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August 31, 2006

The aftermath of Katrina: HR lessons learned

Is your HR department prepared to handle a disaster? Many companies have disaster plans, but few anticipated the breadth and the scope of the challenges posed by Katrina. Do you have key functions protected with cross-training? If you lost all power and phone service, how would you communicate with employees? How would you pay people if your current service became non-operational? The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) explores these and other readiness issues in an article entitled Hurricane Katrina's Hard-earned Lessons for HR.

The article also discusses the results of a recent Disaster Planning survey conducted by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. Among the findings we found noteworthy:

  • The most common provisions in a disaster plan to aid employees are access to counseling or an employee assistance program (51%) and emergency payroll distribution or cash advances (47%).
  • Although 34% of our respondents have both communicated their disaster plan to employees and implemented an exercise or drill to test the plan, 26% of respondents have neither communicated nor tested the plan.

Workforce Management also explores the challenges that employers face in the article, One Year After Katrina, New Orleans Employers See Operations in New Light. The article uses specific case examples with several companies based on their actual post-Katrina experience. Here's an excerpt:

"Employers such as Sodexho, State Farm, Entergy and Tulane University struggled with common post-hurricane issues for their workers. They had to find emergency and temporary housing, provide financial assistance, extend health insurance and other benefits beyond the usual sign-up dates, relocate personnel and put people back to work.
These organizations, and quite possibly every business and institution in the city, have documented the lessons learned and are developing plans for the future so they won’t be unprepared should another catastrophe hit. For Sodexho and State Farm, the effort closely follows disaster planning, whereas Entergy and Tulane have made more structural business changes."

Beyond business: the psychological aftermath
Besides the issues of planning for business continuity, employee communication, workforce management, and payroll and benefits distribution, one of the most pressing issues facing HR departments is helping employees with the psychological and emotional toll that a disaster leaves in its wake. Typically, about 10 percent of the population experiences Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at some point. With a crisis of this magnitude, experts are stymied about predicting the scope and breadth of the psychological aftermath. Clearly, many survivors are still suffering and the psychological toll is widespread.

Many experts think that this week's anniversary could trigger renewed trauma. And with the double whammy of the 9/11 anniversary following so closely on the heels of the Katrina anniversary, HR managers should be particularly attuned to signs of stress in affected work populations. It's a good time to remind your employees of available help, such as EAP and other counseling services.

August 28, 2006

Domestic violence - a workplace issue

We received a call from a troubled HR Director last week, the partner of an employee was stalking her in the parking lot and threatening to come into the office and “take care of things once and for all” The employee was ashamed , the whole staff, terrified.

Domestic violence is often considered a tragic but personal problem that does not affect the workplace. Many victims suffer silently and function at work as best they can. But current research indicates that domestic violence has strong ramifications in our workplaces, schools, and communities. It produces a costly, risky work environment and threatens the safety of all employees.

The American Institute on Domestic Violence estimates that employers lose between $3 and $5 billion annually for increased medical costs associated with battered workers, and $100 million in lost wages, sick leave and absenteeism. Homicide is the leading cause of death to women in the workplace. Partners and boyfriends commit 13,000 acts of violence against women in the workplace every year. Such attacks increase the threat of violence for all workers. These statistics only begin to express the devastation to families. While 95% of violence victims are female, males do suffer battering and abuse.

Certain employee behaviors could indicate domestic violence including: visible physical injuries, stress-related illnesses; marital or family problems; depression, absenteeism, lateness, and leaving work early; difficulty concentrating, repeating errors, and slower work pace; unusual or excessive number of phone calls from family members, or disruptive personal visits to the workplace from employee's present or former partner or spouse.

Because the employee may feel shame and fear about the situation, intervention by the company or co-worker is tricky. Companies can construct a Domestic Violence Policy to protect victims and send a clear message to the abuser that assaults in the workplace will not be tolerated. They can also provide training to raise awareness of the problem. Concerned co-workers or supervisors can approach the employee respectfully, in private and ask direct questions such as “is someone hurting you?” Respect the victim’s privacy and comfort level with the intervention, don’t be pushy. Be prepared with phone numbers of professional community resources. Know how to get help in a crisis Offer to accompany the person to make the first phone call; it may be the significant first step. Strong support and understanding is better than advice.

