There is a whiteboard in my breakroom at work, and people are always using it to pose interesting questions or start silly discussions. Normally these run about a week with lots of people plugging in their two cents. Last week the discussion was “Puppies vs. Kittens.” It’s hard to say which was the definitive winner in that debate because someone introduced the wild card of Bunnies.

This week, the question was “When did you get your first computer, and what was it?” My favorite reply was “1971 – Born with one in my head.” While that is interesting, I loved the response: “I had one of those, but it had trouble coming out of sleep mode.”

“Had”?

My first introduction to computers came in 1975 or 1976. The computer in question was a large mainframe computer residing in an even larger enclosure at Minot Air Force Base. We could access this mainframe with a modem that Dad would bring home every so often. We’d dial the number, hear the tone, then place the headset on the modem. Since it didn’t have a screen, it used a built-in printer and a roll of paper. And since we were kids, we loved to play a Star Trek game on it. I remember once visiting the mainframe room, and I watched one of the technicians play chess with the computer. He knew a set of moves that would allow him to capture the computer’s queen in under 15 moves, at which point the computer would quit the game.

It wasn’t until I got married that I had a computer I could claim I owned — well, owned by marriage. I told my wife that I was marrying her for her SoundBlaster card. [Such is the modern dowry. --TPK] Even if we still had that computer, there’s not much we could do now with a 386 motherboard and 4 MB of RAM.

Now to figure out the next question to pose on the breakroom whiteboard.

Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing.net pointed to a Newsweek article about teenagers in Mexico working for tips as they bag groceries at Wal-Mart. She described the practice this way:

Wal-Mart pays Mexican teens $0 an hour
The young (14+) teenagers that Wal-Mart employs as after-school baggers at its Mexican stores earn nothing at all — paid only in tips. Technically, this complies with local labor laws, while violating the hell out of their spirit.

The Newsweek article that Cory points to starts off with the following paragraphs:

Wal-Mart prides itself on cutting costs at home and abroad, and its Mexican operations are no exception. That approach has helped the Arkansas-based retail giant set a track record of spectacular success in the 16 years since it entered Mexico as a partner of the country’s then-leading retail-store chain. But some of the company’s practices have aroused concern among some officials and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that Wal-Mart is taking advantage of local customs to pinch pennies at a time when its Mexican operations have never been more profitable.

Wal-Mart is Mexico’s largest private-sector employer in the nation today, with nearly 150,000 local residents on its payroll. An additional 19,000 youngsters between the ages of 14 and 16 work after school in hundreds of Wal-Mart stores, mostly as grocery baggers, throughout Mexicoand none of them receives a red cent in wages or fringe benefits. The company doesn’t try to conceal this practice: its 62 Superama supermarkets display blue signs with white letters that tell shoppers: OUR VOLUNTEER PACKERS COLLECT NO SALARY, ONLY THE GRATUITY THAT YOU GIVE THEM. SUPERAMA THANKS YOU FOR YOUR UNDERSTANDING. The use of unsalaried youths is legal in Mexico because the kids are said to be “volunteering” their services to Wal-Mart and are therefore not subject to the requirements and regulations that would otherwise apply under the country’s labor laws. But some officials south of the U.S. border nonetheless view the practice as regrettable, if not downright exploitative. “These kids should receive a salary,” says Labor Undersecretary Patricia Espinosa Torres. “If you ask me, I don’t think these kids should be working, but there are cultural and social circumstances [in Mexico] rooted in poverty and scarcity.”

“Exploitative”? “Regrettable”? Poppycock! For almost two years I worked as a bagger at a grocery store, and I was never paid one thin dime in salary. I worked only for tips, just as these Mexican teenagers are doing. I was living in Germany during the early ’80s, and the grocery store in question was the military commissary on the U.S. Army base of Hanau. We almost always worked in groups of three baggers at each check-out stand, and we divided the tips equally at the end of our shift. The minimum wage during that time was $3.35 an hour, but we easily surpassed that each day. On a very slow day we’d make at least $5 a hour, and on really good days we could make $10 or more an hour. We only bagged on school days, and at most we worked four hours out of any day.

Was I being exploited? Heck, no! Had I worked as an employee of the commissary, I would have been paid minimum wage since I was unskilled labor. If I’d been a paid employee of the commissary it might have made concerned busy-bodies happier, but it would have meant making less money than I did working for tips. So are their warm-fuzzies worth my lost money? Since it would have been my lost money, the answer is clearly no.

Do I regret my time as an “exploited” bagger? Heck, no! I learned some very helpful life lessons at that job. In an hourly-wage job, it doesn’t matter how long it takes to complete each task since the pay is based on how long you work, not how well or how fast. But since I was paid per job and not per hour, it was well worth my extra effort to hustle and get things done faster. Faster bagging meant more people through the line, and that meant more money for me. I also learned that being pleasant and cheerful resulted in more and better tips than being surly and glum. I learned how to bag groceries efficiently, and the best way to clump similar items on the conveyer belt for the checker. And I really developed my forearm muscles by bagging.

