Leave Me Alone

by Matthew Stollak on Wednesday, October 28, 2009

As the health care reform issue continues apace, the notion of a public option with an opt-out would have a significant impact on many employers' benefits packages.

In today's edition of The Hill, Sen. Jon Kyl "said he supports the idea of allowing states to decide whether to opt in to a publicly run health plan." "The GOP whip said he prefers letting states decide whether to join instead of their being put in automatically."

The issue of an opt-in versus an opt-out brings to mind the recent book "Nudge" authored by Richard Thaler and Cass Sustein. In "Nudge," Thaler and Sustein discuss the notion of "choice architecture," the conditions under which choices are made. One example is 401(k) automatic enrollment for employees. By making enrollment in a 401(k) plan automatic, research found that greater retirement savings occurred than if employees simply opted-in.

In an interview at amazon.com, Thaler and Sustein discuss why people often make poor choices about complex issues:

There are three factors at work. First, people procrastinate, especially when a decision is hard. And having too many choices can create an information overload. Research shows that in many situations people will just delay making a choice altogether if they can (say by not joining their 401(k) plan), or will just take the easy way out by selecting the default option, or the one that is being suggested by a pushy salesman.

Second, our world has gotten a lot more complicated. Thirty years ago most mortgages were of the 30-year fixed-rate variety making them easy to compare. Now mortgages come in dozens of varieties, and even finance professors can have trouble figuring out which one is best. Since the cost of figuring out which one is best is so hard, an unscrupulous mortgage broker can easily push unsophisticated borrowers into taking a bad deal.

Third, although one might think that high stakes would make people pay more attention, instead it can just make people tense. In such situations some people react by curling into a ball and thinking, well, err, I'll do something else instead, like stare at the television or think about baseball. So, much of our lives is lived on auto-pilot, just because weighing complicated decisions is not so easy, and sometimes not so fun. Nudges can help ensure that even when we're on auto-pilot, or unwilling to make a hard choice, the deck is stacked in our favor.
Given this background, does have an opt-in option adequately address health care concerns? Behavioral economics suggests that such an option will likely cause health care to return to the status quo.


by Matthew Stollak on Wednesday, October 21, 2009

In his latest HR Gumbo blog, Steve asks “Why do you blog?” It reminded me of a recent Chuck Klosterman essay entitled "Something Instead of Nothing" (which can be found in his latest compendium of writings, "Eating the Dinosaur"). In this piece, Klosterman reflects on the interviewing process, and tells an anecdote about being interviewed by a Norwegian magazine writer: "But in the middle of our playful conversation, I was suddenly paralyzed by an unspoken riddle I couldn't answer: Why was I responding to this man's questions" As his books are not translated into Norwegian, nor would he be likely to read the publication, he thought about his motives for answering interview questions, and they reflect similarly to why I blog (no matter how infrequently it may be):

1. I felt I had something to say. Except I did not. No element of our interaction felt important to me. If anything, I felt unqualified to talk about the things the reporter was asking me. I don't have that much of an opinion about why certain Black Metal bands burn down churches.
Like Klosterman, I'd like to thing the words I write have some meaning to a greater audience; that the years of education and reading have some relevance to the world. However, in many ways I feel unqualified given my lack of true "real world" HR experience, and who am I to tell a practitioner or generalist about how to do his or her job.
2. It's my job. Except that it wasn't. I wasn't promoting anything. In fact, the interaction could have been detrimental to my career, were I to have inadvertently said something insulting about the king of Norway. Technically, there was more downside than upside.
Like Klosterman, blogging has no real impact on my job as a professor in that I am not going to be punished for not blogging, nor am I likely to be praised or rewarded for a great blog post. I am not looking for fame or money, or to gain future employment from my missives.
3. I have an unconscious, unresolved craving for attention. Except this feels inaccurate. It was probably true twenty years ago, but those desires have waned. Besides, who gives a fuck about being famous in a countryI'll never visit? Why would that feel good to anyone? How would I even know it was happening?
Like Klosterman, I wonder who I am trying to earn attention and praise from. Students? Co-workers? Fellow HR peers?
4. I have nothing better to do. This is accurate, but not satisfactory.
Like Klosterman, I blog when I have nothing better to do (which probably explains the infrequency of posts).
5. I'm a nice person. Unlikely.
Unlikely, indeed!
6. When asked a direct question, it's human nature to respond. This, I suppose, is the most likely explanation. It's the crux of Frost/Nixon. But if this is true, why is it true? What is the psychological directive that makes an unanswered question discomfiting?
I was prompted to start blogging by one Laurie Ruettimann. But, it still doesn't explain why I continue to blog. Being an academic, I suppose one enters the field for the very reason Klosterman concludes. There are unanswered questions one finds discomfiting that prompts one to look for solutions.


