National Association of Counties * Washington, DC Vol. 30, No. 21 * November 9, 1998
The National Commission on Whining
There is a national sense of foreboding which has been emerging over the past two or three decades. Is America in a state of moral and cultural decline? Is government no longer working effectively? Why cant Johnny or Mary read? Why is the crime rate so high? the traffic so bad the city so crowded the economy so shaky ... and on and on.
The medias channels compete aggressively to fill 24-hour schedules with stories of violence and victimization. Everyone worries about vulnerability and safety, about societys malpractice against its citizens and about the compensation owed to us when we spill coffee on ourselves at a restaurant, or get into a dispute with a neighbor, doctor, teacher, or government agency.
The government, churches, civic organizations and other social
"anchors" seem increasingly unable to offer successful formulas to reverse
these trends or to even help us understand them.
In short, there is a national crisis in America. It is serious and our survival depends on whether we have the courage to confront the truth.
One author, Robert D. Putnam, writing in a 1995 issue of Journal of Democracy, linked the crisis to a decline in individuals civic engagement. Over the past quarter century, he notes, Americans membership in civic associations has declined overall by about 25 percent. Whether in civic organizations such as Elks, Lions, Masons, veterans groups, womens groups, PTAs, Red Cross, or sports leagues, the trend away from group involvement seems clear.
Instead, we see phenomena such as an increasing volume of whining and blaming others for our problems, "cocooning," being a "couch potato," covering our ears with Walkman portable stereos or, coming to a living room near you soon, virtual reality headgear, staying home with the VCR and the home PC.
We perceive that relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, employers and employees, citizens and government are "broken." Just as with a malfunctioning electronic "toy," we perceive that it is often more "convenient" and less "costly" to discard and replace than to compromise, nurture, or "repair" a relationship.
Is it any wonder that we see symptoms abounding of dysfunctional families, high divorce rates, child and domestic abuse, workplace violence and the abandonment of many senior citizens?
These are the trends of retreat from a widespread, general social contract in our communities. These are the trends of individual focus and a "me" rather than an "us" orientation.
Historically, it has been a strong social contract between Americans, including new immigrants, along with the ability to come together in a finding of common ground on serious issues which confront us, that has marked the United States as a great country with an unbounded, optimistic future.
These trends provoke strong and obvious impacts on the human resource profession. Indeed, it can be argued that the HR profession itself came to exist in the first place as "sovereign immunity" for employers began to decline, and as the need for deliberate attention to the increasing liabilities of personnel management became obvious. It can be argued that the phenomenon of increased employment whining, therefore, has this one bright, if not intended, consequence.
However, as we in the profession look into the next millennium, it is clear that an individual as well as a corporate response to the problem will be more important than ever. On the individual level, there are 10 professional principles which are sure to reduce the volume and attention paid to whining. (see box.)
At the employer level at the public agency or private company level these same commitments can be applied. Paying attention to these values and using them as the basis to review and redesign human resource policies will create the circumstances in which whining becomes less fashionable and less prevalent.
Imagine an agency in which recognizing employee achievement and service is widespread and normal. Imagine the boss who regularly goes out of the way to say "thank you." Imagine a fringe benefit program in which employees have widespread latitude to design the package which best meets their individual and family needs, making it a matter of strong personal desire as well as economics to remain with the organization.
The importance of supporting effective and innovative training opportunities for all employees is another key way to demonstrate that the elected leaders and appointed managers respect and value their work.
So is an effective intervention program when things in a persons life arent going well i.e., a strong Employee Assistance Program and a rapid response to critical incidents at work such as threats of violence.
As we look to our lives and our society in the 21st century, this is a great time to ask whether a very big part of the answer to the "whining" phenomenon which threatens to engulf all of us isnt as simple as focusing on and building "respect for others" into all agency programs using the principles described above?
I believe the answer for us as individuals, as HR professionals, and as public administrators and citizens is a clear "Yes." Unless we pay careful and deliberate attention to the underlying causes of whining, we condemn ourselves to continued growth in the number of plaintiffs lawyers orbiting government buildings trolling for business, a much less civil work environment for employees and the public and in an increasingly dangerous and uncivil society.
The choice is in our hands. It is fitting that the human resources
profession play a leadership role in this recovery effort. If we pay
deliberate attention to whining as a clinical illness in society, we can
avoid a future need to create a new federal agency the National
Commission on Whining.
(If you have questions for the "HR Doctor," e-mail him
Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County,