Author Archives: Vanessa L. Goddard

UBERIZATION OF THE WORKPLACE, PART 1: WILL THIS RADICAL INNOVATION CHANGE THE FACE OF EMPLOYER/EMPLOYEE RELATIONS?

This blog post is part one of a six part series on the impact the Uber business model is having on employment laws across the nation.

Have you Ubered? If you haven’t, then you should try it before you weigh in on whether it is a good or bad thing.  At its most basic, Uber is an alternative to calling a cab (and there are progressively pricier and flashier versions of Uber if you prefer to travel in style).  All you do to Uber is download an app to your smartphone, provide your credit card information, and then request a ride.  Uber has conducted background checks and insurance checks on folks who use their personal vehicles to pick you up and take you to your destination.  No cash is exchanged.  The cost of the ride is charged to the credit card on file.  Read More »

THE LAW IS AN IDIOM

Here’s a little fact that may knock your socks off:  according to the EEOC, retaliation is the most frequently alleged civil rights charge in the federal sector and has been for nearly a decade.  In West Virginia, retaliation claims comprise approximately one third of such cases, and that’s nothing to turn a blind eye to.  Retaliation claims tend to hitch their wagons to claims for other forms of discrimination or harassment; yet, it’s pretty common for the underlying discrimination claim to disappear in a puff of smoke while the retaliation claim keeps on trucking.  This is a tune we’ve been singing for years on this blog, but with the EEOC taking a closer look at retaliation, we’ve got a few tricks up our sleeves to help stop retaliation in its tracks.

While it may be as obvious as the nose on my face, step one would be to reduce discrimination claims.  While some folks seem to always have an ax to grind, employers can do something about employees who have a real beef.  You probably (hopefully) have a company anti-discrimination policy, so use it.  Make sure your employees are treated consistently and in accordance with this policy.  Remember too: actions speak louder than words when it comes to zero tolerance for harassment and discrimination.  So, make sure that elimination of discrimination is a value held from the top down in your organization.  Fewer discrimination claims = fewer retaliation claims.

The next step you can take is to go the extra mile when you investigate complaints.  Document what you do and when you do it.  Certainly, I’m preaching to the choir when I remind you of the importance of keeping the investigation as confidential as possible, within the bounds of what the law permits.  This is particularly vital with regard to claims of retaliation because the fewer people who know about the complaint and the investigation, the fewer people who could possibly retaliate.

Make no bones about it:  you must have a written company policy prohibiting retaliation.  You will remind the complainant at the conclusion of the investigation not to keep mum if s/he experiences what they believe to be retaliation for their complaint.  You will remind the accused and witnesses that retaliation is prohibited.  Don’t beat around the bush with your employees; instead, train them on what retaliation is so they can spot it and stop it dead in its tracks.  Remember, the EEOC boils retaliation down to three key phrases:  retaliation occurs when an employer takes an adverse action against a covered employee for engaging in a protected activity.  For example, an adverse action can run the gamut from telling an employee to hit the road to moving him to the graveyard shift.  It all depends upon the circumstances.  A covered employee can be someone who has requested leave or a reasonable accommodation or may be the person we’ve been talking about who made a complaint about something she reasonably believed to be an unlawful practice.  Protected activities are usually as simple as you might expect:  filing a charge of discrimination, participating in an investigation of discrimination, or requesting a reasonable accommodation based upon disability or religion.

Finally, with retaliation claims, timing is EVERYTHING.  In most cases, timing is the best evidence a plaintiff has of retaliation.  It goes like this:  a complaint is made, investigated, and resolved under the company’s policy.  Before the complaint was made, however, the employee was treading water at the company, and his career was on its last legs.  If you’re lucky, your supervisor was on the ball, documenting the problems, the counseling, and the warning to shape up or ship out.  So, when the last straw finally breaks the camel’s back, you will have the documentation to support the adverse action you are about to take with the employee.  In each instance, you must look before you leap into taking an adverse employment action against an employee who has recently been involved in protected activity.  If the timing, documentation, or past practice do not support the decision you are about to make, put the brakes on it before it costs you an arm and a leg in court.  Assuming the conduct is not something that must be immediately nipped in the bud, get your ducks in a row by going back to the drawing board with the employee and documenting it properly the second time around.