by Matthew Stollak on Monday, October 12, 2009

In this week's issue on The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell has a fascinating look at football, dogfighting and brain damage.

In the article, he cites a recent University of Michigan study:

...late last month the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research released the findings of an N.F.L.-funded phone survey of just over a thousand randomly selected retired N.F.L. players—all of whom had played in the league for at least three seasons. Self-reported studies are notoriously unreliable instruments, but, even so, the results were alarming. Of those players who were older than fifty, 6.1 per cent reported that they had received a diagnosis of “dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or other memory-related disease.” That’s five times higher than the national average for that age group. For players between the ages of thirty and forty-nine, the reported rate was nineteen times the national average. (The N.F.L. has distributed five million dollars to former players with dementia.)
Given this differential, has technology improved to address the issue and protect the player? Gladwell cites the influence of activist Chris Nowinski, a former football player who has experienced six concussions:
“People love technological solutions,” Nowinski went on. “When I give speeches, the first question is always: ‘What about these new helmets I hear about?’ What most people don’t realize is that we are decades, if not forever, from having a helmet that would fix the problem. I mean, you have two men running into each other at full speed and you think a little bit of plastic and padding could absorb that 150 gs of force?”
Last week, I had the opportunity to take my human resource management class to a tour of Lambeau Field and meet with a representative of their HR Department. It was quite the experience to see behind-the-scenes, walk on the field, and here about the business side of the organization. However, we did not get an opportunity to hear about the player personnel aspects of the organization.

A business like the NFL is unique in that it puts its key employees each week in harm's way. Certianly, these employees know the risks involved and, perhaps, the salaries they earn serves as adequate hazard pay for the work they perform. Brain damage is not the only health issue. Congress has looked into football injuries in the past and calls have been made to address this issue at the Congressional level.

Does the NFL have a greater obligation to protect its employees? Is the NFL Players Association doing a disservice to its rank-and-file by not taking greater effort to look out for the economic, let alone physical, well-being of its employees? Is this something that should be addressed at the high school or college level?

Your Silent Face

by Matthew Stollak on Friday, October 2, 2009

With the growing importance of social media, as well as its embrace by many members of the HR community, I thought I would add a social media component to my "Introduction to HRM" class this fall. Students were expected to join our class Facebook group, Twitter, LinkedIn, and SHRM Connect, as well as start a blog on Wordpress or Blogspot.

The first assignment was to use Twitter for 48 hours. Students would set up follower lists with their classmates, and they were required to make 6 tweets and respond to two of their classmates tweets. After the 48 hours were over, students were expected to post a blog on their experience.

I had expected students to take to Twitter like a fish to water, given its similarity to texting. Instead, students disliked the experience by a two to one margin. What might explain their resistance or dislike?

1. The use of twitter.com. I suggested students use twitter.com as their tool. Several of the students did not like that twitter.com did not allow them to see who responded to their tweets. Perhaps using something like Tweetdeck might have made it more user-friendly.

2. Few web-enabled phones. To truly embrace Twitter, one needs a web-enabled phone that enables one to post and respond at a moment's notice. While all students have cell phones, few had phones that allowed them to run a Twitter app. As a result, students would have to be "chained" to that desktop or laptop to participate.

3. Facebook. Students preferred the Facebook interface and were comfortable with it; that was their comparison point. Similarly, few of their friends were on Twitter, as compared to Facebook.

Again, the above experience involves a pretty small sample size and was primarily anecdotal. Perhaps there is a research paper in here somewhere down the line.