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August 31, 2009

Wellness incentives and workers comp

Despite the difficult economic climate, wellness programs are thriving. According to a recent survey by Watson Wyatt and the National Business Group on Health, the number of companies adding wellness and health management programs continues to grow. And according to the survey, "... even moderate incentives can help engage employees in healthy behaviors. Financial incentives between $51 and $100 can boost participation in smoking cessation and weight management programs and encourage workers to get biometric screenings. Higher participation in health risk appraisals is associated with incentives greater than $100."

So incentives work. But sometimes they can run headlong into the law of unintended consequence. Take the case of Frank P. Torre v. Logic Technology, in which which a New York appeals court awarded workers comp benefits to an employee for an injury sustained in the gym. Usually, injuries that happen during extracurricular activities aren't covered by workers comp, but there are exceptions, such as when injuries occur during "mandatory attendance" events or while an employee is on business travel (see: Mandatory fun: when recreational activities are compensable and When play becomes work, or the case of the traveling employee).

In this case, the employee was on his own time at the gym - the injury did not appear "to arise out of and in the course of employment," the usual test for compensability under workers comp. But in this case, the court determined that gym participation was furthering the employer's business interest due to the networking potential. When it is determined that an employer has derived significant business benefit from an activity - such as interacting with clients and prospects - then an activity may be compensable.

The courts also noted that the employer encouraged and sponsored this activity. In this case, the sponsorship entailed reimbursement for gym membership fees. One has to wonder what kind of chilling effect a ruling like this could have on wellness programs. Employers frequently incent employees by paying for or supplementing gym membership, exercise programs, and weight loss or smoking cessation programs, and as noted in the above survey, some companies also offer financial incentives for participating in wellness programs, or impose disincentives such as increased cost for insurance premiums for not participating.

Wellness programs are beneficial for workers comp
Comorbidities like obesity and diabetes have been shown to have an impact on claim frequency and severity so it would appear that wellness programs would have a positive net effect on workers comp costs. It would seem there should be a more symbiotic relationship between wellness and workers comp, but to date, that hasn't seemed to be the case. We'll have to keep an eye on court decisions to see if this NY case will prove the exception rather than the rule.

Meanwhile, employers should proceed with caution because endorsement and sponsorship can be tricky when it comes to workers comp. In days gone by, sponsorship generally referred to softball or bowling teams and employers could take some steps top mitigate risks. But as employers become more aggressive about wellness programs in an effort to control health care costs and these wellness programs become more ingrained in the corporate culture, does the compensability exposure increase? Some of the variables that have come into play in determining compensability are the location and time of the activity - is the gym on the employer's premises? Does the activity take place during work hours? Another factor is how strongly the company encourages participation and whether participation is purely voluntary. If a corporate culture is such that it so strongly endorses an activity, the issue of whether participation is truly voluntary could be up for debate.

August 24, 2009

It's how you play the game...

Sometimes you hear a story that just hits you. It inspires you, it warms your heart, it brings a tear to your eye. There's just such a story which has been making the rounds for little more than a year now, one that seems to inspire everyone it touches. It's the story of a remarkable gesture by a school athlete and her team, illustrating grace, generosity, sportsmanship and character. We didn't hear about the event when it occurred in the spring of 2008, but Sports Illustrated recently revisited events in an article entitled The Way It Should Be. Someone sent this to us a few weeks ago, but it sat in the "to read" folder of our bookmarks gathering dust. Fortunately, we finally read it and we urge you not to dally the way we did because it is well worth your time. If you prefer, we've found a video clip which you can access below.

This story brings to life the old adage about it not being whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. Mallory Holtman and her teammates were nominated as Sportsman of the Year for 2008 - an honor that eventually went to Michael Phelps, although we think Holtman would have been a better role model for our times. As the voices in DC and in the town meetings get louder and more strident during the public healthcare debate, we can't help but think that our political leaders could learn something about leadership, grace, and noblesse oblige from these remarkable girls. And so could we all.

August 23, 2009

Grab bag of work web tools and useful sites

From time to time, we like to pass along some of the useful tools and sites that we chance on in our travels. Some are productivity savers and others are just plain useful!

Meeting ticker - log the number of attendees, enter the average hourly rate, and start your engines. You'll be surprised to learn how much meetings cost!

Legistalker - Wanting to follow your congressperson during key issues? Try Legistalker, a site that makes it easy to stay on top of what your elected officials say and how they vote. The database is updated every 20 seconds, and relies on data from Twitter, YouTube, Capitol Words, literally hundreds of different news sources, and others.