While you should be glad to see the end of any claim for discrimination or harassment, the remaining retaliation claim can prove to be a tough customer to defend.  As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Whether we see eye to eye on the matter, or maybe you think I’m off my rocker, I’d love to hear your Views about how you dodge the bullet of retaliation claims.

‘TWAS THE HOLIDAY SEASON: HERE WE GO AGAIN.

‘Twas the holiday season upon us once more,

Not a single employee was at HR’s door.

The silence was heavy; I was starting to freak.

I hadn’t a complaint in more than a week.

 

No lawsuits or grievances were pending at all.

Instead of unease, I should be having a ball.

Our lawyer thinks I’m dead – I haven’t made a call.

Yet, all I know to do is wait for the other shoe to fall

 

Employees were trained as required by law.

Not to grope, fondle, or otherwise paw.

The handbook was updated, acknowledgments signed.

That NLRB Guidance almost blew my mind.

 

I took out the language that was certain to chill,

Because wages and hours can be discussed at will.

Our handbook was given a complete overhaul.

Revising conduct rules was the hardest of all.

 

And speaking of conduct, where has everyone gone?

Are they suddenly (eerily) getting along?

I take a deep breath and head to the break room.

The postings are current, not a single cartoon.

 

Then what to my wondering eyes should appear

But all my employees and staff I hold dear.

“We all want to thank you for all that you’ve done.”

“Let’s start the holidays by having some fun!”

 

“No beer! No liquor! And no copying our bums!”

“No mistletoe smooching!  We’re just having fun!”

My heart swelled with pride, as tears blurred my sight.

Merry Christmas to all.  Let’s do this party right!

WHY CAN’T WE ALL BE GOOGLEY?

I do not recreate by watching YouTube or reading Wikipedia entries, so perhaps I am the only person who is surprised about Google.  This edition of Vanessa’s Views began by researching a simple question:  what makes a business a good place to work?  It was deep into my reading that I discovered Google.  Folks, Google has UNLIMITED sick leave.  This concept basically short circuits my brain.  Then, I read on.  Google has legal aid (ahem).  Google has dentists, doctors, dry cleaners, and oil changes all on site.  Imagine if you will, not having to power walk to your car at 5 p.m. because the dry cleaner closes at 6 p.m.  Sigh.  Google also offers ridiculously generous tuition reimbursements; but if you would rather start small and just want to learn . . . oh say, Mandarin, you can do that at work too.

In my view, all of this is rainbows … unicorns … fireworks of confetti … basically stunning wrapping paper with a ginormous shiny silver bow … all of which conceals the core: the business itself.  Google is a great place to work for the same reasons all good employers, big and small, are great places to work.  Generally, these places tend to prioritize, in some form or fashion, four principal concepts:  (1) empowerment, (2) trust, (3) fairness, and (4) esprit de corps.

Empowerment  comes with treating employees like responsible adults who know their business.  It’s the trust you place in your employees to do their jobs right – without micromanaging.  It comes with providing challenging work that keeps employees interested, develops their skills, and uses their knowledge.  Help your employees grow:  with mentoring and training, with stipends for continuing education, or with the flexibility to allow for non-traditional career paths.  In short, when you provide your employees with meaningful work in a setting where they know where they stand in achieving the company mission, you are providing empowerment.

Trust  needs to be developed from the other direction, as well.  Employees need to know they can trust management.  Building trust can be a matter of sharing information.  Open communication with your employees, just as in your personal day-to-day relationships, is how you build trust.  If you can, allow your employees a say in how your business operates.  I’m not suggesting that you abdicate to the masses, but I am saying that listening to ideas from your employees, digesting them, and then implementing the sound ones is a trust building endeavor.  Finally, build trust with your employees by being a good citizen of your community and of the world.  Do good deeds together, and reap the reward of a stronger relationship.

