiss Air. I have such low expectations of airlines that I about fell over when the flight attendant brought out little backpacks with coloring books and beach balls in them for my children. Wow! I said. I will fly this airline again.

The return flight was an evening flight and they brought me a pillow and blanket for my toddler without me even having to ask. “I thought this might help with the flight,” she said cheerily. Again, wow.

Now, I didn’t know anything about this particular airline when we booked the flight, but I expected the same lousy service I’m used to on the standard US carriers. By doing just a few things better then them I felt like I’d found the best kept secret in air travel.

HR has a lousy reputation in a lot of companies. If we do just a little bit better on the basics, people may actually start listening to the important things we have to share.

And speaking of airlines… We actually flew the same day as the infamous Panty bomber. I, of course, didn’t hear about this until the next morning when I turned on my computer for the first time in a week. I rightly predicted that a whole bunch of new regulations will be thrown at passengers, none of which will actually make us safer.

The new TSA directives include “Perform thorough pat-down of all passengers at boarding gate prior to boarding, concentrating on upper legs and torso.” Super. So, if I’m a terrorist, now, I’ll just put my plastic explosives in my socks.

See? Silliness. But, what do businesses do? Instead of coming up with solutions that will actually, you know, solve problems with problem employees, we come up with rules that will bother everyone else. For instance, we make exempt employees clock in, or we track when they log on to their computers, or we make them sign in and out for lunch, rather than saying, “Gee, we have a problem with Bill in accounting. He’s not getting his work done. Let’s work with Bill to come up with a solution.”

Because, you see, requiring Bill and all his coworkers to clock in, doesn’t actually make Bill a good employee and it bugs the snot out of those of us who are putting in 60 hours a week anyway, and get yelled at for not coming in until 8:13 when we were working (at home, on our laptops) until midnight the night before. Bill can be on time and still be a lousy employee.

Instead of imposing big rules that annoy your employees, teach your managers how to manage problems. Some problems can be solved. Some problems need to be shown the door and put on the “do not rehire” list.

Don’t be a Russian Girl. We took a day trip to Cairo to see the pyramids. It was fantastic and fascinating. Our guide was a 25ish Egyptian man. He was nice and knowledgeable and funny and a little too open about his life. He told his he really wanted to get married to a “British girl,” and did we happen to know any available ones? He assured us he would only marry for love, but she needed to be British.

Later he informed us that Russian tours were his favorite (he spoke Arabic, English, German and Russian) because the Russian girls were soooo easy.

Some of you may find out that your boss actually considers you a “Russian girl” while you keep thinking you’re British. Stay with me and I’ll explain.

I get e-mails from people all the time complaining about how they are hard workers, competent, get regular praise, but can’t ever get promoted. That’s because you are missing some quality that your boss (or your company) has decided is essential to a promotion. Any “Russian girl” dating our tour guide may think she’s doing everything right to have a relationship that progresses to marriage, but our guide is just using her.

Unlike our love seeking tour guide’s “dates” you can do something about changing yourself from Russian to British. Find out what those qualities are that you are missing. Work to obtain them. Realize that your particular boss may never recognize that you would be good in a higher role and leave the department or company. If you have cannot gain the necessary qualifications to “become British” then find a company that values your Russian-ness. (And no, I don’t mean be “easy.” This is just an analogy and keep your minds out of the gutter. Hard working! Responsible! Be good!)

No need to be so sensitive: We were in Egypt on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Egypt is mostly Muslim. They put on a fantastic Christmas party for the guests. I have no idea of the religious affiliation of the rest of the guests, but I’m guessing the mothers in headscarves telling little “Mohammed”or “El Sayed” to go sit on Santa’s knee (Santa rode in on a camel!) weren’t practicing Christians. But it was a good party and so they came.

Most of the guests were from Europe (both Western and Eastern Europe), where most people celebrate Christmas. So, the hotel staff said, “Hey it’s good for business if we cater to the bulk of our clientele. We realize that those of us putting up the Christmas trees and some of our guests won’t actually be celebrating, but most of the guests will be.” And so they did.

If your company has a Christmas party and you’re Jewish/Muslim/Hindu/Atheist/Whatever, don’t sulk in the corner because it’s not your holiday. Likewise, if you’re Christian and your company has a generic “holiday” party, don’t go sulking in the corner complaining about how it should be a Christmas party. Come on, lighten up. It’s a party. No one is asking you to be baptized or declare your faith null and void.

