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March 30, 2007

Making the blog circuit on the Circuit City layoffs

Company layoffs have always been reported in the media, but these announcements often fly under the radar on a busy news day and tend to have a short shelf life beyond those directly or indirectly affected. But with the Internet, it's a brand new day. Boardroom decisions get a thorough airing out in the court of public opinion as they reverberate through the blogs and discussion boards. The current employment topic du jour is Circuit City's announcement of a layoff of 3500 of its highest paid workers. Apparently, the laid-off workers will later be allowed to reapply for these vacant positions at lower salaries. According to the company, the salary cuts and some other restructuring moves will save the company some $110 million. In a memo to employees, the company stated that it "made a business decision, with respect to certain positions, to separate from employment hourly associates whose pay rate is 51 cents or more above (an) established pay range."

Eve Tahmincioglu of MSNBC discusses whether this move is a bold strategy or a black eye for the company. She notes that Circuit City employees who included their salary information on Vault.com reported making anywhere from $8 to $15 an hour for sales work.

In an article headlined For Circuit City staff, good pay is a bad thing, Abigail Goldman and Molly Selvin in the LA Times note that:

The move put Richmond, Va.-based Circuit City, which has more than 40,000 employees in the United States, at the forefront of a new way of controlling labor costs in the service industry. Employers determine the prevailing market wages for particular jobs in various geographic regions and then find ways to make sure that their workers' salaries stay within that range."

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., for example, last summer capped the pay of its veterans at levels consistent with competitors' top wages. Wal-Mart didn't lay off those who earned above a certain amount but did stop giving them raises, saying that would encourage them to advance through the ranks to higher-paying positions.
Circuit City is being more aggressive about it, said Peter Doeringer, a professor of labor economics at Boston University. "What's unusual is to say we're doing this deliberate swapping of high for low."

The blog buzz
As is so often the case with layoffs and restructurings, Wall Street gave its nod of approval with stocks closing up .35. But if the talk in the blogosphere is any indicator of a wider consumer sentiment, longer term effects of the move may be less positive. A Google search shows this story has a lot of legs in the blogosphere. It is difficult to find any company defenders. Heres a sampling of the reactions:

HR Lori wonders if a better strategy than the layoffs might have been to cut all salaries, including executive salaries. She notes:

This plan really does not make any sense to me, particularly since I am incredibly risk averse. When you terminate higher paid employees in order to hire those at a lower rate, you run the risk of running afoul of a number of statutes - the ADEA particularly comes to mind as a distinct possibility. Never mind the other concerns such as the time and cost of recruiting 3400 replacements or even things like administering COBRA for 3400 people.

Workplace Prof Blog is skeptical about the company spin. He asks:

Whatever happened to loyalty to your employees and rewarding them for past service provided and a job well done? Shoot, corporate strategies like these could singlehandedly revive American unions with their promise of just cause protection. At-will employees like these have no protections against arbitrary dismissals.
I wonder whether enough people will be outraged by this labor strategy that they will not shop the store and any gains made from savings in labor costs will be lost in terms of good will from customers. I also wonder whether the loss in remaining employee morale will significantly affect productivity.

David Becker at one of Wired's blogs wryly titles his post "Circuit City Shields Customers From Too-Smart Sales Clerks." He notes: "Circuit City has revealed plans to lay off more than 3,000 of the retail chain's most highly paid and experienced employees, thus solving that nagging problem of clerks being overly helpful and knowledgeable."

A discussion thread on Metafilter entitled Stupid Management Tricks offers more interesting commentary on the matter. (warning: posts include some unedited, salty language)

One poster sources Circuit City's Chief Executive Officer W. Alan McCollough's pay through Executive Paywatch:

In 2005, W. Alan McCollough raked in $5,470,049 in total compensation including stock option grants* from Circuit City Stores Inc. From previous years' stock option grants, the Circuit City Stores Inc. executive cashed out $3,052,902 in stock option exercises. And W. Alan McCollough has another $20,773,329 in unexercised stock options from previous years.

