Thursday, December 26, 2013

Resolve to Better Manage Your Time

Ahhh, New Year’s resolutions. We make ‘em, and break em; and vow to make ‘em again. Whether it’s to lose weight, get fit, work better or smarter or just be a better person, most of us struggle to follow through. In our professional lives, making and keeping resolutions can have big payoffs. One of the most common goals I’ve heard is to be more organized and manage time more effectively and efficiently. Many other important benefits can be derived from being more efficient and better managing our time. We can be more productive, make fewer mistakes, have more time to do a better job and ultimately have more success.

Here are some tips to help you in this goal.

We all battle time-wasters, both in our personal and professional lives. These annoying pests can severely affect our productivity. Let’s identify some common time wasters:

We waste a lot of time reacting to what’s going on around us. We bounce from one task to another without making much headway on anything.

Some people fail to put in enough time planning their work - determining priorities, deciding how things will be done, anticipating problems, and so on. But if you don’t plan effectively, you can’t work efficiently.

We often don’t take enough time to prepare for a job. Instead of gathering everything we need (equipment, materials, information we need) before we start, we jump in and then waste time running around looking for the things we need to complete the job.

For many of us, the real queen of time wasters is procrastination. We keep putting things off, wasting valuable time and creating a situation in which we will later be rushed to get the job done without enough time to do it well or risk missing a deadline.

Paying excessive attention to unimportant details also sucks up valuable time. Yes, we want things to be done right. But the best way to maintain quality is to focus on priorities. Wasting time on the unimportant stuff doesn’t leave time for the really important things.

People who try to do everything themselves often end up wasting their own time. Being reluctant to ask for help often results in a job taking far longer than it should. Reluctance to ask questions can mean a lot of time wasted trying to figure out something that a co-worker or supervisor could probably explain in a couple of minutes.

When you don’t clearly understand what needs to be done, you have to waste a lot of time trying to figure it out. Or worse, you make mistakes, which means the job has to be redone.

Being uncertain about expectations can easily get us sidetracked and waste a lot of time. If you don’t understand the goals and standards for a job, you can’t do the job efficiently—and you certainly can’t do it well.

It’s easy to become overcommitted. We often want to say yes, and don’t want to say no. But when you take on too much, you often end up getting very little done. If you’re really overwhelmed with work, talk to your supervisor. Maybe you can work something out. Maybe your supervisor can help you readjust your priorities.

If papers are scattered, tools misplaced, or files unorganized, you spend more time getting ready to work than actually doing it.

Rushing is another time waster. It seems like it would be the opposite, right? The faster you work the better use you make of your time, right? Well, no. Moving faster is not always better. Rushing leads to mistakes, omissions, and rework. And that’s a big waste of your valuable time. Going at a reasonable pace is the most efficient way to work. Remember the old saw: If you have time to do it over, you have time to do it right the first time.

So, how to we get past these obstacles? 

Minimizing time wasters and gaining control over your time begins with proper planning. The time you spend planning before you act can turn into days or weeks of time saved.

Take a few minutes at the beginning of each day to make a list of all the tasks you have to accomplish. I’ve been a list-maker for many years. It does help! And, crossing items off that list can be very satisfying. Another benefit is that the physical act of writing something down will help you to remember it.

You can organize your list into daily tasks and those tasks that must be completed that week. This list could include timelines for short-term projects, scheduled meetings, deadlines, etc. If necessary and appropriate, you can expand this with monthly tasks, as well.

Prioritizing your tasks is the next step. Organizing your tasks and responsibilities into order of priority is essential to keep you from fracturing your energies and ending the day with important tasks not completed. 

Each day, rank the tasks and commitments you’ve listed in order of importance. You can do this simply by numbering tasks—one being the most important, and so on. Or another method is to assign a priority letter to each task.

"A" stands for must-do tasks with the highest priority.
"B" tasks are important and worthwhile, but if for some reason they cannot be accomplished that day, there will not be a crisis.
"C" tasks can wait until you have the time to do them.

Don’t fall into the trap of making everything a top-priority! Remember, "B" and "C" tasks might eventually become "A" tasks tomorrow or next week.

