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The prevalence of tipping is simply a fact of society. On several occasions, a friend of mine bemoaned the perceived necessity of tipping a specified amount to restaurant servers while dining out. He would ask the rest of our friends eating together at a restaurant, “When did the expected base tip go from 15 percent to 20 percent?” I’m not concerned so much as when cultural norms like these change, but how they change. Is it regional? Does a trend like this start among a wealthier subset and then trickle down to everyone else?

Most everyone who dines out understands that tipping is part of the unwritten agreement. If you can’t afford to pay and tip, you can’t afford to dine out. This social tradition has what I would expect to be practically full penetration throughout the United States. We’ve come to accept that restaurants do not pay their servers and bus staff a living wage on their own, and it’s the customers’ responsibility to bring that compensation more in line with a level necessary to prevent too much attrition in the industry.

With social media, the customers’ responsibility — or negligence — is clear. If you spend any time on Facebook or Twitter, or if you’ve seen any news programs covering entertainment, you’ve likely seen many incidents in the last year in which a disgruntled, undertipped server shames a celebrity by posting a copy of his or her meal receipt with a low tip. There’s two sides to every story; for every shamed, allegedly cheap celebrity or NFL professional, there is an allegedly disrespectful wait staff. It really doesn’t matter who is “right.” The point is that tipping in a restaurant, and tipping 15 percent to 20 percent for typical service, is a pervasive social expectation.

Hotel housekeepers may not benefit from the same, strong tradition of tipping as restaurant servers. An organization is trying to change that. A Woman’s Nation, an organization whose mission is to ensure that the value of women is recognizes and respected, is leading a program they call “The Envelope Please.” The purpose of the program is to encourage hotel guests to tip housekeepers one to five dollars a night, every night by placing an envelope for that purpose in every guest room.

Marriott is the first hotel brand to sign on.

And the hotel will certainly face significant criticism for doing so. If a hotel company blatantly encourages customers to tip, it is, in a way, admitting that it does not pay its staff a living wage. And if a large international corporation wants its employees to be paid a living wage, shouldn’t it be that corporation’s responsibility to do so? Shouldn’t it also perhaps be the industry’s responsibility to ensure it?

Of course, the idea of raising compensation faces the same old corporate obstacle: “If I raise the wages I pay, I have to raise my prices. I can’t raise my prices because I need to remain competitive.” There’s no doubt that it’s a difficult perspective to be in for a business. I have several friends who are not only small business owners like myself, but who also have a growing employee force, and they face these problems all the time.

I used to say that it’s the business owner’s problem to figure out, and if they can’t remain profitable while paying competitive wages, they have to come up with a different business plan. But I see that it’s often more complicated than that.

I’ll be honest. I haven’t always tipped housekeepers when I’ve stayed in hotels. That’s simply due to the fact that when I began staying hotels on my own, I had no idea at least a portion of hotel guests considered it normal to tip housekeepers. At the same time, I knew it was expected to tip hotel porters; maybe that’s because you see the “bell boy tip” in fictional entertainment so much, but never see the act of leaving a tip for the housekeeper in an envelope on the bed or nightstand.

This lack of understanding is the reason a non-profit organization focusing on the value of women would consider it important to provide some attention towards the option of tipping hotel housekeeping staff. But do housekeepers even need the tips in order to earn a living wage?

I checked Salary.com to put some numbers behind this movement.

In my zip code, a restaurant server gets paid a median hourly wage of $14, which was higher than I expected. A hotel housekeeper receives a rate of $13 an hour. In San Diego, California, both job types are paid a medium of $12 an hour. In Tampa, Florida, they both earn $11. From these figures alone, it seems that both job types require some additional compensation to make up for the industry’s low valuation.

Restaurants also know that customers will tip, so that is a justification for keeping pay low. As the idea of tipping hotel housekeepers becomes more pervasive, hotels may be just as willing to feel justified in the level of wage they pay because they know customers will make up for some of the deficiency.

