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November 13, 2011

What is fair?

Many of us have said, or heard, that something is “not fair” at one time or another.  In childhood, it could have taken the form of telling our mother this when she wanted us to go to bed.  When we were older, it could have been uttered when we realized that we had a flat tire while headed to an important meeting.  Or, we could have agreed with a close friend that their supervisor had not treated them fair in passing them over for promotion.  Regardless of when we heard, or spoke it, we were probably certain about what we believed to be true.  Fair is deeply personal to most of us.

What is fair?  Is it simply treating everyone the same?  Or, is it defined by faith, understood through philosophy, or learned by comparing it to past experience, or by watching it on a screen?  Economists will tell you that fair is but one of several means to justify the allocation of, always finite, resources.  HR professionals might say it involves applying policies without regard to anything but employee performance and/or perhaps longevity.  When I was little, I thought fair was what Stan Lee wrote about and his characters, superheroes of course, staunchly defended every month.  Growing up in the United States students are taught in school that the country was founded, at least in part, because the colonists felt they were not taxed in a fair way.  Fair is many things.

Is what I consider fair about something the same as what you believe?  Do your friends, family, or even frenemies, if you have any, use the same standards to measure what they believe to be fair as you do?  Is fair the same in other regions or foreign countries?  If intelligent life exists outside of the earth, what is fair to them?  If you stop and think about it, really think about it, fair is complicated!

Another interesting thing about fair, is that when we focus on it the discourse is mostly about a lack of it rather than an overabundance of it.  I mean how many times have you heard someone, anyone, opine that something was really very fair!  Granted it does happen, but those conversations, or comments, are more the exception than the rule. Why is that?  If fair is so important, as it appears to be, why do we not pay more attention to it when it is present?  Is what we believe to be fair so fundamental to us that, like air or water, it is simply taken for granted generally, but felt deeply the instant we perceive it to be lost?

Funny thing is, for a word that most of us are very familiar with, many of us would be hard pressed to define fair in a way that others would readily agree with, though we can spot it in an instant when we see it!  Also, regardless of your definition, many people would probably agree that the world is not filled with nearly as many examples of fair as most of us would like.  Friendships have been soured, fortunes lost, needless lives taken, and countries throughout history have, and continue, to go to war over disagreements concerning what is considered fair.  All of this, over a deceptively simple word that really has no universally agreed upon definition…

When we talk about what is fair, the conversations are sometimes loud, can be emotionally charged, and, as mentioned above, may result in disagreements with negative outcomes for one or more parties.  The disagreements can involve anything from how observations of details are perceived to questions about how others would feel if they were on the receiving end of a situation, or decision, that is not fair.  Regardless, conversations about what is fair are often not pleasant to have, though certainly necessary, at times, if we are to be true to ourselves and what we each understand to be right!

Given the importance of what we believe to be fair, and the obvious impact that it has on our lives, both positive and negative, I find it truly odd that these aspects of it have not received more widespread attention.  Granted conversations about it do happen, mostly in college ethics courses, and I have no doubt that it is written about in low circulation scholarly journals, but those are limited in scope and appear to do little to add to the greater conversation and understanding.  I wonder;  is that truly fair?

July 16, 2011

Our last family vacation!

“We are going to take a vacation to Mexico” my mother told the five of us kids as we listened, most only half interested.  She said that it was going to be our last family trip together because my sister was starting college in the fall.  I do not recall the rest of that conversation as I was very young, but the outcome is permanently imprinted in my mind.

The next thing I do remember is all 7 of us piling into our brand new Chevy Impala and driving from our home in southern California towards the Mexican border, which was a couple of hours away (this was before the current problems made trips like this less desirable to take).  We crossed the border and drove to Guaymas de Zaragoza, a port city on the eastern side of the Gulf of California notable to tourists for its warm weather and many undeveloped beaches.  From there, we boarded a ferry, the Benito Juarez (I am not sure why I remember the name, but I do), headed across the gulf to Mulaje in Baja, Mexico.  However, after a few of days of fun, somehow, we missed the return ferry to Guaymas, but learned that we could take the newly completed Baja highway and be back home in a day.  This is where the trip took a really memorable turn!