Build in time for the unexpected – you know it will happen – be prepared to adjust your list accordingly.

Allow sufficient time in the day for planning, thinking, making decisions, solving problems—things that only you can do. Don’t fill your list with so many high-priority items that you have no time to plan, make decisions and prepare. 

In order to prioritize tasks effectively, you need to have clear goals in mind. A lot of time is wasted when we put effort into activities that don’t directly relate to achieving the goals of our job or of a project.

Defining goals means you must first determine the desired outcome. What exactly do you need to achieve? 

Short-term objectives are the means of achieving goals. These are the steps that you need to take to achieve a goal. They must be clearly stated and organized in a realistic sequence.

As you work toward your goals, accept that you will need to adjust your objectives as the situation changes. If conditions change significantly, you may also need to redefine your goals.

To manage your time efficiently, you also need to make time-wise decisions about your work. The speed and accuracy with which you are able to make decisions will help you get more done in less time.

  • Gather all the facts and figures you need to make an informed decision.
  • Consider all of the possible consequences of each available option.
  • Talk the decision over with your supervisor or a trusted co-worker.
  • Choose the best available option and make your decision.

Remember that you can revise your decision if things don’t work out as anticipated. 

Capitalize on your prime time. What is prime time?

Your prime time is the time of day when you are at your best and do your best work - you’re the most alert and energetic. For some people it’s the morning when they’re rested and before the day starts to get crazy. For others it’s later in the day when they’ve had a chance to wake up and warm up, or when routine daily activities tend to settle down.

Your prime time may also be the time of day when there are the fewest interruptions and you can really concentrate.

Putting things off is a trap we all occasionally fall into. But this just ends up adding more stress to your day. How can you avoid procrastination? Break a job up into smaller pieces. This can make the task seem less overwhelming. You don’t have to do the whole job at once; you only need to handle it a piece at a time. Sometimes we spin our wheels and become immobilized when faced with a large or complicated project or task. We just need to start somewhere, complete a part of it, and then move on to the next step.

You can begin with the easiest part of the job; this can help get you started. Accomplishment leads to a feeling of fulfillment, and this gives you the energy and encouragement to keep going.

Reward yourself! If possible, switch to a task you enjoy for a little while. Reward plays a subtle but powerful role in motivating you to keep at it and get the job done.

Manage interruptions. Interruptions can seriously cut into your time and leave you distracted and frustrated.  

Whether it’s unexpected visitors or phone calls, set limits for the conversation from the outset. Ask people pleasantly what they want and how much time they’ll need. Try to keep the conversation to the matter at hand. Don’t get involved in small talk.

If possible, answer questions or comply with requests immediately. That way you won’t have to spend time later getting back to the person.

Conclude the conversation firmly. You can indicate the conversation is over by saying something like, "Good, I’m glad we’ve got that settled. Now we can get back to work!"

Controlling your phone and e-mail can also lead to better time management.

If possible, let voice mail pick up incoming calls. Check periodically to make sure you’re not missing something important. You can return urgent calls right away. Other calls can wait until you have a break in your schedule. 

When you do answer the phone and you’re in the middle of something, lead the other person politely to the point of the call. When you feel the matter is concluded and the person keeps talking, say that you’re sorry but you’re busy and have to go.

When you’re making calls, pick a time the person you’re calling is most likely to be in and available so that you won’t have to waste time calling again later. Write down the key points you want to discuss beforehand so that you can get right to the point. If the person you need to speak to isn’t available, leave a message indicating the best time to reach you. Also, use voice mail for its intended purpose; leave a message telling the person what you need! This will save time when that person returns your call with the information you need, instead of resulting in yet another phone call if this person cannot answer your question without getting further information.

E-mail and instant messaging can be efficient ways to communicate since you don’t have to be there to receive the message and incoming messages don’t disturb you when you are there. Again, if the message contains information about what is being requested, time is saved.

Except for the most dire emergencies, most unexpected problems can wait a while. Resist the urge to drop everything and run to put out a fire. Finish what you’re doing first, give yourself time to think about an appropriate response, and then take the action necessary to handle the situation. 

Spend only as much time as necessary on emergencies. Once the situation is under control, move on. Return to your schedule and pick up where you left off.