According to one hotel insider, housekeepers are scheduled, at least in his institution, to clean 15 rooms a day. To a housekeeper, if everyone follows the expected guideline, she could walk away at the end of the day with between $15 and $75. If it costs very little to Marriott to put envelopes in every room every day, it could add up to a lot of extra compensation for housekeepers. If you assume the additional tips raise the effective hourly rate of a housekeeper by $4 a day, a hotel would not be able to match that through its own compensation plan. There’s no way a hotel could easily raise that pay of its housekeeping staff by that much.

With that perspective, it makes sense for hotels to encourage customers to tip. The staff will get a much better deal than the hotel could possibly offer. The only drawback is the potential downstream effect; more reliance on tips in the future might prevent hotels from raising wages competitively.

I’ll be keeping this in mind when I head to Louisiana this week for a conference and stay at the New Orleans Marriott.

Do you tip your housekeeping staff when you stay in a hotel?

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The events that happened throughout my life, the paths that got me to where I am today, present an interesting story. I refer back to pieces of this story once in a while here on Consumerism Commentary but I never focus on it, nor do I ever really provide a complete narrative. When I write, I prefer to focus on things external to me. Although this blog started more like a personal journal interspersed with my financial details and interesting bits of information about personal finance, like many other long-lasting websites, it’s evolved over time.

Storytelling fills an important role. A good story triggers powerful emotions in readers or listeners, and these can be emotions of connection (like sympathy or jealousy or inspiration). Humans are emotional, not logical, decision makers, so strong emotions can cause readers or listeners to make decisions they wouldn’t have made without that emotional connection. Emotional triggers are certainly nothing new. Charismatic individuals have been using storytelling for centuries to spread religious beliefs, gain allies, and sell products.

The best salespeople today are keenly aware of this effect and use storytelling to convince people to spend money. A good story can change someone’s mind; a great story can change someone’s financial situation. Sometimes for the better, but often not.

For Consumerism Commentary, I try to think of ways to encourage readers to become better consumers: to make the most of the money they have, to improve their financial situation through building income and reducing expenses, to move towards a better financial situation than in the past even if full financial independence isn’t achievable. And, at least so far, I haven’t used my writing to sell products to readers. Yes, I’ve written or published some product reviews designed to help people make good choices about the financial products they use, including a way for readers to take advantage of those offers, but those have been generally directed at people who had already decided to use those products. I’ve tried hard not to sell someone something that wouldn’t be appropriate for them.

Storytelling has a much bigger benefit than selling products — it can sell ideas. And that starts to get dangerous. An inspiring story about quitting your job to blog full time can easily convince people who would otherwise know better to follow that same path in search of riches. I know for a fact that my personal success has given hope to people, even if their reasoning might have been, “If that fool can quit his job and sell a little blog for an insane amount of money, a smart guy or girl like me can do even better.” This is why I don’t make a big deal out of my story. This is why I take my role as a business coach for select clients very seriously. I don’t want to see people make huge mistakes.

People often ask me if blogging as a business has a future. People every day are quitting their jobs, ready to tell their stories online, ready to find a way to sell things to their readers, and they need to know if there’s a future in blogging. In fact, my girlfriend, who is also a blogger, asked me about this recently, but companies have paid me to hear my thoughts on the future of blogging, even though I’ve often been happy to chat with CEOs about it for free.

They ask me because I’ve been around. I’ve been on the Internet since about 1989. I’ve been building various types of online communities since 1990. I’ve been building websites and teaching people how to build websites since 1994. I know how to manage UNIX servers so I’m familiar with the technical side of the Internet, but I’m also as well as the social side (and that goes far beyond “social media”). And I watch related trends pretty closely, and I see a future that is troublesome for the small-time independent web publisher. Today’s environment is not one in which I’d suggest anyone quit their day job to be the next big blogger. Not without a head start, not without the financial backing that allows you to effectively compete, not without something that makes it clear that success is imminent.

That doesn’t mean bloggers can’t start today and become popular. That happens all the time. But translating that popularity into a sustainable living, or even better a valuable asset with the potential of lasting a long time or being recognized by the market as an acquirable asset, goes from rare to incredibly unlikely. But people beat the odds all the time. In fact, people who are more inclined to ignore the odds have an increased chance of meeting those goals, at least partially. I don’t want to say it’s impossible. The danger is in seeing others who have done something impressive and expecting the same will come with a little hard work. Make a living? Maybe. Make a great living? Well… Make a fortune? Doubtful.

