Monday, November 26, 2012

LAST POST: Thank you, goodbye, and hello

I've been blogging on Blogger for a year now, and I've learned a lot about the topics that interest my readers and about how to manage a blog. Many thanks to those readers who have followed me on Blogger and who have voiced their opinions in comments and emails to me.

One of the things I have learned is that I prefer WordPress's interface and ability to link social media sites together. Therefore, I am saying  goodbye to Blogger, and I'm moving the blog to WordPress, effective today. I have moved my earlier posts from this site, and I hope you will move with me. (Though the Blogger site will remain live for awhile.)

Former readers will notice that I have changed the name of my blog. On Blogger, I have been Sara Rickover: M.A.M.A. Curmudgeon. But I found over the course of the last year that I wasn't as curmudgeonly as I had thought I would be when I started. (Though perhaps I was curmudgeonly enough for you.)

So now I have a new name on Wordpress, Sara Rickover, Behind the Corporate Veil. This name means several things to me.
  1. "Piercing the corporate veil" is a legal concept that applies when the intent is to get behind the corporate structure and its limitations on liability, either to go after the assets of the parent company of a subsidiary or the assets of the shareholders rather than just of the corporation. In this blog,  however, my intent is to look at what happens inside a corporation. The good, the bad, and the ugly of leadership is one of the themes of the novel I'm working on.
  2. The name recognizes that my background and focus is on corporate issues, especially leadership and human resources management. When I comment on law and politics, it is from a corporate perspective.
  3. And, of course, veils are a feminine accessory in most cultures. I will write from a woman's perspective, because I cannot do anything else.

If you have been following me on Blogger, please subscribe to my new blog.

And, as always, please send me your comments! I love to hear from you.

Thank you,


Monday, November 19, 2012

Gratitude For Best Friends at Work

The Gallup workforce engagement survey has taken a lot of heat over the years for the question “I have a best friend at work.”  Gallup explains that this question correlates closely with highly productive workplaces.

Many survey respondents balked at the question. Perhaps they had friends at work, but they were uncomfortable with the word “best.”

The problem seemed most acute with senior leaders. Leaders are used to remaining aloof, not to making friends at work.

So Gallup tinkered with the question, trying “close” friend or “good” friend. And the correlation between a positive response on the question and productivity vanished. Apparently, the most productive employees are willing to characterize at least one of the people they work with as a “best” friend – these relationships are part of belonging to a great work group.

Moreover, the “best” friend question also correlated with other aspects of a high-performing workplace:  profitability, safety, inventory control, and – most notably –the emotional connection and loyalty of customers to the organization serving them.

Do you have a “best” friend at work? If so, have you told your colleague how much he or she means to you? Take a moment during this Thanksgiving week to express your gratitude to the people you work with.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Employers, Be Strategic In Implementing Health Care Reform

The Affordable Care  Act (ACA) is here to stay, commentators all agree. There might be some adjustments at the margin – possibly Congress will eliminate the medical device tax; maybe Congress will permit Flexible Spending Accounts and Health Savings Accounts to be used for over the counter drugs.  But the essentials of the ACA will remain, including the individual and employer mandates.

The purpose of this post is not to detail the many compliance issues that employers must satisfy under the ACA. Suffice it to say that employers of all sizes need to be aware of their obligations in 2013, and the even greater obligations facing them in 2014, when the major provisions of the act become effective. Employers should consult their legal counsel, brokers, and other benefit plan experts to determine what they must do to comply with the ACA.

Instead, this post is intended to provoke employers to think strategically about how they want to structure their health insurance plans for employees.  I recently participated in an Aon Hewitt conference call in which their healthcare experts advised that compliance and corporate strategy are two different things, and employers need to focus on both.

Many corporate leaders deplore the need to be experts in health insurance and plan design issues, because it detracts from their focus on their companies’ products and services to customers. Nevertheless, most executives recognize how important the health and engagement of their workforce is. As they implement the ACA, companies will become more involved in healthcare decisions, not less. Wise employers will deal with the problem strategically.

HR, Finance, and other executives at companies of all sizes should discuss:
  • Do we want to build unique health insurance plans designed specifically for our workforce? What are the major healthcare needs of our employees? What employee behaviors are driving our healthcare costs, and how can we incent healthier behavior?
  • Do we want to build or join a private healthcare exchange to provide our employees with more  choices? Would we rather push employees into state or federal healthcare exchanges to reduce our involvement in structuring healthcare plans?
  • Should we structure our jobs to maximize the number of part-time employees for whom we do not need to provide health insurance? What will the implications be for employee satisfaction and for our operational efficiency?
  • How do we segment our health insurance offerings and our communications for various groups within our workforce?

Now that the ACA has survived the Supreme Court and the electoral process, employers must focus on their roles in its implementation. But they shouldn’t ignore their companies’ strategic needs as they do.

Complying with the ACA is one thing. Making the right strategic decisions for your workforce is another. Be sure you do both.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Change the Organization’s Design to Get Different Results; But Be Careful . . . You Will Get What You Design

Many disciplines want to take credit for the adage “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” There are many attributions for this saying, but Susan Carr, writing in the Patient Safety & Quality Healthcare e-newsletter, determined that it originated with Dr. Paul Batalden in the field of medicine.

When Ms. Carr contacted Dr. Batalden about his observation, he told her:
The observation invites personal reflection and awareness, the place where the lasting improvement of quality usually begins. By directing people's attention to design, the words offer a powerful invitation to deeply consider how the present situation was created and invites its re-creation.

Many fields of practice have systems to which this adage applies – the medical field where Dr. Batalden worked, the legal system, and organizational systems.

Because I’ve worked in Human Resources, not medicine, I think of the saying as an organizational design principle: Every organization is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.  How many times have HR directors looked at employees’ behavior and shaken their heads, wondering why people behave the way they do? The answer is often that the organization incents people to behave that way. 

For example, sales employees might be paid for dumping more product in customers’ stores than the customer can profitably sell. Or one manufacturing plant might hoard materials that could better be used in another plant, because they have learned that ordering new materials later takes too long.

Yes, every system is perfectly designed to get the result it gets. The only way to change the result is to change the system.

Some organizational systems are formal – the reporting relationships, the incentive plans, the company policies, etc. – and some are informal – the “attaboy” conversations, or the hallway meetings where the real work gets done.

As one leadership commentator said (in The Executive Perspective):
As discussed . . .  here on our blog, you design your company system through the conversations that you are actively having as well as those that you have codified in employee manuals, procedures, plans. However, your design is also stuck in unspoken conversations that you should be having but you are not having. The classic example is of a company that wants to be innovative but does not reward risk taking. 
Once you recognize that, you can now also see that if you want to change your results, and therefore the design of your team or company, you just have to change your conversations.

If you want to change the results, but don’t change the design of your organizational system, you are engaged in Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

The changes you make to your organization may be small. In fact, you are probably better off trying small changes, rather than engaging in a wholesale re-design of your organization.

I’ve been a part of change initiatives that take the entire organization apart, task by task, trying to design the perfect organization to get a desired result. The problem with that approach is that organizations are complex. The larger the organization is, the more complex it is.