Another poster comments:

" ... the thing that's distasteful to me is that Circuit City is insuring that all their sales staff remain at the bottom rung. They're sending the message that they don't have room in the payroll for employees that stick with the company long enough to earn some raises/promotions. Since it's safe to assume that longer-term employees perform better for the company, either through familiarity with the product or a improved salesmanship, it's strange that CC would place their bet on the beliefs that: consumer electronics can sell themselves, a warm body is only needed to work the register, and that the customer's questions are a impediment to doing business. I think the same management strategy is what caused Hechinger's to be wiped out by Home Depot."

Another poster notes that this is standard industry practice, though it usually occurs in less noticeable numbers:

"The only difference between what Circuit City has done and standard retail practice is that they were stupid enough to announce it to the world. Big Box retailers have been doing this for as long as Big Box retailing has existed. Maintaining a steady turnover among "senior" sellers is a standard practice and percentage of employee churn is often one of the performance metrics for retail units."

Another posters suggests that this announcement does not bode well for the company:

"Squeezed by direct sales via Internet on one side and Wal-Mart on the other, big-box electronics retailers don't have a bright future selling to consumers. As for this specific story, when "cutting costs" means firing your (presumably) most experienced customer service staff, you're not trimming fat any longer, you're chopping bone. Start the Circuit City deathwatch."

March 28, 2007

Public lives, private dramas - cancer in the headlines

We have two very public stories playing out in national headlines that deal with public figures coping with cancer. The news that Elizabeth Edwards' breast cancer had spread was piggybacked by news that Tony Snow's colon cancer had also returned and spread. Both are terribly sad stories - both Edwards and Snow are parents in the prime of their lives and both are people who live lives in the glare of public scrutiny.

There are several life lessons to be learned, not the least of which is the value of early cancer detection and the importance of cancer screenings. March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, a month dedicated to reminding us that colorectal cancer is thought to be 90% preventable and one of the most treatable forms of cancer if detected early. And while breast cancer screenings are not as fail safe, the importance of early detection and preventive measures cannot be disputed. The personal health dramas of both Edwards and Snow will be catalysts for thousands to call their doctors for screenings. Often, public figures who share their experience can cut through our all-too-human tendencies to denial and procrastination and can also offer inspiration and hope to those who cope with their own or a loved one's cancer.

Work-life balance
These stories also have brought the issue of work/life balance center stage as we watch the very different approaches that people and families take in addressing a major health crisis. When Elizabeth and John Edwards announced the return of her cancer along with their decision for John Edwards to continue in his quest for the presidency, it spawned a national debate that is spilling out in newsprint, talk shows and online message boards. Their choice has met with both accolades and criticism, and while much of the commentary may be colored by political partisanship, it highlights the very different approaches that people take to a life-threatening health crisis. Some would retreat to spend time with family and focus exclusively on health; some would focus on fulfilling lifelong dreams; some would quietly continue putting one foot in front of the other, living life with as much normalcy as possible.

One of the matters that is put in high relief in the case of Elizabeth and John Edwards is the concept of the value of work and a purpose-driven life. Obviously, both the Edwards have a passion for their mission and their life's work. Elizabeth's choice is viewed by many other cancer survivors as life-affirming. Regardless, people and families must decide their own best approach. It is never wise to let the court of public opinion be a determinant of how we should live our lives.

Quiet dramas
In the workplace, quieter but no less compelling dramas are playing out every day as workers cope with their own cancer or life-threatening cancer suffered by loved ones. For many people, the high cost of health care dictates response simply because the job is the key to paying for care. For most, life goes on. As managers and colleagues, the most important thing we can do is offer a constructive support that is based less in sympathy and more in respect and regard for the person's inherent dignity. The American Cancer Society offers these basic do's and don'ts for dealing with a coworker who has cancer:


  • Take your cues from the person with cancer. Some people are very private while others will talk more about their illness. Respect the person's need to share or their need to remain quiet.
  • Let them know that you care.
  • Respect their decisions about how their cancer will be treated, even if you disagree.
  • Include the person in usual work projects and social events. Let him or her be the one to tell you if the commitment is too much to manage.
  • Listen without always feeling that you have to respond. Sometimes a caring listener is what the person needs the most.
  • Expect your colleague to have good days and bad days, emotionally and physically.
  • Keep your relationship as normal and balanced as possible. While greater patience and compassion are called for during times like these, your colleague should continue to respect your feelings, as you respect his or her feelings.
  • Offer to help in concrete, specific ways.
  • Check before doing something for them, no matter how helpful you think you are being.
  • Keep them up-to-date with what's happening at work.
  • Send cards, and include anecdotes about why he or she is missed. If interested people send individual cards, they may have more impact.


  • Offer unsolicited advice, or be judgmental.
  • Assume that he or she can't do the job. Your co-worker needs to feel like a valuable, contributing member of your company or department.
  • Feel you must put up with serious displays of temper or mood swings. You shouldn't accept disruptive behavior just because someone is ill.
  • Take things too personally. It's normal for your co-worker to be quieter than usual, to need time alone, and to be angry at times. These feelings are normal, so don't worry.
  • Be afraid to talk about the illness.
  • Always feel you have to talk about cancer. Your colleague may enjoy conversations that don't involve the illness.
  • Be afraid to hug or touch your friend if that was a part of your friendship before the illness.
  • Be patronizing. Try not to use a "How sick are you today?" tone when asking how the person is doing.
  • Tell your co-worker, "I can imagine how you must feel," because you really can't.

March 23, 2007

The lighter side: job of the week, messy desks, fun at work, office pranks

Model job of the week - literally!

Are you a slob? Congrats, you're more productive - a new book is touting the benefits of messiness, claiming that "neatness is overrated, costs money, wastes time and quashes creativity." But the jury is out as to whether messiness hinders or helps your career. While one study says that messy-desk people tend to have higher salaries than neatniks, other experts caution that messiness might affect your upward mobility.

Here's a group of dentists that understand the benefit of having fun on the job. Funmeister Bernie DeKoven would approve - he's a big proponent of the benefit of fun and creative play at work. His site is a treasure trove for creative fun and games well worth exploring - there's a lot there about fun both on and off the job - be sure to see his work archives.

Office pranks and hi-jinks are another matter. Here are some creative things to do when your colleague is away. Or here's a before and after case study. Sometimes these plots can be quite elaborate (PDF).

And speaking of fun, here's a desk toy designed to defuse frustration with the boss - who knows, it might prevent a needless office outburst. (video clip)

March 21, 2007

Short takes: gambling, flextime, motivation, ADA, and more

Gambling at work - Some seasonal sports activities generate a spike in workplace gambling. BLR features an article on the dangers of NCAA tournament pools that suggests some ways that a company might harness these pools more productively. Thanks to Strategic HR Lawyer for the pointer.

It's about time - Thinking about flextime? If so, you might enjoy this case study about how Best Buy is rethinking the time clock. Under a program called Rowe (results-only work environment) workers set their own schedules. The program has been a whopping success at the corporate headquarters, where 60% of the employees participate and productivity has soared by 35%. Best Buy is about to roll the program out to its retail operations, hoping to make a dent in one of the industry's greatest Achilles' heal, high turnover.

By the numbers - "Do your employees do their best when you're not around? Do they make a beeline to get in on your team? Do they go that extra mile to do that task more efficiently without being asked? Do they have nice things to say about you, even when you're not within earshot?" Business Intelligence Lowdown offers 73 surefire tips on how to be a manager that your employees respect. If you have a large tech work force, here are 8 things intelligent people, geeks and nerds need to work happily. And conversely, here's a list of 50+ ways a manager can get employees to quit that were compiled by an IT manager who polled colleagues about the things a former manager did to demotivate his team.

