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December 21, 2007

Santa Claus considered: as an employee ... and as an employer

Santa, the employee
Employee background checks are important. Even when hiring a seemingly trustworthy guy like St. Nick, it might be worth running a check for arrest warrants, sexual offenses and other criminal matters to protect your organization from potential liability. And once you've hired Santa, the job is not complete—meticulous on-the-job training is vital. Plus, you may want to conduct an ergonomic assessment of his job—the nature of his work presents lot of potential for on-the-job injuries. And you will definitely want to refer him to your EAP program—a recent survey reveals that Santa's job can be very stressful!

Santa Claus as an employer
It pains us to bring this up, but there is no getting around it—no matter how beloved he is in the world at large, as an employer, Santa leaves something to be desired. The people at Forbes have painted him as little better than a sweat shop operator, forcing his elves to work long hours at low pay. And law firms both here in the U.S. and abroad note that he is playing fast and loose with a host of employment laws, risking everything from workers comp claims to class-action suits for hiring discrimination. Some attorneys weigh in with their thoughts on these and other potential legal risks that Santa faces.

Now we are very fond of Santa, but frankly, some of these employment practices stink. So Santa, if you are listening, give us a call—we'd be happy to enroll you in our online Management Academy free of charge. We'll gladly throw in some stress reduction counseling, too!

December 19, 2007

The lighter side: HR Web Cafe's pre-holiday extravaganza

In 2005, the BBC ran a most entertaining feature called The Worst Jobs in Christmas history - you can view the 48 minute video clip or visit the accompanying website to read about bad seasonal jobs from yesteryear, spanning the Anglo-Saxon to the Victorian era. Believe it, your job will look great in comparison.

Having trouble getting into the seasonal rhythm this year? (video alert) Feeling cranky this season? Take the "How Scrooge Are You" quiz to find out how your register on the "bah, humbug" index. What's a better antidote to holiday crankiness than a video with cats and Christmas trees? Perhaps an animated cats and Christmas trees video. It's almost as good as singing reindeer (video alert) and dogs in holiday costumes.

If you are running around at the last minute trying to find a holiday gift for a for a boss, a co-worker, or for the office party grab, experts suggest keeping things practical and impersonal when it comes to work gift-giving. This handy guide to holiday gift etiquette for coworkers offers some "dos and don'ts" for office gift giving. If you are really stuck for a small last minute idea, you might try making your own holiday gift - or here are a few variations on the theme.

And in the how NOT to do things department, may we suggest:
Dave Barry's Annual Holiday Gift Guide and the Bad Gift Emporium where you can review a gallery of bad gifts that others have been given, and you can also add any of your own to the gallery if you are the recipient of some bad gifts this year.

More holiday silliness:
Christma-Hanu-Rama-Ka-Dona-Kwanzaa - a holiday song by Roy Zimmernan (video clip)

Chrismukkah - resources for a merry mish-mash holiday. Related: Oy to the World - holiday music from the Kelzmonauts

Make a snowflake

Take a tour of Yahoo's amusing gallery of Santa photos

Jacob Richman's Chanukah humor page

Christmas Cubicle 2006

December 12, 2007

The Web as an addiction

Adrienne Fox has written an in-depth article on Web addiction for HR Magazine: Caught in the Web - employees who can't stop clicking. Her article discusses both general productivity issues associated with the Web in the workplace and the more specific issue of those people whose Web use goes far beyond garden-variety productivity matters into behavior that rivals that of many other addictions.

Many employers have been grappling with the matter of appropriate employee Web use. The efficiencies and benefits afforded by the Internet - e-mail, research ability, connectivity, etc. - cannot be overstated. Yet the flip side of the coin is the potential for abuse. Web use can certainly get out of hand - not unlike the telephone. In her article, Fox cites several studies pointing to loss of productivity, including a 2005 Gallup Organization report that found the average employee uses office computers for non-work activity about 75 minutes per day, an annual equivalent of $6,250 per employee at $20 an hour. Some estimates we've seen put the productivity drain higher, some lower. A University of Maryland study that we've cited puts the personal Web use during work time at an average of 3.7 hours a week. On the other hand, this study also found that employees are spending more time at home using the web for work-related matters—an average of 5.9 hours.