Most organizations are so complex that the law of unintended consequences takes over. There is no way you can anticipate every interaction between the organization’s members or parts. In dismantling an entire organization to re-structure it, you are as likely to create new dysfunctions as to fix the old problems.

So change. But change carefully.

When has a change caused unintended consequences in your organization?

Monday, October 29, 2012

VOTE – Early or on November 6, but VOTE!

I’ve made my conservative leanings on many topics quite clear in this blog. But regardless of your political persuasion, I encourage all readers to vote.

As many commentators and pundits have said, this election presents an opportunity for voters to choose between two starkly different views of the future – the Republican view of a more limited federal government and the Democrat view of a more expansive role for government in our lives.

I prefer the former. I believe government is best when it intrudes the least into citizens’ lives, while protecting the basic Constutional rights of all to life, liberty, and property. I believe government works best when it is closest to the people it serves. I believe government at all levels should foster private action to deal with the problems of our day, not regulate our action.

But I know many well-intentioned, intelligent people who believe differently than I do. I hope they recognize that I am well-intentioned and intelligent as well, and that after the election, we can have a rational debate that recognizes the validity of many perspectives.

For now, the time for debates is over. For now, it is time to consider what we want for the next four years and to act.


Monday, October 22, 2012

Middle Managers Squeezed by Change: How to Cope

Many, if not most, management employees spend most of their careers in middle management. A typical career path in a manufacturing or service-oriented firm is to spend a few years managing hourly employees, and then to get promoted to managing other managers. Where you may stay for many years. Given the pyramid structure of most companies, few middle managers move into “upper management,” where they have division-level responsibilities.

Ethan Mollick of Wharton Business School has argued that middle managers have more impact on company performance than any other group in knowledge-based organizations.  Although their function may seem bureaucratic, middle managers allocate the resources that determine what work gets done in the organization.  They also set the tone of the workplace in terms of encouraging innovation and creativity.
While top management may decree what the company’s direction and strategy should be, these decisions do not get implemented without the support of middle managers. Many change management efforts in organizations fail because senior leadership fails to get the buy-in of middle managers.

Despite their critical role, middle managers often do not get much respect.  In July 2012, David K. Williams wrote in Forbes that middle managers are on their way out and will not be missed, because organizations need leaders, not managers.   In January 2011, Lynda Gratton wrote a column for the Harvard Business Review titled “End of the Middle Manager.”  

No wonder, then, that the Center for Creative Leadership reported in their October 2012 e-Newsletter  that middle managers are squeezed and suffer the most stress of any role in the organization. Middle managers suffer the worst work/life balance and feel the least job security.

In that same e-Newsletter issue, another CCL article stated that change is ongoing and relentless. Middle managers are the ones squeezed by the change. They are pushed from both above and below.

In her article in the Harvard Business Review, Gratton argued that for middle managers to survive in the information age, (1) they need to develop unique and valuable knowledge or competencies, and (2) they need to expand their knowledge into “adjacencies” so that their knowledge grew broader as their responsibilities increased. In other words, middle managers are in the middle of constant change and growth.

Despite the time pressures on middle managers, CCL says that it is critical for them to take time to reflect on the following questions:
  • What could you accomplish at work?
  • What goals can you set?
  • How might your personal life be better?
  • How could your relationships improve?
  • How would you feel if these improvements occurred?

Although middle managers are squeezed, they are responsible for themselves. Some of my earlier posts on empowering yourself might offer more suggestions. Here are links to those posts:

Step One: Determine the Current Reality 
Step Two = Choose to Assert Your Own Powers
Step Three = Recognize and Use Office Politics Positively
Step Four = Recognize the Difficulty of Change

What do you do to take responsibility for empowering yourself at work?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Favorite Firings Series: Bringing Pot Brownies to Work

In my last “favorite firing” post, I asked “what was this employer thinking?” This time, my question is, “What was that employee thinking?”

The San Diego Union-Tribune reported recently that a bus driver, whom I will call Driver MJ, brought double-fudge Betty Crocker honey brownies laced with marijuana to work and gave them to other bus drivers. Driver MJ was fired after an administrative hearing.

In the places where  I worked, this would have been known as a termination for being “too stupid to work here,” hence my question, “What was he thinking?” Most likely, Driver MJ wasn’t thinking, or was only thinking while under the influence.

Not only did Driver MJ lose his job, he faces criminal prosecution.

So this is a "favorite firing" because the employee's behavior was wrong on so many levels.

The more interesting questions in this situation involved the actions the employer took with respect to the three drivers who consumed the brownies.

The Facts:  When Driver MJ brought the homemade brownies to work, at least one of the other drivers allegedly asked whether the treats had any pot in them. Driver MJ said they did not.

When the three other drivers later realized the brownies had in fact been laced and they became dizzy, they stopped driving their vehicles and called for replacements. Thus, these drivers acted appropriately once they realized their driving was impaired.

The San Diego Metropolitan Transit System then placed the three drivers on paid leaves of absence and told them they could not return to work unless they submitted to drug counseling, as federal regulations of transportation workers require. One of the drivers accepted these terms.

The other two refused the terms for the paid leave, not wanting to undergo counseling because they had not intentionally taken the drugs.  These two drivers were put on unpaid leave.

Ultimately, the Federal Transit Administration waived the requirement that these employees receive drug counseling, and they were permitted to return to work

The Moral: Driver MJ caused far more problems than he anticipated, not only for himself, but for his co-workers. The other drivers did exactly the right thing and stopped driving, which prevented any injuries to themselves, their passengers, and the public.

The Metropolitan Transit System also investigated and took prompt action, which was appropriate. Some commentators have questioned why the MTS the drivers on an unpaid leave while pursuing the drug counseling issue. But based on the articles I’ve read, the MTS acted in accordance with federal regulations for transit workers.

Still, the right outcome in this situation is what happened: The regulations were waived.

If you had been one of these drivers, would you have objected to the counseling on principle, or been more concerned about keeping your job?

* * *
Please send me ideas for stories on workplace terminations for this series. If you have an interesting situation, please email me or leave a comment below. But please disguise the facts to protect the innocent (and not-so-innocent) unless the situation is well-publicized, and then include a link to support your story.  I will only publish verified stories.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Mediation in the Mainstream, and Beyond

Next week, October 14-20, 2012, is Mediation Week, sponsored by the American Bar Association’s Section on Dispute Resolution. The purpose of Mediation Week is to increase the public’s awareness and understanding of mediation. This year’s theme is “Mediation in the Mainstream.”

Mediation has become a mainstream technique since I began practicing law. Thirty years ago, mediation was rare. Parties and their lawyers could settle lawsuits on their own, of course, and some judges held “settlement conferences” to encourage cases to settle, but independent trained mediators were not used very often, and lawyers did not learn about mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution in law school.

Typically, during those settlement conferences, the judge or a magistrate the judge appointed would browbeat the parties with the weaknesses of their position until they caved. I recall the settlement conference in one case in which I was defending a company against an individual plaintiff. The judge announced during the conference that the case should settle for $40,000. That was more than my client and I had valued the case at, but once the judge announced that figure, the plaintiff wouldn’t talk about any lower amount to settle. Trying the case would have cost far more than $40,000, so my client and I caved.

How does mediation help the settlement process?

