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? 

Monday, July 2, 2012

More Perspectives on Health Care Reform

Last week we heard the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act (ACA). I admit to being one of the more than 800,000 people following the SCOTUSblog live coverage of the justices reading their opinions and the follow-up commentary by politicians and pundits.  SCOTUSblog did a phenomenal job of posting accurate information in real time, and I highly recommend this site to anyone interested in the Supreme Court.

In April 2012, right after the arguments before the Supreme Court in the ACA case, I posted on my many perspectives on health care reform – attorney, former benefit plan administrator, corporate executive, consumer, and conservative. All those perspectives came into play again this week as I followed the coverage of the Supreme Court decision.

1. Limits on the Commerce Clause; No Limits on Taxes – Does the “Tax” Label Matter?

In my earlier post, I said that as a conservative I wanted the Commerce Clause to be limited.  Well, five justices of the Supreme Court limited it.  But the ACA survives anyway under the taxing power of Congress.

I always believed that Congress could have passed health care reform using its taxing power, but in 2009-2010 the President Obama and the Democrats in Congress specifically said the ACA’s penalty for not purchasing health insurance was not a tax.  Turns out it was.

This weekend, I argued with supporters of the ACA whether this mischaracterization of the penalty as "not a tax" matters. The President’s supporters claim that, because both the House and Senate properly passed the statute and the President duly signed it into law, it doesn’t matter what label was put on the penalty. But I firmly believe – as do other conservatives I have talked to – that some Democrats who voted for the ACA would not have done so if the penalty had been labeled a tax. In my opinion, labels do matter, because they impact the political process.

2. Uniform Benefit Plan Laws Unlikely

I said in my April post that as a benefit plan administrator, I believe uniform national laws are a huge simplifier for multi-state employers. Although the ACA is a national law, the Supreme Court decision does nothing to help businesses with simplicity.

I have listened to what benefit plan consultants like Aon Hewitt  and Towers Watson are telling their clients about compliance with the ACA. They say that, although the Supreme Court’s decision does mean that employers need to move forward with compliance, the devil will be in the regulatory details.  This 2,700 page act has already spawned more than 12,000 pages of regulations, and reams more regulations will be published before we really know what the law entails.

And different states and different employers will choose different paths to compliance.  Some states will expand Medicaid, others will not.  Some will develop their own healthcare exchanges, others will not.

Some employers will continue to offer group healthcare insurance, others will work with healthcare exchanges in states that adopt the exchanges, and some employers will decide that paying penalties is less costly than providing insurance to their employees. Also, some employers may decide to re-structure their workforces to reduce the number of full-time employees who must be covered.

Change in the employee benefit arena will continue for many years to come, and plan administrators will be dealing with the upheaval for at least a decade.

3. Equitable Taxation of Health Care Expenditures and De-Linking Health Care from Employment

The Supreme Court decision, of course, did nothing to fix the inequities between employer-provided healthcare insurance (premiums paid with pre-tax dollars, and employer contributions not taxed) and individual healthcare insurance (all costs paid with after-tax dollars).  I remain of the opinion that healthcare insurance should be totally separated from employment, and there is no movement in that direction. But at the very least, the tax treatment of employer-provided and individually purchased insurance should be the same.

Republicans have said their version of healthcare reform -- after Obamacare is repealed -- would equalize tax treatment of healthcare insurance.  Whether they will get the opportunity to repeal the ACA and pass  their own legislation won’t be determined until after the November election.

4. Tax Increases Coming; Premium Increases Also Likely

As a result of the ACA, higher income taxpayers face additional taxes, quite apart from the debate over whether the Bush tax rate decreases should be extended.

The Medicare tax on salary and self-employment earnings on individuals making more than $200,000 and couples making more than $250,000 in salary and/or self-employment income will pay an extra .9% above the 1.45% we all pay now.

In addition, starting in 2013, individuals making more than $200,000 in adjusted gross income and couples making more than $250,000 will be hit with an additional 3.8% "Medicare contribution tax."

Furthermore, everyone’s flexible spending account deductions for healthcare expenditures will be limited to $2,500 per year, limiting a very popular tax shield.

As a result of these changes, expect a flurry of tax-planning activity before January 1, 2013, arrives.

In addition to these tax increases, it is still likely that health care expenses in the form of premiums and medical products and services will consume an ever greater percentage of family and government budgets. Contrary to President Obama’s promise, the ACA does not adequately bend the cost curve. In my opinion, individuals will need to take more responsibility for their life choices and health care decisions before health care costs can be controlled.

5. It’s Still Not Over 

Many more lawsuits will be fought before we know the full ramifications of the ACA -- already litigation is pending over religious exemptions from contraceptives. Other mandated benefit issues will arise, as will disputes over eligibility for subsidies, state and federal arguments over Medicaid, what providers of medical services and devices should be paid, and a host of other issues.

And I still believe, as I did in April when I wrote my earlier post, that there will be amendments to the ACA before it goes into effect, or when the consequences of the act become too onerous.  The 2,700 pages enacted in March 2010 will not remain inviolate, no matter what happens in the November election.

What do you think?