GizaPage - too many social networks to manage? GizaPage a social network organizer that allows you to access all your networks from your own personalized URL. This is just one tool to help you manage your social networking applications - also see Manage Your Social Networks

Tinychat - This service allows you to create an instant web-based chat room or video conference with up to twelve people in a room. It is protected by passwords and moderators, you can share your desktop with them, and your conferences can be recorded and embedded on your website.

280 Slides - create and share presentations online. No software to download with this free app - try it out!

DropSend - do you ever have attachments that are too large to send in an e-mail or too large for your recipient to access in their e-mail? Try DropSend which allows you to send large files of up to 2 gigabytes. You can send up to 5 emails a month free.

Choose the Best Search for Your Information Need - a guide to some specialty search engines

Wordnik - This site bills itself as "An ongoing project devoted to discovering all the words and everything about them." If you are a logophile, you are sure to like this site. And may we also remind you of OneLook, a handy resource that sources and presents results for multiple dictionaries.

ParkWhiz - find and reserve parking before you get there. Enter a date, time & address and get nearby parking garages, rate comparisons, and distance from your destination.

Down for everyone of just me? - enter the address of a website to see if the site is having a widespread problem or if the problem with the page is on your end. It's surprisingly useful!

August 16, 2009

Big-haired, smelly people who wear bells on their shoes: co-worker annoyances

It may not be the big things that send people over the edge at work, it may be the little things. In his poem, The Hollow Men, poet T.S. Eliot says that "This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper." When asked "what bothers you the most about co-workers" in a recent survey of 2600 hiring managers conducted by Career Builder, respondents revealed a quirky litany of petty annoyances and grudges ... from colleagues who "eat all the good cookies" and breathe too loudly to those with disconcerting habits like having big hair, checking co-workers for ticks or wearing bells on their shoes.

The list is amusing - it is easy to imagine the shudders and eye rolls that accompanied these statements. But are we wrong in wondering why many of these complaints seem singular rather than universal? Where were some of the stereotypical and ubiquitous cringe-worthy souls like the whistler, the bootlicking toady, the space invader, the loud talker, the loud eater, and the taker of the last cup of coffee without making more? We went looking for other surveys about co-worker complaints and found those and other petty grievances.

In a Forbes survey, noisy colleagues featured prominently in a list of top annoyances - loud office talkers, people with annoying ring tones, and those who talk on speakerphones. The kitchen is another source of contention: people eating smelly food, leaving dirty dishes or messes for others to clean up, or people who hog the best treats while never bringing in their own. In some "arm's length" research conducted by Brianna Raymond of Pongo Blog, gossip and eavesdropping were among the top coworker annoyances, along with "gross" behavior such as publicly clipping fingernails (or toenails) at the desk or sharing too much information about medical issues. Among those commenting on her post, there seemed to be a fair amount of coworkers who tell "poop jokes," and the consensus was that "poop jokes" are indeed annoying and don't belong in the office.

David R. Butcher of Thomasnet helpfully categorizes these annoying people into 13 Types of Irritating Coworkers. Where do you fall on the scale of things? When people think "annoying co-worker" does your name come to mind? Take the am I the annoying co-worker quiz to find out where you land on the scale of people who drive other people crazy. A few weeks after his list of 13 annoying coworker types, Butcher issued a second list: 13 Types of Coworkers We Like, with many traits we should all aspire to. Meanwhile, if in your role as HR manager some of these crazy-making behaviors wind up in your lap, John Baldoni of CIO suggests three tips for nipping workplace annoyances in the bud - being direct and specific in confronting the behavior, asking the offender to participate in helping to identify the solution, and following up to ensure resolution.

August 9, 2009

How not to get sued for age discrimination when drafting a severance agreement

Business Brief calls it a set of "how to sue your employer" instructions from the fed and advises that employers and HR managers familiarize themselves with this document recently issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC): Understanding Waivers of Discrimination Claims in Employee Severance Agreements. Largely, this document was issued in response to a spike in age-related discrimination claims that is worrying the EEOC. They report that last year, workers filed nearly 30 percent more age discrimination charges than in 2007. Many feel that the economic downturn has taken a disproportionate toll on the older work force and many are concerned that several recent Supreme Court decisions are weakening the 1967 Age Discrimination Act in Employment. (In June, the Supreme Court ruled that for a discrimination case to succeed, thee employee must show that age discrimination was the cause rather than just a contributing factor to termination or other adverse job action Gross v FBL Financial Service)

The new document issued by EEOC is intended to give employees guidance on waiving discrimination claims in severance agreements:

"This document answers questions that you may have if you are offered a severance agreement in exchange for a waiver of your actual or potential discrimination claims. Part II provides basic information about severance agreements; Part III explains when a waiver is valid; and Part IV specifically addresses waivers of age discrimination claims that must comply with provisions of the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act (OWBPA). Finally, this document includes a checklist with tips on what you should do before signing a waiver in a severance agreement and a sample of an agreement offered to a group of employees giving them the opportunity to resign in exchange for severance benefits."
Business Brief recommends that employers see this document as "a heads-up that EEOC is giving all such agreements a closer look." They sugges that this document should be a resource for employers in drawing up any severance agreements, particularly in terms of what not to put in an agreement.

