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National Association of Counties * Washington, DC            Vol. 30, No. 21 * November 9, 1998

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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 can’t 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 media’s channels compete aggressively to fill 24-hour schedules with stories of violence and victimization. Everyone worries about vulnerability and safety, about society’s 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.
Is the answer to be found in an armed militia, in a religious cult, in a move to the Alaskan wilderness? Is the answer to be found in a lonely retreat inside our apartments or houses, never daring to go outside?

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, women’s 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 person’s life aren’t 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 isn’t 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’ lawyer’s 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.

Ten Powerful Principles for Effective Human Resource Management

1. Create and share a "vision" of the work environment with subordinates, supervisors and as an orientation with new employees.

    Understand the value of the work being done. Communicate how the work makes a positive difference. Reflect pride in the work performed. Respect "customers."

2. Establish and maintain high standards of equity and personal honesty in staff relations.

    Respect the dignity, privacy and needs for security and a sense of contribution of every member of the staff. Respect difference and diversity. Praise in public, critique in private. Consider how decisions and policies will be perceived. Create a safe and equitable work environment. Don’t tolerate bigotry, sexism or violence.

3. Control uncertainty.

    Use clear, frequent and consistent communications, paying attention to performance evaluation. Let people know where they stand. Respect people’s need for security. No surprises.

4. Maintain a sense of broad perspective, not narrow "bean counting."

    Understand where you have been and where you are headed. Set goals and standards. Measure and publicize progress.

5. Encourage innovation and value of a "continuous improvement" philosophy.

    Status quo, no consideration of change, causes a sense of inflexibility which causes interpersonal trouble over time.

6. Take personal responsibility and expect others to do so.

    Create a "no whining" environment. Don’t "walk by" something wrong. Follow through on commitments. Expect others to do so, and let them know that. Be a cheerleader for the organization.

7. Develop the skills of subordinates.

    Share a stake in their success. Be a mentor. Encourage others to stretch and develop their skills. They will be improved contributors over time.

8. Say "thank you."

    Recognize achievement. Recognition and a sense of appreciation is as important as security. It is too often neglected.

9. Personally educate yourself about personnel rules and issues.

    Know where, how and from whom to get advice and help. Understand how the organization’s processes work and how to get things done. Understand why anomalies appear and how to overcome them. Make an assumption that others will want to help you.

10. Understand liabilities and the importance of reducing them.

    Be a "risk manager."

(If you have questions for the "HR Doctor," e-mail him at Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County, Fla.)

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