However, take some time to think about why the emergency occurred and if there is anything you can do to make sure such things don’t happen again. Anticipating problems, and then preventing them, is a key time management skill.

Many of us spend a lot of time commuting every day. Instead of wasting all that time, use it! For example, use it to plan the upcoming day or the next day and decide what you need to accomplish. Or use the time constructively to review work issues, make decisions, or solve problems.

Using even some of these tips can help you become more efficient, effective and successful, whether in your personal or professional life. Here’s to starting the New Year off right!!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

HR’s Wish List

6 "gifts" HR would love to see under the tree

Doesn’t everyone have a holiday wish list? We in HR do, too. Here’s a short list of the things my colleagues and I often wish for when we’re sitting around dreaming……

Understanding: For people to realize we’re there to help maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of an organization’s human capital. For the most part, we’re not there to act as employee advocates (at least not exclusively), so people need to stop being offended when we approach an issue from the employer’s perspective.

Don’t shoot the messenger: we’d like senior management (and everyone else, for that matter) to stop thinking we’re too focused on compliance. The ever-increasing legal and regulatory burden placed on business is astounding, and isn’t our fault, so you need to stop "shooting the messenger." Ignoring legal risks won’t make them go away. Ignoring legal risks can sink your business. And just because we care about managing and preventing legal risks doesn’t mean we can’t be effective strategists too. It’d also be nice if managers, supervisors and employees would stop thinking we just sit around and dream up rules and policies for the fun of it. Trust me, it ain’t all that much fun.

We need accountability. Responsible human beings are accountable for their actions and decisions. Responsible supervisors and managers need to be accountable, and be held accountable for their actions and for supporting the mission of their employer. Don’t play the "HR made me do it" game when relating expectations to your employees. Don’t agree with company policy? Fine, discuss it with your manager; but please don’t ignore policies and procedures or employment laws and regulations, and don’t tell your employees to ignore them. If you can’t, or won’t, act as a responsible supervisor or manager, get out of supervising or managing.

For that outdated "warm and fuzzy" stereotype to go away. HR is now seen by many business leaders as a legitimate business discipline as essential as marketing or finance, so it’s time to stop seeing HR as the party planners and baby sitters and start seeing us as the strategic business partners we can be. Speaking of strategic, how about including us in those strategic business discussions instead of just informing us after you’ve all made decisions? How about treating us like the members of senior management you say we are? You might be surprised at what we’re able to add to those conversations. We can be much more useful to business leaders if we’re in the loop from the beginning and have the opportunity to contribute to the discussion. Simply bringing us in to implement what you’ve already decided is short-sighted.

Trust us. For more organizations to trust their HR departments to participate in, and even manage such areas such as business ethics, whistleblowing, corporate governance, employer branding, the use of blogging and social media in a business context, etc. Trust is an issue that comes into play in many areas. If you don’t like a law or regulation, that’s fine. But, just because you don’t like it, don’t assume that what we’re telling you is wrong and continually force us to "prove it". Trust that we’re the professionals you’re paying us to be. Trust that our knowledge and ability to apply that knowledge is solid and will add to the bottom line.

For everyone to remember that we’re human, too. Yep, that’s right. We’re just as much one of those "human resources" as any employee is. We want to know we’re appreciated, that we’re valued and are heard. We make mistakes (and fix them); we work hard and we care about the job we do, and most of us, most of the time, care about the organization for which we work so hard.

I hope your wish list is a bit more fun. Happy Holidays!!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Professional Email Etiquette

14 tips to keep your emails from ending up in the junk folder

When thinking about our online persona and reputation, we forget that our email is part of that. E-mail can often be rapid fire communication with little thought behind it. But, we need to remember that our emails still make an impression. It can affect your reputation whether you’re searching for a job, or you’re already employed. It’s important to remember that there are certain professional standards expected for e-mail use. Here are some things to keep in mind regarding professional e-mail conduct:

Use a professional email address. If possible, use an email address that contains your name so that the recipient knows exactly who's sending the email. Never use emails that are not appropriate for use in the workplace, such as "blondebomb@..." or "babygirl@..."