Labor Undersecretary Patricia Espinosa Torres says, “If you ask me, I don’t think these kids should be working.” Yeah, let’s not teach teenagers anything about responsibility, commitment, hard work, or social skills through work. That’s the ticket. Doing so would make them self-sufficient, and then they wouldn’t turn to the government to wipe their behinds for them. I prefer teaching teens how to be good adults, and learning how to work is part of the process of becoming an adult.

Here’s another thing I noticed: nowhere in the Newsweek article was there a discussion of how much money the teenagers make by working for tips. If they were making less than minimum wage, don’t you think that would be reported? The silence makes me suspect that the Mexican teenagers working as baggers at Wal-Mart are making more than the Mexican minimum wage. And if that is the case, how exactly are they being exploited?

Since I work in the computer software industry, I enjoy walking past the cubicles and offices of my fellow employees. I’ve had the chance to discover that when it comes to office decoration, there are several schools of thought.

Some are what I call “business plain,” with only work-related information on the desk and walls. A family photo or occasional calendar is about the only indication this denizen has a personality. Boring!

If I were to hazard a guess about what type of office is the commonest, I would suggest the themed office. This is a space strewn with paraphernalia from some favorite movie, game or sports team. Within just a few feet of my office space, there are posters for the local college football team, a large model of the Iron Giant, and signs indicating the Tech Wizard is in, accompanied by a row of wizardly models and items. Office toys in these places are a must. Zen gardens are common, as are little toys like kinetic art sculptures and squeeze balls. Several people went wild with Nerf guns at Microsoft, and it was not uncommon to see Nerf battles raging down the halls. Magnetic poetry sets are great for the break room fridge or the hallway whiteboard.

Some cubicles are heavy on posters, whether inspirational — “Unity!” “Perseverance!” “There is no ‘I’ in ‘TEAM’” — or very geeky — “There are 10 people in this world: those who understand binary, and those who don’t.” “2 + 2 = 5 for very large values of 2.” or “I’m lost. I have gone out to find myself. If I return before I get back, please ask me to wait.”

Then there are the few offices that really stand out. I’m thinking of one with 50+ posters and stickers. Most are of the insultingly funny variety: “Did you eat a bowl of stupid this morning?” “My imaginary friend thinks you have serious issues.” “I’m sad that you suck.” When you find an office like this, stop and make friends with the owner. This is the person who totes the Xbox into the office for some lunchtime play, or who knows the people who do.

Some offices succumb to too much cute. These offices have dozens of pictures of family, dogs, cats, and sometimes calendars of dogs and cats. Grandparents are drawn to these offices, sensing a kindred spirit. You can recognize them by the photo album tucked under an arm. Unless you are also armed with your own family photos, avoid these offices. If you’re a diabetic, run.

None of this office décor is a problem in the workplace (assuming you are not diabetic), but some things are best kept out of the office. For instance, few things rile people up faster than religion and politics. Since I now live in a battleground state, there is a pretty even mix of Republicans and Democrats in my office. Emotions run high when it comes to politics, particularly in an election year, so placing a large Bush or Kerry sign in my office would be guaranteed to cheese off half my co-workers. This is not the wisest way to start a new job.

Religious or political differences between co-workers are bad enough, but when these things happen between employer and employee, it is tantamount to harassment. If my position or chances for promotion are based on my participation in the boss’ religion or adherence to his chosen political party, that has clearly crossed the line of acceptability.

People are still likely to express their deeply-felt beliefs. One of the guys at my workplace wears a lanyard with the initials W.W.J.D (What Would Jesus Do?) on it. In another cubicle, there are several Bible verses written on a small card attached to the wall. Neither of these instances crosses the line for me, but I am religious myself and have little difficulty with such items. Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell what others may find offensive. People have claimed that merely seeing a Bible on a co-worker’s desk is an offense worth suing over. Other people have been fired for wearing a cross to work. The problem lies not in the nature of the subject matter, but rather in the offensensitivity of others.

But what is too much? Who draws the line? Sadly, the final judgment lies with those who are offended. This means that an innocently intended comment, political opinion, or religious idea could be seen as offensive. In a society where people respect each other, the offended person would talk to the other person privately, explaining why the comment or item is inappropriate or offensive. But ours is a society where simple issues that could be solved by a heartfelt conversation are increasingly settled in court. Offensensitivity is driving respect and tolerance out of the corporate workplace, and it keeps people from discovering some of the most interesting aspects of their co-workers’ personalities.

Personally, I share the opinion of Rhode Island delegate Stephen Hopkins in the movie 1776: “in all my years I ain’t never seen, heard, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about.” I would prefer the open and free expression of people’s opinions and beliefs. But not everyone feels this way. If you think one political party is better than another, or if your religious beliefs are important to you, then you had best spend time expressing these concepts outside of work. This is why I vent my feelings here, rather than climbing on a soapbox on the corporate campus. If you cannot keep away from volatile subjects at work, be ready for the potential heated comments or lawsuits that will come from hypersensitive people.