Mediation Benefits the Parties:  

Cheaper: Mediation is much cheaper than litigating the case all the way through trial. Complex lawsuits can cost $10,000/month or more in attorneys’ fees. It isn’t unusual to see a large corporation spend over $100,000/month on a “bet the farm” type of case.

Even in run-of-the-mill auto accident cases, each side spends several thousand dollars to get the case to trial, sometimes more than the likely jury award. Often, it simply doesn’t make sense to continue a case through trial, but the parties need someone to help them resolve the matter in a way that they both can accept.

Speed: Mediation is faster than litigation.  Both parties may want some discovery prior to mediating, so they know something about the other side’s case. But typically the dispute can be mediated soon after the parties have exchanged basic documents and taken a few depositions.

In most civil cases that go to mediation, the parties later said they wished they had mediated sooner. After all, if the case doesn’t settle at the first mediation, the parties can agree to resume the mediation after additional discovery.

Control: The parties have more control over the outcome.  In a trial, the judge or jury decides what happens. In mediation, the parties are free to devise their own resolution of the dispute. Sometimes, they can agree to things the judge couldn’t give them – such as exchange of property, or reference letters, or other non-monetary remedies.

And the parties can set the terms for when payments and other exchanges will be made – the winning party doesn’t have to worry about executing on a judgement.

Mediation Helps the Judge:  

Preserves Impartiality: Mediation gets the judge out of pushing for settlement and preserves the judge’s impartiality. The judge can focus on the pre-trial and trial issues, without giving any indication of the strength of each side of the case, nor voicing an opinion on the value of the case.

Reduces Caseload: Plus, the more cases that settle during mediation, the less work for the judge to do. Most judges these days appreciate the value of mediation in reducing overcrowded dockets and streamlining their caseload. I don’t know of any judges who wish they could browbeat parties more into settlement. They are happy to require pre-trial mediation, and let the mediator try to settle it.

For all these reasons, mediation is a helpful process for both the parties and the court system. It preserves resources that would otherwise go to the lawyers, and leaves more resources available for the parties to use in resolving the matter to their own satisfaction. It is a good thing that mediation has become a mainstream tool in dispute resolution.

The Future of Mediation:

Mediation began in the context of resolving lawsuits, and that’s what I know the most about. However, mediation is moving beyond settling cases and into resolving other forms of disputes.

Mediation is now used to resolve school, neighborhood, workplace, and other forms of social disagreements. I heard one mediator joke that every neighborhood association needs a mediator on the board. It was said as a joke, but the person was only half kidding.

Will mediation move beyond the mainstream into everyday life? Or will we all learn mediation skills to  reduce the contentiousness of modern society? A pipedream perhaps, but who knows?

American Bar Association members can find more information at the Section of Dispute Resolution's website. A public source for information on mediation is the Building Dialogue blog.

Have you tried mediating a dispute you had? What did you like and dislike about the process?

Monday, October 1, 2012

You Can’t Legislate Love, But Regulation of Romance in the Workplace Is Necessary

“You can’t legislate love,” someone with whom I worked told me once.  We were discussing our company’s policy forbidding a manager from dating or marrying someone who worked in his or her group.

One of the subplots in my forthcoming novel about a business in trouble deals with a potential romance between one of the corporate officers and a woman in another division. They have started dating, then they move into roles where she reports to him.

Love happens. What are co-workers in love supposed to do?

According to a recent article in Workforce Week, entitled Office Romance Policies Can Reduce Risk, 38 percent of respondents to a Career Builder Survey had dated a co-worker, and one-third of them married the co-worker. Once people are out of college and graduate school, the workplace is a great place to find romance.

But still, employers should have policies on workplace romances. Otherwise, the risks of harassment and other problems when love goes bad are too high. I’ve dealt with lovers who turn each other in for theft, with one employee stalking a former paramour, with love triangles (particularly serious when two of the three employees are still married), and with several couples caught in inappropriate situations in offices, conference rooms, and minivans in the parking lot.

At a minimum, office romance policies should require employees to keep their pants and skirts on, except in the restroom.

Beyond that, here are issues for employers to think about when adopting an office romance policy:
  1. Forbid managers from entering into a relationship with anyone in their chain of command. The risks of claims of coercion or sexual harassment by the subordinate, or of favoritism by other employees, are too high. If a personal relationship does develop between a manager and subordinate, or if someone a manager is dating is moved into a position that creates a chain of command, require the manager to tell HR or his or her superiors, so they can decide how to handle the situation.
  2. Integrate the office romance policy with the employer’s conflict of interest policy (as it pertains to nepotism), so  it is clear that no one makes decisions on the hiring, firing, performance, and/or compensation of a relative or person they are dating.
  3. Make it clear that employees must treat other employees with respect at all times. Forbid any harassment, stalking, disparagement, or similar behavior. 
  4. Integrate the policy with the employer’s social media policy – it isn’t just conduct at work that should be banned, but also public conduct (including postings on Facebook and the like) that disparages or harasses other employees.
  5. Consider whether to ban dating between employees altogether. The problem with a policy that is this broad is that it requires a definition of “dating.”
  6. Consider whether to ban “public displays of affecton.” This, too, can be difficult to define.
  7. Some employers require “love contracts,” in which employees who are dating acknowledge in writing that the relationship is consensual and re-affirm their awareness of the anti-harassment and non-disparagement policies.
  8. Consider whether the office romance policy should apply to dating consultants, customers, vendors, and other people with whom the employer has an ongoing relationship. This aspect, too, should be integrated with the conflict of interest policy.

No, you can’t legislate love, but you can try to minimize the problems that result in the workplace when love goes bad. (Or when love goes good.)

Have you had any experiences where romances in the workplace caused problems?

Monday, September 24, 2012

How Do You Deal with Conflict? Use of the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory in Mediation

Picture of TKI from

Mediators spend a lot of time thinking about conflict management styles. They want to be able to quickly assess how parties in a mediation deal with conflict.

One useful model for conflict management styles is the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory (TKI). The TKI describes five ways that people can deal with conflict: competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding, and accommodating.

These methods of handling conflict differ in whether you look more to your own needs or to the needs of others. Competing and collaborating are more assertive methods of conflict management that focus on your needs and desired outcomes; avoiding and accommodating are less assertive.  Collaborating and accommodating are more cooperative methods of resolving the problem that focus on the needs of others; competing and avoiding are less cooperative. Compromising fits in the middle.

Ralph Kilmann and Kenneth Thomas developed the TKI in the 1970s. The TKI is based on dimensions similar to work by Robert Blake and Jane Mouton in "The Managerial Grid" (1964). Blake and Mouton described management styles along the dimensions of "concern for people" and "concern for task."

The TKI instrument is available through CPP, Inc. For a short, free conflict management model you can take to assess yourself that is similar to the TKI, see the Peace & Justice Support Network of the Mennonite Church  USA.

Here are some points to keep in mind when thinking about which style describes best how you deal with conflict:
  • We all have biases in favor of one or two of the styles. That is, we prefer to handle conflict in certain ways.  The TKI instrument can help you identify your preferred styles.
  • Our preferred styles can vary based on the situation. Many people deal with conflict differently when they are at work and when they are with their families, or when they are interacting with bosses and subordinates. You might want to take the TKI a couple of times, thinking of yourself in different situations each time.
  • No one style of managing conflict is right in all situations, and all styles can be appropriate in some situations.  For example, if your spouse says something that annoys you, you might choose to ignore it (avoiding conflict). However, Penn State got into serious trouble when its leaders avoided conflict by confronting Jerry Sandusky.