Fairness  is a multi-faceted trait of a great place to work.  It comes with offering competitive pay and benefits.  It comes with recognizing that your employees have a work-life balance to achieve and helping them do it.  Perhaps you have generous leave policies, or you trust that your employees will get their job done when they want to take off for an hour to do reading time for their child’s class.  Fairness is also reflected in recognizing and rewarding excellence.  Nothing is quite so infuriating (and loyalty busting) as watching the mediocre get rewarded with praise or bonuses the same as the star employee.  The fair employer also uses mistakes as opportunities to grow, where possible.

Esprit de Corps  at my firm, for example, has been reduced to a concept called “No Jerks.”  At Google, it’s called “Googleyness.”  You want to build the right culture for your business, and then, hire people who are a good fit for your culture.  Great people are going to be different for every business.  Build camaraderie through teamwork across departments, through fun activities, or through sharing time in non-work settings.  If you like the people you work with, you’re going to like going to work that much more.

It doesn’t take fancy packaging or even a lot of money to be a great place to work.  But, it does take trust and fairness.  It also takes empowerment and that right esprit de corps.  In my view, we can all be Googley – just in our own special ways.  I would love to hear more about how Googley your place of work is.

GET YOUR GREEN ON AT WORK: EARTH DAY

Celebrate Earth Day (April 22) year-round with these green workplace ideas.  A few of these changes may only be able to be implemented one day a year.  Others might be things you can work up to doing once a month, or even eventually once a week.  There may even be a few suggestions on this list you can start now and make a lifelong practice of your business or workplaces.

Saving Energy

We’ve all seen the energy efficient light bulbs at the store.  If you’re not using them, you should be.  EnergyStar.gov states that, if every American replaced one regular bulb with an Energy Star efficient bulb, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by 9 billion pounds – the equivalent of emissions from 800,000 cars!  So, this Earth Day, try making the switch to compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs where feasible in the workplace.

Better still, turn stuff off at the end of the day.  Then, unplug it.  This goes for computers, coffee makers, fax machines, copiers, and any other electronics you have around the office.  Not only will this save electricity – it can save big bucks.  You can make this easier by investing in power strips so you can save money and the environment with the flip of a switch.

For workspaces with windows, implement some lights-out time during the sunniest part of the day.  Natural sunlight not only will reduce your power bill and save electricity, opening those blinds and soaking in the Sun’s Vitamin D will raise your employees’ spirits.

Experiment with changing the thermostat by one degree (up or down depending upon the season) to conserve energy.

Saving The Environment

For this Earth Day, have your employees work together to use less energy for their commute to work.  For those who live close by, walking and biking are great ways to save energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and get a little exercise to boot.  If you offer telecommuting, make that option available this Earth Day.  Have your employees organize a carpool or take public transportation that day.  You might find you can adopt this practice for more than simply one day a year.

If your office hasn’t made the switch to recycling, start a new habit on April 22nd.  If you’ve already transitioned to recycle bins, take the next step in your recycling program by switching to recycled paper products, like copy paper and towels.  If your whole office can’t make the switch but you recycle at home, commit to saving your own cans, cardboard boxes, and glass bottles to take home for the recycle bin.

Other habits you can start this Earth Day to make a difference include refilling your water bottle for a week or bringing re-usable water bottles and coffee mugs to work.  Pack your lunch one day a week.  Not only will you cut down on waste such as Styrofoam take-out packaging and plastic flatware, you’ll save a little coin too.  Some folks are bringing personal hand towels to work to cut down on paper waste.  There are fast-drying towels on the market now which are sized perfectly for purses or bags.  Can you go paperless for a day?  How about using both sides of the paper for one day?  Start little, but think big.

