The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA


June 12, 2013

Today’s work assignment: Just be human

As regular readers of this column know, my last vacation involved a cactus and the unfortunate perforation of my buttocks. (Thank you for all the sympathy cards.)

So I’m pleased to report that on a recent trip to Disney World - aka “Mickey Mouse’s Money Vacuum and Perspiration Emporium“ - no injuries were suffered.

But I did have an interesting exchange with a Magic Kingdom worker.

My family and I - after clearing the requisite credit checks - had just spent $12,000 on four ice cream cones and were standing on the Magic Kingdom’s Main Street planning our next move. An affable young man came up and said: “Hi, folks. If you’re interested, there’s a really great spot to enjoy your ice cream right up around the corner!“

Though perfectly nice, this struck me as an odd way to say: “You can’t eat your ice cream here.“ So I said: “I take it we’re not supposed to eat our ice cream here,“ and he broke through his Disney veneer and said: “Yeah. That’s basically it.“

There was nothing wrong with this exchange, but it was weird, and it reminded me of my ongoing desire to see people in the workplace act naturally. It would have been fine if the worker told us we couldn’t stand where we were standing. But his words had been corporate-ized, sucked of any semblance of humanity.

He might as well have been an animatronic figure on one of the rides.

And that’s a problem in every workplace - too many animatronic people. Managers don’t speak to employees with the same directness they use in regular human interactions. And vice versa.

We devour never-ending waves of management how-to books, as if carrying out 10 simple steps is the key to dealing with our fellow earthlings.

I have a theory on how we arrived at this place.

Work has never been a particularly pleasant aspect of our lives, thus the name. It started as a simple necessity among prehistoric tribes, the need for communal cooperation and the division of tasks.

As we evolved and got meaner, slave labor made up the bulk of many civilizations’ workforces, eventually giving way to lower classes who were paid meager sums and treated horribly. Work was toil.

In his book, “Blood, Sweat & Tears: The Evolution of Work,“ Richard Donkin details how technological advancements brought forth factories and mass production, which required layers of management instead of one tyrannical boss. Along with that, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the concept of job satisfaction began to bubble up.

Donkin writes that psychologist Dill Scott, in a 1911 publication, introduced “the prospect of a more regulated, enlightened environment where care for human welfare is part of the productivity equation.“

Working people should be treated like people. A novel concept, and one we seem unable to perfect.

Of course, things have gotten infinitely better since the days of widespread factory line drudgery. But I wonder if, in trying to humanize our work environments, we haven’t overthought things. Instead of saying - “Hey, here’s an idea. What if everyone just starts being nice to one another?“ - we’ve opted for 18 billion pages of strategies on how to “amplify“ our “likability.“

There is good advice out there for how to communicate and how to manage. But I think too often we’re forgetting, or ignoring, what we know.

Obi-Wan Kenobi didn’t teach Luke Skywalker to be a Jedi by having him read “Maximizing the Jedi Within.“ He told him to use the Force. (Disney recently purchased the “Star Wars“ franchise, making this reference pertinent.)

So now, as the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the workplace, I am giving you an assignment: Find moments in your workday when you feel a canned response to a question coming on or when you’re about to behave the way some book told you to, and stop.

Trust your instincts. Use the Force.

Be a human being.

And then send me an email and let me know how it goes. If it goes well, write to If you get fired, send all notes to Donald Trump, 725 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022.

I want details, and I want your thoughts on how people can be themselves at work. I’ll share those ideas, and we can continue this discussion, which I truly believe gets at the root of many of our workplace problems.

In the meantime, I’ll be practicing with my light saber, purchased at Disney World for the low, low price of $9,545 and a kidney.

Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at or on Twitter RexWorksHere.

Text Only
  • The Color of Money: No easy way to get out of debt

    Many people who are deeply in debt are desperate for a quick fix. They ask the question: What can I do to get out of debt?

    July 21, 2014

  • Watercooler: When to speak up if you see problems down the line

    Q: Our organization has hired a new director. I am one of a number of division heads; above us, there's the associate director, and above him is the director. The associate director is feared and disliked for his duplicity and dictatorial nature, though few have come forward because of his vindictiveness.

    July 18, 2014

  • Career Coach: Bringing a purpose-driven spirit to work

    Increasingly, religious beliefs and practices of employees are becoming more evident in the workplace. Religious diversity and concepts of spirituality are more prevalent in organizational settings.

    July 18, 2014

  • Ask the Mompreneur: It’s best to farm out your payroll

    When my husband and I hired our first employee at our Web development company, we had it easy when it came to doing payroll.

    July 17, 2014

  • Protecting against unnecessary losses

    QUESTION: I run a small bar and grill which is open 7 days a week and have to rely on others for some of the shifts. How can I ensure employees have not become my partners?

    July 17, 2014

  • A checklist for keeping you focused at work

    A quick check of Facebook and next thing you know, a half-hour’s passed. Start chatting with a co-worker and suddenly 20 minutes is gone and the report you were supposed to finish by lunch is late.
    Workplace distractions are everywhere, especially in an age of social media and open-plan offices. In the face of so much temptation, accomplishing what you’re paid to do can be tough.

    July 16, 2014

  • It could be time for a career coach

    Need a little help figuring out your next career move?
    If you’re putting in the hours and still not seeing the rewards, feeling undervalued or simply striving to be more successful, it may be time to hire a career coach.

    July 16, 2014

  • Your Office Coach: Turn to boss for help with disgruntled underling

    QUESTION: When I joined this company a few weeks ago, I discovered that the person who previously held my position is now working for me. “Sarah” obviously resents my presence and frequently says I don’t have the authority to manage her, even though I clearly do. Her negativity has made my job much more difficult.

    July 15, 2014

  • You are not trusted

    If it seems like employers don’t trust employees - well, they don’t.

    July 15, 2014

  • The Color of Money: Beware of loan-modification scammers

    There are some good things going on in the economy these days. Just like temperatures across the country, the stock market has been hot lately. The economy added 288,000 jobs in June. The unemployment rate dropped to 6.1 percent. Yet there are still plenty of Americans who need financial help, especially with their mortgages.

    July 14, 2014

Business Video