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September 29, 2006

The bully boss takes a toll

In a few weeks we will all be celebrating National Bosses Day! Of course, this holiday in mid October is more an affectation of the greeting card companies than an act of congress. And since the number one reason employees leave their jobs is unresolved conflict with a supervisor, one wonders just how many bosses will be getting flowers on October 16th. Bosses have been bullying employees since the beginning of work but this "management style" takes its toll on workers and the organization. Intimidated employees are not loyal and productive. Pure employee frustration sprouts Bad Boss Contest websites where a "can you top this" race ensues with bad boss stories posted and winners selected. Or employees can take the "Is Your Boss a Psycho" quiz to see just how bad things are. While these sites relieve stress with a bit of humor, they do nothing to stem the practice.

One of the main reasons bullying continues in the workplace is that workers are intimidated and threatened with their livelihood and won't speak up for themselves. But the most egregious reason it continues is that organizations tolerate it. On the surface bullying bosses may be good producers or they keep a work team in order. Bullying can humiliate and degrade but it also gets results. What does it matter that employees are sick and dejected if they produce?

Stories we hear from HR managers support this theory. Bad behavior is tolerated until it gets to a certain level and then the EAP is called to help a supervisor manage his or her anger. Here are some examples we've run into:

Sally a sales supervisor, blew up at a client last week stomping her feet using language that was insulting and intimidating. When asked if this was rare, the manager said, "No, Sally is a great employee a top producer. She is like that all the time with her team, but never a customer...we can't put up with this"

Harold lambasted and ridiculed an employee in front of her work team. When she walked away to compose her self, Harold followed her into the ladies room and continued screaming about her incompetence...the CEO heard the exchange. "Was this out of character for Harold?" we asked. "No" HR said, "Harold has a long history of volatile behavior but this is the first time he followed anyone into the rest room. We think he crossed the line"

Chris works long hours often staying past 8:00 PM. He penalizes any employee on his team that leaves the office before he does. Employees who leave to attend to their personal lives are scorned for days and given the silent treatment. Their questions are not answered and their work criticized. If employees leave, Chris stays later the next day. Management thinks Chris has a dedicated team, when complaints of intimidation were lodged; the EAP was called in to help team members learn to work more collaboratively.

Pat told his employees that he kept a shot gun in the trunk of his car. If things got out of hand or employees complained about their work, he could always get the gun and take care of things. Several employees complained but HR didn't really think Pat was serious, they were checking with the EAP to see if this was illegal!

Consistent progressive discipline with abusive and volatile bosses is essential. Employees can also learn ways to deal with ongoing harassment. But management must step up and take responsibility for colluding with and condoning bully behavior. The message sent to the organization is that the individual is expendable and dehumanizing behavior is tolerated.

There are all kinds of economical reasons to address this pervasive problem but creating an environment where human respect and decency is paramount is the only important one.

September 27, 2006

Web porn at work and other web policy issues

Perusing today's newspaper, I came across an article about two managers at a nearby municipality who got caught with a stash of pornography on their work computers. One manager resigned and the other was suspended. I’m guessing that the reaction of their bosses will pale in comparison to the reactions of their spouses.

It is important to note that collecting web-based adult pornography is not against the law. The issue here is that it was against their employer's web policy.

Most reasonable people agree that collecting pornography on company computers is not a very good idea, there's not much to dispute there. What is less clear is exactly what constitutes a reasonable policy for using company computers for personal use.

I first confronted this question back in the 1990s while serving as CEO of a company with employees in offices scattered across the U.S. We were early adapters of the web and e-mail at work. Early in our learning curve on this new endeavor, it was apparent that e-mail was enhancing communication and web use was helping our employees to solve business problems. But we also noticed that employees were spending an awful lot of time surfing the web at work, and like many others, we were concerned about potential loss of productivity. To address this, we purchased software that limited personal use of the web. It did indeed keep employees from shopping on the web, but it also was a barrier to a great deal of information that would help people in their jobs. Plus, it led to a great deal of dissatisfaction and frustration.

In retrospect, this ‘Big Brother’ approach to the web at work was a lousy idea.

Focusing on the big picture
Clearly, personal use of the computer at work costs employers a great deal. Several studies have demonstrated that employers are losing more than four hours a week to personal Internet use. A survey by AOL and salary.com put the number of hours that employees fritter away online at about two hours per day. These studies estimate the cost to employers at more than $700 billion.