August 7, 2009

HR and the pirates: a crisis management case history

In this month's Human Resources Executive, Jared Shelly has a fascinating behind-the scenes report of the HR role in crisis management as it played out during the Somalian pirate hijacking of a US merchant ship this past April. The report takes you into "The Situation Room" in Virginia Beach where the crisis response team of Maersk Line Limited met the unfolding situational challenges. Human Resource director Susan Lebrato played a pivotal role on the crisis team in communicating with both internal and external constituencies. As the crisis unfolded, this entailed coordinated planning, information sharing, and communication with governmental agencies; getting information to and providing support for the families of the ship's crew, particularly the family of Capt. Richard Phillips; writing press releases and taking a public role in responding to media inquiries; and planning public and private events to welcome the crew home.

The communication role was particularly sensitive - while seeking to be as open as possible in communicating with staff and family members, this had to be balanced with the fact that international media were clamoring for new angles to the story. Because negotiations were ongoing and because pirates had access to major news channels, it was essential that external communications be measured and cautious.

While most HR managers won't be thrust into managing crisis communications for an international incident with pirates, company crises that spill over into the public realm happen every day, and the HR role is pivotal for both internal and external communications, as well as in overall crisis management. While it's impossible to plan for every contingency, the basic response to any crisis can be planned in advance: crisis team identified; alternate means of communications in place; spokespeople trained; list of core values and goals outlined. Here's a helpful Crisis Planning Checklist designed for planning and response to natural or man-made crises.

More resources on HR crisis management and crisis communications
Crisis Management and HR's Role
Crisis management in today's business environment: HR's strategic role
HR lessons learned in the aftermath of Katrina
Tips for supporting employees who are on international assignments
Crisis Communications - using social media in an emergency - where blogs and Twitter have played a major communication role in crises like the Virginia Tech shooting and the Fargo Floods. We've also blogged about harnessing social media in a crisis.

August 2, 2009

Workplace flexibility programs on the rise

Workforce reports that despite the troubled economy - and partly because of it - there has been a 25 percent increase in workplace flexibility programs among employers with more than 1,000 workers. According to a recent survey conducted by the Families and Work Institute of New York, 81% of the 400 companies surveyed have maintained flexible work arrangements such as telecommuting, compressed workweeks, phased retirement and voluntary reduced hours, and 13% have increased such programs. Only 6% of the surveyed companies have eliminated flexibility programs. Companies are using flexible work arrangements to minimize layoffs and to bolster productivity and retention. You can learn more by downloading a copy of the study: The Impact of the Recession on Employers (pdf).

Employers that are interested in exploring or benchmarking best practices in workplace flexibility can look to Twiga Foundation as a resource. Triga is a nonprofit dedicated to inspiring, promoting and maintaining family-consciousness at home, in the workplace and in the community. One of the central tenets of the organization is that to be an effective employer, work should work for both the employer and the employee. Among its many resources, it offers a handy chart explaining the most common variations in flexible work arrangements (pdf).

Twiga also issues an extensive guide profiling organizations that have developed innovative approaches and new models in how, when and where work gets done, When Work Works (pdf). Profiles featured in this report are comprised of organizations that were winners of the Alfred P. Sloan Awards for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility in 2007. This award recognizes exemplary employers of all types and sizes in participating communities across the U.S. for their innovative workplace effectiveness and flexibility initiatives. Some of the common characteristics these organizations share include:

  • These employers don’t see looking over employees’ shoulders as the way to ensure good work. They trust employees, but hold them accountable and focus on results
  • They don’t see the individual employee in potentially heroic terms. It is the team that must deliver performance.
  • They don’t think that automatically putting “customers first” above employee concerns is the best way to succeed. They have learned that a workplace that addresses staff issues has a staff that is more responsive to customers
  • They don’t think that killer hours are the only route to profit. They try to ensure that their employees have the time and space for renewal to do their best work
  • They don’t say that "only work-centric employees need apply." They find that dual-centric employees – who contribute to their communities and are involved with their families – are among their most committed and productive employees

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