August 24, 2006

HR News and views

Dangerous work - What are America's most dangerous jobs? (free registration may be required) The Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual report on workplace fatalities (PDF), complete with graphs and charts about what types of events cause fatalities and in which industries fatalities occur most frequently. Transportation incidents lead the list, accounting for 43% of all fatalities. At 14%, homicides are the second most frequent cause of work-related deaths. While the raw number of fatalities seems to have taken a slight dip, work fatalities have increased for Hispanics, blacks, and women.

E-mail burden - A typical office worker gets more than 100 e-mail messages a day. In an article entitled Businesses Struggle Under Growing Weight Of E-Mail, Information Week explores issues of productivity, confidentiality, archiving, and e-mail monitoring. And as if the burden of e-mail weren't bad enough, a Rutgers study is suggesting that workers can become "techno-addicts," potentially creating new employer liabilities. Is information and communication technology (ICT) addiction the stress claim of the future?

Workers comp fraud - Workers Comp Insider talks about claimant fraud and how to avoid it. But workers aren't the only perpetrators of fraud - fradulent employers cost the system $30 billion a year.

Unhappy workers? - Are your professional workers good targets for recruiters? Yes, if they aren't happy with their current job. Workforce Week reports on a recent survey that points to a downturn in employee satisfaction. At least one-third of the survey participants were noncommittal about staying in their present job. The article suggests that employers need to be proactive in establishing programs and communications to ensure worker retention.

Susan Heatherfield of About.com's Human Resources talks about employees' most frequent complaints, and offers a unique prescription for employers to enhance satisfaction and ensure retention: Put more fun and humor in the workplace.

Another reason to keep employees happy - An article by Leah Carlson Shepherd in Employee Benefit News discusses the link between disability and depression and suggests that integrating mental health and disability benefits can help to lower costs and improve health outcomes.

August 22, 2006

Absenteeism—the productivity leaking bucket, and four ways to plug it

There are a few simple truths about absenteeism.

The first is that almost all employers suffer a substantial loss of productivity because employees are absent from work. Unplanned absence due to family issues, workplace injuries, and non-work-related injuries and illness can add up to as much as a 10 percent productivity loss for some employers. A recent survey on absenteeism by CCH found that "...unscheduled absences cost companies $660 per employee per year, up from $610 in 2004, in salary costs alone—never mind the expense of paying for overtime or a temporary replacement." What's more, the study found that personal illness accounts for just 35 percent of unscheduled absences.

The second important fact is that trying to control absenteeism can be a daunting task. Lost work days fall into many different categories: family and medical leave, workers' comp injuries, and non-work injuries and illnesses all contribute to the mix. These varying types of absences fall under different programs, insurance coverage, and legal umbrellas. Employers that operate in multiple states have the added burden of dealing with a variety of local regulations. And typically, in many organizations, the responsibility for managing lost time is split among different departments. FMLA and short-term disability is usually turfed to HR, while workers comp can fall to the financial people or a safety officer.

You wind up with nobody looking after the whole problem, and nobody knowing exactly how much the bucket is leaking.

Plugging the leaks
There are four best practice principles that can help. If your organization hasn't adopted them, you may want to consider doing it now.

First, get a lost time measurement tool. There are several vendors who offer sophisticated absence management information systems for very large organizations, but for the small to mid-size employer an Excel spreadsheet can work just fine—the important thing is to begin tracking absences. A weekly report citing who's out, for how long, and why, circulated to your senior managers can go a long way toward focusing management attention on the problem.

Second, make sure that prevention is given top priority. For those organizations with recurring risks of injury, there has to be an active safety program that is actively led by top management. There are certain safety practices that can have a beneficial effect on non-work injuries, too, such as driving safety programs.

Third, have an active return-to-work program. This program should include temporary modified duty programs for every employee who loses time due to an injury, whether work-related or not. While we often see resistance to modified duty from managers who mistakenly insist on "having all employees at 100 percent functionality," the facts overwhelmingly indicate that these programs reduce comp and disability costs, improve productivity, and foster faster recovery for the employees.

