Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for January, 2008

Have You Heard About Twitter Yet?

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

You may be too busy worrying about workplace issues to have heard of Twitter, but I hope to introduce you to a whole new way of receiving and delivering information — as well as having fun. With this post, I introduce you to a new Twitter feed focusing on workplace stories, where links and commentary are delivered in bite-size chunks: 140 characters, to be exact. Too busy to follow and read blogs and your favorite news sources online? Twitter can help you digest information more quickly.

So what is Twitter? Many Twitter users have struggled to explain Twitter to non-users — it’s more an experience thing. Twitter was founded by Evan Williams, who also founded Blogger, which was used to create this blog (and literally millions of others) over 5 years ago. (I still use Blogger, in fact, although I may be making some changes soon.) The basic premise of Twitter is this: What is your answer to the question: What are you doing?

When I first heard about Twitter, I thought that it couldn’t possibly be very interesting, as the mundane details of most peoples’ lives are not terribly compelling to me. If you’re a Facebook user, it is theoretically similar to your Facebook status, which keeps your friends updated about what you’re up to. (For the hard-core geeks among us, it’s actually possible to have your Twitter status update in Facebook.) That in itself can be handy: a friend recently reminded me that we were able to see each other while traveling in Atlanta (even though it’s challenging for us to see each other in the DC area where we both live), because we had both posted that we were spending a few extra hours in Atlanta. When my mom was ill recently, word quickly spread without me having to contact a number of people.

But what really makes Twitter interesting is learning about what people are reading and doing. Instead of reading postings from dozens of blogs, which I’ve lost the ability to keep up with, I see in a short sentence or two whether a particular blog entry is something I’d like to read. If I’m not sold by the description, I quickly move on. Your Twitter friends can help you find the needles in the haystack that the Internet has become.

Another asset of Twitter is that you can choose your friends. Twitter provides a running list of your friends’ posts — similar to a news feed. You can choose who to “follow,” so that their updates appear in your feed. You see one of your friends engaged in what appears to be an interesting discussion with someone else. You then look at the other person’s feed, and decide that you want to follow them as well. You can quickly build up a larger list of people you follow, so that your stream is an ongoing source of interesting dialogue and commentary from people you know (or want to know). If it doesn’t work out, and you decide you don’t want to see a particular person’s feed anymore, then you stop following them: it’s as simple as that.

So where do I sign up? you say. It’s easy and free: just go to Twitter.com, and set up your account. It literally takes only a minute or two. Here’s the fun part: add @Qworki as your friend by deciding to follow me. That’s my employment-related updates. I just started a couple of days ago, but plan to keep that up on a daily basis if I can by posting the most interesting new articles and other random thoughts. (If you’d like to follow my personal feed, it’s @pbrantner. It won’t be focused on employment issues, but you can see who I follow and get a better sense of how this all works.)

I look forward to seeing how this new technology can be used to deliver the information you’re seeking — inexpensively and effectively.

Does Kinder Capitalism Mean Spying on Employees?

Friday, January 25th, 2008

Being the wealthiest man in the world means that people hang on your every word and scrutinize every action very closely. That’s the price Bill Gates has had to pay for his fame. But could Gates’ company, Microsoft, be in the process of trying to subject every employee who uses a computer to the same level of scrutiny? While Bill is making speeches calling for a “kinder capitalism,” a Microsoft patent application which recently came to light calls for corporate practices that are anything but kind.

At this point, if you’ve ever used a computer, or watched TV for that matter, you probably know who Bill Gates is. While some have decried his single-minded pursuit of world domination through the market penetration of Microsoft products, many have decided he’s a pretty decent guy after all, based upon the philanthropic practices of Gates and his wife Melinda through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Active in the areas of health care and research, education and the use of technology to empower communities, Bill and Melinda Gates were recognized for their philanthropic work in 2005, when along with the rock star Bono, they were named Time Magazine’s Persons of the Year. In 2006, their friend Warren Buffett, then the second richest man in the world, gave a significant portion of his fortune to the Gates Foundation under the condition that they give it away, rather than simply adding the foundation’s endowment.

