Emails to International Duke Students Sparks Controversy

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Faculty at Duke University Medical Center have been criticized for asking international students to speak only English. The controversy started when an administrator of the biostatistics program sent an email after hearing complaints from faculty members that Chinese students were speaking “VERY LOUDLY” in their native language in “student lounge/study areas.” The faculty expressed concern that students “were not taking the opportunity to improve their English and were being so impolite.”

Also in the email, the administrator said that faculty asked for students’ names so that they might deny them job and project opportunities.

Students took offense and started a petition. In response, the administrator of the program stepped down from her position, and the university posted a letter to students in the program.

Discussion:

  • What’s your view of international students speaking in their native language at an American University?

  • Was the administrator out of line? Why or why not?

  • How do you assess the university’s response to the controversy?

  • What leadership character dimensions are at play?

Starbucks CEO Draws His Own Path

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Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson is identifying his own vision for the company—apart from Howard Schultz’s plan. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Johnson said that the previous plan to open about 1,000 Reserve cafes will be piloted with just a few stores. Reserve stores deliver a higher-end experience, selling artisanal products and cocktails.

The change is one example of how Johnson is distinguishing himself from Schultz, who was the company CEO for about 30 years. According to the article, Johnson often started meetings with, “I’m not Howard. I’m Kevin.” A couple of weeks after Schultz left, Johnson said about the business strategy, “Certainly, I tend to bring a much more disciplined approach to picking the priorities.”

Starbucks Reserve image source.
Kevin Johnson image source.

Discussion:

  • Is it important for Johnson to distinguish himself from Schultz? Why or why not?

  • Read more about Johnson as the new CEO. How well is he handling the transition? What, if anything, should he do differently? He’s in a tough spot, wanting to create his own path but needing to be respectful to the previous leadership.

T-Mobile Replaces Automated Systems with People

In a new marketing campaign, T-Mobile promises more personal service: “Real customer service takes real people.” By introducing a “team of experts,” the company wants customers to reach actual people instead of spending too much time waiting for voice prompts and replies.

The message is clear on T-Mobile’s website and in the results. The company acquired 2.4 million new customers in the fourth quarter of 2018 compared to Verizon’s 600,000.

Humor is one strategy the company is using to steal rivals’ business. A 4.5-minute commercial shows actor Rainn Wilson trying to navigate a company’s voice response system. We can all relate: the system doesn’t understand us, we get transferred around—and then our phone battery dies. The video ends with this message:

“Calling customer service is the worst. The best customer service in wireless just got better. No bots. No bouncing. No BS.”

Discussion:

  • What are the risks of using humor for persuasive messages? How well do you think it works in this case? Why or why not?

  • What is your experience with voice response systems? When have you received exceptional service via the phone?

  • To what extent would the ability to reach a person right away influence your decision to do business with a company?

Congresswoman Responds to Criticism

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Some Republicans are having a tough time with newly appointed NY Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and she is firing back. Ocasio-Cortez complained about being unable to afford housing in D.C. until her salary went into effect, and critics commented on her expensive-looking clothing. When she stood up to vote for Nancy Pelosi as house speaker, Ocasio-Cortez was booed.

A Twitter user posted a video of her dancing at Boston University. Although the account has seen been deleted, the video went viral with the text, “Here is America’s favorite commie know-it-all acting like a clueless nitwit she is.” Ocasio-Cortez shot back a new video of her dancing to a couple of bars of the 1969 song “War.” Reactions have been mostly positive, with some conservative groups saying they thought the original video was “cute” and that negative reactions were overstated.

As the youngest woman elected to Congress, Ocasio-Cortez has a few hurdles to pass. She is 29 years old, represents the Queens-Bronx section of NY, and is an advocate for the working class.

Image source.

Discussion:

  • What’s your view of Ocasio-Cortez’s initial video and her response?

  • In what ways is the congresswoman demonstrating authenticity? Or do you see it as something else?

  • Review several of Ocasio-Cortez’s tweets. How do you assess her social media use? What advice would you offer her?