But focusing on personal use at work misses the overall picture. A University of Maryland study about personal use of the Internet at work showed that although workers do indeed use the web for personal business while at work – an average of 3.7 hours a week – they are also spending more time at home using the web for work-related matters – an average of 5.9 hours. No matter how you look at it, the web and e-mail bring every employer a big gain.

Employers have a great deal of latitude on how they treat this issue. The courts have held that an employer does indeed have the right to monitor e-mail and web access. Employers are within their rights to restrict personal use of the web if they so desire, but as the web becomes a fact of life, there seems to be a trend toward a more relaxed policy. We've seen this concept taking root among the many employers that we represent. Progressive employers have learned that broad guidelines encouraging appropriate use work better than a restrictive approach.

A heavy-handed approach will rankle your most creative and productive employees. For the few hours of productivity supposedly gained, you may wind up losing your best people.

This is an important and emerging topic on the minds of many employers, and one that we'll revisit. In future posts, we'll explore various approaches to creating effective web policies.

September 26, 2006

Boomers’ Drug Use Increasing as Teen Rate Lowers

Some moms and dads might want to take a lesson from their kids: Just say no.

The recently released National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that 4.4 percent of baby boomers ages 50 to 59 admitted that they had used illicit drugs within the past month. This marks the third consecutive yearly increase recorded for that age group. Meanwhile, illicit drug use among young teens decreased for the third consecutive year - from 11.6 percent in 2002 to 9.9 percent in 2005.

“Rarely have we seen a story like this where one generation exits stage right while entering stage left is a generation that somehow learned a lesson and is doing something very different,” says David Murray, Assistant Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The annual survey interviewed 67,500 people and provides an important snapshot of how many Americans drink, smoke and use drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines.

Overall, drug use remained relatively unchanged among Americans 12 and older in 2005. About 19.7 million Americans reported that they had used an illicit drug in the past month, which represents an increase from 7.9 to 8.1 percent. The increase was not only due to the boomers - an increase was also seen among those 18-25. Among the 18-25 group, drug use rose from 19.4 to 20.1 percent. “This contrast between young teens and baby boomers is a culture change and welcome news for our nation’s well-being,” said John Walters, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, “However the real test will occur when these younger teens enter that dangerous 18-25 year category.

The boomers’ statistics is further complicated by a recent study published in the Journal of Labor Research, which finds that adult drinkers earn 10 to 14 percent more money at their jobs than their non-drinking colleagues. “Social drinking builds social capital,” says lead researcher Edward Stringham. “Social drinkers are networking, building relationships and adding contacts that result in bigger paychecks.” But critics have been quick to attack the study’s conclusion. “It’s not the drinking that gets more money - it’s the socializing,” is the primary retort.

September 22, 2006

Web smorgasbord: Worst summer job contest, morbid obesity, "just cause" terminations & more

You think your job is bad? Monster.com just announced the finalists for their "Worst Summer Jobs" contest - go cast your vote for the "winner." I think many readers find it amusing to read these horror stories, but for those of us in HR, it is truly cringe-worthy stuff in the "how not to treat your employees" genre. Reading it also made us better understand why so many teens get injured on the job, yikes. Thanks to Brent Hunsberger of OregonianLive at Work for the pointer.

Speaking of bad jobs - Quit complaining about your job.

What is just cause? - George Kittredge at Labor and Employment Law Blog offers a "Just Cause" Checklist - seven questions that employers should ask themselves before discharging or disciplining an employee. George notes that many employers believe that their employees are employed "at will" and can be fired anytime, but the reality is that federal and state statutes offer some form of protection to virtually every employee that can cause nightmares for the careless employer. (Note - George's blog came to our attention when he was kind enough to comment on one of our posts. We've added it to our blogroll in the sidebar on the right.)

How much does problem drinking cost your company? Get an estimate at the Alcohol Cost Calculator for Business. Choose your industry, type your total number of employees, and choose your primary state of business.

Morbid obesity - Workers Comp Insider has an interesting post entitled Morbid Obesity and the ADA: Maybe Protected, Maybe Not that deals with a recent court ruling about whether morbid obesity is a condition that falls under the protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It involves the case of a 400+ pound driver and freight handler for Watkins Motor Lines who filed a wrongful termination suit with the EEOC. Jon Coppelman offers some good advice to employers about where to keep the focus to stay on the right side of these thorny issues.