Legal matters - Chris McKinney of HR Lawyer's Blog posts about a a million dollar ADA verdict recently levied against DuPont. It might be a good time to review employer responsibilities under the ADA. Also timely, Labor and Employment Law Blog has a pertinent post: Frequently Asked Questions About Reasonable Accommodation.

New blog discovery - Check out Suits in the Workplace - an employment law blog by attorneys Lou Michels and Rod Satterwhite. Lots of interesting items, from a recent post about E-mail policies potentially opening the door to union activity to the latest on computer privacy in the workplace.

Who are you? - Susan Heatherfield asks and answers the question What Does a Human Resources Manager, Generalist, or Director Do?. Roles vary depending on the size and maturity of an organization - from benefits manager and employee advocate to strategic partner and change champion. Susan offers a good general overview of common responsibilities, a discussion of the emerging role of HR managers, and links to many related resources.

Short takes

March 16, 2007

How to get 3,000 resumes a week

Need to bolster your recruitment efforts? Take five and a half minutes from your day to view this video clip from an NBC report about why Google was named the best place to work—it's quite amazing. Also, check out this report from Fortune describing what makes Google such a great employer and a photo essay that gives a glimpse into life in the Googleplex.

While many hard-working HR managers might have trouble persuading their companies to enrich their benefit programs to the Google standard, the real secret sauce lies in the company's ability to engage the creativity of their workers. Google has an innovative philosophy and a climate that fosters creativity and fun.

To learn about other great employers, see Fortune's 2007 list of the 100 best companies to work for.

March 15, 2007

Grief in the workplace: Tips for supervisors

As an EAP, one of the most common situations we deal with is grief and loss. Everyone suffers death and loss at some point and everyone deals with grief differently. Grief can be all-consuming, an issue that spills over into the workplace long after the precipitating event has passed, particularly if the loss was of a child or a spouse. Supervisors and managers are often uncomfortable in dealing with an employee's grief and finding the right balance between being compassionate and maintaining work productivity.

Managers can play a key role in helping a person to heal. Resuming the normal routine of work is part of the healthy recovery process. Knowing something about the various stages or behaviors that are common in the grief process can be helpful in understanding how to support grieving workers.

Here are some supervisor tips for dealing with grief in the workplace:

  • Make contact with your bereaved employee as soon as possible after you learn of their loss. Offer your condolences. Listen and respect confidentiality. Expect sadness and tears.
  • Be prepared. Know your organization's policy on bereavement and personal time and be ready to explain the policy to the employee.
  • Be as flexible and negotiable as possible in allowing your employee to have the time and space to deal with their loss.
  • Arrange for back-ups and replacements necessary to cover the person’s work during their absence. Ensure that phone calls and e-mail messages are re-directed.
  • Get information on services, funerals and memorials to the person’s colleagues in a timely fashion.
  • If appropriate, help to organize some form of group acknowledgment to support the employee, such as issuing a card or flowers, or planning group attendance at a memorial ceremony.
  • Ensure that support continues when the person returns to work. The first few days may be particularly difficult adjustment.
  • Have back-ups or a buddy system in place when the employee returns to work to provide support and check in with the employee periodically to see how he or she is doing.
  • Consider adjusting the workload. Expect productivity, but be patient and reasonable in your expectations.
  • Be sensitive to the cycle of upcoming holidays or trigger points that might be difficult for the employee.
  • Recognize that other cultures may have customs, rituals or ways of dealing with loss that differ from those to which we are accustomed.
  • Watch for warning signs of prolonged grief and ongoing performance issues, such as poor grooming, severe withdrawal, substance abuse, or other uncharacteristic behaviors might be warning signs.
  • Offer resources for professional help. As a manager, you are in a unique position to observe a need for help and to recommend assistance through a referral to your EAP or appropriate community resources.

Other resources
Here are some articles from various sources to offer further exploration on the topic of grief in the workplace.
Helping employees cope with grief
In times of need: Responding when grief strikes
Dealing with death and grief in the workplace
Grief in the Workplace

March 13, 2007

Health and Wellness Observances in March

March is a busy month for health observances. The following are a few of the major observances this month, with links for more information and online resources.

