Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Passive Aggressive Co-Worker: Does Your Work Environment Feel Like High School?

I have saved my last high school comparison for passive-aggressive behavior.   I’ve written several blogs about what this is and how to stop it.  One in particular talks about an “Under the Bus Syndrome.”  Lately though I’ve seen a plague of passive-aggressive emails.  To me, this is the equivalent of flipping off a driver from your car.  It’s cowardly, and in the case of the passive aggressive email, the person doing the flipping feels impervious because he or she is sitting at a computer.  The problem is that the person isn’t impervious.  I hate to be master of the obvious here, but an email is an electronic document, people.  And it can be forwarded to anyone.

It always surprises me when a contestant on reality television acts like a buffoon or says something completely inappropriate.  Don’t they know that millions are watching them?  I mean, isn’t a camera right there?  It seems to me that people who write passive-aggressive emails forget they’re on “TV,” or that whatever they say in an email is public.  Think about it.  How many blind CCs have you used?  And why is a BCC a possibility?  It’s a sneaky device built right into Outlook.  And if you don’t use the BCC, how many times have you forwarded an email unbeknownst to its sender?

Here are a few examples of some of the classiest passive-aggressive emails I have read:

Hi Team:  Thanks so much for your help with the talent show last night.  I really appreciated Bart and Jordan, who were the only employees to stay afterwards and clean up.  For those of you who left early, I’m sorry that the show bored you.  It’s okay that you don’t care enough about the employees to make the event a great one.  I’ll be working late again tonight to tally the results, so no worries on that either. 

Staff, I came in this morning and wasn’t surprised to see that no one had cleaned the refrigerator on Friday.  I’m sure the person assigned to this duty—I believe that would be Peter—was just too busy, or maybe he was out for the day, which is typical, isn’t it?  Anyway, I spent an hour scrubbing tuna casserole from the bottom shelf.  It was certainly fun, and I hope to do it again next Monday!

Dear Louis, What a great conference.  Everyone worked really hard to organize the event and to make sure it went off without a hitch.  It was really great when Lily forgot the projector, and Marv dropped the coffee machine.  I certainly enjoyed how one of the attendees complained about Jose.    Looking forward to next year, aren’t you? 

Dear Tina, In April, I emailed you a list of projects with deadlines.  I noticed that many of those projects have yet to be completed.  I’m not sure you have enough knowledge about the industry to complete the assignments; but as I said, I’m available for clarification and questions.  Thanks. 

Dear Kelly, I appreciate how you monopolize all the training rooms for your trainings.  I know that my job isn’t as important as yours, but it would be just great if I could maybe have a few hours next week.  Maybe a week isn’t enough notice for you, as I know you like to plan ahead of me just so I never have a chance to book the room, but I would really appreciate your “approval” for the room next week.  Thanks for all the hard work!

You get the picture, yes?  I hope you always understand how damaging these little swipes can be.  Why not talk to the person?  Why not address it like a professional would?

Talent Show:  Talk to the people involved (from the start!).  Delegate tasks, so the work is divided evenly from the get-go.

Fridge Fiasco:  Again, talk to the people and come up with a schedule.  If someone drops the ball, talk to the person individually.  Really, shaming someone in a public email is never the answer.

Conference Blunders:  Clearly, it didn’t go well, but you can first focus—verbally and in person—on the things that did go well.  The rest of the fumbles can be addressed, and you can come up with ways to prevent them from happening the next year.

Projects & Deadlines:  Again, address in person.  Never write an email with an insult imbedded in the middle.  Also, emails are great for follow through—but emailing someone a list of projects without a verbal question and answer session to clarify expectations, you’re asking for failure.

Training Room Issue:  Actually this could be done in an email.  It’s as simple as requesting to use it and then following up with a phone call.  No one needs to couch a request in insults and slights.  But people do.

So, yes, people can be passive aggressive at work.  Actually, in high school, I’d say there’s more outright aggression than passive aggression.  In high school, people are more likely to blow off steam as they go along.  As we get older, we learn to hold it in and simmer and seethe until something possesses us to express ourselves in destructive manners.


Fraternization: Does Your Work Environment Feel Like High School?

Fraternization reminds me the most of high school.  And most companies have oodles of rules and policies against it.  Yet, it still goes on.