Robots Screen Candidates' Social Media

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A Wall Street Journal video explains how DeepSense uses artificial intelligence to analyze a job candidate’s personality. When companies post a job, recruiters or hiring managers identify what is most important for success; for example, how important is teamwork or project management? DeepSense then looks at a candidate’s social media profile to assess personality.

Founder Amarpreet Kalkat explains that the system may review a social media profile for only six seconds and will generate a report about the applicant’s DISC profile (a personality assessment) and “Big Five” personality traits. Using psycholinguistics, the computer analyzes language the candidate uses.

Kalkat says their results are 75% accurate, while traditional personality tests are 82% accurate.

Discussion:

  • What’s your view of using AI in this way? How confident would you be applying for a job that uses this technology?

  • How relevant is personality to a position? What are the advantages to a company of using such a system, and what are the potential disadvantages?

  • The video refers to “DeepSense,” but the website shows “DeeperSense.” How do you explain the discrepancy?

Acting Attorney General's Credentials Questioned

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Acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker seems to have inflated his self-description as an “Academic All-American.” The title appeared on a bio for his previous law firm’s website, on an application for a judge position in 2010, and on a resume discovered from 2014.

Whitaker played football at the University of Iowa for two years, but he didn’t receive the official honor, according to the organization that grants the title. In 1992, the title went to another Iowa player.

Part of the confusion may be caused by a media guide produced by the university. An assistant athletic director admitted to describing Whitaker as “District VII academic All-American,” which is not correct.

Whitaker image source. Resume icon image.

Discussion:

  • The Wall Street Journal report doesn’t include a quotation from Whitaker. What, if anything, should Whitaker say to defend himself?

  • What on your resume could be called into question? Have you exaggerated any of your experience that could be discovered? Should you change anything to be more accurate?

  • How is this situation an issue of integrity? What other character dimensions could be at play here?

Google Translate Decreases Bias

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In the past, if you entered “o bir doktor” in Turkish into Google Translate, you would get the result: “He is a doctor.” In a blog post, the company explained that translations were based on common usage, so “it would skew masculine for words like strong or doctor, and feminine for other words, like nurse or beautiful.”

Now, Google Translate will offer both a masculine and a feminine possible translation. The company plans more changes: “We're already thinking about how to address non-binary gender in translations, though it’s not part of this initial launch.”

A Gmail product manager identified the gender-bias problem in the Smart Compose technology, which is used to predict what users will type. Computer-generated follow-up questions to “I am meeting an investor next week,” included “Do you want to meet him?”

Gender pronouns is one issue AI programmers want to solve to improve natural language generation (NLG), which finishes our sentences for us.

Discussion:

  • What’s your experience with NLG? For example, how helpful do you find Gmail’s suggestions for finishing your sentences in email?

  • What’s your view of Google’s attempt to decrease gender bias? Is this a worthy goal? Why or why not?

Too British for British Ads

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British standards for voice personalities are changing. As one actor says, “I’m too posh, too middle class, too white, too male.” Jon Briggs was a popular choice for advertisements and is currently the British Siri.

But according to a Wall Street Journal article, voices like Briggs are “out of vogue.” Companies want voices that are less “commanding, elite-sounding” and “froufrou”:

For British consumers, the stiff-upper-lip speaking style of the nobility, where vowels are slightly flattened—so “happy” sounds like “heppy”—has become negatively associated with authority and privilege.

One ad executive said today’s jobs are going to those who are “able to hold a conversation . . . in a pub.” Companies are looking for voices that reflect the diversity of Britain, particularly, as the article says, “people from working-class backgrounds.”

British image source. Microphone image source.

Discussion:

  • With what types of British accents are you familiar? What’s your perception of people with those accents?

  • How does this article translate to the United States? What are the most common accents you hear in TV ads? Listen to a few examples. What does the person’s accent say about the brand?

  • Explain the relevance of authenticity or authentic communication to this story.

One Way to Increase Understanding

Wanting a break from technology, singer and songwriter Gabriel Kahane traveled the United States by train, meeting people and hearing their stories. Right after the 2016 presidential election, Kahane rode Amtrak trains for almost 9,000 miles to understand how people across the country think and feel.