Finally, use your EAP to help reduce absenteeism and lost time. The reasons for absence can often be mitigated, whether the absence involves a young mother who needs help locating child care, an injured worker who is becoming depressed over not being fully active, or someone with a family or personal problem that results in missed work days. A good EAP program can go a long way in providing solutions that will help to reduce life disruptions that cause absence.

Having an overall absence management program will pay big productivity dividends. Equally importantly, it can improve morale by helping your workers to stay healthy and safe, maintain personal productivity, and preserve income.

August 17, 2006

HR news and views

Elder caregivers and productivity - According to a recent study by MetLife, the average elder caregiver costs an employer $2,110 per year in lost productivity. The total annual cost to employers for lost productivity for working caregivers falls between $17.1 billion to $33.6 billion in lost productivity.

"Working caregivers who juggle work and caregiving responsibilities make many workplace adjustments, such as coming in late or leaving early, reducing their work schedules or dropping out of the workforce entirely," said Sandra Timmermann, Ed.D., director of the MetLife Mature Market Institute. "Employer costs related to caregiving are often hidden ones and can be significant."

Timmermann suggests that employers can mitigate losses by implementing eldercare programs for employees, establishing flexible work arrangements, and ensuring that managers demonstrate sensitivity to caregiver needs.

Take the Eldercare Calculator to estimate your company's costs.

Serious business: worker complaints - Forbes features an article on the importance of handling workplace complaints properly to minimize the potential for lawsuits. The article offers basic rules to follow if you receive a complaint of discrimination or harassment. (Via George's Employment Blawg). In a related matter, HR Lori discusses a recent same sex harassment suit in California. If you think harassment involves a member of the opposite sex, this may change your mind.

Telecommuting - In his post Telecommuting: More Talk Than Action?, Jim Ware of The Future of Work links to a recent study on telecommuting patterns, preferences, and trends, discusses the results, and offers some recommendations. One eye-opening statistic: "If everyone who could took full advantage of telecommuting, the reduction in miles driven would save $3.9 billion a year in fuel and the time savings would be equal to 470,000 jobs."

More on Veterans - as a follow-up to our post on helping the military return to work, we noted that the Department of Justice has just launched a site to protect vets' civilian employment rights by enforcing the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). Thanks to Jottings by an Employer's Lawyer for letting us know about this.

Bad bosses - here's a contest you hope your company doesn't win: Working America invited its readers to submit entries in its My Bad Boss. While he anecdotes are anonymous both in terms of submitters and the nominated bosses, it makes for some interesting reading. Hopefully, you won't recognize anyone from your leadership team on the list!

UR FIRD... THX 4 TIME - speaking of questionable managerial practices, Gizmodo features a post about a British employee who was terminated by text message.

August 14, 2006

How HIPAA affects the need for information

We often get requests from our customers for more detailed information about their organization's utilization of EAP services. Employers have a legitimate need to understand how their money is being spent. Some also want to use the data to better address specific issues that their employees and their families might be experiencing. EAPs and other benefits companies—especially health insurance organizations—would like to respond to their customers' needs, but are stymied by the necessity of complying with the regulations set forth in HIPAA.

Since April 13, 2003, all health care organizations have been required to comply with guidelines protecting an individual's health care information. There is a great deal of detail in the Act but, in short, this federal law states that we all have privacy rights and your health information is protected. The law states that no one can release your health care information without your permission. (Detailed information is available at the Health & Human Services, Office for Civil Rights—HIPAA).
Health care organizations, such as hospitals and group health plans, must comply with the law. Physicians are also subject to the provisions of the law. Penalties for noncompliance can be sever—the HIPAA Blog reports on one company that paid $15 million in penalties for breaching personal data.

Many gray areas
When it comes to protecting an individual's medical notes, interpreting and complying with this law is fairly straightforward. Matters become more complex when we start talking about insurance claims data. For instance, suppose you work for a small- to mid-sized company, and one of your employees has been out sick for a period of time. When you later get a claims report from your medical insurer that shows a spike in mental health claims that coincide with this absence, the picture is fairly obvious. Does "putting two and two together" constitute a breach of HIPAA regulations? This is a much more difficult question to answer.