So it’s not surprising that when Bill Gates talks — about anything — people listen. But interest is especially keen regarding his views on capitalism, considering that by at least one measure (total accumulated wealth), Gates is the most successful capitalist ever. This week in Davos, Switzerland, Gates addressed the World Economic Forum, an annual meeting to bring together global leaders to talk about the most pressing economic issues confronting the world economy.

At this year’s address, Gates called for a “creative capitalism” that uses market forces to address poor-country needs that he feels are being ignored. He says, “We have to find a way to make the aspects of capitalism that serve wealthier people serve poorer people as well.” (See Wall Street Journal article.) That certainly sounds good, and fits right in with the social entrepreneurship movement, which is becoming increasingly popular as those dissatisfied with the often harsh outcomes imposed by profit motives look for a different way to make the world a better place and mitigate capitalism’s worst inequities and excesses.

What, then, should we make of one of Microsoft’s latest ideas in development? The company recently filed a patent application for

a computer system that links workers to their computers via wireless sensors that measure their metabolism. The system would allow managers to monitor employees’ performance by measuring their heart rate, body temperature, movement, facial expression and blood pressure.

(See Times Online article.)

Having a bad day at work? Frustrated with a co-worker or your boss? Drank a bit too much last night? Had a big fight with your partner? Think you might be getting sick? Instead of professionally soldiering on at your desk and attempting to be as productive as possible under adverse conditions, instead you’ll have to contend with your computer knowing you’re not up to snuff. Invoking the spectre of Big Brother is pretty much a cliché at this point, but what else can you say about this technology?

If your employer implemented this system, Big Brother would definitely be watching you — and that’s not a use of technology from which Gates and his Microsoft minions should be attempting to profit.

Mandatory Arbitration a Violation Too

Saturday, January 5th, 2008

Jamie Leigh Jones’ legal fight against her former employer, KBR, a former Halliburton subsidiary, has attracted a great deal of attention, for the grave nature of her allegations against her employer. Jones says that she was gang-raped by her Halliburton/KBR coworkers in Baghdad, and then, when she reported the crime, she was placed under guard in a shipping container and threatened if she were to leave Iraq. What most people do not realize is that if Halliburton has its way, Jones will also be violated by the legal system’s inability to fully protect her. Halliburton claims that Jones’ employment is subject to an arbitration agreement which would prevent her from having her claims heard in a court of law.

Ms. Jones was only 20 years old when she went to Baghdad as an employee of Kellogg, Brown, Root. Her husband, Joseph Daigle, was in the military, and stationed at Coronado Island in California. She began work at age 19 as an administrative assistant in KBR’s offices in Houston, and claims that she was coerced into a sexual relationship with her supervisor, Eric Iler. She transferred to get away from Iler, and was assigned to a camp in Iraq. (Jones vs. Halliburton Second Amended Complaint).

When Ms. Jones arrived in Iraq in July 2005, she was housed in co-ed living quarters that were predominantly male. To use the restroom, she had to walk down a hallway to another floor, which meant that she was subjected to catcalls and scantily-clad men each time she left her room. Two days after she arrived in Iraq, fearful about her safety, she complained about her living quarters. She was told to “go to the spa,” and nothing was done to change her housing situation. (Jones vs. Halliburton Second Amended Complaint).

One day after she complained, she claims that she was drugged, using the drug Rohyphnol, and raped by multiple employees of Halliburton/KBR. When she awoke, she was naked and battered, with blood running down her leg, and showed other signs of sexual assault. She passed out when attempting to go to the bathroom, and when she returned to her living area, she found a coworker in her bed. She reported the rape to her superiors, and a rape kit was administered at a nearby Army hospital. (Jones vs. Halliburton Second Amended Complaint).

As if what had already happened was not horrific enough, once she reported the crime, the horrors continued. She was confined in a shipping container with a bed, with an armed guard, and was denied food and water for 24 hours. She was warned that if she left Iraq for medical treatment, she’d be out of a job. Jones said that her employers told her, “Don’t plan on working back in Iraq. There won’t be a position here, and there won’t be a position in Houston.” (See ABC News article.) She finally convinced a sympathetic guard to let her call her father, who once he learned about her plight, enlisted the help of a member of Congress, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas). Rep. Poe was successful in contacting the State Department, who sent two representatives from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to bring Ms. Jones home from Iraq. (See Rep. Poe’s Statement to Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security.)