Kahane describes his strategy for what he calls “radical empathy”:

I set some ground rules for myself when I was on the train. One of the things that I was really interested in doing wasn't arguing with people. And I think that that is sort of one of the fundamental problems that we face right now, is this idea we all sort of have contempt for the other side.

We say, well, I just can't engage with that person. And there were some cases where I failed, and I would then go back to my sleeper car and write in my journal: You argued. You said you weren't going to do that.

Kahane challenges how much importance we place on “efficiency.” He says that downtime gives us space to reflect about shared, complex problems: “I think there's a real consequence to not having that space to just sit silently and think, what is it to be in this other person's body.”

Image source.

Discussion:

  • What’s your view of “radical empathy,” as Kahane describes it? What is the value, and what are the downsides of his approach?

  • What character dimensions does Kahane illustrate in this story?

News Conference About Shooting

A former marine shot 12 people in a California bar, and local officials delivered a news conference. Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean spoke first (about 5:00 on the video) to explain officers’ response and what they knew at the time.

We see the sheriff get emotional when answering questions about his deputy, Sergeant Ron Helus, who also died.

The shooting was particularly painful for people at the bar who also survived the Las Vegas shooting about a year ago. One young man, Telemachus Orfanos, survived the earlier incident but not this one.

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Discussion:

  • Assess Sheriff Dean’s statement for content, organization, and delivery. What worked well, and what, if anything, could be improved?

  • Assess how well Sheriff Dean responded to media questions.

Google Employees Protest Sexual Harassment

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Thousands of employees walked out of more than 20 Google offices around the world on Thursday to protest how the company handled sexual harassment charges. Employees in California, Berlin, Dublin, London, Singapore, Tokyo, Zurich, and other locations organized under the group, “Google Walkout For Real Change‏.”

The reaction came after a New York Times article revealed several senior-level managers left the company, quietly, because of sexual harassment. Some were given large financial payouts.

In addition to a more transparent process, employees are asking for an end to pay equity and forced arbitration, which requires employees to settle cases within the company and denies them the right to sue.

In response to the walkouts, CEO Sundar Pichai said, “Employees have raised constructive ideas for how we can improve our policies and our processes going forward. We are taking in all their feedback so we can turn these ideas into action.”

Image source.

Discussion:

  • How do you view the walkouts: a waste of time, overstepping, a productive way to protest, or something else? Respond to the same question for their list of demands.

  • What, if any, impact do you think the walkouts will have on company practices? Googlers did encourage the company’s decision to end an artificial intelligence contract with the Defense Department.

  • What leadership character dimensions are illustrated by the situation?

Do Women Overuse Exclamation Points?

They sure do! But a Wall Street Journal article says women are expected to use more exclamation points, and they face a dilemma:

Male bosses who write in blunt, terse prose aren’t noticed much. Plenty of management research has shown, though, that women bosses tread a thin line. Too few softeners like exclamation points, and they’re viewed as hard and unfeeling; too many, and they lack gravitas.

The authors of a Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication article conclude that the exclamation point isn’t as much a “marker of excitability,” as former research claims, but is more about “friendly interaction.” They also found that 73% of exclamations were made by women and 26% by men.

A Wall Street Journal video shows three female executives talking about their own use of exclamation points. Barbara Corcoran, of Shark Tank fame, says women use the mark partly because they want to please others, while men, particularly senior-level men, “don’t even bother to put a period at the end.”

Advice varies, but for business communication, you might use the mark sparingly. Corcoran says she assumes women who use a lot of exclamation points are insecure and know they are unlikely to get what they ask.

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But for friendly communications, one or two are okay. Corcoran also suggests, as does a previous WSJ article, that exclamation marks may be appreciated by people who report to you. This is illustrated in the tweet here.

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Discussion:

  • How do you use exclamation points?

  • Have you noticed a difference between how men and women use the mark?

  • Will this article change how you use the mark?

Emotions and Political Views After Synagogue Shooting

A shooter killed eleven people and wounded several others, including three police officers, in a Pittsburgh synagogue. Officials report that the act was motivated by hate, and the shooter is quoted saying, “I just want to kill Jews.” The Washington Post calls it, “The deadliest attack on Jews in the history of the United States.”