For the short term, employers should expect that benefits organizations will be extra cautious about the information they release. That will make benefit purchase decisions more difficult. It is also likely to cause unwanted friction between benefits companies and the customers they serve.

August 10, 2006

Like seat belts, a Safe Driving Policy ought to be mandatory

Last month, we had a disturbing call from one of our EAP client companies – one that happens all too often. One of the organization's staff members had been killed while driving on business. Co-workers were devastated to lose a beloved colleague, and our client asked if we could send a counselor in to deal with the trauma of loss.

These calls occur with a frequency that might lead one to think that these accidents are inevitable, a statistical certainty. And I’m betting that most of us doubt that there is much our organizations can do to prevent this sort of tragedy. Unless your organization has a large fleet of drivers, you probably haven’t even considered a safe driving policy.

However, I recently came across a few startling facts that suggest that there is something we can do.

First: Vehicle-related fatalities are the single largest cause of occupational deaths, representing more than 40 percent of all work deaths.

Second: A typical driver has a one in 15 chance of being involved in a vehicle collision each year. Even a small organization – one with only ten or twenty people driving for business - has strong likelihood of having an employee injured in an auto accident.

Finally, statistics from OSHA and the National Safety Council demonstrate that organizations that introduce a safe driving program can reduce auto accidents by as much as 45 percent.

The program they suggest starts with a strong policy, and includes a safe driving training component and a review of employee driving performance.

The policy should at least include:

  • Mandatory seat belt use.
  • Prohibiting hand held cell phone use while driving on company business
  • Driving with the headlights on
  • A requirement to maintain a safe driving record

There are a number of options regarding the training component. There are thousands of driver training vendors that deliver local programs. And the National Safety Council offers a low cost online training program that is very reasonably priced.

It also makes sense to check whether workers assigned to drive on the job have a valid driver’s license and one that is appropriate for the type of vehicle to be driven. And it's always is a good idea to do background checks of prospective employees’ driving records.

Safe driving is not just good for you and your employees: it's good for the employees families, friends, and colleagues, as well as for the public at large. As long as we keep getting sad calls like the one we got last week, this is a drum we'll keep beating.

Here are some additional resources:
OSHA - Motor vehicle safety
NIOSH: Work-related Roadway Crashes - Prevention Strategies for Employers
Where the rubber meets the road: Risk management for employees who drive
Network of Employers for Traffic Safety

August 8, 2006

Helping the military return to work

Even as the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts continue, many Military, Reservists and National Guard are returning home to family life and jobs. The job market is proving tough for many, but for those who do find jobs, this transition to normal life can be joyful and challenging at the same time. As a manager or HR professional, there are issues to be aware of and things you can do to help the transition. Most military personnel left behind relationships, families and jobs when they were deployed. Many things have changed while they were gone and coming back into the work environment can be a culture shock for the vet.

What is the Law
Understanding the law governing their return may be helps ease the transition. Military personnel are protected by the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act (USERRA) that applies to all employers regardless of their size, and protect those in the reserve forces of the Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, National Guard, and Public Health Service Commissioned Corp. It's worth checking the regulations when an employee leaves for service so you can be prepared for their return.

Tips for Employers
If you are a supervisor or employer of an individual returning from active duty, here are some tips you can use to ease his or her transition back into the workplace.

Create a welcoming environment: Prior to the employee's return, meet with his or her colleagues to discuss any concerns they have about the impact on their responsibilities, as well as to promote the importance of being supportive as their colleague readjusts. If appropriate, consider organizing a welcoming event, such as a breakfast or cake break.

Update the employee: As soon as possible, meet with the employee to update him or her about the status of the workload, policy and personnel changes, and any other changes that occurred during the absence.

Give the employee time to readjust: Be aware that some people may need a little time to get back into the swing of their former routine. Encourage them to ask for the guidance or support they need.

Support the employee if transition proves difficult: If an employee is having significant trouble readjusting to the workplace, you can note and discuss changes and expectations in work performance, as well as listen to the employee's response and concerns. If you think there are personal issues, including anxiety or depression, related to the transition back to work, do not diagnose a suspected mental health problem--refer. Suggest that the employee seek consultation from your organization's EAP. Reminding the employee of available benefits provided by your organization at this time can be helpful as well.

