When I was a kid my dad had a Zippo lighter. Actually, I think everyone’s dad had one. They were standard issue to GI’s in WWII and no one could be the Marlboro Man – Ten gallon Stetson askew, wrinkled smile, cig hanging from one’s bottom lip – without one. That is, until that whole problem with cigarettes and cancer, emphysema, and all kinds of other health issues made smoking only slightly more socially acceptable than spitting tobacco juice while Uncle Lou gives the blessing before Thanksgiving dinner. People still smoke these days and some of them carry a Zippo. But the vast majority of smokers would rather flick their Bic than maintain a lighter. Cricket and Bic lighters took the disposable fire creating attributes of matches and got rid of the litter. Well, until it was out of fuel, anyway. Zippos needed TLC. My folks kept lighter fluid in the Kitchen cabinet next to Florence Henderson’s Wesson oil. I remember my dad taking his lighter apart to change wicks or maintain that mysterious little sparking thingy.

These days disposable lighters come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Plain, ornate, big, mini, pink, blue, and designer disposables from Ed Hardy fill the shelf in front of the cash register at my local convenience store. That last one cracks me up. Only in America could you sell a wildly blinged-out item that’s meant to be thrown away when it runs out of gas! But it’s not just lighters. Diapers are disposable, razors are disposable, cameras are disposable. Shoot, if you think about it, this laptop that I’m banging out this blog on is disposable. In a few years it’ll be way cheaper to just buy a new one instead of upgrading memory, drivers, or a CPU. So why are we so quick to discard these used up commodities? No more minutes on your cell phone? Toss it in the trash and go get another one when you need it. Toaster on the fritz? Don’t empty the crumb tray, just stop at Target and get a shiny new one. Short of the underwear guys have worn since high school and will never throw away, no product in use today is designed to be purchased and then maintained over the long run. You just pitch it and go get a new one.

Is it the hassle of having to maintain the item? Are we so busy that the Zen task of pulling apart a small appliance, massaging life back into it, and then carefully reconstructing it is too consuming and bothersome? Or is it the expense? Has the cheap, plentiful nature of replacement items made it easier to just toss the old one aside and get a new one? And then there’s repurposing. When cigars were hot you couldn’t use your Zippo, you had to buy a new expensive torch that burned special NASA formulated fuel that wouldn’t sully the subtle overtones of chocolate and road tar in your Romeo Y Julieta Maduro Reserve. Zippos, according to the standard paradigm, were for lighting Marlboros (remember the cowboy?)

Unfortunately, many companies now treat their people like disposable lighters. People, to their employers, are commodities. Nothing wrong with that; that’s why it’s called “Human RESOURCES.” Labor is purchased in the hope that the output will be more valuable than the costs of operation (wages, benefits, training, office supplies…) Back in the day, people were Zippos. You went to work at the local mill, or in an office, or at the store and 35 years later they gave you a watch, a dinner, and sent you packing in your Oldsmobile to some Adult Living Community in Florida. But somewhere along the line, employees became Bics. You didn’t take a junior employee and move them up, you hired a new person to do that job. Maybe it was technically beyond their reach. Or maybe it dealt with some new process or technology that no one understood. Or was it just way too much work to do what needed to be done to repurpose that person for a different job? People were a fairly cheap commodity for a while and it was easier to just buy a new one. I remember one job where I was laying off Engineers while hiring new ones at the same time. The old ones were really just technicians. They had some technical expertise related to existing products, but lacked the formal education and design expertise needed to create new products for new markets. In other instances I’ve witnessed the dismissal of an employee with no prior disciplinary issues because they made a mistake or took an action that was “grounds for immediate termination.” Fighting and stealing are reasonable. But I’ve also seen it applied to behavior that was determined to be an “audit risk.” Labor, then, is no different than Bic lighters, Gillette razors, and Fuji cameras. No different, that is, except for one glaring difference. Labor is personal.

Given the current state of our economy, new employees are more available than ever. Anyone who took an introductory economics class can line up their supply and demand curves to know that for now, labor is plentiful and cheap. Not only is unemployment still almost three times what it was before the recession, but “underemployment” or the employment of people in jobs that demand less than what they’ve previously done is on the rise. My guess is this will only exacerbate the tendency to view labor as disposable. Instead of investing in what they have to make the worker better, or repurpose it for a different use, or simply maintain it so it’ll keep working efficiently, short-sighted companies will feel it’s easier to just toss aside half-used employees for one that’s newer, cleaner, fuller, or just more blingy.

This in turn will create a feeling among existing employees that they need to look out for themselves since they could be one mistake, one poorly executed project, one personal emergency away from termination. Instead of seeing themselves as part of an interrelated team, employees are in competition to show that they are not the weakest link. In highly competitive fields that focus on individual metrics, the competition could result in cheating, cutting corners, or at least a bunch of nanny-nanny tattle tales vying for the boss’s good graces. This will ultimately limit the team’s productivity. When Laverne and Shirley discarded their cooperative shopping spree strategy for an “Every man for himself!” sprint to the finish line they ended up sacrificing a cart-load of winnings for Bosco and a box of cookies.

Additionally, this approach means that the path to promotion for existing employees will be stymied because it’s cheaper and easier to hire a new person that’s been laid off from a higher level job somewhere else than it is to develop an existing person and guide them through the learning curve. Not bad on the surface. Get some new blood in there. Look and the clusterfudge that GM became by eating its own young. But not every company is GM. Most companies benefit from procedural and environmental experience. Philosophies are developed over time and need to be passed down, or you end up with “Mission Creep” (the desire of the new creep to redirect the company’s mission!) At the most basic level, think about your own boss. How does it feel when that person has your back, and how does it feel to be hung out to dry? So, next time you stop at an intersection, look out your window for an old discarded lighter and then think about the people that work for you. Are you tossing them out the window as they dull, or doing what you need to do to keep their flames high and bright?

Lonny