Go Green – Literally

Add plants to your workspace.  Folks, there is no down side to this suggestion.  Plants are an inexpensive way to beautify the workplace, keep the air clean, and lower stress.  Plants generate fresh oxygen and soak up a lot of bad stuff you didn’t even realize you’re breathing.  NASA compiled a list of plants that are the best at removing toxins from the air – things like formaldehyde and benzene – that may be found in furniture, dry cleaning, inks, cleaners, plastics, detergents, etc.  So, consider adding these beauties to your workplace:

Add plants to your workspace.  Folks, there is no down side to this suggestion.  Plants are an inexpensive way to beautify the workplace, keep the air clean, and lower stress.  Plants generate fresh oxygen and soak up a lot of bad stuff you didn’t even realize you’re breathing.  NASA compiled a list of plants that are the best at removing toxins from the air – things like formaldehyde and benzene – that may be found in furniture, dry cleaning, inks, cleaners, plastics, detergents, etc.  So, consider adding these beauties to your workplace:

• Aloe Vera: It needs a sunny spot, but it also removes toxins and is good for cuts and burns.
• Spider plant: This plant is hard to kill – a prime choice for the black thumb who loves plants.
• Peace lily: These lovelies can grow with just indoor light and once-a-week watering.
• English ivy: You should look up what this removes from the air.  You’ll thank me.  I plan to buy 10.
• Bamboo palm: This plant thrives in the shade and can live in water if you choose to do it that way.

I recommend you check out NASA’s complete list to find the plants perfect for your office space.
So, this Earth Day, April 22nd, go do something green.  It’s easier than you think.  If you have any suggestions for going green at the office, I’d love to hear your views.

OPEN WORKPLACES: ARE WE REALLY OPENING A CAN OF WORMS?

I continue to read and hear more about businesses converting to open workplaces.  This typically means a conversion from closed physical offices to open floor plans utilizing large common areas.  There are pros and cons to both formats and, as with most things in life, there’s a happy medium that maximizes the benefits to your business and minimizes the detrimental impact that such a physical organization can have on your workplace.  The “happy medium” is as unique as a fingerprint, so a quick summary of the pros and cons can put you on the right path.

On the positive side, an open workplace has several economic benefits.  It tends to permit more efficient utilization of the space available.  An open workplace is flexible, meaning it can be shaped and re-shaped until the format which works best is discovered.  From a practical standpoint, the space available is greater because pesky things like walls aren’t taking up a bunch of room.  It also allows for the sharing of pricier business equipment, like printers and copiers.  Smaller business supplies can also be shared, but I’m in the Milton camp – spring for the individual Swinglines!

Additionally, the open workplace is usually easier to supervise because management and staff are located in one spot.  This also permits issues to be dealt with faster because they can be raised immediately with management.  The open format even adapts more readily to evolving staffing needs over time.

The greatest advantage set forth in all of the information I have taken in is that an open floor plan leads to improved innovation and creativity because communication and collaboration are enhanced.  Increased interaction fosters camaraderie and improves employee morale.  Removing barriers to communications allows the free exchange of ideas and encourages teamwork, and removing barriers to management lends itself to improving employee satisfaction.

Each of these pros, however, has a corresponding con.  While having everyone in one spot is conducive to collaboration, just think about flu season in a kindergarten classroom.  Wipe out!  The same principle applies here, and I don’t care if you buy stock in the anti-bacterial hand gel company or if you ARE the anti-bacterial hand gel company.

The increased ability to communicate also has its own pitfalls.  The first is excess noise.  Many of us have worked in offices that have that one individual who is loud on the phone.  The open office doesn’t allow you to shut the door on that kind of noise.  And, it’s not just one voice in the room.  It could be dozens of voices in the room.  While the open workplace has private areas that may be utilized by employees needing some quiet time, the reduction in concentration overall may cancel out the benefits derived from creative teamwork.

One final hurdle to the open workplace is corporate culture.  In theory, today’s generation is more accustomed to working in a large, collaborative grouping, but the science says that the impact of an open workplace on the ability to concentrate and remain undistracted is just as great as with any other generation.  What the Millennials do have on the rest of us is fewer pre-conceived notions about the value of the “corner office.”  Many workers already out there have an expectation that their loyalty and hard work will be rewarded with their own office.  Having that private space taken away may be viewed as a drop in status if corporate culture does not evolve with the office layout.