First, there are many reasons to have rules.  If someone dates a colleague, it opens the company up to several giant problems.  The biggest is that they might stop dating.  I don’t mean to squash the love bug, here, but that’s the naked truth.  And when that happens, it’s typically not mutual.  Someone’s generally been jilted and naturally harbors all sorts of unwanted emotions that are unseemly and production-killers in the workplace.

But let’s say it works out, and the couple sticks together.  Now you have two people who can no longer audit each other without biases.  You have two people who always want the same days off.  You have two people who maybe can’t work the same shift.    The list goes on.   So, yes, this is like high school, and I haven’t even delved into affairs, stalking, sexual harassment (I’m talking quid pro quo!) and all the truly bad behaviors that come with fraternization.  I’ve have seen the best of the best taken down—even in middle age—by love.  Or lust.  Whatever you want to call it.  Simply put, fraternization is trouble for any workplace and is the most high-schoolish of all workplace problem behaviors.

All that said, it seems we can’t stop it. To keep it real, let’s look at a true-life story.  I remember an excellent manager with potential capital P who started dating a subordinate.  This manager happened to be married, and the hell-hath-no-fury wife called everyone and their mother in the company to fink on her cheating husband.  But we didn’t want to give any credence to an angry spouse’s accusation.  She didn’t work there, after all, and that wouldn’t be fair.  But then she emailed a picture of the manager and his subordinate walking into a hotel room—arms around each other.  I wish I’d never opened the photo, but I’d seen what I’d seen.  And when I called the manager to ask on it, he lied and denied and lied and denied some more.  Further investigation showed that he was giving his subordinate plum schedules and showing her blatant favoritism.   He was fired.  She quit.  But he told me at the term meeting that he was in love, and no policy in the world could have stopped their romance.   This should have made me gag; instead, I knew he meant every word, and I’d seen it happen too many times.  When people think they’re in love, the world—and all its policies—disappears.  Policies are the Capulet and Montague to all those workplace Romeos and Juliets out there.

Does this mean we do away with our policies?  Nope.  But we might need to adjust them for the sake of what’s realistic.  One company, cited in this New York Post article, is actually encouraging its employees to marry each other to save on health care costs.   Others won’t allow couples to travel alone together; they must have a “chaperone.”  Some believe that existing policies are outdated, and there’s evidence out there that it’s the woman who’s generally fired when fraternization occurs—which sets the company up for lawsuits.

I, too, believe that existing policies—which were put into place for a reason, by the way—are outdated.  Strict policies against anyone in a supervisory position dating his or her subordinates must be enforced.  However, if two line-level employees meet and fall in love on the job, regardless of the drawbacks with possible break-ups and scheduling, an employer should not terminate one or both of the employees.  And this is because it happens.  Think about all your married friends.  Where’d they meet?  Up to 20% met at work.  And guess what, a new study suggests that people who met their spouses at work stay married unlike those who met in a nightclub or while on vacation.  On its surface, it’s obvious as to why.  People you meet at work share your interests and daily vagaries.

Still, it can go full-blown high school, and become quite uncomfortable in even extreme ways.  And it needs to be monitored and maintained as much as possible without violating the privacy and rights of individuals.

Office Aggression: Does Your Work Environment Feel Like High School?

Aggression is less common in the workplace than it used to be, as labor laws help keep it at bay.  In high school, with all those teens high on hormones, it’s easy to understand the occasional outburst.  And I remember these outbursts.  In high school, I witnessed a fair amount of fist fights, curse wars and bullying.  I think education has a better handle on those things today, but I do remember high school as being, um, theatrical.  Teenagers, after all, are in the process of learning to control their emotions and aren’t all that good at it.    This makes for some high drama on the western front.  Well, all the fronts.  Eastern.  Northern. Southern.  You name it.

So now that we’re adults, we should have a handle on our emotions.  We should know all about public and private behavior.  We should be able to resolve our conflicts while maintaining the dignity and respect of the other person.

But many fail, and this is the main reason people believe they’re back at high school.  Here they are just wanting to work and earn a living, and someone two cubicles over is having a meltdown.  It’s infuriating and exhausting.  So people at work do snap and yell and leave nasty notes, and they need to be disciplined and controlled.  Crying at work is unacceptable unless you have a tragedy or are in pain.  Added to this, raising your voice or pounding your fist is childish and ineffective.  I can’t hear people who yell.  All I hear is the volume.