Tired from spending too much time reading weblogs? - Too much time working at the computer can take its toll. check out these RSI exercises for preventing and healing carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive stress injuries - you can do most of them at or near your desk. If yours is a computer-intensive workplace, you may want to share these exercises with your employees.

September 21, 2006

The high cost of feeling blue

Can you imagine US business ignoring a problem that annually costs them $105 Billion a year? Well that’s just what they do when they overlook mental illness as a serious workplace liability and threat to profitability.

Over the past several years the EEOC has litigated increasing numbers of claims under the ADA-American with Disabilities Act, from individuals asking for reasonable accommodations for mental illness and cases are being found in favor of the claimant who is asking for things such as flexible work schedules and a change in work hours. As awareness is raised about this category of illness, requests and claims will increase.

Whether it is because of antiquated stigma or because a company wants to stay out of employees “personal business”, too many organizations are putting their head in the sand about this one. And that is a serious mistake.
Unfortunately just as these issues are coming to light and treatments are proving effective, many Health Insurers are cutting back on mental health benefits. Lower cost plan options may totally eliminate or seriously limit access and care for mental illness. That said depression is one of the most treatable diseases with a recovery rate of nearly 85% when the individual is diagnosed and referred to the appropriate professional.
More companies are openly addressing this issue as reported in USA Today

A number of employers are enhancing mental health coverage or programs. The number of firms with employee-assistance programs, which often provide on-call counselors and referrals, has climbed from 68% in 2001 to 71% this year, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Seven in 10 offer mental health insurance. Eighteen percent have grief-recovery programs, up from 12% in 2002.
General Motors' program provides U.S. employees with unlimited access to telephone counseling with a trained mental health professional and up to three face-to-face counseling sessions at no charge. GM also helps managers with what to do if an employee has personal issues.

Wellness efforts abound this time of year as organizations promote healthy eating and offer screening for everything from high blood pressure and cholesterol to osteoporosis in the ubiquitous benefits fairs. But when was the last time you saw a company offer depression screening or promotions for improving mental health?
It is time to come out of the closet and recognize the great value of promoting wellness on all levels, physical and emotional. Look to the industry leaders and match their efforts as you plan your benefit package this year.

September 19, 2006

Survey: employees are not prepared for retirement

The 2005-2006 Annual 401(k) Benchmarking Survey (PDF) jointly sponsored by the Human Capital practice of Deloitte Consulting LLP, the International Foundation, and the International Society of Certified Employee Benefit Specialists, offers an interesting snapshot of the struggle employers are facing with financial benefit programs post-Enron. On the one hand, we see increasing participation rates—24% of the responding firms reported participation rates in excess of 90% of eligible employees. There have also been increases in automatic enrollment and an increase in investment options. A new breed of investment options called time-based lifestyle funds automatically shift a participant's asset allocation based on target retirement dates.

On the other hand, fewer employers are matching contributions with employee stock, and more are now allowing employees to reallocate those assets immediately should they so choose. Most telling is the pessimism that employers expressed about the status of their employees' retirement planning. Only 13% of respondents agreed with the statement that "most employees are/will be financially prepared for retirement."

It would seem that employers are having difficulty establishing the right balance between encouraging their employees in the right direction to ensure their financial security and protecting the corporation from liability, which could result from being viewed as a financial advisor. Most of us know little about investing and rely heavily on the advice of professionals. Of the companies participating in the survey, 40% offer financial counseling and advice to help employees with financial decisions.

Helping employees understand the options
Employers are focusing many of their efforts on developing communication programs to help employees understand their retirement plan options. There are many resources available to both employers and employees. Some include:

  • Group meetings with 401(k) providers or similar vendors

  • Internet access to financial informational sites

  • Information from benefits or human resources departments

  • Books, tapes, worksheets, and other generic information

  • Financial counseling through an EAP

  • Periodic in-house seminars with non-401(k) financial planners

Vetting the vendors
Employers must take great care to select qualified vendors that will help employees with these critical decisions. Some important steps to take include:

Verify licenses. In most jurisdictions, investment advisers must be licensed. Check with your state's appropriate regulatory body to ensure that your vendor's license is up to date.