Open office workplace will not work for everyone.  My field is particularly ill-suited for that kind of arrangement because of the intense need to concentrate and to maintain client confidentiality.  On the other hand, those in marketing, advertising, or journalism may find that the boost to creativity outweighs any downfalls.  Even if wide, open spaces won’t work for your entire business, you may find certain departments benefit from the arrangement.

I’d love to hear your views on flexible workplaces.

“I’M NOT CRAZY. MY MOTHER HAD ME TESTED.”

If you recognize the quote above, congratulations – you have excellent taste in TV viewing.  In Season 2, Episode 13 of The Big Bang Theory – The Friendship Algorithm – one of the stars of that excellent series, Sheldon, develops a survey to determine why his current friends like him.  His survey is 211 questions long and, as he reassures another character, Penny, it should take no longer than 3 hours to complete.  In response, Penny questions whether the survey is the best way to approach the paradigm of making friends.  Before an employer uses a survey in the workplace, that same question should be asked.  When is a workplace survey appropriate?

Personally, I’m on the fence about workplace surveys.  There are many pros and cons to be considered.  Plus, the conditions under which surveys are conducted can really impact the efficacy of the results.  In fact, just since my last column, I’ve taken and re-taken several on-line quizzes which can be used by employers to assess their employees’ skills.  I got different results each time, and while I completed them in the same location (my office), I can tell you that – for example – the weather conditions outside my window were different (sunny vs. cloudy), just like my attitudes on those days (also, sunny vs. cloudy) were different, as well.  The point is that there are factors outside your control when you administer a workplace survey, and those factors can have a big impact on your results.  Also remember that the survey is a snapshot in time.  You should consider this when you evaluate the information you receive from the survey.

If you do choose to use a workplace survey, one suggestion for controlling certain environmental factors is to conduct the surveys in-person, in a group setting.  This has several advantages.  First, you tend to get much higher participation rates than if you ask that an online or mail-in survey be completed.  Second, you can control the atmosphere in which the survey is taken.  Lighting, temperature, timing – all of these can be adjusted to ideal conditions.  Finally, anonymity (perceived or actual) is enhanced in the group setting.  Employees believe that their emails can be tracked specifically, so using email to conduct a survey leaves a perceived trail back to the employee.  This perception can stifle free expression.  It is only through honest and open communication that you can obtain the information you need to improve your organization.

Speaking of this last point, let’s spend a moment talking about communication.  A workplace survey is one form of communicating between employees and management.  Surveys allow an employer to obtain their employees’ views on a wide variety of subjects.  In turn, this can focus management on the areas of business in need of attention or on what it is doing right.  A good survey can empower employees to share new ideas which may otherwise go unheard because the employee can take a chance on voicing those ideas without fear of retaliation or humiliation.

A bad survey, on the other hand, can damage an organization.  Workplace surveys must have top management buy-in.  If your business is not willing to make changes based on what a survey reveals to you, then don’t use one.  It will kill the morale you were hoping to build with your employees when you ask them to be included in the change process and then never follow through.

Poor communication during the survey process can be damaging, as well.  You cannot assume that your survey is self-explanatory.  What is an employee to do when their answer is not included amongst the choices?  Who does an employee ask for clarification?  Beyond that issue, think big picture.  You should explain the purpose of the survey to your employees.  You also should communicate the results to them.  Additionally, you should narrow the topics the survey covers (211 questions with a 3 hour time expectation – whether about friendship or otherwise – would be an example of a bad survey).  Further, you should tailor the survey to your organization.  The surveys you find on-line won’t necessarily work for you or gather the information you require to meet your goals.

Workplace surveys have become ubiquitous.  Thoughtful use of them can have beneficial effects on your business.  However, there are obstacles to using surveys, too.  Overuse, failure to tailor, and lack of communication can lead to poor results from employees who simply won’t take the surveys seriously any more.  Don’t fall into the trap Sheldon made for himself.  In my view, use workplace surveys correctly, or don’t use them at all.