Office Sabotage: Does Your Work Environment Feel Like High School?

In high school, I don’t recall sabotage on any harmful level.  I do remember a few times someone might have hidden my backpack or stolen my pencil.  But it was more of a prank than anything else.  I don’t remember anyone deliberately hindering my process to learn.   So I wouldn’t compare this workplace obstacle to positive working relationships to high school because I think it’s more common in negative working environments.

I can recall several examples in which information was hoarded or magically disappeared.  I remember a colleague requiring a report for an important presentation the next day.  A co-worker was angry with this colleague and accidently-on-purpose erased all the data, hoping to make this co-worker look bad.  I have also seen people hide copy paper and other supplies.  I’ve seen people lock up necessary information, so only they have access—thinking this brings them job security.  I’ve seen people hide break-room tidbits as well.  Pretzels, creamer, and yes coffee!  I’ve seen people taken off a project who destroy the work that’s been done to that date with the attitude that no one can have anything that person has already completed or worked on.  This behavior is detrimental to the workplace and suggests an “I for one and Me for all” personality.

But it’s not like high school.  It’s worse.  Much worse.

Office Gossip: Does Your Work Environment Feel Like High School?

Gossip in high school was often mean spirited and derived from rumor, meaning that most of what spread around campus was half-baked, entirely untrue or greatly hyperbolic.  Unfortunately, much of the gossip at work is derived on true events.  As adults, we mostly don’t have the stomach for outright lies.  However, we do love to talk about each other.  It’s not always mean spirited, but we spend a great deal of time analyzing each other’s character, judgment and work habits.

And if you’ve ever overheard someone talking about you (or been told that someone was talking about you), you were likely highly offended.

What we forget, though, is that almost everyone gossips.  And we love to gossip.  It is not some abhorrent and rare behavior—it is absolutely the most common conversation people have.  I dare you to count how many times you gossip during one work day.  The problem is when one person takes this information and shares it with the person being talked about, generally adding a non-existent malice into the conversation.

I recently heard that a colleague had referred to me as “homegrown.” I took this to mean that I have worked here for a fair number of years, and my knowledge had been borne from my experience with the organization.  Of course, I could have taken it negatively.  I could have been insulted and decided that my colleague said this because she thought I wasn’t competent or lacked industry knowledge to bring my organization forward or affect change.   And let’s face it, maybe she did mean it as an insult.  Whatever.  I know myself and my abilities.  I am confident enough to not feel slighted by her words, which probably just slipped out.  Really, she is unaware of my background, publications, abilities or education.  Maybe I gave her the impression of being “homegrown” because I am absolutely loyal to the organization and often rely on precedence to make good decisions.  Either way, it’s okay.  Also, I’m sure there’s worse that’s been said about me that I don’t even know about.

Gossip only gets bad when workers use it as a tool to destroy someone’s reputation or to get someone fired or demoted.   And when I say “tool,” I mean they deliberately plot and yield their words like chess moves.  This isn’t the flippant gossip of high school; this is high stakes gossip that can ruin a career.  This is the person engaged in psychological warfare not watercooler chit-chat.

The important thing to remember is that ordinarily gossip isn’t something to worry about.  It’s absolutely normal to gossip, and it’s mostly not done out of spite.  Case in point, my husband and I gossip about our children all the time.   We question their decisions, their reactions—even their fashion choices.  And there is no one we love more.   It shouldn’t surprise you that even your good friends will question the same qualities in you.  And you shouldn’t be so quick to end that friendship if they do.  However, when people use gossip to undermine or lambast someone’s ability to do his or her job, then you have a problem.

Cliques: Does Your Work Environment Feel Like High School?

Yes, we had “cliques”—the jocks, the drama kids, the band kids and the smart kids.  We had the burn outs and the goodie-two-shoes.  We also had floaters who drifted between groups.  We were also divided by neighborhoods and socio-economic status.  Sadly, I’ll add that in the early eighties, where I went to school, we were also somewhat divided by race.  I will add that many of us fought against those divisions, and a new group was found.   So is this similar to work?  Maybe cliques exist, but not like in high school.  People at work aren’t divided by whether they play an instrument or not or whether they’re on the football team.