The inspirational entrepreneurial story that spreads the lie that this path is the best way to secure a financial future is often incomplete. And the reason I’m writing this article in the first place is because I recently came across a story from a few years ago that is a perfect example of this. It shows you that a smart consumer will always need to look for the questions that go unanswered in any story.

Someone I follow on Twitter attended her sister’s wedding a few days ago, and posted a photograph of the two of them together, beaming with happiness. The individual I follow on Twitter will become clear in a few moments.

For some reason, I decided to look for more information, to learn more about her sister. One of the first things I found was her “origin story.” The trend with superheroes in movies recently is to present a character’s origin story — well, entrepreneurs have origin stories, too. And her story is about as sweet as it gets.

Mary Riesgraf — that’s her name — started a confectionery shop, Sweet Mary’s, in Los Angeles. The business is registered to a home address, so there’s probably no storefront. These are the words she told AllParenting in an interview:

Sweet Mary’s was started out of pure joy that my sweets brought to my friends and family. I started making homemade sweets for holiday gifts and everyone kept telling me to start a business. I was afraid of making such a big commitment so I didn’t consider starting a business until Fall 2011. My boyfriend Leif and my three daughters (Grace, 11, Sarah, 10, and Emma, 8) were my biggest fans encouraging me to go for it. I am so glad I started. I have had a blast making sweets and I love hearing all of the great feedback from our customers.

It’s such a heartwarming story about success, and inspiring to anyone who is passionate about a skill and contemplating starting a business to focus and perhaps make a living.

AllParenting notes that she and her shop has garnered the attention of celebrities, making the shop an overnight sensation. Mary took an activity she loved and for which she had a talent, opened a store, and suddenly celebrities were talking about it. Not bad! The story refers to mostly actors who quickly jumped on her team and supported her as happy customers, like Jason Lee (“Earl” from My Name is Earl), Timothy Hutton (“Conrad” from Ordinary People), and Jenna Elfman (“Dharma” from Dharma and Greg).

I don’t want to criticize Mary. She’s done a great job — and congratulations to her on her recent wedding! The story is inspiring, but the interview neglects to focus on the huge advantage Mary has over a typical entrepreneur, tired of his or her job, feeling a pull to do something else with life. Mary had quite a few built-in connections. While she’s an actor and producer in her own right, her sister, Beth Riesgraf, is also an actor (and a talented film photographer). And the business was launched at the height of Beth’s popularity, as her show Leverage was coming to a close and fans were imploring the producers to keep the show running.

In the interview, Mary says, “My sister had tweeted about me and a bunch of our friends re-tweeted… It was explosive!” Today, Beth has 438,000 Twitter followers. I’m not sure how many she had in 2012, but I expect it was a similarly high number. If you want to be an entrepreneur, ask yourself how many Twitter followers your siblings have.

Mary also says about her first celebrity order, “Jason Lee ordered 150 of our Signature Caramel Chocolate Apples for his wedding.” The story of her success would have had less of an impact if she had said, “Jason Lee, my sister’s former fiancée and father of her daughter, ordered 150 of my caramel chocolate apples for his wedding a couple years before I launched my actual business.” Timothy Hutton, also mentioned as a celebrity customer, was Mary’s sister’s Leverage co-star. Sales or gifts, readers aren’t really sure what those orders are, but either way, they’re still in the family.

My intention isn’t to dampen the success of one particular sudden-entrepreneur, but just to show there are often a lot of details missing from our favorite inspiring entrepreneurial stories. This is just an example I came across recently, and one where I happened to know some of the missing pieces.

The problem is that a story like this can easily encourage someone to start their own business. Is that really such a bad thing, when the employment environment today is so bad and it seems to make a lot of sense for people looking for a better financial future to take matters into their own hands? Being a business owner does open lots of opportunities for personal, professional, and financial growth. But you have to do some market research and soul searching first. Don’t be swayed by inspirational stories. Ask questions! Get to the bottom of the issue. Find out why and how people succeed — not just how they say they succeed, because the true story is often much different than the marketing (and every story is marketing).