Spell names correctly. When you're at a computer, on the Internet, with Google at your fingertips, there really is no excuse for spelling someone's name incorrectly. Especially when the person's full name is in their email address or in their email signature!

Be professional in your presentation. Use spell check or set up automatic spell check to run before messages are sent.  Don’t use multiple fonts or colors, or bold or italicize too many words. Misspellings, writing in all capital letters, poor grammar, slang, emoticons or text acronyms are not good form for professional correspondence. Do not use a lot of graphics embedded in your message, not everyone uses an e-mail program that can display them.

Be careful with humor.
Humor can get lost in translation without the benefit of tone of voice or facial expressions. In a professional exchange, it's better to leave out attempts at humor unless you know the recipient well. Also, something that you think is funny might not be funny to someone else.

Skip the chain letters, virus warnings, and joke emails. Always check a reputable source or your IT department before sending out an alarm about viruses. Chain emails, as well as joke emails aren’t normally workplace appropriate; unless you are sure your recipient(s) truly enjoy or appreciate the content.

E-mail isn't private. E-mail is considered company property and can be retrieved, examined, and used in a court of law. You should also never assume that e-mail over the Internet is secure. Never put in an e-mail message anything that you wouldn't put on a postcard. E-mail can be forwarded, so unintended audiences may see what you've written. Have you ever inadvertently sent something to the wrong party? Always keep the content professional to avoid embarrassment.

Use sentence case. USING ALL CAPITAL LETTERS IS INTERPRETED AS SHOUTING. However, using only lowercase letters looks sloppy and lazy.

Use CC appropriately. Copy only people who are directly involved or who have a need to know. Don’t unnecessarily clutter the inboxes of people who don’t really need to see your emails.

Use group e-mail sparingly. Only send group e-mail when it's useful to all recipients. And just as importantly, only use the "reply all" button when truly necessary.

Subject lines are important.  Make sure the subject line relates to the content of your email. Not only will this increase the changes of the email being read, it can facilitate searching for emails when we need to do so. Blank subject lines are not helpful, nor are subject lines that have nothing to do with the content ("Happy Friday!"). Depending on your audience, you can also put "reply requested", "action required" or "FYI" in the subject line to indicate what you need from them, being careful to not come across as overly demanding.

Don’t forget your attachments.  Take care to remember to attach the documents you want to send. We’ve all forgotten to do this at times! Also, always mention your attachments in your e-mail to help your reader notice them.

Use a signature that includes contact information. To ensure that people know who you are, include a signature that has your contact information, including your mailing address, Web site, and phone numbers.

Don’t expect instant responses. Email wasn't created so that we could all respond to each other's messages at the speed of light (well, ok, maybe it was). But in business, that’s just not always possible. There's nothing wrong with a friendly follow-up if you’re not heard from the recipient in a reasonable length of time, but don’t get impatient if you don’t receive a response in minutes.

Respond in a timely manner.  Despite the above item, respond to e-mails within the same business day if possible. If you don’t have the information requested by the sender, acknowledge you’ve received the email and will respond further when you can provide the information.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Getting New Hires Off to a Good Start

We’ve all been there. A new hire fails to live up to our hopes and either has to be let go, or requires a major correction of some sort. What went wrong, we wonder? Was there something we should have seen during the interview process, but missed? Did the reference-checking fail to uncover deficiencies? Sometimes, the problem is that managers and supervisors think the success or failure of a new hire as the responsibility of just one person – the new hire. So, instead of asking what went wrong, maybe we should be asking where we failed to properly support and prepare the new hire to succeed.

It’s easy for a newbie to get lost and become unsure of themselves and their role if expectations aren’t made clear and communicated up front.

Beginning on day one new hires need to be ushered through your organization’s procedures, culture, the tasks and realities of their job and general expectations of what success looks like for that employee.

Ideally, this should begin with an orientation, formal or otherwise. In reality it often begins the minute the new hire walks in the door on his first day. What should happen?

Be Prepared. The employee’s immediate supervisor should be on hand to greet him and get him started on the basics. If, as the supervisor or manager you cannot be there (really, this shouldn’t ever be the case), assign someone else who has the knowledge and ability to do so. Make sure things like computer log-ins, phone extensions, email, etc. (if appropriate) are already set up and ready to go.