 

THE FUTURE OF THE WORKPLACE: CRYSTAL BALL TELLS ALL

These past few days, I’ve enjoyed reading articles and watching movies describing the predictions made many years ago about how our society would look today.  For example, Back to the Future 2, which takes place in 2015, got a few things right (even if not many of those “predictions” dealt with the workplace – fax machines and teleconferencing notwithstanding).  A 1967 article in U.S. News & World Report made some wacky predictions, like computers in the home and a “checkless” economy in which people would tell their banks who to pay.  Not bad, but the article also predicted we would be a more ocean algae consuming society, too.  Now, the prediction that laundry rooms would be a thing of the past, replaced by a unit that would intake soiled clothing and emit ready to wear clothing out its other end, is one I’ve still got my fingers crossed on as I make my workplace predictions for 2025: Read More »

HOW THE BOSS STOLE CHRISTMAS

HOW THE BOSS STOLE CHRISTMAS
Many thanks to Dr. Seuss for the inspiration

Everyone down in HR-ville
liked Christmas a lot.

But the boss, in his office upstairs,
He did NOT!

The boss hated parties,
the whole holiday season.
Free turkeys, Secret Santa,
I’m not even teasin’.

It could be he was stingy,
wouldn’t part with a dime.
It could be he was busy,
he hadn’t the time.
But, I think the reason most likely of all
Was his brain was not one but two sizes too small.

A year of bad decisions,
kept us on our toes.
Now with the holidays,
The Boss could fix all our woes.
Yet, he looks at our festivities
with a frown on his face.
While each employee decorates
his or her small, cube-y space.

The workers would arrive
for a lunchtime feast.
And they’d feast.  And they’d feast.
Oh for hours they’d feast!
On pies and baked hams and . . . (wait for it)
even roast beast.
All this non-working time the Boss couldn’t stand in the least.

He tried to stop it from coming.
He worked at it year-long.
There was that Like-Liker, a Facebook king.
He chimed in on this, that, and every thing,
including the Boss’s management styling.

“Can him!” the Boss said.
“Set him free for his ‘likes’”
“And for everyone’s comments on me,
I’ll have heads on some pikes.”
“Wait,” cried HR, “but the N-L-R-B,
says we mustn’t punish for solidar-ity.”

“Well, how about Cindy, head of that bunch,
who plans walks and book clubs and holiday brunch.
She takes too much time away from her filing,
expressing milk on her breaks like she’s always stockpiling.
Certainly, she is ripe for a firing.”

But the law is the law
for both HR and bosses.
That’s a no-no that will bring
many lawsuiting losses.
So, Cindy is safe
and the Like-Liker too.
So, Mr. Boss, find something nicer to do.

So the Boss thought
and he thought.
And he came up with a plan.
A sneaky, stinky, slimey plan!

“I’ve got just the thing
to put a wrench in their fun.”
So, he stayed late that night
and undid all they’d done.
He took down their stockings,
their ribbons, their bows.
He took down the tree
and hid it below
And tossed away bags of fluffy fake snow.

The next day came workers
ready to celebrate with joy.
And the Boss in his office,
all innocent and coy,
Waited to hear them all wimper
like a little girl or a boy,
Who has just lost his or her favorite toy.

He waited and listened
and what did he hear.
Happy holidays! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
So, he peeked out the door
to see it all with his eyes.
And that’s when the Boss got his biggest surprise:
Christmas came on its own without ribbons or ties.

The Boss stood there puzzled,
couldn’t figure it out.
He’d done all he could.
He hadn’t a doubt.
Yet, the workers had smiles,
gave hugs and kisses.
They laughed and joked
and wished holiday wishes.

Then, the Like-Liker and Cindy
headed his way
With a box wrapped with tissue,
most festive and gay.
#1 Boss said the mug
which in that box lay.

And, what happened then?
Well, the Boss says it’s true.
The size of his brain grew and it grew.
He got it.  He did.  He finally knew.
So he fetched the tree and the trimmings,
spread joy all about.
That was the day he became a better boss, there was no doubt.
The Holiday Spirit – it can’t be shut out.

Happy-Holidays-Lights