If you make decisions based on inspirational stories, whatever hard time you thought you had working at “just a job” could be much, much worse, when you find yourself struggling as a business owner. And then years later, when you discover you need to go back to the workforce, you’ll be in further trouble because you haven’t maintained your skills and have a gaping, unsuccessful hole in your résumé. Too many people are willing to be inspirational and motivational, and to be inspired and motivated, and too few people are willing to discuss realities. That just doesn’t sell as well.

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I’m in the middle, well probably the beginning, of a long-term organization project. I’ve accumulated a lot of stuff over the years, particularly since moving into a larger apartment seven years ago. If I want to live a more mobile life, I need to downsize somewhat. In this process, I came across a plaque I received from my former corporate job, including a note from the company’s CEO thanking me for five years of service.

(I never made it to ten; I quit that job to focus on my own business full-time.)

Do plaques and service awards help employees feel wanted and needed within a large company? Or is competitive compensation enough to keep workers satisfied? You can have one without the other — does recognition matter if you’re underpaid, or if you are meeting your income goals, do you need non-monetary tokens of appreciation? Do any of these things show that a company cares about you?

Does a company have the capability to care? And for that matter, does a company have the capability to do anything? I guess that all depends on what it means to be a “company.” Here in the United States, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that a corporation is lawfully a person, and in this way, protects people who act in groups from being denied rights afforded to people who act alone. A company does not feel, think, or act, but the people who comprise that company do. A company or corporation is nothing more than a group of people feeling, thinking, or acting mostly together.

You can look at a state the same way. A state is a conglomeration of the towns, cities, and other arrangements of people who live within the borders of that state. You can give attributes to that state as a shorthand for the people who live within. For example, New Jersey is a “blue state,” meaning the citizens within tend to vote in favor of the Democratic Party in national politics. But New Jersey is not a person and has no vote in itself. It’s ephemeral, an idea, a non-entity. It’s an arbitrary construct.

And it’s the same with a company. A corporation doesn’t often pay taxes. Its owners or shareholders have that burden. Bank accounts can be titled with the name of a corporation, corporations can own things, but only on paper. Everything traces back to an individual or a group of individuals.

When you say that you feel that your corporate employer cares about you, what you’re really saying is that the management enacts policies that meet the emotional needs of the employees or promotes a culture of empathy among its employees. When the opposite is true, when you feel neglected or ignored by your employer, you may feel like the corporation doesn’t care or is a bad place to work.

Executive management often finds itself between a rock and a hard place. Executives answer to shareholders or owners. They are the people who stand to benefit from the company’s performance, and are thus interested in maximizing profit and reducing expenses. Executives feel that pressure, while still having to deal with what can be a company’s biggest expense on paper, its employees. It’s those executives, not the shareholders, who set the tone for company culture, though.

This is illustrated in small groups best. It’s no surprise to readers that I’ve been involved in marching bands in high school and college, and studied music education, and have worked with a variety of musical groups. The group culture, the tone for behavior and performance, is set at once by the people in charge. In this example, the band director treats everyone a certain way, including other staff members down to the newest freshman. Other staff members pick up this culture of behavior and mimic it, and the members mimic the staff members.

This is how a corporate culture is transmitted. So even though the shareholders have the largest stake in the culture of a company, it’s the day-to-day management that transmits a model for attitudes and generates a company’s culture. Where culture is transmitted well, and that culture is seen as favorable by employees, those employees are ready to believe their company is a great place to work. Where there is no well-defined culture or a culture that isn’t respectful of employees, they take to online forums to denigrate their employer publicly (and presumably anonymously).

Most business owners I know have smaller businesses. They are not managing century-old corporations like the one where I worked previously. Most understand how to transmit a positive culture among people who work for them. But something happens, usually, as those organizations grow. More people are brought into management, more people to lead others. And it’s at that point that a positive culture can break or be diluted. When a successful start-up expands, and the founder realizes he or she doesn’t have the skills to manage a quickly-growing company, the owners often decide to bring in a more experienced executive, someone with the experience of taking small companies to the next level.

But if there isn’t a good cultural match between the founder and the new CEO, the fabric of the company can break.