Walk the new hire around and introduce him to people he’ll be interacting with, as well as simple things like where the restrooms are, the lunch area, etc. First days are stressful enough without being left floundering for something as simple as finding the restroom or where to store or eat your lunch.

Solid Orientations are a must. Never just throw a new hire into the fray to sink or swim on her own without orienting her to her job, company expectations, culture, etc. True, first days may feel like being thrown in without preparation, but make sure you’re giving new hires as much information as possible before they actually begin working on tasks and assignments.

You should be covering basic expectations about both general work behavior and professional behavior such as:

  • What are the employee’s hours? Are there break times?
  • What are procedures to use for calling in when sick or running late? What’s acceptable under the policies for missed days or tardiness?
  • What are appropriate and allowable uses of technology and social media?
  • Is it acceptable to make or take personal calls in the workplace?
  • What’s acceptable concerning relationships with co-workers, supervisors, clients outside of work?
  • Can colleagues date? If so, must they be in different departments? Have lateral positions? Report it to HR?

Performance expectations are essential to communicate from the beginning.

  • A thorough review of the job description and tasks required is in order during orientation.
  • What are key indicators of both expected and outstanding performance in this position?
  • What skills and behaviors do you want to see displayed?
  • What constitutes appropriate work attire?
  • Are there key benchmarks or deadlines that must be met in the first 90 days or 6 months?
  • How are promotions and raises decided?
  • What are the expected practices for handling the "typical" problems that someone in this role will face?
  • How should an employee navigate a problem? At what point should a supervisor be brought in?
  • What are company practices for handling internal conflict or conflict with an outside entity?
Attitude and passion are part of performance. Relating expectations and guidance for success to new hires will help them actually become successful.

  • What’s an appropriate workplace attitude?
  • What values do successful employees display in their work? How do those values translate to behavior on the job?
  • What values does the organization deem important?
  • How can new hires best incorporate themselves within company culture?

This is where a good mentoring program can be helpful, as well. Be careful, though, that the people you assign as mentors possess and display the skills, values and attitude your organization deems important. Remember, someone will be training your new employees and introducing them to your culture. Make sure those people share your vision.

On the job training. Most of us are pretty familiar with the concept of on the job training. These programs are usually more formal in nature and often have a set start and end, after which the new employee should be reasonably well trained to perform his or her job. However, tossing a new employee into the work environment, expecting her work group or team will show her the ropes, or that new hires will learn by watching their team, is no better, and often worse than giving them no direction whatsoever. There can be no doubt that this practice will result in failure, sooner or later, for that employee.

Whether you call it orientation, or on-boarding, this process is vital to the success of all employees and to your organization. You can break it down into these basic areas:

Administrative: includes the practical details like getting the employee into the payroll system, benefit plans, computer systems, etc.

Technical: includes focusing on making sure the employee has the training and knowledge to perform the job.

Social/Cultural: includes getting the employee integrated into your culture; allowing them to get to know the people they will work with and for.

Getting your new hires off to a good start is crucial for retention, especially (although not exclusively) for hourly workers. Statistics for turnover during the early period of employment show it’s not unusual for 50 percent of a company’s hourly employees to leave within 120 days of their hire date. A thorough orientation or onboarding process has been found to have a strong effect on the adjustment and outcomes for new hires who have limited prior work experience, which is often the case with people being hired into entry-level hourly positions.

Done correctly, a successful program will increase your new employees’ understanding of their specific roles and responsibilities, and help them to become active and productive employees in your organization and within its culture.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Don’t Ask These Questions in an Interview

And…. What You Should Ask….

Most (actually, I would hope, all) HR pros know which questions cannot be asked of applicants in an interview. However, hiring managers are not usually HR pros and may fall into traps when interviewing. Many times, this is unintentional; they don’t mean to broach off-limits topics.

So, if you’re a non-HR hiring manager, here are some questions you need to avoid and what you should focus on during an interview:

Keep in mind it’s best to focus the discussion on job requirements and/or company policies. Avoid stereotyping. Interview the individual, not a member of a group.

