This blog hasn’t evolved as I envisioned. It was intended to be a forum to showcase my quirky personality and demanding standards, particularly when it came to restaurants. While friends and family have long mocked me for my exacting ways, those at the forefront of the ridicule were always first to ask me for restaurant and hotel recommendations, confident that if I endorsed an establishment, it no doubt was truly exceptional. Hence the name Starkman Approved, a rating that I had hoped would eventually command more gravitas than the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval once did.

Then the pandemic hit and I stopped going out to restaurants. Even when things returned to normal, I stopped going to restaurants with the frequency I once did, as I no longer enjoyed the dinning out experience. Perhaps it is different elsewhere in the U.S., but restaurants here in L.A. have come to regard their patrons as ATM machines, expecting their guests to absorb their employment and business costs. It started with a surcharge for healthcare expenses, then a little something for the folks who worked in the kitchen, and then other miscellaneous add-ons.

Perch LA, a swanky downtown L.A. eatery on the 10th floor of a downtown building, last month added a 4.5% “security charge” because it’s located in a neighborhood the media would describe as “mostly peaceful,” but some guests find area residents a tad threatening. Even if I had the wealth of Warren Buffett, I’d never eat at Perch, as I regard the security charge as an FU and avoiding the place is my way of saying “back at you.”

Admittedly, I’m not the sort of stylish patron Perch covets, so my boycotting the place is a win/win for the restaurant and for me.

I’ve given some thought to relaunching this blog as the “American Journal of Hypocrisy”, as calling out the BS of companies and obscenely paid CEOs is my sweet spot. I find no shortage of examples to rail about. No doubt some will say, “but you worked in PR for several decades,” so let me address that.

The PR industry has been on a downward trajectory for many years, which is why I was forced to get out of the business. While there is a deserved perception that most corporate PR people today are just “liars for hire” fawning over their CEOs and spinning their corporations’ too often false narratives, that wasn’t always the case.

I worked with many corporate PR people who valued their integrity and the institutions they worked for. One was the head of communications for what was once undisputedly Canada’s most respected bank, a reputation that was much valued by the institution’s management. My client never boasted that he practiced “strategic” and “authentic” PR like the corporate spinmeisters of today, but here’s an example of how PR contributed to the bank’s unrivaled respectability and its profitability.

Given all the lip service the bank paid to ethics and integrity, the PR head thought it a good idea to see if the bank’s rank and file believed the bank adhered to the values it claimed to live by. The communications chief launched an internal survey he dubbed Say/Do, where employees were given a laundry list of values the bank said defined the institution and asked them if they believed that was true.

The findings weren’t as expected, but rather than ignore them, the bank’s management chose to address them. The upshot: The bank changed the business practices that employees said were questionable and it resulted in more profitability in the areas where employees voiced ethical concerns.

In the mid-90s, companies began to proclaim that they weren’t soulless corporations but rather caring and nurturing “families”. I always counseled clients to avoid making that claim because I knew there would be economic downturns and they’d look silly laying off employees they previously declared they cherished as much as their family members.

Ray Dalio, the founder of a hedge fund called Bridgewater Associates, would have been wise to heed that counsel. In 2013, Dalio made a “Family Reunion” video for employees who had worked at Bridgewater for at least a decade.

“Every one of these people here is, you know, my family,” the Wall Street Journal reported Dalio saying in the video. “I’ve watched them grow up, like, coming out of college and watching them get married and have their kids. You know, I didn’t behave any different to the people I work with than with my kids.”

In July 2020, Bridgewater hit a rough patch and fired dozens of employees, including some who were featured in Dalio’s “Family Reunion” video. In fairness, I could imagine Dalio firing his own family members.

Another BS chief executive extraordinaire is Marc Benioff, the founder and CEO of Salesforce, who long likened his company’s culture to Ohana, a Hawaiian term for family he likely learned spending considerable time on the island where the billionaire owns a sprawling estate. As noted by Peter Goodman in his book Davos Man, Benioff celebrated himself and his other overpaid CEOs at the 2021 World Economic Forum.

“In the pandemic, it was CEOs in many, many cases all over the world who were the heroes,” Benioff declared. “They’re the ones who stepped forward with their financial resources and the corporate resources, their employees, their factories, and pivoted rapidly – not for profit, but to save the world.”

Yet when activist investors began circling his company, Benioff promptly announced plans to fire 7,000 “family members” or about 10 percent of his then company’s workforce.

Many companies have wisely stopped referring to employees as family members, instead calling them “team members”. Some, like Bank of America, are so clueless in their “team member” references that they implicitly fess up to their PR dishonesty.