It’s been over two years since Ms. Jones’ trip to Iraq, and little has happened as she attempts to seek justice for what happened. Rep. Poe assisted Ms. Jones in attempting to have criminal charges brought against her assailants. She was interviewed by an Assistant U.S. Attorney, and a State Department Special Agent is supposed to be investigating her case, yet neither Ms. Jones nor Rep. Poe have been informed about the status of the criminal investigation. (See Rep. Poe’s Statement to Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security.)

What about a lawsuit, you ask. Surely such heinous allegations can be heard in the courts. Unfortunately, that’s not certain either. Ms. Jones and her husband have filed a lawsuit which is currently before a federal district court in the Eastern District of Texas. (See Jones vs. Halliburton Second Amended Complaint). However, in addition to denying Ms. Jones’ allegations (which almost always happens when a case isn’t settled immediately), Halliburton/KBR claim that Ms. Jones’ case should not even be in court. They argue that Ms. Jones signed an agreement when she went to work for KBR which requires her to seek justice in the private system of arbitration, instead of court.

Arbitration is a process for resolving disputes outside of the public court system. It usually involves the submission of claims which might otherwise have been brought to the public court system for resolution by a private arbitrator. The arbitrator is paid by one or both of the parties involved in the dispute. Discovery (the ability to obtain relevant information from the other side) is generally limited. Although some arbitrators are expert in their fields, arbitrators are not required to be judges or attorneys, and are not required to know and/or follow the law that is the subject of the dispute. (See Workplace Fairness arbitration page.)

At first blush, arbitration may not sound so bad. Its use is promoted by claiming that it’s faster and cheaper than litigation, and involves fewer procedural hassles than court. And when its use is voluntary, it may be an acceptable way to resolve a dispute. (See WF arbitration page.) But Jamie Leigh Jones did not voluntarily agree to resolve her dispute through arbitration. She agreed to accept a job with KBR. Even if she recalled signing the form requiring arbitration when she was hired, although with the other reams of paper most employees are required to sign when they are hired these days, it’s doubtful that she realized she would be forfeiting her rights if something happened on the job. And it’s even more doubtful that she, as a 19-year-old accepting a position as an administrative assistant, had equal bargaining power to her employer. She needed a job, and if she refused to sign the form, she in all likelihood would not have been given that job.

There is currently a bill before Congress, the Arbitration Fairness Act of 2007, which would prevent employers from requiring their employees to arbitrate cases. As the bill acknowledges,

Most consumers and employees have little or no meaningful option whether to submit their claims to arbitration. Few people realize, or understand the importance of the deliberately fine print that strips them of rights; and because entire industries are adopting these clauses, people increasingly have no choice but to accept them. They must often give up their rights as a condition of having a job, getting necessary medical care, buying a car, opening a bank account, getting a credit card, and the like. Often times, they are not even aware that they have given up their rights.

(See S. 1782, Sec. 2) On December 12, the bill was heard before a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee. (See Hearing Transcript here.) Thanks to a live blog of the hearing, you can read for yourself just how flimsy are the arguments that supporters of mandatory arbitration made in favor of preserving the current system. Shortly after the hearing on the arbitration bill, Ms. Jones also appeared at a hearing before Congress, and was able to share her story with the world — something she couldn’t do in the private, hidden system of arbitration.


Civilian employees in Iraq already fear for their lives and personal safety on a daily basis, but they shouldn’t have to fear sexual assault from their coworkers. But unless there is the specter of the law to regulate their behavior, Jones’ attackers might as well have been given a “Get out of jail free” card. We may never know all that happened in Iraq that day in 2005, but surely Jamie Leigh Jones should have the right to seek the truth. And if the truth is what she says it is, there should be something she can do about it.

Nothing can give her back what appears to have been taken from her on that day, but rather than giving her attackers a pass, we should be working toward a system that has some deterrent value. As long as employers can impose mandatory arbitration on employees, they risk being violated by the very system that is supposed to protect them. Jamie Leigh Jones was already repeatedly violated — we shouldn’t allow it to happen yet again.

Other Resources and Information:

Give Me Back My Rights!
Halliburton Victim Twice Over
Take Action: How to Escape the Arbitration Trap

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog