Net Results: Time for PayPal boss to get a bit more slouchy

Louise Phelan’s suggestion that staff should be genuflecting to their employer is disturbingly Dickensian

Thu, Apr 4, 2013, 09:17

The head of PayPal Ireland, Louise Phelan, caused quite a stir a few weeks ago when she said she finds many of the recent crop of Irish graduates to be obstinate, arrogant, lacking in self-awareness and, well, office slobs.

Some of PayPal’s new hires “have a sense of entitlement”, expect the company to be “grateful” to have them, won’t put any effort into learning new skills on the job, and seem to have forgotten PayPal has given them a job when the rate of unemployment is 14 per cent.

In addition to this, speaking on RTÉ Radio’s John Murray Show , she had this to say about their general office demeanour: “A number of graduates don’t seem to understand how to carry themselves in a workplace, but more importantly don’t show an interest in learning how to do it. That could be something as simple as a person having their feet up on their desk or it could be arriving in for a client meeting looking like they were out all night. These seem like small things but they really matter.”

She added that she wasn’t sure if it was growing up during the Celtic Tiger boom that gave them this unwanted qualities, but noted that graduates who emerged during the 1980s and 1990s didn’t have this level of hubris.

What could lead someone heading up a leading multinational – and one in the technology industry to boot – to make such comments? They baffle me.

Let’s begin with those supposedly better-mannered graduates of the 1980s and 1990s. These are people up to 30 years older than today’s graduates, with extra decades of work experience. Of course they are going to be more mature and work-savvy.

But perhaps such a comment could only come from someone who was not hiring those 1980s and 1990s graduates back in the 1980s and 1990s. By contrast, I spent plenty of time in the late 1980s and early 1990s in technology company offices in Silicon Valley. And over here I started writing about Ireland’s technology industry from the late 1990s.

During that time I saw those work environments, and spoke regularly to heads of multinationals, as well as young start-ups. And guess what? I heard all these same complaints about new graduates in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, American or Irish – a sense of entitlement, a bit lazy, a bit arrogant – check, check, check. Case in point: the entire dotcom boom when fresh graduates also expected huge salaries.

Disturbingly Dickensian
The vague suggestion that new employees should be genuflecting to their employer for the bestowal of a job, and reminded they should be grateful because of high unemployment rates, is disturbingly Dickensian.

And it doesn’t chime at all with the majority of companies in the tech industry which I’ve generally found to be progressive and encouraging of employees.

With swathes of tech-industry jobs lying vacant in this country as well as in the US, the sobering thought of a 14 per cent unemployment figure just won’t have the same resonance it might in another job sector, though in my experience most I come across are delighted to have a job.

Which brings up the comments on office demeanour. Excuse me for not really getting this one, but I have been to hundreds of technology company offices around the world, and many of the leading multinationals and start-ups consider a casual and non-authoritarian office – even a playful and silly one – to be not just a norm but an industry benchmark.

In tech offices I have seen plenty of feet on desks, behinds on beanbags, bodies lying on their backs with earphones on...for that matter, people playing Fussball, skateboarding through the office or sliding down indoor fireman’s poles connecting floors.

I fully understand that this type of slouchiness is not acceptable in many offices, especially those outside the tech sector, but it surprised me that feet on desks was actually an irritant at PayPal. Really?

If it is then surely it says more about corporate management than new graduates? That’s where acceptable office norms are set and enforced. Without them a new employee might mistakenly assume they were going into an environment like, say, Google’s, where I cannot imagine occasional feet on desks as a hanging offence.

Maybe the disconnect that I see in comments such as these, coming from a major technology company (and a Silicon Valley one too), are due to Ms Phelan’s background being primarily in finance and working with GE Capital until moving to PayPal in 2007.

Or maybe PayPal is really more finance company than technology company, with finance industry expectations?

These comments seemed to lack any sense of history (I am sure managers said the same of new graduates in the 1940s) or industry context (if you tout a “work hard, play hard” tech-industry environment then you’d better be clear on how your environment differs from others on the “play” side).

For PayPal I think the bottom line is that the comments are truly counter-productive to recruiting new employees. Which is what, in the end, still surprises me most about them.

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