Get references. Contact the prospective vendor's current clients to verify satisfaction. Understand the compensation system. Make sure you understand exactly how the vendor is compensated. Those vendors that receive commissions for sales of certain investments might not be completely unbiased.

Review communication plans. Ask for samples of employee communication pieces and a plan for employee education to ensure adequate understanding of the plan.

Get recommendations from trusted advisors. Be sure to check with your EAP to learn what individual and group financial services might be available.

In the end, the responsibility for any financial decisions rests with the employee. All an employer can do is help the employee to understand alternatives and encourage participation in available benefit plans.

September 14, 2006

Free Resources for Wellness Programs

It’s pretty common to see September as a month to gear up for a "new year." Many HR managers are looking to assemble a Wellness Program and use upcoming Benefit Fairs to launch a health initiative in the workplace. Begin by checking with your EAP to see how they can help support and supplement your wellness efforts. Additionally, the web offers a wealth of free resources and the best way to start is by knowing the monthly observances. I’ve listed the next three months here and will update the list each quarter. Also our Blog will post entries on several of these issues as the year goes on. But you can start building resources now by accessing the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports . It’s a site with links to national organizations offering low cost or free resources to help your business promote healthy lifestyles. I’ve also listed many links here so you can start this project today…then put your feet up and take a “Stress Down Day” for yourself.

Health and Wellness Topics

National Sickle Cell Month
National Menopause Awareness Month
Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month
Prostate Cancer Awareness Month
Cold and Flu Campaign
5-a-Day Better Health Week

National Coming Out Day
Domestic Violence Awareness Month
Breast Cancer Awareness Month
National Depression Screening Day
National Disability Awareness Month
National AIDS Awareness month
National Children’s Health Month

EAP Awareness Month
National Diabetes Month
Great American Smoke Out http
Flu & Pneumonia Campaign

World AIDS Day
Stress Down Day

September 8, 2006

Radio Shack brings new meaning to "you've got mail"

Corporate downsizing is in the news so often that one more layoff announcement hardly draws notice. But, last week, some creative folks down at the Radio Shack headquarters in Texas were able to add a newsworthy twist to the story.

They fired 400 people...and they did it via e-mail. True, company officials had previously met with employees en masse to let them know that layoffs were imminent. Plus, employees could go to the company's intranet site and ask questions. (Maybe that was their way of using high tech to create high touch?) Then, a few days later, the emails went out to those who were terminated.

Did we mention that for an added ironic twist, all this occurred shortly before Labor Day?

In news stories, company officials defended the use of e-mail as both fast and private. But there was nothing private about the public outcry that followed—news outlets from Maine to California have pounced on this story, calling the company to task for being "dehumanizing," "callous," "cruel" and "chicken-livered." We liked this sentiment from a Forbes article on the matter:

"The way a company ends its relationship with employees says a lot about it. Some say it's just as important as the beginning of the professional relationship."

No easy way, but best practices can soften the blow
In our role as an EAP, we find ourselves working with managers and employees when terminations and downsizings occur. Unfortunately, we've gained a lot of experience in this area. We would join the chorus that is proclaiming that e-mail is not the best way to do this sort of thing. While terminations are never pleasant, there are some best practices to follow to ensure that affected employees are afforded the maximum in fairness and dignity.

First, if the termination is based on performance, make sure that the employee has been adequately warned, that warnings have been well documented, and that the employee has been given ample opportunity to rectify the situation. Many employers conduct an administrative referral to their EAP at this stage. Done properly, an administrative referral will resolve and head off more than half of all performance-based terminations. If the termination is part of a downsizing, there should be an announcement ahead of time that layoffs are planned.

If termination is the only solution, whether for performance or for general business reasons, the following steps will prove helpful:

  1. Schedule the termination meeting early in the day, and during the week; avoid terminating employees right before a holiday or a weekend.
  2. Have all paperwork ready. The final paycheck and all severance and benefit information need to be delivered at the termination meeting.
  3. The employee's manager and a representative from HR should attend so that you are able to cover all issues and questions.
  4. Be brief. Be compassionate. Allow the employee to vent his or her feelings, but do not engage in a negotiation or argument. Plan in advance what you are going to say and choose your words carefully.
  5. Extend every reasonable courtesy to the employee. Give the person an opportunity to say goodbye to coworkers. Should the employee become angry or abusive, don't get upset, simply escort the worker from the building.
  6. After all questions are answered and all paperwork completed, wish the person well and help them assemble their belongings and leave.

