Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Business Ethics

Not only is business ethics in the news (the outrage over executives of bailed out companies getting huge bonuses), it's a live topic in my own everyday life.

I was looking at the charges on my phone bill yesterday, and noticed that a new charge started appearing a few months ago, called a "shortfall" charge to the long-distance portion of my bill. Incredulous, I wondered if it really meant what I thought it must mean: were they actually charging me extra for not making enough long-distance calls? I called the phone company to ask. Sure enough, that is exactly what it meant! What used to be one of the least expensive long-distance plans by my carrier had quietly morphed into a bizarre and expensive plan. No longer am I merely paying a monthly charge whether I use my minutes or not (which I grumbled about back in the good ol' days) -- I now pay extra above and beyond that for each minute I fall under the 30 minutes! In other words, the cheapest my bill can be is if I make exactly 30 minutes of long-distance calls per month. But if I use fewer minutes, I get charged for each minute under 30! (And if I go over 30, of course, I get charged for that too!)

It's insane. I tried, on the phone, to switch to a different plan (one that still has a monthly charge, and now limits me to 12 minutes a month, but at least the monthly charge is cheaper and there is no "shortfall penalty"), but I couldn't believe that this is really the cheapest plan they have. But working with the customer service representative on the phone was really frustrating. She was polite enough, but put me on hold for really long periods of time in-between questions. I was suspicious that this was a deliberate strategy to discourage me from switching to the less-expensive plan. My battery on my cordless phone gave out and I had to run across the house to another corded phone in order not to lose the connection. I stubbornly held in there, because I was getting upset and didn't want to fall for this. I remained as polite to the customer service representative as she was to me, but still did voice my outrage at a plan that charges you extra for not making enough long-distance calls.

Then I decided to go online to see if I could more easily find an even cheaper plan. I did. At least I think so. When I tried to follow the online instructions for changing my plan, at first it pretended that my number was not a valid number. When I cleared my cache and then even started all over again in a new browser, it finally recognized my number, but when it detected what I was up to, it got me stuck in a loop that wouldn't let me proceed.

Maybe these are all just honest mistakes -- a change in my plan that they forgot to inform me about; being put on hold for long periods of time; the website not allowing me to make further changes. And maybe there are good reasons for charging me extra for not making enough calls. Maybe there is some way that my not making enough calls is expensive to them -- maybe the logic of this is just escaping me at the moment.

But, in relation to all else that is going on, I'm really starting to wonder whether business ethics has gone completely out the window.

I sure hope that other companies don't start following suit. Can you imagine if we have to start paying shortfall fees for, e.g., not using enough gasoline, heating fuel, electricity, etc.?

Has it become a civic duty to "stimulate the economy" by paying extra when we aren't consuming enough?

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Time for More Updates

Hello faithful readers! Time flies, and I realize I haven't posted in a while. Turns out that this semester is very busy for me -- approaching again the level of busyness two years ago that then led to my burnout. I must be careful. But my spirits have been pretty good, and I'm managing the load pretty well overall.

One of the reasons I am so busy again is that I took on a bit of a teaching overload this semester, but I only let myself do so because it buys me an extra course release next year. So, next year (my LAST year of being chair of my department), I'll have a 2-2 teaching load, which means two courses per semester. The normal load for those who are not chairs at my college is 3-3, but each of our courses is "heavier" than normal 3-credit courses, because we meet a full three hours per week, instead of three 50-minute sessions as at most colleges and universities. My normal load as chair is 3-2. That means I have one too-busy semester, and one manageable semester per year. To have a 2-2 load will give me a manageable load for the entire year! Nice!

This semester, I have three classes, three independent study students, am chairing my department, and coordinating our new Peace Studies minor. I also co-chair a university committee, and through that committee am bringing a guest speaker to campus. And I am playing in a new community contra dance band. We had our debut performance (guest-playing two dances) at a contra dance a couple of weeks ago. I am also running a faculty/staff reading group. And for some reason, I have recently had a lot of students requesting letters of recommendation.