A secondary and related issue is arguably the more difficult one to address: employees who can't put the brakes on. Some call Internet abuse an addiction, although the American Psychiatric Association does not recognize it as such. The jury appears to still be out as to whether this is simply a bad habit, an addiction, or an impulse control disorder. Researchers at Stanford University have been and are continuing to study these questions. To date, they have found some number of people who identify compulsive and troubling trends in their own usage. In one nationwide telephone survey of 2,513, 13.7% of the survey participants said they found it hard to stay away from the Internet for several days at a time; 12.4% stayed online longer than intended; 8.7% attempted to conceal non-essential Web use from significant others; and 5.9 percent felt their relationships suffered as a result of excessive Internet use

While experts can quibble over the precise terminology, the fundamental question can be boiled down to this: Is Web use causing problems in that person's life? For many, the answer is yes, and the symptoms are not far different that they are for substance abuse, gambling, or any other addictive behaviors. Problem indicators include:

  • Covering up or lying about the extent of use
  • Jeopardizing relationships, work
  • Escaping problems and responsibilities
  • Losing interest in friends and hobbies
  • Trying unsuccessfully to control use
  • Being preoccupied with use
  • Losing sleep, skipping meals
  • Preferring to be online
  • Staying online longer than planned
  • Anticipating and planning next online session

If the issue of web usage surfaces repeatedly with a particular employee, deal with it as you would any other performance issue or problem. How would you deal with an employee who spent too much time on the phone or socializing with co-workers? If performance slips and you suspect there may be an underlying problem, such as Web addiction or any other serious matter, refer the employee to your EAP. As an HR manager you do not need to (nor should you) try to diagnose a problem - keep your eye on performance.

Establishing controls
As with many matters, we favor a moderate approach. Building restrictive Web policies that are skewed to the few problem users would be unfair to the lion's share of the workers who are not abusive and such a policy may hinder your brightest, most creative employees. On the other hand, having a policy that is too loose might leave you open to lawsuits if the tools you supply are misused under the company name. We favor leaning more heavily to the trust side than the mistrust side. Remember Ronald Regean's favorite adage: trust but verify."

Here are a few best practices we've seen:

  • Set clear policies for Web use and communicate the policies throughout the organization.
  • Give examples of what appropriate Web use is (research, industry publications, professional organizations) and what unacceptable use is (Chat rooms, pornography, games)
  • Tie Internet use to essential job functions and job goals
  • Show that you are paying attention. Discuss Web use in job evaluations and meetings. Ask employees how much they use the Web, what they use it for, etc. Work together to set time goals.
  • Be vigilant but not oppressive in monitoring usage. Have IT look for usage "outliers" and have discussions with the outliers to determine why. Use may be legitimate based on job needs; if not, handle as you would any performance issue.
  • Specify disciplinary actions for serious violation of policies. If certain actions will result in termination, be clear in stating this.

December 7, 2007

When an ordinary work day turns deadly

Our thoughts this week are with a human resource manager whose nights will be troubled for some time to come. Jodi Longmeyer spent a half hour crouching on the floor, cell phone in hand, relaying what she saw of the Van Mauer shootings to police dispatchers as six of her work colleagues were being gunned down. Longmeyer and other workers at the department store and the mall will now face the long, difficult road of dealing with grief, loss, and the terrible aftermath of a brush with horrific violence. There was no apparent reason why Van Mauer was targeted for this violence, but the retailer is now forced to deal with the aftermath. Providing access to experienced crisis counselors and EAPs will be critical to healthy recovery. Many of those involved - about 80% - will suffer acute stress disorder, exhibiting anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders. For most, this will largely pass within a few weeks or months - especially if they have access to appropriate counseling. But for others, the effects may be more pervasive, debilitating, and life-changing. Some who have a brush with near-death, violence or other traumatic events will suffer post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that can often have a delayed onset of up to a year or longer, and is generally thought to affect up to 20% of those who experience traumatic events.

HR managers: a weighty responsibility
We also think of another HR manager who is in the shadows of this story, the unknown person who had just terminated shooter Robert Hawkin from his job. No doubt, this person is shaken by their inadvertent involvement in the terrible events. Disciplinary actions and job terminations are every day actions in the workplace. No one expects them to have such a horrific aftermath. Yet work-related disciplinary actions are a crisis point for many. We think of another holiday-season shooting a few years ago after HR managers broke the news to an employee that his pay would be garnished for back taxes.

Terrible events can and do occur, and no amount of pre-planning or second-guessing will change that. All employers and managers can do is be ever-alert and sensitive for signs of potential problems and events that could be flash points, and to steer troubled employees to appropriate channels for help. Serious disciplinary actions are one such potential flash point, and an appropriate time for a referral to an EAP. In our experience, many terminations can be avoided if employees with a work problem are referred to an EAP at an early sign of problems. Holidays are another time when problems can surface for troubled employees. Holidays can trigger depression and stress for many.

The Workplace Violence Research Institute lists a number of pre-incident indicators gleaned from more than 200 actual incidents of workplace violence:

  • Increased use of alcohol and/or illegal drugs
  • Unexplained increase in absenteeism
  • Noticeable decrease in attention to appearance and hygiene
  • Depression and withdrawal
  • Explosive outbursts of anger or rage without provocation
  • Threatens or verbally abuses co-workers and supervisors
  • Repeated comments that indicate suicidal tendencies
  • Frequent, vague physical complaints
  • Noticeably unstable emotional responses
  • Behavior which is suspect of paranoia
  • Preoccupation with previous incidents of violence
  • Increased mood swings
  • Has a plan to "solve all problems"
  • Resistance and over-reaction to changes in procedures Increase of unsolicited comments about firearms and other dangerous weapons
  • Empathy with individuals committing violence
  • Repeated violations of company policies
  • Fascination with violent and/or sexually explicit movies or publications
  • Escalation of domestic problems
  • Large withdrawals from or closing his/her account in the company's credit union.