We followed the directions and drove a couple of hours to the place where we were to connect with the highway. When we arrived all we could see was more dirt road.  My father checked with some locals and found out that the highway was not yet completed, but that the asphalt was only around 30 miles away.  My father had to be back to work soon and so we decided to go for it!

Unfortunately, that information turned out to also be incorrect – this was long before the days of cellphones and the Web, and no maps were available that showed the progress of the road construction in Mexico.  We continued on and, at one point midway in our journey, we ran over a large cactus that was half buried in the sand and had transmission problems.  Some ranchers were nearby and helped my father make the car drivable again (I never heard exactly how they did that with few tools and no parts).  Another time my mother was answering nature’s call when a bull started heading in her direction.  When have super-8 film of her running back towards us with the animal clearly visible in the distance!

At times we had to move large rocks to enable the car to pass the very rough dirt road.  At night, my father and brother slept on the hood of the car, while my sisters, mom, and I slept inside as we had no camping gear.  Along the way we passed a small village where my father was able to get enough gas and food to keep us going.  We also met some Americans in a dune buggy going the opposite direction who updated us on how far we were from pavement (still over 100 miles) and gave us some foul-tasting water to drink.  I am sure they thought my parents were crazy and, being a parent today around their age then, I can totally understand why!

By noon on the third day we finally connected again with the asphalt.  My mother literally kissed the pavement, which was not very clean but mom did not care (we have that on film as well)!  We ended up driving well over 200 miles on unpaved roads in the Baja desert, during the middle of summer, with 5 children, and few supplies.  Later, we learned that there were 7 species of venomous snakes in the region and the car forever after had a layer of red clay that permeated the interior no matter how well it was detailed.  This was no doubt deposited during the numerous times my brother was slow to roll up the window when wind gusts or passing dune buggies kicked up dirt and dust!

Mom and dad are gone now and that trip is just a memory from many summers past.  As mom predicted it turned out to be our last trip together as a family and it was very memorable, though not for the reasons that she had hoped.  Still, we persevered, worked together despite the occasional bickering, learned some important lessons, and have great stories to tell about it that never fail to entertain!

June 30, 2011

Job Interviewing Tales

Unless you were born into lots of money, you have likely had to interview for a job at some time in your life.  Many of us can recall without too much effort how we felt about the experience with nervousness being a common theme along with nausea in some extreme cases.  Whatever your experience has been few of us would probably say that it was fun or enjoyable; even those who consider themselves good at it!

My father, having started his professional career in personnel, would help his friends and members of the family by setting up mock job interviews.  We would later hear afterwards how these really helped the person to overcome some of their anxiety about the process and do well on it.  Many people prepare in this way or study the organization and review questions that they believe may be asked with varying degrees of success.  Numerous articles and books have been written about it as most of us recognize the importance of doing well in what amounts to an oral examination to get offered a job.

Some people, however, do little preparation and essentially leave everything to chance.  These individuals either have lots of experience, great confidence, or both.  The outcomes in these situations depend very much upon having significant amounts of both present to be offered a job.

Interestingly, there are also those who probably do none of these things and actually, for whatever reason, show up for an interview and do crazy, or irrational, things.  The outcomes for this group are as varied as their approach and are the subject of this bit of writing.  The below tales are from personal experience, though the names and some of the details were changed to ensure they remain completely anonymous which is important for reasons that are probably apparent once you read them.

Inseparable?  – It was an overcast fall day when I received a call from Mrs. Jones.  She said that she was calling for her husband who was scheduled to be interviewed for a senior management position next week.  Spouses sometimes call in my experience, so I was not too concerned when she started asking questions about benefits.  When asked what she should wear to the interview is the precise instant I knew something was not right.  After recovering from my shock at her question, I explained that interviews were done with just the job candidate present and members of the interview team.  She would hear absolutely nothing of that and insisted that she be allowed to sit in on his interview.  I told her I would have to get back to her as to whether we could allow it, but that I was sure that she could not.