And as that company grows, more employees come on board with different expectations. A start-up business with fewer than ten people at the core of operations can create a culture that calls for excellence at all times, no need for work/life balance, and personal dedication to the mission. But as the company grows with more employees, different expectations arise, like vacation time, health insurance benefits, and competitive compensation. This can be a gradual transition, or it can be quick, but it can be difficult for management to navigate this while maintaining the same corporate culture.

People want different things from their employer to demonstrate they and their work are appreciated. And as a company grows, it’s harder to keep track of what each employee needs. Thus, I can understand when a large corporation can’t quite figure out how to keep all its people happy. There are some pretty simple, but not always easy, solutions to this problem, but the bigger problem is that for most corporations, paying attention to culture isn’t as urgent as paying attention to the bottom line. Especially for publicly-traded companies, whose management has been trained to care more about their quarterly results than just about anything else, particularly anything long-term.

Keep in mind a “company” doesn’t care, but it’s the executives, those who manage and lead the business, who set the cultural tone. That’s who you need to communicate with if you want to improve the way you are treated as an employee. Of course, it starts with you. You can’t control anyone else, but you can, to a certain extent, control how you react to your situation.

It’s common for leaders, if they aren’t very good, to be unaware of how their employees feel, so resolving a toxic culture starts with communication with those who have the ability to make cultural changes. While a shift can come from bottom of the corporate ladder, it will find resistance along the way. Change must come from the top downward, because people are inclined to take on the attributes of those they would like to most resemble.

What would it take for you to feel appreciated by your company or by your corporate executives? Have you ever felt that corporate appreciate was just a show? Something for making a good impression on the outside while missing substance?

I’m probably going to throw out that plaque. Working for more than five years for that corporation means nothing to me except the one or two friends I’ve continued to have since working there, some experience gained working well in a corporate environment, and my opportunity to earn a master’s degree on someone else’s dime. Some of the top executives knew who I was, but I’m sure I’ve made no lasting difference in their lives. If I had run into the CEO in the office’s elevator, I’m sure he wouldn’t recognize me or know who I was, even I had received that plaque the same day. But at the same time, the company offered decent but declining benefits, a competitive salary, and well, a job when I needed one.

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Over the next year, Microsoft’s executive management plans to lay off 18,000 employees, including factory workers and those in professional positions.

Redundancy. As Microsoft acquired new companies, at least according to the news reports that tend to take a company’s press release and spokesperson responses at face value, they have the potential to take advantage of consolidated businesses. For example, when two companies merge, there may be no need to carry the legal team from one of the companies. The resulting larger company can probably function just as well with one legal team. Administrative departments can be merged and reduced.

There’s good advice out there about avoiding lay-offs. Make yourself indispensable to your company by working harder than everyone around you, gaining more knowledge about the organization, being involved in the corporation at a deeper level than what’s expected. But as good as that advice sounds, events like these — Microsoft’s decision to eliminate 14 percent of its workforce — are good reminders that you can do everything right, follow all the advice, and schmooze your bosses sufficiently, and still have your position end up on the cutting room floor.

Some time ago, I wrote about several signs you’re about to lose your job. These signs are all related either to your behavior or the behavior of people around you. But I didn’t mention factors that have little correlation to you or your performance. As 12,500 of the Microsoft 18,000 are seeing, simply being in a successful company, one that gets acquired by or merged with another, can signal a round of layoffs is on the horizon.

For the small business owner and employees who work in start-ups in today’s feverish start-up economy, it pays to be aware of this.

If your company has been acquired by another, one of the first things you want to do is start looking for a new job. Even when two companies that are roughly similar merge, there is a shift in culture. And that could be experienced not just by the acquired company, but by employees who work for the purchasing company as well. Changes like these shake up the employees and the management, and your routine may change. It could feel like working for a different company, not the one where you’ve been employed for a certain amount of time.

There’s something to be said for being able to adapt to a new culture. Many who do are able to eventually feel comfortable in a changed environment, and many of these with the fortitude to adapt will see themselves succeed at the new, combined organization. But you could still adapt perfectly without being immune to redundancy-based layoffs. Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do.