As a mediator, it is important to know how you respond to conflict. Many mediators have taken the TKI, the Myers-Briggs Personality Type test, and similar personality assessments. These tools help mediators understand their preferences in dealing with others and how they can adapt their behavior comfortably to work with people who have other preferred styles.

It is also important for the mediator to quickly assess how each person in the mediation is dealing with the conflict. Is he or she competitive? Accommodating? Avoiding the issues? If you as the mediator want a lasting resolution, you will have to find ways to pull the avoiders into the negotiation and to tame the competitors.

For successful conflict resolution, you need all parties to buy into the solution. Where they have not all contributed to the resolution, they are less likely to buy in. It is the mediator’s responsibility to facilitate the parties in reaching a solution to their conflict.  You can best facilitate a good result by understanding yourself and others.

How do you prefer to deal with conflict? When has your preferred style worked well for you, and when has it not?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Three Tips for Crisis Communications

Every day we read in the newspaper about some crisis – a criminal indictment, a business failure, a natural disaster, or foreign unrest.  We react to these events in large part based on how the leaders of the organizations involved communicate with us.

I was part of a crisis communications team at one institution where I worked. We had many procedures and lists in place – how and where we would meet when disaster hit, whom we needed to bring into the loop within our company, and the external parties with whom we would need to communicate about the crisis. 

But we couldn’t develop the communications pieces until the problem occurred.  At that point, we typically muddled along, debating several drafts of talking points and press releases as quickly as we could. It would have helped to have a simple framework for what to include in our communications.

An article from the July 2012 issue of the American Bar Association newsletter, Your ABA, provides that framework.  The article describes three points that all emergency communications should contain. Although it was written for lawyers, this framework is generally applicable to anyone communicating in an emergency.

Here are the three points, along with some commentary on each (the points are from the YourABA article;  the commentary is based on my own experience):
  • Show concern.  Almost by definition, in an emergency, someone has been injured or otherwise harmed.  Show concern for their suffering. Remember Bill Clinton’s reputation for "feeling their pain." Worry less about making an admission against your own interest and more about showing empathy. In the early stages of your response, you don’t have to talk about past events that caused the emergency, but you must sympathize with how people are reacting and feeling at the present.
  • Show commitment.  People want to know you will stay with them through the crisis. Talk about your future involvement and commitment to see the situation through to resolution. Even if all you know is that you need to investigate further, make the commitment to investigate fully. State clearly that you will work with any governmental authorities that are involved. Go as far as you can, but no further. You don't want to make promises you can't keep.
  • Show you will take action. In addition to wanting to know you are with them, people want to know you will make it better. Make it clear that you will take action as a result of what occurred and what is discovered during future investigations. Even if you don’t know whether or what corrective action is necessary, talk about fully reviewing the results of any investigation. Don't agree to specific actions too readily, but agree to what you can. Then, keep communicating as you later do act, to show you followed through on what you said you would do.

And always remember that you must be truthful, and you must communicate in ways that your audience will understand. Also, be as transparent as you can be.

Every crisis is an opportunity to improve your relationship with your stakeholders or detract from it. Often, in an emergency, you find yourself at a low point in the relationship. How you respond will make all the difference for the future.

What would you add to this framework for crisis communications?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Diversity and Development: Cohesion & Comfort v. Stuffing the Pipeline

My law school class more than thirty years ago was only about 20% women; today, most law schools have 50% or more female students. I recall attending a meeting of the Women Law Students Association, and realizing how nice it felt not to worry about gender issues, not to feel like I was “out of place.” I was probably less circumspect in my comments during that discussion than I would have been had I been in the minority as a female.

As a white professional and manager in a corporate setting, I was typically in the majority by race, but I recall two instances when I was the only white in the meeting.

One time was in a meeting to discuss a particular employee’s performance – all but one of the managers in this employee’s chain of command happened to be African American, and that white manager was not at the meeting. I was a white attorney outside the chain of command there to provide legal advice. On that occasion, I recall feeling that my company had “arrived” on the diversity front with this random occurrence of a mostly African American chain of command. But of course, it had taken many senior managers in that division many years of recruiting and development work before this happened.

The other occasion where I was the only white in a meeting was at a session during a Black MBA Convention where I was recruiting. On that occasion, I recall being very conscious of my race, and realizing that that is how most minorities feel most of the time.

Unlike my reticence in my male-dominated law school classes, I felt very free at that Black MBA meeting to voice my opinions.  I wondered, however, whether my outspokenness was due to (1) the maturity I had gained in the twenty or so years since law school, or (2) my “status” as a member of the majority race, whereas in law school I had been of the minority gender. I will probably never know the answer to that, but at least I was self-aware enough to recognize my behavior and to ask myself the question.

I wonder how many white males would have had that same awareness. When I told my husband this story, he had no idea what I was talking about. Although diversity sensitivity and self-reflection are not among his strengths.

The Wharton School of Business published an article on their Knowledge @ Wharton online newsletter on August 29, 2012, entitled “Race, Gender and Careers: Why 'Stuffing the Pipeline' Is Not Enough”. The article describes research by Wharton professor Katherine L. Milkman and Harvard Business School professor Kathleen L. McGinn, which found that placing professionals of one race or gender all in the same work unit led to lower retention of those professionals.

Although there was greater social cohesion in these work groups – like I had found with the Women Law Student Association – the members of the groups perceived they were competing against each other for limited opportunities for advancement. They perceived there were “quotas,”  whether there were or not. In addition, they perceived structural marginalization – the saw their work unit as a “ghetto.

The conclusion of this research:
"Attempts to design employment practices that are blind to the demographics of candidates are likely to succeed only if all candidates perceive and receive equal mentoring, sponsorship, and peer support regardless of their race and gender."
Milkman is quoted in the article as follows:
"Having mentors and role models who look like you is important. But, more interestingly, we see these negative effects associated with being in a work group with lots of competitors for promotion who resemble you demographically."
In other words, it may be helpful to have opportunities in cohesive groups for interaction, but the workplace with its competition and race for advancement needs to be open.

What has your experience been with race and gender in homogenous work groups?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Happy Labor Day from the NLRB to Nonunion Workplaces

The percentage of private sector employees who are union members is down to about 7%. Many nonunion employers think that the National Labor Relations Act, and the National Labor Relations Board that administers the NLRA, don't apply to them. But under the Obama administration, the NLRB is aggressively pursuing non-union employers and seeking to intrude on workplace policies.

The NLRB’s justification for its intrusion into nonunion workplaces is found in the broad language of Sections 7 and 8(a)(1) of the NLRA. Section 7 provides that employees have the right to "form, join, or assist" unions, to bargain collectively with their employers, and to "engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection." Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA states that it is unlawful for employers to "interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees" regarding their Section 7 rights.

