"A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices."
- William James
Picture this: You're the head of a department and receive complaints about one of your best but most difficult employees. While having made major contributions to the team in the past, and while brilliant and witty, he's moody to the point that he misses work and might be manic-depressive. He's also fat, speaks with a bit of a lisp, is a heavy drinker and something of a loose canon, expressing with gusto radical views, some offensive to minorities. What do you do?
If you're most managers, you decide that he's not only a distraction, but a danger to your department and your career, so you fire the guy and feel virtuous doing so. In this case, you axed Winston Churchill.
What got me thinking about Churchill and how such a man would fare in corporate America was reading a pair of disheartening articles. The first came from Inc.com, reporting on a Duke University study on obese workers. It concluded that there was a correlation between BMI (body mass index) and employee costs. The heavy workers filed twice as many workers' compensation claims and missed a lot more days of work.
One of the Duke researchers noted, "Given the strong link between obesity and workers' compensation costs, maintaining healthy weight is not only important to workers but should also be a high priority for employers."
In a culture where workers have been fired for being smokers, it's not impossible to imagine workplaces with weigh-ins, perhaps becoming an event like those before championship boxing matches.
"From customer service, with a record of 13,343 wins and 1,287 defeats, Kimberly weighs in today at . . . drumroll . . . 167 pounds . . . oh my, that's two pounds over her target weight for the month and that means she'll be on probation, with her headset attached to treadmill for two hours a day, and anyone who offers her a doughnut will be forced to wear the pastry albatross around his or her neck."
The other disheartening item was Carol Hymowitz's column in The Wall Street Journal under the heading "Personal Boundaries Shrink as Companies Punish Bad Behavior." She recounts a list of executives who were fired for violating "a certain decorum," most often having had an affair with another employee, but also getting drunk or otherwise creating a scandal, even if unrelated to work. She quotes a headhunter as saying that "even a whiff of impropriety glows nuclear," which in turn causes him and his search to move on to another candidate. Which means that not only would you fire Winston Churchill, you couldn't hire John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. or Pablo Picasso.
Instead, you can staff up with the corporate equivalents of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and a pair of Bushes. How did we get to be so small? From what paranoia did this New Puritanism arise? Rather than the church, this time the Puritanism has arisen as the sad, unintended consequence of our legal system. Where once our justice system was a shield, it is now a weapon, and our corporations are among those who fear it.
I remember the time when a friend of mine was dating a European intellectual. She confided that the downside of being his paramour was a disturbing sexual deviation, which I won't attempt to describe here except to say that you wouldn't want to use the good sheets.
Here's why I bring it up. When my friend told me of his fetish, and even as I tried not to express repulsion, she went on to describe her mother's reaction -- yes, she sought her mother's advice on such a topic -- and here's what the mother said: "people have unusual tastes." I knew mom, and confess that her reaction was more startling than the confession that led to it.
Once I'd gotten past my double amazement, I became a better man. Whenever I'm tempted to be narrow-minded or judgmental, I think of that little sentence, "Unusual people have unusual tastes," shrug and mind my own business.
I can only hope that there are executives who'll do likewise, that they'll keep eccentric geniuses on the payroll, despite the trouble they cause. Let's broaden that maternal advice to this business wisdom: If you want unusual ideas, you're going to have to put up with unusual people.
Dale Dauten is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.