President Trump condemned the shootings: “This wicked act of mass murder is pure evil . . . . hard to believe and, frankly, something that is unimaginable.” The president also promoted the idea of armed guards: “If there were an armed guard inside the temple, they would have been able to stop them. Maybe there would have been nobody killed except for him, frankly.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto disputed this view: “The approach we need to be looking at is how we take the guns—the common denominator of every mass shooting in America—out of the hands of those looking to express hatred through murder.”

During a news conference, Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich gave an emotional statement, calling the crime scene “horrific.”

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Discussion:

  • We see Hissrich’s emotions during the news conference. He demonstrates authenticity and vulnerability. How do you view his delivery?

  • President Trump’s comments during this time are controversial. What’s your view? How might your own feelings about gun advocacy or gun control affect your perspective?

Megyn Kelly Terminated from NBC

NBC Today Show host Megyn Kelly said she thought it was acceptable to wear blackface for Halloween. Kelly might need to brush up on the history of blackface, which started in minstrel shows in the 1800s. Then, like now, blackface reinforced racial stereotypes and was terribly demeaning to black people.

Kelly apologized on the show, but people were still upset. Her colleague, Al Roker, said “she owes a bigger apology to folks of color around the country.” NBC waited two days, but insiders say she will be terminated.

Here’s the full text of her email to NBC staff:

Dear friends & teammates –

One of the wonderful things about my job is that I get the chance to express and hear a lot of opinions. Today is one of those days where listening carefully to other points of view, including from friends and colleagues, is leading me to rethink my own views.

When we had the roundtable discussion earlier today about the controversy of making your face look like a different race as part of a Halloween costume, I suggested that this seemed okay if done as part of this holiday where people have the chance to make themselves look like others. The iconic Diana Ross came up as an example. To me, I thought, why would it be controversial for someone dressing up as Diana Ross to make herself look like this amazing woman as a way of honoring and respecting her?

I realize now that such behavior is indeed wrong, and I am sorry. The history of blackface in our culture is abhorrent; the wounds too deep.

I’ve never been a “pc” kind of person — but I understand that we do need to be more sensitive in this day and age. Particularly on race and ethnicity issues which, far from being healed, have been exacerbated in our politics over the past year. This is a time for more understanding, love, sensitivity and honor, and I want to be part of that. I look forward to continuing that discussion.

I’m honored to work with all of you every day.

Love,

Mk

Image source.

Discussion:

  • What’s your view of Kelly’s original comments?

  • Assess Kelly’s email. Do you find her apology meaningful, insincere, or something else?

  • Did NBC do the right thing by firing her? Why or why not?

  • We await a statement from NBC. Draft one on behalf of the company.

  • Which leadership character dimensions are illustrated by this situation?

Harvard Admissions Case In Progress

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The class action lawsuit against Harvard University has begun, with the defendant’s arguments focused on the value of diversity. The university is charged with discriminating against Asian-Americans based on its “race-conscious” policy.

In the closely watched case in Boston, the plaintiff argued that Harvard’s system of rating students on academic achievement, athletic ability, extracurriculars, and personality encourages skewed ratings in the last category based on race. The plaintiff attorney said, “Diversity is not on trial here,” and instead explained that Asian-American applicants are admitted at lower rates than they would be based on their academic achievement.

Harvard sent letters to students in underrepresented states if they scored well on their PSATs. But the encouragement to apply varied based on race. White students needed at least 1310 on the verbal and math sections in these states; however, nationwide, Black, Hispanic, and Native American students needed at least 1100. For Asian-American students, the threshold was higher: 1350 for females and 1380 for males.

Harvard defended its practices, claiming the university “cannot achieve educational goals without considering race.” The defendant’s attorney gave the diverse courtroom as an example of the benefit of the university’s policy. Also in defense, a representative from the NAACP said, “A colorblind approach means that you close your eyes to the full lived experiences of applicants.” Part of Harvard’s defense is that people cannot be separated from their race—it is part of the whole of who they are.

Harvard image source. Harvard library image source.