The requirements of fair employment laws prohibit you from asking certain questions during an interview. Or, asking questions that would lead to the answers to these questions!

Age. You can’t ask any questions that might indicate a candidate’s age—for example, questions about when an applicant graduated from high school or college or other questions whose answers might suggest that a person was over age 40. If the job requires it, you can ask if the applicant is 18 or over.

Marital Status. You can’t ask if an applicant is married (in most states)— or questions that will elicit that answer. For example, whether the applicant’s wife will mind him working long hours or whether a candidate’s husband is likely to be transferred. Questions about dating, love life, or living arrangements are off limits under many state laws.

Children? Technically speaking, it's not illegal or unlawful to ask personal questions such as, "Do you have children?" or "What ages are your children?" The problem with questions about kids isn't that it's illegal to discriminate against people who have them. It's illegal to discriminate against people because of their gender and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) considers gender stereotypes to fall into that. You can’t ask questions about child care, pregnancy, or plans for having a family; mainly because these types of questions are mostly asked of women and with the assumption that women who work are more likely to allow their jobs to be affected by childcare issues. However, if you’re concerned that an applicant who might have young children may need to take too much time off, you can explain your expectations about schedules and reporting to work, and ask if the applicant has any problem with that.

Health/Disability. You can’t ask candidates questions such as: "How many sick days did you take last year?" "Are you generally healthy?" or "Do you have any chronic ailments?" Nor can you ask whether an applicant has ever received workers’ compensation. And you cannot ask if the applicant has any physical or mental disabilities. You can inform an applicant of the physical requirements of a job and ask if the applicant can perform those tasks with or without accommodation.

Race/National Origin. You can’t ask any questions about an applicant’s nationality, ancestry, national or ethnic origin, or parentage. You can’t ask if someone was born in the United States nor can you ask what language they speak at home or what kind of accent they have. You can’t ask an applicant if he or she is a U.S. citizen or discuss the citizenship or birthplace of the applicant’s parents, spouse, or other relatives. You can ask if the applicant is eligible to work in the U.S.

Religion. Under no circumstances can you ask questions concerning an applicant’s religion. You can’t even ask if an applicant’s religion prevents him or her from working weekends or holidays or whether the person would need to take time off for observance of any religious days. You can however inform the applicant about the work schedule for the position, your policy concerning being on time, showing up for scheduled shifts, etc.

It’s instructive to get answers directly from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Here’s a piece taken directly from the EEOC’s website. It was a portion of an opinion letter:

"1. Is it illegal under federal law to ask a woman during a job interview if and when she plans to become pregnant in the future? Is it illegal under federal law for an employer to ask a man during a job interview if and when he and his partner plan to have children in the future?
2. Is it illegal under federal law to ask a job candidate during a job interview if they are married or single?
3. Is it illegal under federal law to ask a job candidate during a job interview if they have children?

As you are aware, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces, among other laws, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (Title VII), which bars discrimination in employment on the bases of race, color, sex, national origin, and religion. Title VII was amended in 1978 to include the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which prohibits an employer from refusing to hire a pregnant woman because of her pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical condition.

There is no language in Title VII which expressly prohibits employers from making any of the above inquiries. Title VII does, however, prohibit covered employers from basing hiring decisions on pregnancy or sex. Thus, an employer may not refuse to hire a woman because she is or expects to become pregnant. In addition, although Title VII does not prohibit discrimination based on marital or parental status, it does prohibit employers from treating men and women differently with regard to such status. Accordingly, employers may not refuse to hire married women or women with children if it hires married men or men with children.

Although asking applicants about pregnancy or their marital or parental status does not violate Title VII, a fact finder is likely to presume that the answers to such questions formed the basis for a selection decision. As a result, if the selection decision is challenged, the fact that the employer made such inquiries will be evidence that the employer unlawfully used sex or pregnancy as a factor in the selection decision."

One must keep in mind that state laws may differ in regard to marital status, sexual orientation and other characteristics. It’s best to check your state’s fair employment practices statutes.