It is likely that the NLRB will aggressively prosecute any employer policies that the agency believes will restrict concerted activity in nonunion workplaces. “Concerted activity” under the NRLA is extremely broad – it applies to any activity where two or more employees act together in furtherance of matters of mutual interest.  These matters of mutual interest can include compensation, benefits or a variety of workplace conditions.

“Concerted activity” comes into play any time an employee alleges he or she is working with another employee or on behalf of another employee. No union or employee representative needs to be involved; two disgruntled employees working together can be engaged in “concerted activity.”

Here are some specific policies and situations in nonunion workplaces that the NLRB is fighting:

  • Retaliatory discharge.  See Family Healthcare, Inc., 354 NLRB No. 29 (2009), where a physician-employee claimed she was discharged in retaliation of her rights under the NLRA after she questioned the changes in contracts that she and her fellow employees were asked to sign, because she acted not only for herself but for other employees.  See also In Re Trompler v. NLRB, 338 F.3d 747 (7th Cir. 2003), where production employees walked off the job at a nonunion machine shop.  They had complained about their supervisor, which was found to be “concerted activity.” 
  • Dispute resolution programs that condition employment on arbitration and prohibit employee class actions.  See D.R. Horton, 357 N.L.R.B. No. 184 (Jan. 3, 2012). Although this case is now on appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, the NLRB continues to pursue the theory in other cases.  See 24 Hour Fitness, Case No. 20-CA-35419, where the employer provided employees with an opt-out provision, but the NLRB still argues that the arbitration agreement is unlawful. In fact, in Advanced Services Inc., Case No. 26-CA-63184 (July 2, 2012), the NLRB even argues that the confidentiality of arbitration proceedings unlawfully chills employees' rights to discuss the terms and conditions of their employment.
  • At will employment policies that suggest they can’t be changed through collective bargaining by a union. See American Red Cross Arizona, Case No. 28-CA-23443 (Feb. 1, 2012), where the employer’s policy provided that an employee's "at-will employment relationship cannot be amended, modified or altered in any way," and the NLRB found that such a policy interfered with employees' rights to form a union.
  • Requirements that employees keep workplace investigations confidential. See Banner Health System, 358 N.L.R.B. No. 93 (July 30, 2012), where the NLRB said an employers' "generalized concern with protecting the integrity of [workplace] investigations is insufficient to outweigh employees' Section 7 rights." Basically, the NLRB ruled that "blanket" confidentiality rules are illegal, and an employer must justify confidentiality on a case-by-case basis.
  • Restrictive social media policies. See Hyatt Hotels Corporation, Case No. 28-CA-61114, where the employer required employees to report "any known or suspected violations of [its code of conduct], including any violations of the laws, rules, regulations, or policies that apply to Hyatt." The NLRB said employers must permit employees to report employer violations via social media channels, rather than only to the employer.
  • Notices in nonunion workplaces stating that employees have the right to unionize.  See Notification of Employee Rights Under the National Labor Relations Act, NLRB, Final Rule, published in the Federal Register on August 30, 2011, 76 Fed. Reg.  54,007. The effective date of this Final Rule was delayed until April 30, 2012, but in U.S. Chamber of Commerce v. NLRB, the U.S. District Court in South Carolina stayed these regulations.
  • Requiring nonunion employers to permit employees to have a representative present during investigative meetings.  These so-called “Weingarten” rights have been pushed and retracted several times, depending on whether Republicans or Democrats control the NLRB.  Currently, there is no right for nonunion employees to have a representative present during inquiries, but under the current Democratic Administration, I suspect this right would be reinstated if a case were brought before the Board.

The only way a nonunion employer can avoid investigation and prosecution by the NLRB is to make sure before terminating an employee that that employee has not engaged in any activity of mutual benefit with other employees – i.e., that there has not been any “concerted activity” that could give rise to an unfair labor practice charge.

Moreover, employers must review their policies to be sure they don’t run afoul of policies that the NLRB disapproves of.  And they should be sure to follow all NLRB requirements regarding posters, employee representation, and what supervisors can and cannot tell employees.

Additional resources on this topic include NLRB Extends Reach To Nonunion Workplaces, by Jonathan C. Fritts, Ross H. Friedman and Doreen S. Davis (Morgan Lewis), and Avoid Violations of Nonunion Employees Under NLRA, by Gigi O'Hara (Kutak Rock), and a new book entitled NLRA Rights in the Nonunion Workplace,by Kenneth Lopatka (BNA).

Readers might also check the NLRB's webpage on protected concerted activity.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Like Every Function, To Be Strategic, HR Must Bring Expertise to the Table

This week I’ve been thinking about a Harvard Business Review article by J. Craig Mundy entitled “Why HR Still Isn’t a Strategic Partner.” Human Resources professionals have been debating this issue for over 20 years, which Mundy says must mean that HR has been unsuccessful in many organizations in proving our strategic worth.

The article and the hundreds of comments posted in response give a good overview of the debate about whether HR should be a strategic function, and how to get there, from both HR and line management perspectives. Many people have weighed in on what’s good about HR and what’s wrong with HR. Every HR professional, and everyone in business who cares about the effectiveness of HR, should read Mundy’s article and a good sampling of the comments.

Mundy argues that HR professionals should evaluate every action they take based on whether their act creates flow or causes friction in the organization.  He defines “friction” and “flow” as follows:
“Friction is anything that makes it more difficult for people in critical roles to win with the customer. Flow, on the other hand, is doing everything possible to remove barriers and promote better performance.”

In my experience, these definitions – and this focus for HR – are insufficient, because they are too subjective. Who decides what is difficult? Who decides what removes barriers?

HR has the reputation of only being interested in compliance and transactional work and therefore thwarting what the business needs to get done.  Many times this is true, but what happens when non-compliance brings on litigation that threatens the profitability – or even the existence – of the company? Isn’t it “strategic” to recommend compliance that is necessary to keep the organization in business?

People in organizations tend to think of friction as anything that makes it more difficult for them to do what they want, rather than whether it fosters the creation of a good relationship with a valuable customer.  Similarly, they view flow as anything that removes barriers for them, and not necessarily whether it promotes the overall performance of the organization.

Given the parochial interest of most corporate managers, what is HR to do? To be a truly strategic partner, HR must make its own assessment of the best long-term needs of the organization.  Obviously, this cannot be done in a vacuum, and requires consultation with – and even obedience to – the leaders of the organization.

But for HR professionals to be strategic, they cannot allow others to determine the right course of action without bringing their own experience, expertise and influence to bear.

By arguing that HR must bring an independent expertise to the table, I am not disagreeing with Mundy’s point that HR needs to have a business perspective.  To the contrary.  I am saying that HR is no more and no less likely to be taking the business perspective than any other function.  All divisions within the company need to avoid taking parochial positions, and all are prone to it.  All groups need to work together for the benefit of the whole.

The true debate isn’t whether HR is strategic or not, but whether HR brings a valid and valuable perspective on what direction the organization should take, and whether HR has the expertise and capacity to move the organization in the desired direction. It’s the same debate that is needed about every other function in the organization.

In your experience, when has HR been a hindrance, and when has it been a help?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Favorite Firings – Next in the Series: Fired for Donating an Organ

Would you donate a kidney to your brother?
Here’s a recent Missouri case that makes me wonder “what was this employer thinking?” I don't think all terminations resulting from an employee’s medical issue are against public policy. But in most cases, showing a little compassion is the right thing for an employer to do. Managers should think long and hard before firing an employee with a serious medical situation.