I’m sure more than a few non-Christian kids climbed on Santa’s knee and got a present. Super for them. And super for their parents. Before you pitch a fit about something, ask yourself, “is this important, or is it just a party?” If it’s the latter, let it go.

And speaking of letting things go: Sharm El Sheik is on the Sinai Peninsula. This bit of land has been the site of many wars over hundreds of years. Now, while the snorkeling is fabulous and a hike to where Moses received the 10 commandments (among other things, but this is not a Sunday school lesson), is enlightening, the rest of the place is pretty desolate.

We kept asking ourselves, “Why do so many people care about this piece of land?” This, of course, was a rhetorical question. We know why they care. (Both my husband and I have degrees in politics and I studied Hebrew in college, for goodness sakes. We know why from an intellectual stand point.) My point is, that if you don’t have an emotional/religious/historical attachment at stake it’s not great land.

How many times do employees hold grudges, or attempt to cling to a project that is doomed to failure because they’ve already invested time into it? Sometimes you need to take a step back and just let go. Give that project to the person who has been angling for it for months and work on something else. Evaluate if this really is the hill you want to die on, before you go to battle. Some things just aren’t as great in the cold light of day as we build them up to be in our minds.

These are a few of the things I learned on my vacation. I also learned I can get Betty Crocker brownie mix in Egypt, but not in Switzerland. That’s worth a post of its own some day.

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9 thoughts on “Things I learned on vacation

  1. Brilliant. I had a coworker who before they implemented a time clocking system for employees used to get in late and leave early all the time, lying on his timecard. Now that there's a clocking in system (and safeguards in place to mostly discourage employees from somehow getting it changed to cover for lateness or leaving early) he just leaves the office for several hours a day on personal tasks. I preferred it when he didn't work a full day and I had to see him for fewer hours.

  2. Dear
    I am HR Manager from Syria(middle east) and i am totally agree with your points of view and analysis
    espacially the Don't be a Russian Girl part

    God bless you

  3. Those are some great analogies!

    Have to agree that the best food is always in the worst looking places & the best looking places with the best looking food, always tastes terrrible!

  4. Totally agree and love the Russian Girl part. I was the Russian girl. Worked for the same govt agency for 9 years. About a year before I left, EVERYONE with experience left. Me, I stayed because I was pregnant. While out, I was still looking for a job. I was very unhappy. I'm a hard worker, competent, knew alot about my field (it takes YEARS of experience to learn contracting). I saw that other people in my office were being passed over and they were bringing in incompetent people. When I got offered a job at another agency, I jumped. I have been happier ever since. They love this russian girl. 🙂 I love what I do again, there is promotion potential, shorter commute, and challenging work. Best yet, they gave me the raise my former agency wouldn't. I couldn't change them, so I took my abilities and left. I have been better for it. 🙂
    P.S. Can you believe an entire office left over several months with over 100 years of experience in contracting. It was replaced with 8 years of experience (average 1 year per person..). Sad.

  5. Ah, brownies.

    The best recipe I've found has an awful name. They're pretty easy, and very rich. At use the recipe finder for "man catcher brownies."

    So rich I can only eat one at a sitting. (I make up diferent names for them when I serve them to others.)

    Sounds like a great vacation!

  6. Great post – thank you very much. I recognised myself as the "Russian-Girl" in a former job position, oddly enough that I have a Russian name but I'm not 😉 which creates some amusements in countries like you have written about.

    PS: and thanks for your comparison fancy vs homemade. Being a passionate backer myself. It made me smile

  7. I like this piece and also your pseudonym it is all so refreshingly direct and hard hitting – more grease to your elbow. I recognised some of me in the 'Russian Girl' analogy and I am a bloke in HR, this is either a tribute to your writing or time for me to find another job or both. I do worry slightly about the solutions, but that could be a gendered way of looking at things.

    Gain the necessary 'qualifications'(I am assuming this pertains to attributes rather than academic achievements) to move up? Not everyone wants to conform, HR is riddled with that and watching people fitting in with the old boys and girls networks in the name of being business partners is at times painful.

    Find a company that values your Russian-ness? This advocates an exploitative cycle starting again somewhere else.

    Dare I say it an alternative might be to find a company culture where everyone is expected to be hard working and responsible. Then there would be less need for 'Russian Girls'.

  8. Hi EHRL,

    I'm a regular follower of your postings – working in HR myself, I recognize a lot of the things you talk about. Some US specific stuff is good learning for me – on the other hand I've enjoyed reading about your experiences in Europe.

    Just wanted to say that I especially enjoyed this post, keep up the good work!

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