But we are divided by job duties, departments, shifts, common goals or work ethics, shared enemies and similar outlooks.  We are also naturally divided by our positions.  Managers hang out with managers.  Directors with directors.   And maybe this leaves someone on the outs, and they simply don’t have anyone to eat lunch with or vent to.   Big social events meant to bring all these groups together often serve to further enforce the individual groups’ bonds.  For instance, I remember a company picnic in which all the executives sat under a tent together while the line-level employees were scattered about in their own particular groups under the hot sun.  That wasn’t a good move, and some smart HR person did away with the tent the following year, while also ensuring executives served food, gave out prizes and interacted with employees.

So do “cliques” exist at work?  Sure.  Get over it.  You’re a human.  Humans naturally divide into groups.  Originally, we were divided into tribes.  That’s just the way it is.  The key here is to discover where you fit in and not worry what others do.   Manage and build relationships with people.  You only run into problems when it’s a small department that has divided itself into even smaller silos.  Productivity will become sludgy when you’ve got a group of twelve people who are divided into four groups of three—especially if this division isn’t based on the work at hand; rather, it’s based on animosity and shared enemies.  But how does this animosity come to be?  Likely, its trigger was the dreaded workplace poison:  gossip.

If, though, you have several high-functioning and productive groups (cliques), you don’t necessarily have a dysfunctional workforce resembling “high school.”  You have people who have come together and bonded.  You have teams.  You only need to look out for destructive teams who deliberately compete and plot against “outsiders.”  This is the kind of clique we need to worry about.

Why “You Don’t Have to Like Each Other–You Just Have to Work Together” Is the Biggest Lie We Tell Our Staff and What to Do About It

During exit interviews, employees list “the people I worked with” as the most common reason they enjoyed working at a company.  On the other hand, they often indicate that it was a person or a group of people who caused them to leave.   The conclusion is obvious:  whether you like or dislike your co-workers is a big deal.

Let’s do a little math about how much time we actually spend with co-workers.  Let’s take a typical 40-hour work week and use this as our standard though many of us work more, I know.  In any given week, if you wake up early and go to bed at a reasonable hour—say, 7a-11p—you have 16 waking hours a day to play with.  That gives you 112 waking hours in a week.  If you work 40 of those hours, that’s nearly a third of your entire week.  One-third of your life!  I, personally, don’t want to spend one-third of my existence with people I don’t get along with, and your staff shouldn’t have to either.

We have many different types of relationships.  First, there are the long-term and short-term relationships.  It’s time we all realize that most co-workers fit into the first category.  They are long-term.  Short-term relationships would be those we have with customers or guests—or with anything transient in our lives.   Along with long-term and short-term, relationships are either by choice or no choice.  Your family can be classified as long-term no choice relationships.  After all, we didn’t get to choose our siblings or parents.  Guess what?  The same definition applies to co-workers.

Given this similarity, why is it we don’t hear many families saying, “We don’t have to like each other—we just have to be a family?”  It’s because they mostly like each other—deep down where it counts, at least.

It’s worth examining some of the reasons most families survive each other to learn how to apply these same methods to our relationships with co-workers.

Families have each other’s backs.  Despite differences, family members support each other no matter what.  We’re intrinsically loyal to each other; and when disasters occur, we rally.  I remember back in school someone speaking badly about my sister, and I remember loudly defending her.  Of course, we had our own squabbles at home, but that didn’t mean anyone else could insult her.

Families know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  Families celebrate strengths.  And we’ll make up for each other’s weaknesses.  In our families, we know who to call if we need advice about taxes or car problems.  We also know who’s not so savvy in those areas.  And that’s okay.  That family member has other strengths.  For instance, they might make a tasty turkey dinner, so that’s where we spend Thanksgiving.  The thing is, we look for strengths, and we bolster the strengths we find.

Families assume goodwill.  If someone errs, most families will assume it was a mistake made without malice, and we’ll move on from there.  It’s not that we make excuses for each other—it’s just that we generally don’t beat each other up for petty bloopers.  And if we do get upset with each other, we generally vent our frustration, say sorry and continue on as if nothing ever happened.

