New Year's Resolutions That Get Down To Business

This is the week when the upbeat message echoing through the wintry 1997 air is bold and unequivocal: Out with the old. In with the new.

For businesses, new beginnings take many forms. Already the mannequins in store windows have traded New Year's Eve ballgowns for colorful shorts and swimsuits, signaling the start of a midwinter fashion season called resortwear. Florists have replaced poinsettias with fragrant narcissus and hyacinths - springtime in a pot! And corporate executives, fresh from tallying fourth-quarter earnings, are trying to project sales and profits for the coming year.

For the rest of us, fresh starts and clean slates remain less visible: a new calendar on the wall, a pocket diary with pristine pages, a list of New Year's resolutions to replace the crumpled holiday shopping lists still stuffed in coat pockets.

Most of these January resolutions are filled with hope and optimism for personal improvement. But as the public demand for more civility and a better quality of life grows more insistent, even businesses could play the game, drawing up resolutions for corporate change in the New Year.

Any executives stumped for ideas might consider this highly selective list of suggestions to improve everyday life for countless people:

First, offer a one-year moratorium on downsizing. Despite five years of economic recovery, layoffs in 1996 increased 14 percent over the previous year, according to one study. Imagine the relief millions of employees would feel if they knew that for the next 12 months, their employers would trim corporate ranks through attrition rather than massive layoffs. Channeling workers' anxiety about their jobs into productive energy might even help the bottom line.

Second, bring back airline food. OK, airlines, we admit it - we shouldn't have made all those unkind jokes about the meals you served, and we're sorry. How could we know you'd retaliate by withdrawing food altogether on most flights? In the same way that the Reagan administration briefly tried to redefine ketchup as a vegetable in school lunches, airlines have reclassified a miniature bag of peanuts as lunch or dinner.

Travel writers urge passengers flying the hungry skies to BYOF - bring your own food. Yet who wants to increase the overload of carry-ons by forcing travelers to bring picnics or brown-bag lunches, or to patronize the overpriced bagel-and-beverage cart strategically parked at the gate? Give us just one more chance, guys. We won't complain anymore - we promise.

Third, improve telemarketing etiquette. This inescapable free-market enterprise is here to stay, alas. But at the very least, telemarketers might alienate fewer people if they would practice a few basic courtesies: No more dinnertime calls. No more pseudo-chummy first-name familiarity. ("Hi, Paul, how're you doin' this evening?") And no more rudeness when someone politely refuses their pitch.

Fourth, rehire company telephone operators. One of the most annoying inventions ever foisted on the calling public involves the use of automated answering systems during regular business hours. Anyone who has ever listened patiently through a long list of recorded options, only to get to the end and still find no way to reach the right department, can only plead: Please bring back a real live person at the switchboard.

Telephone operators probably rank among the lower-paid employees in any organization. Whatever they earn is surely worth at least that amount in maintaining goodwill. The same goes for the telephone company, which now uses disembodied voices for directory assistance. Where is Lily Tomlin's Ernestine when we need her?

Call this a reverse wish list. The typical New Year's resolution comes from people yearning to be more efficient. This year, what a turnabout it would be if all the organizations that have grown just too, too efficient would resolve to be more human.

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