My second shock came when I consulted with the hiring manager, a very senior person in the organization, and he said he would allow it.  When I explained my many concerns about allowing a spouse sit in on any interview, he patiently listened and then said that the candidate could significantly help the organization (in English – he had an extensive industry specific Rolodex that the organization wanted) and for that reason he would allow it.  At this point you can probably guess the outcome and so yes he was eventually offered the job.  He helped the organization as predicted but he also caused, in my opinion, far more problems than he fixed!  His wife continued to be as involved as she could, much to the employee’s detriment, though I am sure he does not know that to this day!

Pass the mustard – It was late-morning when a professionally dressed candidate showed up a little early for his interview.  The position he was interviewing for was a mid-career professional job and over the last few days the organization had interviewed several good candidates for the position.  He was in his mid-30’s and well-mannered.

I invited him in to the room and we began the interview.  He detailed his background as it related to the job in effective manner as I listened intently thinking at this point that he may be a good fit for the organization. Everything was going well when he casually pulled out a sandwich from his briefcase, un-wrapped it, and took a bite before I could say anything!  While he was chewing I explained that we could have a better discussion if he would hold off eating until after the interview.  He offered no explanation and did not get the message and so we continued the interview and he continued to eat!

After we were done he went to the hiring manager and her staff to be interviewed by them.  Afterwards, I was told that they would like to bring him back for a final round of interviews until I explained the behavior he exhibited during interview.  Once they heard that, they decided that the lack of judgment could be a liability and so he was not brought back in for another interview and he did not get the job.  I must admit the sandwich looked good but probably not worth losing the opportunity that he did over it!

Party time! – I knew something was wrong with this one when I saw the candidate run for the restroom, covering her mouth the whole way.  She emerged a few minutes later looking slightly green.  I invited her in and when she shook my hand it felt clammy.  When I sat down I made a mental note to wash my hands after the interview as I thought she might be ill.  I asked her if she was feeling OK and added that if she was not we could always reschedule.  She said that she did not sleep well last night but that she would be fine for the interview.

Midway through the conversation, which was going well except that it was obvious that she was not feeling well, she asked if she could take a short break.  No sooner had I agreed when she got up and walked very quickly (almost ran) for the restroom.  When she was gone I was feeling bad for her as I thought she was ill and was thinking of another way to ask her if she would like to reschedule, when I caught a strong whiff of alcohol coming from the area where she was seated.  Shortly after she returned we completed the interview.  On her way out, I noticed that she tossed a bottle in the trash.

The bottle turned out to be exactly what you would think it was (Vodka actually).  In this case, the interview panel did not select the employee, without even hearing about the above details.

The Auctioneer – John (not his real name) was a well dress man in his late forties was interviewing for a job in sales.  He showed up on time and had a pleasant demeanor.  After I asked him a question, however, he responded with a detailed answer but the rate of his speech would have impressed the most seasoned of auctioneers.  After a couple of more such responses, I gently reminded him that we had plenty of time and to feel free to use it when answering the questions.  He did not get the message and, due to his rapid fire responses, the interview was finished in less than half the time they usually took!

He was otherwise a solid candidate and would have been a good fit for the organization.  Unfortunately, he continued with the same rapid fire responses with the other people who interviewed him and he did not initially get the job.  I say initially, because shortly after the position was filled it became vacant again.  After recruiting a second time, the pool of qualified candidates was such that the decision was made to bring him back for another interview.  He must have received some feedback in between because the second time around, I was told that he spoke at a more natural rate and was offered the job where he stayed for many years and did great work!