Families act like themselves around each other.  We’re generally ourselves—good and bad—in front of our families without any fear of repercussions.  What you see is what you get, right?  Even the quirkiest person in my family is loved by the so-called “normal” relatives.

If we were to take some of these behaviors and apply them to the workforce, we’d have an easier time getting along with others.  Of course, families often qualify these positive behaviors with, “They’re family.  What else am I supposed to do?”  What if we said the same thing about our co-workers?  What if we simply accepted each other and were able to be ourselves?  What if we had each other’s backs no matter what and practiced a culture of forgiveness.  What if we rallied around each other and played up each other’s strengths?

Your answer might be that co-workers aren’t family; they aren’t family at all.  You’re right.  They aren’t family.  But similar to a family, you spend a third of your life with people you didn’t choose to spend time with.  And you’ll need to figure out a way to make that time count.

During exit interviews with employees who had a positive experience with co-workers, they usually say something like, “We were like a family.  A big family.”   Now I know what they mean.

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On the Road to Success, Do Formal College Degrees Matter?

As an HR Director, I’m always interested in what the best of the best are doing in the areas of people management.  It’s no secret that my dream dinner would be to sit down with Google’s head of people management, Laszlo Bock.  I have this silly fantasy that he could help me solve some of my thorniest personnel issues. My guess is that he’d take issue with me even using the word, personnel. 

So in his latest interview with the New York Times, Bock indicated that college degrees weren’t going to make or break job candidates at Google, and that those without formal educations have just as much of a chance as those with a fancy degree.

My youngest son—straight-A student and self-taught coder—is only fourteen but has his eye on Berkeley and a sweet job in the Silicon Valley.  Actually, I have my eye on Berkeley and have advised him that this would be a good first step toward his dream job in the tech world.  Perhaps I’ve been giving him the wrong advice.  Not only that, perhaps—as someone in charge of recruitment—I’ve been overly impressed by formal degrees.  As Bock puts it, “when you look at people who don’t go to school and make their way in the world, those are exceptional human beings. And we should do everything we can to find those people.” He then went on to say that colleges “don’t deliver on what they promise. You generate a ton of debt, you don’t learn the most useful things for your life.”

He didn’t entirely dismiss the value of a degree, but he challenged the traditional path of what it means to be successful.

In the HR world, we often list formal degrees as necessary qualifiers for certain key positions.  So no degree means no job.  You wouldn’t even be considered.  So have I missed out on loads of exceptional human beings?  Probably.  Even before reading this interview, I’ve been questioning my process and have had to do some self-analysis to determine my fixation and demand for formal college degrees.

I think it boils down to my own experience.  See, I have a BA and an MFA.  Incidentally, neither degree is in human resources; my degrees are in the humanities.  So my people management “expertise” was developed through reading, research, mentors and experience.  Would I even hire me?  It’s true that I have a ton of debt and two degrees that aren’t even in my field, but I have no regrets about having this formal education.  Giving it some thought, however, I don’t think I should compare myself to others.  After all, I was the first person in my family to attend college, let alone earn a graduate degree. And I had to pay my own way.  Not only weren’t there any parental expectations on achieving a college degree, my family actually questioned why I would want to do such a thing.  They were blue-collar workers and small business owners and did just fine without a formal education, thank you very much.  My grandmother, having only attended school up to the 8th grade, owned and operated two successful restaurants.

Therefore, when I went to college, the only expectations I had were those I’d created for myself.  I wanted to learn as much as possible about anything and everything.  Choosing a major was tough, and I changed it five times in the first two years of college. This was because every class I took seemed so interesting, I would instantly think that this is what I wanted to study.  I might have been out of my mind, but I didn’t actually consider what I’d do until my senior year.  I didn’t go into college with a career objective in mind.  I went to get an education.

Later, when I was teaching at a university, I noticed some students were just like I was.  These students were exhausting and exhilarating.  Other students were just jumping through some expensive and expected hoop to get to the other side.  So when Block suggests that a formal education isn’t all that and a bag of chips, I have to agree and have to measure it against what that educational experience was for that particular individual.  And that might or might not be measured by someone’s GPA.