A new class I am teaching this semester is Symbolic Logic (an advanced and optional course). I have a great group of students. I am finding this a lot of fun. The simple clear truth of the subject material is a welcome contrast to most of the teaching I do. I know that my postmodern friends are gasping in horror to hear me say that (the "t" word, "truth"!), but I actually do think that the basic principles of logic are true. How far this kind of truth can go is, of course, another question. But logic itself points out its own limitations -- and I find that fascinating too! I would be the first to admit that logic alone cannot solve our most important problems, but we do need its help. Anything that violates good logic really is flawed. But just according with logic is not enough: we need more.

I have also gotten distracted lately with technology. I had another scare with my electronic organizer (PDA), and managed to fix the problem with drastic action. Once I realized that the problem happened two days after the 90-day warranty expired (the device would not turn on!), instead of sending it in for a $145 repair, I took drastic action, following advice I found on the web, and took the thing apart to unplug and plug back in the battery. That worked! It was a bit tricky to do, but at a crucial moment of hesitation, I was cheered on by my tea-bag tag saying, "Fortune smiles on those who are brave."

But I also looked into alternative ways to keep my life organized so that I'm not so vulnerable the next time my PDA blinks out on me. I like having a PDA, because it's a way to carry a lot of information around in a very small device. Since I spend a lot of time in meetings, it's handy to have my calendar and crucial notes with me in a compact format. But I'm going to be a lot more careful to keep things well backed-up in a way that is easy for me to access both from home and from work.

Meanwhile, my trendy friends tell me that PDAs are now passe, and smartphones are the future. They point out that I've been having so many problems because no one is really supporting PDAs any longer. Companies have not been motivated to improve them or even ensure their reliability. They would like us to get fed up and shift over to something more expensive. And my Luddite friends tell me pen and paper are good enough -- why even bother with fickle, ever-changing and expensive technology?

Meanwhile, I've also been worrying about the state of the world, especially global climate change and the financial crisis. Given the magnitude of these problems and the dramatic effects of these problems on many people, my own problems (most of them, anyway), seem trivial in comparison.

Yet my recent preoccupation with keeping my life well-organized is a response to how busy I've been, and how much I would like to handle everything well. Meanwhile, I've been amazed to learn that my efforts have not gone unnoticed. Our new Peace Studies program has been getting some really good attention, in a variety of ways. People are noticing that what we are doing is really important. Former and current students keep telling me how much my courses have meant to them. This means a lot to me.

A person gets used to never quite being sure how one's efforts are playing out into the world. You keep trying because you believe in what you do. You stop worrying about the fact that you are never really sure of your effect on others -- you do your best to respond well to what feedback you do receive, but the rest is a matter of faith.

I had accepted this and honestly never expected it to change. "This just is how it is, and I'm fine with it," I realized.

So, to start to get significant positive response is requiring a new adjustment. It's good, and I'm grateful, but it also heightens my already-overdeveloped sense of responsibility!

But, strangely enough, I am okay with this too. A slightly earlier version of me would have found the increased sense of pressure stressful, but this actual present version of me is taking it in stride, for the most part.

I think my musical performance experience is helping me, in this. That experience has taught me how to transition from my perfectionism in practice to a performance setting in which people are actually listening to me and expecting me not to make (too many) mistakes. It's a jarring and dramatic difference, because no amount of personal, private practicing can ever prepare you for the profound psychological and physiological effects of nervousness! That's a new experience you have to integrate into your love of the music and your desire to be faithful to it in your playing. It calls forth tremendous powers of concentration to keep yourself centered and focused. Over time, if you keep trying, you figure out how to do this.

Having learned to deal with this transition musically, finding a similar transition arise for me in my teaching life is not so traumatic. It takes me by surprise, but it's not an unfamiliar problem. I can transfer what I have learned, and step up to this new level of responsibility I feel developing in my life.

And I remember especially to keep aware of God-with-me.