If your department looks like it could be combined with an existing department due to a merger or acquisition, if your role is potentially duplicated elsewhere in the company, or if you’re otherwise affected by a combination even if just culturally, start brushing up your résumé and looking for a new job. Don’t wait for the pink slip to begin your search.

You might feel that you’d rather be laid off and receive a severance package than quit right away, but if you do find a new opportunity that matches the culture you expect and is a good enough offer, there’s little reason to wait around. In fact, you can use an expected severance package in your current job as part as your negotiation tactic if you find a new job ready and willing to hire you.

At the same time, if you have the capacity, it’s always good to spend some time focusing on the potential for starting your own business. Years ago I wouldn’t have even suggested this. After all, most attempts at entrepreneurship fail and people who attempt to open small businesses often return to the traditional workforce. But starting up does work for some people, especially those who have high stakes and are motivated to keep trying. Sometimes, like I’ve found, you never know that you have the potential for business ownership until it just happens.

When this website was acquired by a large company a few years ago, I agreed to be an employee for the purchasing company, continuing to edit the site, work on related projects, and help the company achieve some of its stated goals based on my expertise. But before long, the company included me in a round of sweeping lay-offs, and it took me by surprised because the company had no other person to do the work I was doing.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. I still consult for that company today, as evidenced by my continued presence as editor here, but in a much more reduced role. It actually worked out better for me because it has freed me to do other things I want to do much sooner than I would have been able to do them otherwise. But as safe as I thought I was after being engulfed by the company, no one is ever safe. There’s probably nothing I could have done, no better performance I could have attained, no better networking with the decision-makers I could have done, no self-help book I could have read and internalized that would have changed the outcome. I’m pretty sure I still came out of the arrangement as the “winner,” but that doesn’t particularly matter.

Layoffs can happen to anyone, anytime, and the probability is heightened following mergers and acquisitions, regardless of which side of the deal any particular employee happens to be on. Like Robin Williams said to Matt Damon in the Academy Award-winning Good Will Hunting, it’s not your fault. Well, sometimes it is, but with a massive round of layoffs like the one planned by Microsoft, often it isn’t.

People who have survived a large round of layoffs will happily tell you their secret: the skills they have, the attitude they project, or the corporate political games they play that allowed them to pass through unscathed. I would ignore most of that, because there’s a great chance that many people who have done the same still saw their positions eliminated. There’s a tendency to think that two things are causally related just because they happen around the same time. In this case, those two things are an employee’s behavior and the avoidance of a lay-off round. But when companies make decisions like these, the bulk of the decision making doesn’t take anything like this into account.

In fact, if anything else, the decision is purely financial. Given two people in a redundant role, the winner will probably be the employee who costs the company less. And costing the company less is something that good employees rarely do because they’ve often successfully warranted and negotiated better-than-average compensation.

Have you been affected by a large round of layoffs at a company? What were your experiences?

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If You Don’t Like Your Job, Get Another One

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Expert [via Flickr]

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Would you like fries with that?

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Flu

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Dilbert

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Bored Girl

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Quantum leap

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Blogging Will Enhance Your Public Image and Help You Succeed

by Jim Wang
Ink, pen, and paper

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8 Reasons to Sell Your Business

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Handshake in suits

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5 Keys to Full-Time Employment for Young People

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Is Your Unpaid Internship Illegal?

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Printer

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What Happens When Companies Pay Employees the Best Salaries

by Luke Landes
Cubicle

I worked at a non-profit organization for a few years, and the employee turnover at that company was frightening. This particular group attracted young adults right out of college, like myself, who believe in the mission, work hard, settle for nothing short of excellence, and are willing to sacrifice personally for the good of the ... Continue reading this article…

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Debit Card Pay: Extra Fees or Money-Saving Opportunity?

by Luke Landes
McDonald's Pay Via Debit Cards

Last month, a McDonald’s employee in Pennsylvania sued her employer to receive all of her rightful wages. This was a class-action lawsuit for the benefit of all employees now faced with an annoying trend. Employers are forgoing paychecks and direct deposit in favor of distributing wages on prepaid debit cards. Here’s how it works. When ... Continue reading this article…

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