Fortune, May 8, 2024

Here’s Bank of America’s response to news that an employee who suddenly dropped dead amid speculation the bank was pushing its junior investment bankers too hard: “We are very saddened by the loss of our teammate. We continue to focus on doing whatever we can to support the family and our team, especially those who worked closely with him,” an unidentified PR person told Business Insider.

The teammate had a name, Leo Lukenas III, and he was a 35-year-old former Green Beret who joined Bank of America a year ago to provide a better life for his wife and two children. That the PR person only referred to Lukenas as a “teammate” and “him” displayed remarkable insensitivity. Bank of America’s PR folks can issue the exact same statement for the next employee who suddenly drops dead.

The most celebrated company for what I call the Kumbaya culture was Google, which was one of the first, if not the first, to refer to its head of human resources as the “chief people officer”, supposedly an acknowledgement that the “Don’t Be Evil” company viewed its people as its most valued assets. Google was once lauded as the gold standard of HR management, showering its employees with organic, farm-to-table meals prepared by gourmet chefs, on-site massages, and luxury buses to transport coddled San Francisco-based employees to the company’s offices in Silicon Valley.


Reading this Fortune story about Google today, I was struck by how the company’s management has forgotten the words to Kumbaya and reverted to less kindly HR practices.

Google last year unceremoniously fired 12,000 employees, or six percent of its team members, notifying many of them of their terminations with email messages in the early morning hours. In January, CNBC reported that Google eliminated hundreds of jobs within its hardware and central engineering teams and other areas of the company.

Google also instituted back-to-the-office mandates, and in February, Googlers were required to share their desks at the company’s biggest Cloud offices around the country.

Googlers were instructed to work on alternate days at their designated offices – Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays – so that one desk could be utilized by multiple people. Employees can come to the office on their unassigned days but are required to work in an “overflow drop-in space.”

It’s frightening that a company that is supposedly on the vanguard of artificial intelligence pays people to come up with these sorts of policies.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai these days talks like a callous private equity executive rather than the touchy-feely leaders of the company’s past, emphasizing the need to cut expenses and “driving efficiencies”, which are bearing fruit. Google reported that its first quarter operating margins increased to 32% from 25%, while revenues were up 15%.

Sounding awfully like UAW president Shawn Fain and his band of card-carrying members last fall during that union’s contentious strike, Google employees are demanding to know why they aren’t being rewarded with lucrative salary increases given the company’s success.

“Despite the company’s stellar performance and record earnings, many Googlers have not received meaningful compensation increases,” noted one Googler in a question submitted at an all-hands meeting with management last week. “When will employee compensation fairly reflect the company’s success and is there a conscious decision to keep wages lower due to a cooling employment market?”

Noted another Googler: “We’ve noticed a significant decline in morale, increased distrust and a disconnect between leadership and the workforce.”

Fain and his UAW members also groused that they weren’t benefiting from the record profits posted by the Detroit Three automakers in recent years. But that’s not the only commonality some say UAW autoworkers and Googlers share.

There are legions of UAW critics who question the value and work ethic of many of the union’s members. The same holds true for Googlers.

Shawn Fain/Facebook live screenshot

David Ulevitch, a partner with the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, declared last week that tech companies are rife with employees doing “fake work” and that Google is “an amazing example” of a company employing people in BS jobs. Keith Rabois, another Silicon Valley VC, last year said that Google and Meta had hired thousands of people to do “fake work” and whose only function was to attend meetings.

Ford, which claims it employs more UAW workers than its rivals, was considered the Google of its day. Founder Henry Ford famously more than doubled the wages of his factory workers to $5 a day to attract better quality employees and enable them to afford buying the products they assembled. Notably, when the UAW began its “Stand Up Strikes” last fall, the union’s first target was Ford’s most profitable factory.

It’s tempting to blame capitalism on how many U.S. companies eventually display a callous disregard for their employees at the first signs of financial headwinds, but communist China is much worse. In all my extensive readings about HR management, I’ve yet to come across anyone as remotely despicable as Qu Jing, who previously ran PR for China’s Baidu.

As reported by Global Times, a communications organ of China’s communist party, Qu posted a series of videos, including one where she criticized employees who refused to go on long business trips, stating she had “no obligation to know if employees are crying,” and no obligation to “consider employees’ families, as I’m not your mother.”

“If you are not satisfied with your job, you can resign. I will approve it immediately,” she said.

In another video, Qu warned, “If you work in public relations, don’t expect weekends off,” she said.  “Keep your phone on 24 hours a day, always ready to respond.”

The Global Times reported today that Qu has left Baidu in wake of the uproar that was sparked by her videos. My suspicion is that Qu accurately represented the values of Baidu’s management but didn’t appreciate that authenticity isn’t one of the hallmarks of communist China.

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