Discussion:

  • What’s your view of Harvard’s admissions policy?

  • How might you have been advantaged or disadvantaged by affirmative action practices in applying to school or to jobs? How, if at all, does your experience factor into your perspective?

  • The plaintiffs argue that Harvard is secretive about its approach. What is the value of keeping an admissions policy private, and how could this privacy be harmful?

Brené Brown on "Who You Are at Work"

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An interview with Brené Brown, a researcher at University of Houston, reminds us to bring our whole selves to work. According to Brown, we need all of ourselves to solve problems.

Brown encourages people to create a culture where people can lose their armor, which she considers most damaging to relationships. When people protect themselves rather than allow themselves to be vulnerable, they miss opportunities for connection.

Brown defines vulnerability as “the willingness to be ‘all in’ even when you know it can mean failing and hurting.” She says vulnerability means risking emotional exposure when you don’t know the outcome.

The interview reminds me of a Deloitte study that identified ways employees “cover” themselves to fit in. For example, people change their appearance, avoid discussions that would reveal political and other affiliations, and avoid associating with people who are like them.

Like Brown’s conclusion that leadership is key to enabling employees to be themselves at work, 53% of respondents in the Deloitte study said their leaders expected employees to cover.

Discussion:

  • How is “armor,” as Brown defines it, similar to ways of “covering” identified in the Deloitte study?

  • What are the benefits of protecting ourselves in this way? What are the negative consequences?

  • When have you avoided vulnerability? In retrospect, how did the decision turn out? Would you do something differently today?

  • What can leaders do to create a culture when people can be themselves at work?

Facebook Policy Executive Sat Behind Kavanaugh

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Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president for global public policy, sat behind his friend, Brett Kavanaugh, during the charged hearings to determine whether he would win support as the next Supreme Court justice. Because of his position at Facebook, employees questioned his loyalties and whether it was appropriate for him to be so visible during the judge’s testimony about whether he sexually assaulted a woman as a teenager.

His appearance was a “surprise” to employees, and hundreds wrote about their concerns on Facebook’s intranet site. One employee wrote, perhaps expressing the sentiment of Facebook’s liberal employees:

“Let’s assume for a minute that our VP of Policy understands how senate hearings work. His seat choice was intentional, knowing full well that journalists would identify every public figure appearing behind Kavanaugh. He knew that this would cause outrage internally, but he knew that he couldn’t get fired for it. This was a protest against our culture, and a slap in the face to his fellow employees.”

Kaplan defended participating, referring to their 20-year friendship, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he didn’t violate any company policies by attending, although he did say he would not have made the same decision. Employees wanted to hear from COO Sheryl Sanberg about Ford’s accusations, and she was not forthcoming, according to a Times article. But she did comment on Kaplan’s attendance:

“As a woman and someone who cares so deeply about how women are treated, the Kavanaugh issue is deeply upsetting to me. I’ve talked to Joel about why I think it was a mistake for him to attend given his role in the company.”

Cover photo source.

Discussion:

  • Read additional Facebook messages in the Times article. How would you summarize employees’ concerns?

  • What’s your view of Kaplan’s attendance? Consider the “optics” in addition to company policy.

  • Some might say that Kaplan was being authentic by sitting behind his friend. Do you agree with this view? Why or why not?

  • Which character dimensions are illustrated by this story?

Kavanaugh and Ford Demonstrate Vulnerability

During the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, Judge Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford both displayed emotions for the media to analyze and compare.

A New York Times article reports, “Kavanaugh's show of both fury and tears was a cry from the flip side of the #MeToo movement.” We saw an angrier Kavanaugh than during his Fox News interview, perhaps a reaction to President Trump’s disappointment in his mild manner.

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A CNN article recalls a 2005 interview when President Trump said, "When I see a man cry I view it as a weakness. I don't like seeing men cry." The article also concludes,

“Judgments on Kavanaugh's emotional performance will likely depend on each viewer's perspective, but he demonstrated the wider latitude that men in politics have today to show their emotions. However, were he a woman, he would likely be dismissed as overwrought, even hysterical, which helps explain why the witness who testified before him, Christine Blasey Ford, was far more composed and restrained.”