Returning military may feel that no one except another vet can help so it's important to have local numbers for Veterans Outreach Programs which are located across the country. Help the employee understand that everyone needs help from time to time in dealing with the stresses of life. It is best to act on these problems as early as possible. He she may have many options to choose from: support groups, anger management classes, a service chaplain, or a mental health professional. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness.

August 4, 2006

HR news and views

HR people are busy folks, so keeping up with news and trends can often get the short end of the stick when competing with very real human issues. We think one of the important functions that this blog can serve is to find and filter some of the best resources that we find out there on the Web. From time to time, we’ll feature a collection of links from other blogs that we like and read, as well as links to news stories that we think are noteworthy.

Mistakes to avoid - Susan Heatherfield of About.com's Human Resources blog talks about twenty dumb things organizations do to mess up their relationship with people - it's well worth a read. Here's a sampling - one that we see all too often:

“Fail to address behavior and actions of people that are inconsistent with stated and published organizational expectations and policies. (Better yet, let non-conformance go on until you are out of patience; then ambush the next offender with a disciplinary action!)”

Need-to-know info re: harassment - Workforce Management features an article that discusses the Supreme Court's recent ruling, which expanded the view of what the law considers retaliation against workers who complain about sexual harassment. Managers everywhere, take note. (note: free registration may be required)

Don't get caught short - Diane Pfadenhauer of Strategic HR Lawyer reminds us how critical it is for businesses to have a disaster preparedness and response plan that deals with employee-related issues. Summarizing an article from one of the largest law firms in Louisiana, she provides some concrete recommendations that employers should take before and after a crisis.

Breast-feeding at work - Do you have a breast-feeding policy in place? Brent Hunsberger of At Work reports on a new Department of Health and Human Services initiative designed to help employers accommodate mothers who are breastfeeding. He notes that returning to work has been cited as one of the top three barriers to new mothers breastfeeding exclusively for six months after their baby is born, the length of time that the Centers for Disease Control recommends.

Baseball's been very, very good to me - What do HR and baseball have in common? A lot. If you haven't yet visited author Jeff Angus's entertaining and informative blog, Management by Baseball, check out his two part series White Sox Lesson Part I:Coaching Your Players, Don Cooper Style, followed by Part 2.

Insurance at a glance - Is insurance part of your managerial purview? If so, you can follow along with important news at Business Insurance Breaking News.

August 1, 2006

The cost of NOT taking a summer vacation

Summertime, my bags are packed, the passport's on the counter and in a few days I'll be off on vacation. Today I look to my desk, I see files of projects, to-do lists still undone, phone calls to make and I wonder...does it make sense to leave for ten days right now? Will I let down my co-workers, my clients? Can they get by without me?

Then my mind slips to a sidewalk café and I'm nibbling gelato in the warm breezes off the Amalfi coast, and I think this makes so much sense.

Vacation from work allows the brain to rest, it rejuvenates energy and creativity, and it soothes the nerves. It is one of the healthiest things we can do to take care of ourselves. We come back to work with increased commitment and productivity. Yet, in the U.S., we are experiencing the phenomena of the incredible shrinking vacation. Many employees get no paid vacation and, for those that do, the average is 13 days, accrued only after two years of employment. And according to a 2001 study by Oxford Health Plans in New York, 18 percent of all workers say they are unable to use their annual vacation time due to job demands. In fact, in a recent study, 32 percent of the workers surveyed admitted they did not use all their allotted vacation. The downside of new technology is that we often take our work with us on vacation through cell phones and wireless connections worldwide thus remaining "on-call" even while we are at rest.

The fact that US employees get too little or no vacation compared to the rest of the western world is worry enough, but that our workers believe they cannot take the vacation they earn should be of grave concern to HR Directors.

Check out this article on how more vacation can foster better employees—and, conversely, how too little vacation time can backfire for the employee and the company. As we all embrace workplace wellness and encourage employees to take better care of themselves, we often overlook a health benefit we already have. "Take your vacation" should be the banner and campaign at every company health and wellness day. It a simple act that will have profound affects.

That said, I think I'll go check the train schedule to Florence, Ciao!

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