March 26 - - The American Diabetes Alert - an annual, one-day call-to-action held on the fourth Tuesday of March for people to find out if they are at risk for diabetes. Take the risk test.

National Nutrition Month - a nutrition education and information campaign sponsored annually by the American Dietetic Association. The campaign is designed to focus attention on the importance of making informed food choices and developing sound eating and physical activity habits.

Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month - Every March, 58 organizations focused on colorectal cancer join forces to bring attention to this disease. More resources from ACS.

Save Your Vision Month - the American Optometric Association reminds Americans about the importance of regular eye examinations for maintaining healthy vision and overall good health. The American Eye-Q survey offers a test of knowledge on eye and vision topics. The campaign also concentrates on the eye and vision health of the Baby Boomer generation, many of whom will turn 60 in 2007.

National Kidney Month - the National Kidney Foundation offers resources, tips, and quizzes to help promote awareness of and reduce risk for chronic kidney disease.

More March observances
Hemophilia Month
Multiple Sclerosis Education & Awareness Month
Mental Retardation Awareness Month
National Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Awareness Month

March 8, 2007

Wellness and work environments: when gyms and offices collide

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) has been much in the news lately and with an aging and increasingly obese population, it's hardly surprising to learn that risks go well beyond air travel. Sedentary workers can also be at great risk - particularly those workers who spend much of the day at the computer. While DVT can strike at any age, some people have higher risk factors than others.

Many office workers are fighting back against the sedentary lifestyle and some workplaces are starting to look more like gyms than cubicle farms. Many workers are trading in their office chairs for exercise balls and many employers - including Google and BMW - are accommodating them. Sitting on an exercise ball takes a bit of getting used to requiring better balance, but proponents find them energizing and tout the benefits of "active sitting." Ergonomists and physicians suggest they are better for shorter periods of time rather than prolonged use, and are quick to point out that they are not an ergonomic solution to mitigate musculoskeletal disorders. There are several variations, some that offer partial back support.

Many workers find the prospect of a sedentary life less than satisfying, looking for alternatives to traditional seating arrangements. Thomas Jefferson, Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, and Donald Rumsfeld are a few of the notable proponents of standing desks. Recently, some people have been taking this concept a step further with the treadmill desk or the so-called "treadputer". Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic is a champion of the "Walking While Working" concept, seeing this as as a potential antidote for the obesity epidemic.

Maybe your workplace isn't ready for a complete transformation yet, but there may be some small adaptations that could energize your work force and keep them moving. Exercise balls might be a great alternative in meeting rooms to keep meetings short and dynamic. A few standing stations interspersed here and there might offer people an opportunity to get up and move while staying focused on a project. Whatever the seating or standing arrangement, the computer work station should be optimized for safety. OSHA offers an illustrated Computer workstation e-tool that offers guidelines and a checklist to ensure best ergonomic practices.

March 6, 2007

The Secret Men Won't Admit

Sadness isn't macho – this Eric Weaver knew. When depression engulfed this veteran police sergeant, it took a different guise: anger. To the former SWAT team leader, it was manly and easy to be mad.

The father of three, then in his early 40s, stewed in a near-constant state of anger. "One minute I'd be okay and the next minute I'd be screaming at my kids and punching the wall." My kids would ask, "What's wrong with daddy? Why is he so mad all the time?" As he revealed to author Susan Freinkel in the January, 2007 issue of Reader’s Digest (The Secret Men Won't Admit), the possibility that he was depressed never occurred to him until the angry facade began to crumble, leaving him with no feelings except utter despair. The tears finally came one night when he admitted to his wife the painful truth: "I've thought about committing suicide just about every day lately."

Sgt. Weaver's confusion about what affected him was not unusual. Roughly one third of the 18 million Americans who suffer depression each year are men. Yet all too often, men fail to recognize the symptoms and get the treatment they need. “Men don't find it easy to ask for help when they desperately need it," says Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health. In an effort to redress that masculine blind spot, NIMH has launched an educational campaign featuring real men talking about their depression. Their stories are markedly different from women's.