The Times article describes Ford’s presentation: “[H]er voice cracking but her composure intact.” In another Times piece, “The ‘Tight Rope’ of Testifying While Female,” the writer confirms, “She teared up in her testimony — her voice cracking — but she did not openly cry or break down.” That article also cites her asking for caffeine and telling a joke: “These are all codes for ‘she is displaying proper expectations of femininity.’”

Gender experts and other reporters also noted the contrast. Referring to Kavanaugh’s tears, Alicia Menendez of PBS said, “If he were a woman, we’d be questioning if she were unhinged.”

Both demonstrated vulnerability and risked emotional exposure. Despite the public backlash, Ford came forward to tell her story. And Kavanaugh responded by displaying emotions often viewed negatively for a man. However, overall, reports of his anger seem to overshadow the tears.

Kavanaugh image. Ford image source.

Discussion:

  • What’s your view of the emotional displays during the testimony? How do you think gender differences factored into how each was judged?

  • Have you ever cried at work? Which emotions are seen as appropriate, and which are discouraged? Should we be more open to both anger and sadness in the workplace?

Are U.S. Campuses Coddling Students?

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A new book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, explores the impact of political discourse on U.S. college campuses. The book is an expansion of an Atlantic article in which Jonathan Haidt, one of the book authors, disputed “trigger warnings” and other anxiety-avoiding tactics.

The authors are clear that harassment and discrimination are wrong, and that students who experience them should report the incidents. But, according to a Bloomberg article, we may lose the ability to communicate with each other:

“They worry about the What worries him is the looseness of the term ‘bias’ and the idea that students are urged not to work out their concern with the alleged perpetrator but to report it directly to the authorities.”

Also concerning the authors is the high percentage of liberal faculty members. A recent study shows that 39% of the most elite liberal arts schools have no Republican professors. The Bloomberg writer notes the possible negative effect:

"Critics argue that the atmosphere of liberal orthodoxy increases the risk that graduates will enter the workforce without knowing how to confront political viewpoints different from their own.”

Cover image source.

Discussion:

  • What’s your view? Are we coddling students, or do they need more protection and “safe spaces”?

  • How would you describe the differences among discrimination, harassment, and bias?

  • How might the issue of protecting people from bias contribute to sexual harassment in the workplace? How can we help people sort out problems at an interpersonal level?

Disneyland Employees Speak Out

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Disney employees are on screen in a New York Times op-ed video, "I Work at the Happiest Place on Earth. Why Can’t I Pay My Rent?" A 30-year concierge and a cosmetologist are featured more prominently. One is currently living in her car, and another says, tearfully, that she has spent time in her car. Both say they love their jobs, but along with 75% of Disneyland employees, they can't afford to pay "basic expenses every month." Data comes from a questionnaire and report, "Working for the Mouse."

The argument is for Disney to pay a living wage, and the call is for citizens to vote for an Anaheim proposal that affects Disneyland employees and some local hotel workers. In the video, one claim is that real wages have declined because of inflation—what $15 per hour bought seven years ago isn't the same today.

Business leaders who are fighting the measure say that the increase would hurt jobs. One local Chamber of Commerce member argued, "We estimate 3-4,000 jobs lost over next year or two by companies having to absorb this new increased cost. They're going to reduce hours and reduce jobs."

Senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is also featured in the video. He is proposing a bill he calls "Stop BEZOS" to tax Amazon and other large companies for public assistance received by their employees. The idea is for companies with 500 or more employees to pay the government back for support paid to their employees who cannot survive on earned wages.

Image source.

Discussion:

  • How well does the video make the case for higher wages? Which are logical and which are emotional appeals? What evidence is presented?
  • Assess the credibility of the questionnaire and report, "Working for the Mouse." From your assessment, what makes the report both credible and questionable? In what ways does the report reflect business communication standards, and in what ways does it fall short?
  • Research the impact of raising wages on industry, for example, this Cornell report. What's your view of this argument? It's a complicated question because of different industries, locations, labor supply, rates, etc.
  • In what ways do the employees featured in the video demonstrate courage? What risks did they take in appearing on screen?