The Facts: In Delaney v. Signature Health Care Foundation, No. 97419, 2012 LEXIS 694 (Mo. App. E.D., May 22, 2012), Norton, J., the Missouri Court of Appeals decided that Phyllis Delaney had been wrongfully terminated for taking time off to donate a kidney to her brother.

Ms. Delaney worked for Signature Health Care Foundation as a data entry clerk. When her brother needed a kidney transplant and she was a match to provide him with a kidney, Ms. Delaney told her employer that she would be off work for four weeks. According to Ms. Delaney’s allegations, Signature Health first approved her absence, then changed its mind three days before surgery and fired her.

Missouri is an employment-at-will state, which means that an employer can fire an employee for any reason, or for no reason, but not for an illegal reason. Missouri recognizes a “public policy” exception to the employment-at-will doctrine – an employer may not fire an employee for a reason that is contrary to well-established public policy in the state. Specifically, the Court of Appeals in Delaney said:
“Missouri Courts have recognized four categories of the public policy exception to the at-will-employment doctrine. Specifically, an employee has a cause of action when he or she has been discharged for: (1) refusing to perform an illegal act or an act contrary to a strong mandate of public policy; (2) reporting the employer or fellow employees to superiors or third parties for their violations of law or public policy; (3) acting in a manner public policy would encourage; or (4) filing a claim for worker's compensation. Hughes v. Bodine Aluminum, Inc., 328 S.W.3d 353, 356 (Mo.App.E.D.2010).” 

In her lawsuit, Ms. Delaney claimed that Signature Health had wrongfully terminated her employment in violation of Missouri’s public policy encouraging organ donation. Signature Health won a dismissal of the lawsuit in the lower court, but the Missouri Court of Appeals reversed.

Based on a review of several Missouri statutes, the Court of Appeals held that Missouri public policy does encourage organ donation. Therefore, firing an employee because he or she is an organ donor gives the employee a claim under the public policy exception to Missouri’s employment-at-will doctrine. Ms. Delaney deserves her day in court, according to the Court of Appeals, and she will now have an opportunity to prove that in fact she was discharged because she had decided to donate the kidney to her brother.

The Moral: Before managers decide to fire an employee, they should take a step back and think about how the termination would look to an outsider. I always told managers to ask themselves how the case would look in the newspaper, or if they were telling their mother about the situation. If you don’t want to explain yourself to the public or to your relatives, then the termination is probably not a good idea.

In this case, would any rational manager want to explain that they fired a woman because she was going to give her brother a kidney?

In addition, managers should consider whether there are any statutes or regulations that might support a public policy claim like in the Delaney case. If there is any question, talk to an attorney who specializes in employment law.

Ms. Delaney has not yet won her case. It might be that the employee’s absence in this case would truly cause the employer a hardship, and the employer might be able to prove that public policy does not require them to endure the hardship to support her organ donation. But Signature Health had better be able to prove some defense that overcomes the policy in favor of organ donation at trial. Could they not have hired a temporary data entry clerk for the work that Ms. Delaney would miss for four weeks?

In my opinion, they are facing an uphill battle in the court of law and in the court of public opinion. What do you think about this situation?

* * *

I’m still soliciting ideas for stories on workplace terminations to publish. If you have an interesting situation, please email me or leave a comment below. But please disguise the facts to protect the innocent (and not-so-innocent) unless the situation is well-publicized, and then include a link to support your story. I will only publish verified stories.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Why Not Use Conjoint Analysis To Determine Citizen Preferences?

I recently participated in a couple of online surveys that used conjoint analysis techniques to determine my preferences as a consumer.  Conjoint analysis is a statistical technique used to determine what combination of features or attributes people prefer and how those attributes influence people’s decision making.
So, for example, one of the recent surveys I answered dealt with choices a company could make about new products they could offer – which would I be more likely to buy at what price? The other survey I participated in was about transportation services, and which services I would value at what cost. The questions got harder. As I made choices, I was shown packages of products and services that I valued more and more similarly, or where the costs got closer to what I was willing to pay. Still, I had to choose, and that gave the survey sponsors more information about what I valued.
These surveys and my memories of other conjoint analysis surveys I’ve taken in the past on employee benefits and other topics got me thinking about use of this technique to address many of our nation’s problems.
Do we really know what choices our citizens would make, how they weigh various options? Why don't we ask?
Conservatives assume everyone would rather pay lower taxes and have less government intrusion in their lives. Liberals assume everyone wants more even income distribution and a higher level of subsidized or free government benefits. But has anyone ever asked the citizenry what they want? And been willing to deal with the responses?
Obviously, we would all like to get more for less, the most goods and services for the least payment. And ideally, we would all like to live on a generous dole without having to lift a finger to work nor to pay a dime for our comfortable leisure.
But we know that is not an option. So which, among the many realistic options our society could choose, would you prefer?
Should we leave our federal government spending at its current level and raise taxes to cover it, or should we reduce federal spending and keep taxes the same? Or reduce spending further and reduce taxes as well?
Then let’s talk about income redistribution. How much should a billionaire pay in taxes? How much a millionaire? Someone making $250,000? Or $50,000? Or $20,000?  What is raised by each of these levels of taxation? What does that mean for spending? Are you satisfied with that level of spending? If not, whose taxes would you raise by how much in order to cover the level of spending you desire?
The technology exists today with conjoint analysis to put a variety of baskets of government goods and services and taxes and regulations in front of people and ask which they prefer. With a conjoint analysis survey, as I indicated above, the choices get progressively harder, as people are asked to differentiate between things they value more and more equally.
But at the end of the survey, you would have a pretty good idea of what our citizens really want. There would be a range of what people want, but you’d know where some consensus might be found. Wouldn’t that help our hidebound politicians on both sides of the aisle?
The issues of government taxation and spending are complex. But so are the issues we address in our daily lives. Only the dollars are smaller in our households than in our government. Maybe we should treat our citizenry as responsible adults and let them have a voice.
What is stopping our lawmakers and think tanks from asking what people want? The fact that they don’t want to know, because then they would have to try to address the citizenry, rather than satisfy their own predilections.
Would you like to make your choices known?

Monday, August 6, 2012

Empower Yourself with the Truth: Step Four = Recognize the Difficulty of Change

Last week, I wrote about office politics, based on Chapter 7 of Geoffrey M. Bellman’s book, Getting Things Done When You Are Not in Charge.  Now let’s look at Chapter 8, in which Bellman describes the realities of the change process and why it is so difficult.

In Chapter 8, Bellman lists nine realities of change. His descriptions range from a paragraph to a page and a half. I’m going to give a one-sentence statement about each reality, then explore a couple that struck me as particularly important for change agents today.

Bellman’s nine points about change are

1. Change is profoundly difficult: Most change agents overestimate their ability to bring about change and underestimate the organization’s ability to maintain its current state.

2. Rapid change is dangerous: By definition, change contradicts the established way of doing things, and we underestimate the difficulty of changing people’s ways, so change is likely to be slower than we would like.