All this said, does a formal education matter?  Well, that depends on the job. On the obvious end, I wouldn’t want a self-taught doctor operating on me or prescribing medicine.  However, there are multiple jobs that one can master through experience, good mentorship, along with an insatiable urge to know as much as possible about the field.  The resources one needs to learn anything that are available now—as opposed to when I attended college—are unfathomable.  Also, there was a time when it was almost necessary to attend college in order to create a lasting network of people in your field.  That time is over considering all the social networks out there.

We recruiters need to train a fresh eye on candidates if we want thinkers and leaders and doers, which we all do.  Putting too much weight on formal education has created an entire industry of for-profit universities attended by those needing a piece a paper in order to get promoted or land that dream job.  I would put money on these types of schools not even existing twenty years from now, so how valuable will your Internet PhD be then?  Moreover, how much did you really learn that you wouldn’t have learned on your own?  Plus, can you apply what you’ve learned to the daily realities of the modern working world?  I, for one, plan on revising job descriptions to avoid excluding candidates who might have more to offer than I first imagined.

Route 66 is a famous highway extending from Chicago to the end of the Santa Monica Pier.  But just a heads up, no one can drive out onto the pier anymore. It’s now a boardwalk full of roller coasters, carnival games, restaurants and loads of tourists.  So Route 66 doesn’t really end on the pier.  And if you mistakenly tried to follow the traditional road, you’d end up in the drink or in jail.  This famous road has changed along with our traditional roads to success.  Because of this, we need to reexamine the value of formal degrees, as well as who we hire and why.

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Introverted Dolphin or Extraverted Kangaroo? The Failure of Leadership Assessments & Quizzes

If you’ve gone through any type of management training, you’ve undoubtedly experienced some form of assessment.  Myers-BriggsThe Leadership Legacy assessment testKurt Lewin’s three major leadership styles?  There’s also the popular leadership personality quiz that pegs you as some sort of animal—a dolphin, eagle, lion, kangaroo or wombat.  In one form of this test, you can even be classified as an otter.

Sure, these tests are fun.  Managers enjoy taking a few hours out of their weeks to find out who they really are.  I even wrote my own leadership quiz for Esprit de Corps, and it receives quite a few hits.  This is because people enjoy knowing and talking about themselves.  Look at the Buzzfeed Quiz craze.  I took one this morning: “What 70’s Star Are You?”  Of course!  I’m Olivia Newton John.  Seriously, I think the only reason I got her is because I prefer Grease over Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.  But now that I know who I really am, I can spend the day singing “Xanadu” or “Let’s Get Physical” because that’s how I roll. 

But unlike the Buzzfeed quizzes, leadership assessments typically involve more than clicking on various cartoon graphics.  That said, the questions aren’t any more substantive.  Assessment questions try to dig deeper with topics centering on feedback, project sharing, delegation and whether you are an introvert or extravert. 

So what’s wrong with these questions?  First off, I might mark what I aspire to be rather than who I really am.  On the other hand, I might be hypercritical of my abilities and see myself as worse.  Plus, it’s a given that our answers change from one week to the next.  More importantly, if I need a quiz to know myself, then I can’t trust myself to answer honestly.  The biggest problem with these assessments is that they have no impact on our ability to lead others.  Knowing that I am an Introverted Wombat won’t help me with my staff any more than knowing I’m Olivia Newton John. 

We also have to question with our eyes wide open any activity that centers on ego because ego can destroy a workplace quicker than a wastebasket fire.  Ego is responsible for most leadership failures; therefore, assessments—which by definition focus on self (ego)—are not only useless, they can be harmful. 

Instead, leaders today need to look outside themselves.  Introspection is somewhat passé in the 21st Century.  I’d like to say the “Me Generation” has come and gone, but they haven’t quite left yet.  So, rather than figuring out who you are as a leader, examine your workplace environments instead.  Assess your effectiveness by looking at the results achieved as well as taking the pulse of the organization. 

Trying to discover your personality or style is all well and good if it’s done for fun.  But my guess is that your staff has their own ideas about who you are and how you lead—and their opinions matter more than yours when it comes to being effective.  In fact, this consistent focus on knowing who we are as a leader might have caused us to be too introspective and too focused on ourselves, rather than focused on the people we lead. 

So, I’m suggesting we put those quizzes and tests away.  Your staff doesn’t really care if you are a kangaroo or dolphin.  They really don’t.  Ask them if you don’t believe me. einstien