Less is more right? – Monique was a 30-something, stay-at-home mom who was seeking to reenter the workforce after a 10 year hiatus.  She had a bachelor’s degree in English and had 7 years of experience working in operations.  When she was brought in to the office she was very professional and had a terrific smile.  When asked questions, her responses, however, were brief and with precious little detail.  When asked if she had anything to add (to try and draw her out) she flashed her smile but declined saying that she felt comfortable with her response.

Regardless of the question asked her responses were always concise and devoid of much detail.  She did not display any nervousness and her answers actually addressed the question but did so in such a way as to leave the interviewer wondering.  An example of this is when she was asked to describe her experience in Managing people.  She replied that she managed 3 staff members in her last job, two manufacturing coordinators and one specialist.  She continued that she enjoyed the work and would not mind being a supervisor again.  On the surface it sounds like a reasonable response but she missed an opportunity to provide information about her challenges and accomplishments.

She did not get a job offer, however, I saw her 3 or 4 weeks later as she was entering the building.  She had signed up for a temporary employment agency and was hired to handle customer service for the organization.  Several months later she was hired into a regular position, though not in the field that she interviewed for.

The early bird catches the worm? – It was just after 9:00 am one morning and I had settled in to work on a project for a few minutes before attending an important meeting.  As soon as I started to work my phone rang and it was the receptionist informing me that Ms. Wong (not her real name) was here for her interview.  I checked my schedule and confirmed what I already knew, that Ms. Wong was not scheduled to be interviewed until 1:00 pm that afternoon!  Showing up a few minutes early was one thing, but showing up 4 hours early was something else.  I asked the receptionist to send her in and that I would talk with her and find out why she was so early.

Moments later Ms. Wong was in my office and we were shaking hands.  I asked her why she showed up so early when her interview was not until the afternoon.  I was honestly expecting her to say that she wrote down the wrong time, when what she said was simply that she always liked to be early for appointments.  I explained that being a few minutes early was always a good idea but that most organizations scheduled interviews as they had other responsibilities to take care of that often could not be changed with no notice.

I informed her that she could not be interviewed until her scheduled time and that she would have to come back then.  She told me that she had no place to go, so I explained that there was a coffee shop and a library nearby as well where she could go.  She left reluctantly and actually showed up a few minutes late that afternoon.  Her interview was unremarkable otherwise and she did not get the job, though not because of her early arrival, but rather due to the fact that there was another more qualified person who was offered the position.

Job interviews are stressful events that sometimes cause people to do crazy things.  If you are ever in a position to interview candidates for a job remember these tales and be prepared to encounter all manner of behavior.  Equally important to note is, if you have a job interview scheduled, relax, prepare as you see fit, and try to behave rationally!

March 30, 2011

Waking up…

I was sleeping soundly like many of us do during the work week.  I was young and living far from home when I awoke to the sounds of a siren and a voice from a loudspeaker.  As my consciousness returned, I quickly recalled that I was not in southern California living in the college dorms at UCSB anymore.  No, I slowly remembered that I had taken a break from college to learn more about the real world and travel.  I had joined the Army, attended training in Texas and Indiana, and was now living in Germany.

The voice and sirens that I heard were coming from a military police vehicle and I was being told to report to work.  The voice also said that it was not known if this was a training exercise or a real world alert.  That is how I found out that the United States had retaliated on Libya in 1986 for, among other things, the bombing of a disco in Berlin that was a favorite hang out for soldiers like me.

This time around, my military service days are memories, which have been replaced by parenthood, teaching, and working on the east coast.  Though I found out about our latest engagement with Libya in a more mundane way, via the Internet, it reminded me of the very real threats that exist outside of our work-a-day lives.  Threats that many of us, even in a post 9/11 world, still appear to take for granted.

How this is going to end is anyone’s guess, though many, as always, are making predictions, but the truth is they do not know.  Meanwhile, most of us wake up to alarm clocks and start our days and only think about these things when we hear about them on the news or when someone brings it up in conversation.

As for me, well I am at a point in life when I am just content to be waking up to a new day, though with far less a sense of certainty about what the future will bring than I had 25 years ago…

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