In addition to these indicators, we would recommend:

  • Have a crisis management plan, including resources in place to provide post-trauma stress counseling
  • Be alert for disciplinary flash points
  • Be alert for signs of depression at the holidays
  • Encourage and make it easy for staff to report threats, violence, and incidents of unusual displays of anger
  • See this posting for more tips for violence prevention in the workplace

Additional resources
OSHA Preventing workplace violence
SAMHSA - Preventing Workplace Violence
Handbook on Workplace Violence Prevention and Response from the USDA

December 3, 2007

Short takes: Wellness, Santa, employment law, and bad employer of the year

Mandatory wellness - Workplace Prof Blog tells us that the numbers of employers that require employees to participate in health and wellness programs are increasing, and that some attorneys are predicting a related a barrage of discrimination and privacy lawsuits. Employer programs range from the carrot of incentives to the stick of penalties, such as fines for failure to participate in health screenings and termination for those who test positive for nicotine.

Speaking of wellness ... U.S. Surgeon General Rear Adm. Steven K. Galson thinks that Santa should abstain from cookies this year because he sets a poor example for the nation's kids. Santa's average weight is 256 pounds. While he gave up the pipe a few years ago, health experts are saying it's time for the jelly belly to go too. If you would like to help Santa in this quest, be sure to leave him carrot sticks or fruit as a snack this year - the cookies have got to go!

Employment law - Lou Michels discusses two recent cases which he thinks are significant for employers seeking to prevent age discrimination claims. Both cases had to do with signed releases associated with severance packages which were later found non-compliant by courts in California and Minnesota. Michels suggests "... if you're going to hand out release documents that tell people they have 45 days to consider their options and that they should consult with an attorney, as required by the OWBPA, it's generally a bad idea to encourage or even suggest that people should immediately sign the waivers."

Shoutout to Wally Bock - If you want to stay up on some good business reads and news headlines, you can't do better than a visit to Wally Bock's Three Star Leadership Blog. Wally filters some of the best stories, particularly on weekends when most business blogs are quiet. Thanks, Wally!

When your job stinks - Evil HR Lady gives advice on a smelly problem. Personal hygiene issues are difficult to deal with. Maybe the company's EAP could get to the root of the matter.

Nomination for bad employer of the year - Call us prudes, but we just don't think it's wise to ask your female employees to come to work in their underwear. And just in case you think skivvy-related employment issues don't surface in the good old U.S. of A., think again.

Really short takes

December 1, 2007

December health & wellness observances

Tie One on for Safety - Typically, about 1,000 people are killed in alcohol related crashes between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) targets this high-risk time with an annual "Tie One on for Safety" campaign to raise awareness about and prevent drunk driving over the holiday season. MADD invites all Americans to put a red ribbon or window decal on their vehicles as a pledge to drive safely, soberly, and with seat belts buckled during the holidays and throughout the year. Seat belts are an important aspect of the safety message because a buckled seat belt is the best defense against a drunk driver. Employers can support and reinforce this message throughout the month and can incorporate safe practices in any holiday celebrations. And speaking of driving safety, do you conduct an annual review of license status for all employees that have driving as an essential job task? If not, that might be a good resolution for early in the new year.

Toy Safety - With December being the world's biggest gift-giving month, it's fitting that it should also be toy safety month. More than 65% of annual sales of the 3 billion toys sold in the U.S. occur in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Safe Kids USA offers a comprehensive site on toy safety, with tips, buying guides, and lists of recalls. ToyInfo.org is a toy industry sponsored site that also offers buying information and links to comprehensive recall lists.

Handwashing Awareness Week - Since 1999, the first week of December is Handwashing Awareness Week and Henry the Hand has been a tireless ambassador in carrying a serious message: the importance of hand-washing in preventing the spread of illnesses and infectious diseases. Henry is the brainchild of a Dr. William sawyer, an international expert in hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette. He employees the friendly, humorous mascot of Henry the Hand to carry frank talk about the spread of germs to kids and their parents.

World AIDS Day - While December 1 is World AIDS Day with a 2007 theme being "Leadership," every day is really a good day to communicate about AIDS and AIDS prevention. Both The National Institute for Health and MedlinePlus offer comprehensive resources on treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS, with everything from multilingual fact sheets to information on clinical trials, vaccines, various health topics, and information for various special populations such as teens and seniors.

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