3. Sound change is rooted in respect: As explained in an earlier post, [link] we need to respect the reasons why the organization is the way it is; if we do not, the organization will resist our efforts at change.

4. Resistance demonstrates power: Resistance is how the people in organizations demonstrate their strength; we need to involve them in the process so they help, rather than resist our efforts.

5. Perseverance is a lost art: Determining what changes are necessary in an organization is easy, compared with the difficulty of embedding the change into “how we do business” so that our changes maintain themselves.

6. Continuous innovation is crucial: We can’t move on after one huge change effort; making continuous small changes over time might be more effective.

7. Ideas must find their time: Our ideas for change might not fit the time, and old ideas that were passed over might be right for now.

8. We change changing organizations: While we are in the middle of our change initiative, the world and its impact on our organization continues to evolve – organizations are not static and we need to remain flexible.

9. There are perils to success: Once we are successful, people move on, and we must be prepared to change again.

And there, in nine steps, is Bellman’s discussion of how to bring about change. As I re-read this chapter, I recalled the following from my own experience:

  • The organizations I worked in hated large-scale change initiatives. The organizational design folks took on change effort after change effort, and most managers resisted. Their resistance was not futile; they often could delay and sabotage even the best designed change effort. Maybe small nudges would have moved us further in the long run than large-scale programs that took legions of people who didn’t want to cooperate.
  • One organization I worked in focused for years on “continuous improvement.” Some efforts saved a few thousand dollars, others saved millions. All improvements were celebrated. This organization was one of the more innovative groups I worked with.
  • Change does not take place in a vacuum – no organization remains the same for more than one sales season, and often for far shorter. People change, customers change, we ourselves change. The reality of change is messy; it’s not a laboratory, it’s a marketplace.

* * * * *

In this four-week review of Part 3 of Bellman’s book on empowering yourself with the truth, we have looked at how we need to analyze our current reality, how to empower ourselves, at the realities of office politics, and this week at the difficulties of change.

What has your experience been with these issues? What has brought you success on change initiatives?

Monday, July 30, 2012

Empower Yourself with the Truth: Step Three = Recognize and Use Office Politics Positively

In my last post, I wrote about asserting your own power, with themes from Chapter 6 of Geoffrey M. Bellman’s book, Getting Things Done When You Are Not in Charge. This week, I am commenting on Chapter 7 of Bellman’s book, on the fascinating subject of corporate politics.

I once had a guy who worked for me who said he hated corporate politics. He was a direct communicator and despised people he thought spent their time positioning themselves to look good. But there is a huge difference between office politics and sucking up.

So how do we deal with corporate politics in a positive way?

1.       Recognize That Corporate Politics Are Real

The theme of this series of posts about Bellman’s book is “empowering yourself with the truth.” The truth is that any group of people is political. The words “politics” and “political” come from the Greek word for “city” or “townspeople.” Any time people gather, politics are involved.

Get over your dislike of politics. It’s real, and it’s everywhere. Bellman says
“Politics has been called the art of getting things done. . . . They are not basically good or bad; they are neutral, to do with as we will. Political goodness or badness flows from the intent and impact of our actions.” 
It’s your choice whether your involvement in corporate politics is good or bad. What are your intentions and impacts in your organization?

 2. Base Your Actions on Your Principles

As Bellman points out, being a political actor does not mean giving up your principles. In fact, here is a summary of Bellman’s steps necessary to integrate your politics with your principles:

  • Know your principles 
  • Acknowledge the reality of corporate politics
  • Recognize that you are a part of the politics in your organization
  • Understand that you will have to consider the political ramifications of what you want to get done
  • Be clear ahead of time about what you will and will not do to use politics – who you will engage to support you and how. 

If you take these steps, you can participate in the politics of your organization without feeling like you are compromising your principles. Perhaps my colleague who so disdained politics needed to think about these steps.

3. Support Healthy Behaviors in Your Organization 

Bellman’s book, written in 1992 before the age of constant email and chats, is a little dated. He prefers face to face meetings over phone calls, memos and faxes.

But his point is that relationships are important in any organization, and relationships are best built face to face. How will you foster your relationships in today’s environment? In some situations, there is no substitute for the feedback and nuances of communication you can get in a face to face meeting.

Regardless of the communications techniques you use, you should find ways to connect with others in your organization. Determine what goals you share and how you can understand each other, even if you do not always agree.

Have your perceptions of office politics changed as a result of anything you read in this post?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Empower Yourself with the Truth: Step Two = Choose to Assert Your Own Powers

Last week, I began a series of posts on Part 3 of Geoffrey M. Bellman’s book, Getting Things Done When You Are Not in Charge.  The first post dealt with how to determine the current reality in our organization at four levels – knowing, understanding, respecting, and accepting.

Today, in a review of Chapter 6 of Bellman’s book, we look at how to empower ourselves to enable change in an organization.

1. Choose to Empower Yourself

One of the lines in Bellman’s Chapter 6 that struck home with me on this re-reading was
“How can a professional who regularly whines ‘I’m not in charge’ be effective?”
Think about that – someone who talks about not being in charge, who regularly says “’they’ won’t let me do something,” is someone who is giving away power. As Bellman asserts repeatedly in his book, there are always times when we are not in charge. It’s what we do in those situations that determines our effectiveness.

Bellman distinguishes between people who say “they won’t let me” from those who say “I am not going to do something, because it is someone else’s role.”  The first is a statement of blame and powerlessness, and the second is a statement of choice and power. The second person is assuming the responsibility for clarifying roles.

Do you choose where to play in your organization, or do you let others make the decisions for you?

And a corollary: Do you believe that at least a part of the answer to any problem lies within you?

2. Understand and Exercise All Your Powers

Even when our roles are narrowly defined, we have more choices and power than we think. First, we need to be very clear on what others think our role is, using the same techniques described last week – knowing, understanding, respecting, and accepting. Then, we have to think about our own beliefs about our role and what we can do.

According to Bellman, all of us have powers beyond what is set out in our job description. This section describes the powers Bellman lists, but I’m adding my perspective.

  • The first power Bellman describes is our perspective – no one else sees the organization exactly how we do. We should be bold (though courteous) in offering our perspective.  Making our voice part of the organization’s analysis of a problem is how we exercise this power.
  • We have options. Each of us chooses daily whether to go to work or to build our business or to engage in any of the activities we undertake each day. We can always opt out. If we don’t, then we owe the organization the best we have in us.
  • We have discretion to shape our job where it is ambiguous (and most jobs have some ambiguity). Where your job isn’t clearly defined, take the responsibility to define it yourself, to expand or narrow the scope in the manner you think best. Someone may push back, but at least you have started the process of clarifying your role and exercised your power in that way.
  • We sometimes have a long-term timeframe. In the chaos of daily problem-solving, it is often difficult to see the long term. Take the time to step back. Where do you want to be in five years? Where do you want your organization to be?

3. Assert Your Power

A woman I barely knew stopped me in the hall one day and told me I was a powerful woman. It was a day when I wasn’t feeling particularly powerful, and her words really struck me. I’ve questioned myself often about what she meant by that statement. I had a higher ranked position that she did, but I didn’t think that’s why she made the comment.