Firing someone is always a difficult task, but following these basic rules will help it go better. We don't advocate e-mail as a good termination strategy!

September 6, 2006

Notes from the blogosphere

Here are some items of note that we've found on other weblogs this week.

The whole world may be watching - Chris McKinney at The HR Lawyer's Blog discusses the case of a a whistle-blowing employee who uses YouTube as a vehicle for his message. In an environment where technology allows anyone to have a soapbox, Chris reminds employers to "... handle workplace issues as if the whole world is watching because... they just might be."

Genghis Khan, management guru? - What lessons can we learn from the Genghis Khan school of management? While they may not exactly fall into the "I'm OK, you're OK" school of management, Jon Coppelman of Workers Comp Insider thinks there are several lessons to be learned, and most of them positive. It's a worthwhile read.

Using social networking sites for background checks - George Leonard hosts George's Employment Blawg, a great employment law weblog that is one of our favorite regular reads. We note that he has just authored an article for CollegeRecruiter.com on the legality of employers using MySpace, Facebook and other social networking sites for background checking. Some employers use information gained from such sites as the basis for firing employees or rejecting job candidates. In the article, he explores such issues as discrimination and invasion of privacy. We think his summary is worth quoting:

"I would advise employers to cut applicants and employees some slack. You were once young too and maybe did similar things -- if not publicly on the Internet. Ask yourself how relevant the information creating the negative impression is to job performance. If you are going to do Internet searches and use them as a basis for employment decisions, you better document them and do it consistently, without regard to any legally protected classifications, e.g. race, sex, age. I also agree 100% with Steven's suggestion to use social networking sites and blogs in a positive fashion in your search to find good candidates. Consider the whole person, of whom the Internet persona is not always a fully accurate reflection."

Labor Day wrap-up - Kudos to the editors of Workplace Prof Blog for compiling an excellent Blawg Review for Labor Day 2006 - a wrap-up of labor-related stories from HR, labor, and employment law blogs. There's a wide variety of interesting approaches to posts commemorating the holiday. If you are new to HR-related blogs, this is a good way to get a sampling.

More from the "U R fired" file - Diane Pfadenhauer at Strategic Human Resources Lawyer points us to another case of termination by technology. Should companies be issuing pink slips to 400 people via e-mail? We noted a similar case recently - see the last item in this post.

September 4, 2006

Employees are less satisfied, more stressed and expecting employers to fix it

Few would argue that stress in the workplace has increased in recent years and that the relationship between employers and employees is changing dramatically. There is less loyalty on both sides of the equation. The result of these trends is that employees are less satisfied. And that dissatisfaction can affect productivity.

Randstand USA a global provider of employment services conducts extensive research on business issues, workers and the workplace. Their 2006 Employee Review was recently published and brings to light some interesting findings.

The study concludes that there is a growing level of employee dissatisfaction. The data indicate that many employees believe their career advancement is non-existent. Work/life is out of whack and workers feel unvalued. And they expect management to fix the problems. Add to all that the facts that there is a large discrepancy between what employees want and what managers believe they are doing to solve the problems.

"When it comes to career development, 73 percent of employers said fostering employee development is important, but only 49 percent of employees said leadership is adhering to this practice. Likewise, 86 percent of employees cited feeling valued as an important factor for happiness while only 37 percent said it exists in their job."

This inconsistency can adversely affect productivity. Employees become less loyal and more disgruntled. While not willing to leave a position in uncertain times, the employee stays with a job they dislike and productivity suffers from low morale.

Generational Differences
The survey also shows diverse opinions from the different generations in the workplace. Generation X and Y are looking to develop their career and learn more skills. They seek personal growth while overwhelmingly Boomers and Matures are looking for recognition and appreciation.

When it comes to taking time off, the Generations X and Y are almost twice as likely to take a day off to relieve stress and almost 4 times more likely to take a sick day for personal errands. The Matures by far take the least time off.

In a stressful business climate it is essential to understand the varied demographics of your population and to listen and believe what your employees are telling you either openly or with their behavior (increased absenteeism or turnover). Open discussions and efforts to respond are valuable not only for morale but also for productivity and the bottom line.

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