For years, studies from around the world routinely concluded that twice as many women as men suffered from depression. In fact, depression was frequently considered a "woman’s disease." But practitioners such as psychologist William Pollack, Director of the Center for Men at McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA, is leading the charge against this well-entrenched gender gap. In fact, Dr. Pollack argues that just as many men suffer from depression as women — it’s just that depression simply "looks different" in men. Indeed, University of Iowa psychologist Dr. Sam Cochran concedes that "Men don’t come in talking about feeling sad like women do. Rather, they come in complaining about problems at work or their performance on the job." Instead of being weepy, men are more apt to be irritable and angry — moods that aren't included in the classic diagnostic assessments.

Organizations such as the Mental Health Association of Greater St. Louis have recently issued symptomatic guidelines that now include different criteria for diagnosing depression in men. These include:

  • Increasing feelings of irritability, anger and frustration
  • Gradual loss of interest in family, friends and hobbies
  • Noticeable changes in weight or appetite
  • Pronounced changes in sleeping habits — sleeping too much or inability to achieve restful sleep
  • Inability to concentrate, remember or make decisions
  • Constant fatigue or loss of energy
  • Feelings of guilt or hopelessness
  • Recurrent thoughts of suicide or death
HR directors and managers should be educated about and familiar with these symptoms. When an employee (of either sex) demonstrates pronounced work performance issues, personality changes, anger or apathy, these behaviors should be triggers for a closer look. That's not to suggest that managers should try to play the role of counselor or be burdened with trying to understand or diagnose the root problem behind the behavior. Rather, such situations present the perfect opportunity for managers to make an administrative referral to the EAP. There may be any number of reasons for these behaviors, which include depression, substance abuse, or a temporary or situational problem, such as debt. Regardless, experienced counselors at the EAP can offer an array of helpful resources and appropriate treatment options.

March 1, 2007

Cool HR tools and widgets

From time to time, we like to pass along some of our staff's favorite bookmarks and handy dandy Web tools. Here's a roundup of a few that you might find useful.

The Days Off Calculator is a useful tool for any organizations that have complex staffing needs, such as retail, call centers, and assembly operations. It assists in scheduling staff over a 7-day week by working out how many workers can have any given pair of days off (Saturday/Sunday, Sunday/Monday, etc.) and still fill the staffing requirements. Enter how many people you need each day and it tells you how to set up your employees' off-days.

Drug Digest is a great resource for your wellness programs. It bills itself as "the most comprehensive source of noncommercial, evidence-based, consumer-oriented drug information on the Internet." Access reference materials on drugs, vitamins, breakthrough medical research, and state-of-the-art disease management. It includes a drug interactions database for checking potentially harmful drug interactions and a variety of other helpful interactive tools.

Policies, Handbooks: Samples and Examples - About.com's Human Resources site has an extensive list of sample policies, job descriptions, and handbook examples that can be used as guides when developing or revising your own policies and procedures.

OneLook Dictionary Search is an essential bookmark, allowing you to search multiple dictionaries at once through a single interface. OneLook includes more than 5 million words in more than 900 online dictionaries. Find definitions, find translations of a word in other languages, or use wildcards to search for that word that you don't know how to spell. Try it out with today's word of the day - a quick definition can be found on the right, and more detailed information from a variety of sources can be accessed from a list on the left.

Google docs and spreadsheets - did you know Google has a suite of free Web-based collaborative tools? If you've ever tried to keep track of various versions of a document or spreadhseet as it passes through many hands, this is a good tool. You can share, collaborate, and edit from various locations in real time.

How much can you save with paperless pay? Use this ROI Calculator to find out.

Benchmarking you business - Statistics of U.S. Businesses from the US Census Bureau.

Relax - ten steps to a less stressful commute.

Want to ensure that your work force is operating at its most productive? The 10 C's of employee engagement.

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