I think she recognized that I attempted to use my position to make myself visible on issues that mattered to me in the workplace: on work/life and scheduling flexibility for employees whenever possible; on the importance of building a diverse workforce to maximize the talent in the organization; on good management with a focus on employee engagement.

Taking on these issues wasn’t always easy, particularly for a regimented and introverted personality like mine.

But sometimes, asserting your power only requires showing up, showing that you care.

Where do you assert your power in your organization? Where could you assert more power?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Empower Yourself with the Truth: Step One = Determine the Current Reality

In May, I suggested that you explore your goals. You’ve now had several weeks to think about your goals. In this post, I want to return to Geoffrey M. Bellman’s book, Getting Things Done When You Are Not in Charge, and consider how we need to recognize and acknowledge current reality before we seek to change it.

As Bellman states, “If we are going to help change things, we have to know and appreciate our starting point.” He also says, “We don’t get where we want to be by fooling ourselves about where we are.”

How many people do you know who want to deny the current problems in their environment and think that their world as it is is perfect? How many others do you know who want to leap from what they know is wrong to their preferred perfect solution, without considering the challenges in moving from current state to ideal state?

Part 3 of Bellman’s book focuses on how to learn about our organization and ourselves – as it and we are today. I started writing with the intention of covering all of Part 3 in this one post. But as I re-read Bellman’s book, I decided the four chapters in Part 3 are so important that each one deserves its own post. So for the next four weeks, I’ll be writing on Empowering Yourself with the Truth, each post devoted to a chapter in Bellman’s book.

Bellman begins Part 3 of his book with Chapter 5, which discusses how to learn what the truth is in your organization. Bellman says that we have to examine the truth at four levels. Think about what you have done to know your organization at each of these four levels.

1. Knowing the facts

At the first level, we have to know the facts. Where does authority reside in your organization? What is the scope and power of your own role?

At this stage, we are researching like a disinterested observer. We watch, we ask questions, but our  purpose is like Sergeant Friday in the old Dragnet series – “just the facts, ma’am.”

We can learn a lot at this level, but we will learn more if we dig deeper.

2. Understanding how we got here

Beyond knowing the facts, we have to understand them. How did the organization evolve to its current structure? Why are things the way they are? What do the people involved think about the current state?

Developing understanding requires that we spend significant time with people who have been in the organization awhile. We don’t really have understanding until these folks think we understand them. This takes time, but is worth the effort.

Think of the power of getting the people in the organization to acknowledge that you understand them and the way things work. They will be much more willing to work with you in the future, if they think you understand them now.

3. Respecting the past and present

After we understand how we got to the current state, we have to respect it. Things are the way they are because mostly decent people made them that way. Recognize that there are reasons why the organization is structured the way it is.

You may not agree with the current state. You may see many problems in the organization. But if you don’t respect the people who came before you, who are the people invested in the way things are now, you will probably not have a lot of success changing the current state.

You need to meet people where they are – with respect – to change them. Bellman points out that this is a hard level for many of us to achieve. We may have such zeal for improvement that we can’t see the good in what has gone before us.  Work at trying to respect the current state.

4. Accepting the value of those who got us here

Beyond respecting the people who got us to the current state, to get to the fourth level, we have to accept their value. Acceptance goes deeper than respect; it requires honoring and recognizing the contributions of the people who went before us.

As Bellman puts it, if we get to this stage, we can say that we not also understand and respect the current state, “I also accept that the people in this department are smart, hardworking, interested in contributing, and valuable to the company.  You are the kind of people I love to work with.” How many new managers or other change agents can say this and mean it?

You don’t have to agree that the current state is where we should remain. But you do have to honor it.  This is even harder than respect, for  those of us with a passion for change.

* * * * *

Think about these four levels of getting at the truth in your own situation. Which levels do you feel comfortable with? Which give you some heartburn?

Challenge yourself. What will it take for you to truly respect where the people in your organization came from?  How will you accept their contributions – past, present and future?

Only after considering these questions will you know the current state well enough to start changing it.

Next week, we’ll look at how to work on empowering ourselves to make changes.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Difficulties of Reasonable Accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act

I recently attended a webinar on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), sponsored by the American Bar Association.  The primary points made during the webinar were
  1. The amendments to the ADA passed in 2008 were designed to relax the definition of “disability.” Cases brought under the ADA should now focus more on whether the employer discriminated against the employee, and less on whether the employee is disabled.
  2. Employers should be able to justify their attempts to accommodate the employee.  An employer should “stop; think; justify” any actions vis-à-vis a disabled employee.  This applies both to determining the essential functions of the job and to the discussion of reasonable accommodations to permit the employee to perform the essential functions.

One of the speakers during the webinar was Chai R. Feldblum, Esq., a commissioner with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  Commissioner Feldblum stressed that the EEOC does not want to preclude employers from getting their work done, nor reduce business productivity.  If an employer has its job descriptions in place that list the essential functions, and if the employer engages in an interactive dialogue with the disabled employee, then determining whether a reasonable accommodation is possible should be straight-forward.

My experience has been that the reasonable accommodation process is not as easy as Commissioner Feldblum makes it sound. Ideally, a reasonable accommodation can be found quickly, but often, the process is inexact and time-consuming.

Here are some of the problems encountered in finding reasonable accommodations:

First, there is the problem of keeping job descriptions up to date. In today’s workplace, jobs change quickly.  In a large company, it can be a full-time job for several employees to keep job descriptions updated.  And writing job descriptions is probably not the most efficient use of employees’ time – companies that seek to be nimble may not want to slow down to create job descriptions that will be out of date by the time they’re written.  Requiring that job description be written is one of the reasons lawyers and HR professionals get a bad name among managers, even when they point to the ADA as the reason for the requirement.

Second, while it is easy for an employer to say that a job function is “essential,” there are always other ways to get the work done. Since one possible reasonable accommodation is to “restructure” a job, an employer is always subject to being second-guessed on whether a particular job function is “essential” and need not be eliminated, or whether it is non-essential and the employer will have to find another way to get the function done, or do without the function.

Third, while the employer can set both qualitative and quantitative standards for acceptable performance, these standards are also subject to debate during the reasonable accommodation process.  If a leave of absence or a reduced schedule is a reasonable accommodation, then a production standard may need to be reduced along with the employee’s schedule.  How then will the employer get enough production out to satisfy its customers?

Fourth, the necessary accommodations of a disabled employee sometimes evolve over time, or require a good deal of experimenting to see what works and what doesn’t.  The attempts at accommodation may even be unsuccessful in the end, resulting in frustration for the disabled individual, as well as for his or her managers and co-workers. Sometimes the employee isn’t ready to stop working, even after many accommodations have been unable to get the employee back to a productive state.

These problems don’t even get to the issues that arise when the employee’s request for an accommodation is less than clear, when the employee doesn’t know what accommodation they think might work, or when other employees become upset at having their jobs changed because the employer is accommodating someone else.  For more information about the ADA, see the EEOC's website on disability discrimination.

The purpose behind the ADA is laudable.  The practice is often messy.  Even employers operating in good faith can find themselves in expensive litigation.  Who is to say what is “reasonable”? Even years of attempted accommodations may not be enough to satisfy the EEOC or a judge or jury.

What have your experiences with the ADA been?