Effective and legal interviewing means focusing on the job and its requirements. Keep the following in mind:

Any questions about protected groups, including race, religion, age, ethnic group, national origin or ancestry, political beliefs or affiliations, or disability, may be discriminatory. Also, be careful not to ask any questions that could be construed as implying such discrimination. For example, questioning an applicant about the origin of an unusual surname could be misconstrued.

Don’t ask personal questions. Be especially wary of this during the first few moments of the interview when you and the applicant are establishing rapport. It easy to fall into chit chat at the beginning or end of an interview, and this is often where our guard is down and "innocent" questions may pop up that would elicit information you cannot use to make an employment decision.

Don’t allow superficial impressions to influence your decision. Age is not necessarily related to maturity in attitude or ability. Likewise, a firm handshake does not guarantee strong character. Having hiring standards that are not job related will make your interview invalid. Furthermore, if these standards automatically screen out applicants whose speech, dress, hair length, social status, or personal lifestyle differ from yours or those of your co-workers, you could be in jeopardy of a discrimination suit.

Beware of tendencies toward stereotyped thinking. Misconceptions concerning the physical, emotional, or mental capabilities of women, older workers, minorities, or disabled persons are still common. Judge applicants on the basis of individual ability, not on the basis of any characteristics generally attributed to any particular group.

Keep the conversation on job-related topics. Appropriate areas of conversation during the interview include the job itself, its duties, and responsibilities. You can also talk about your organization, its missions, programs, and achievements. It is especially appropriate to talk about career possibilities and opportunities for growth, development, and advancement that the job offers. Other topics, such as where the job is located, required travel, equipment, and available facilities, are also pertinent.

Finally, the individual’s qualifications, abilities, experience, education, and interests are all suitable topics. Ask only for the information you intend to use in making a hiring decision. Know how you will use the information to make that decision. Keeping these points in mind will keep you focused on finding the right person for the job and keep you out of a potential discrimination suit.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

“If you like your health care plan…..”

And other not-quite true tales from the Affordable Care Act ….

The hits just keep on coming. Despite being promised by President Obama that no one would lose their health plan if they liked it and wanted to keep it, millions are, in fact, losing their health care plans. Insurance companies are cancelling policies as of December 31, 2013 across the country. According to a recent article on, Florida Blue announced termination of 300,000 policies, constituting about 80 percent of its individual policies in the state.  California’s Kaiser Permanente reported cancellation of 160,000 policies, about half of its individual policies in the state.  Independence Blue Cross in Philadelphia will be dropping 45% of its individual policies.  CareFirst Blue Cross Blue Shield will terminate some 73,000 policies in  Maryland.  Highmark in Pittsburgh cancels 20% of its individual policies.

According to expert estimates, some 16 million individual policies will be terminated nationwide. That’s more than 80% of the total 19 million individual policies in the entire country. 

So, what happened? Stick with me, this gets a bit muddy.

The Affordable Care Act contains a provision (in section 1251) to allow plans that were in effect on March 23, 2010 (the date the ACA became law) to continue (be grandfathered), as long as the plans did not "substantially" change any cost-sharing or benefit levels. When the regulations to implement that portion of the law were written by Health & Human Services (HHS), they were made very strict. So much so, that few plans would be able to retain grandfathered status. In the individual market, plans change things like co-pays, co-insurance, deductibles, etc., regularly. In the group market (insurance through employers) these things can often change as well. As the cost of health care goes up every year, employers have to find ways to continue to provide coverage they and their employees can afford, and insurance companies have to continually amend plans and sell new plans that provide coverage and still allow them to stay in business. The regulations put a very low threshold on how much these items could be increased and still allow the plan to retain grandfathered status. (The actual cost to provide medical care (not the premium) continually goes up. The ACA does nothing to control the actual cost of health care; it only seeks to spread the cost of health insurance over more people, thus presumably reducing premium costs.)

The Washington Post ran an article that illustrates this very well. Here’s a summary from that article, describing the allowable amount that plan co-pays can be increased and have the plan still meet the criteria to be grandfathered. The calculations are based on the medical care component of the Consumer Price Index, and the difference in that number from March 23, 2010 and the current figure (current as in whenever the calculation is done):

So here is what it would look like for various levels of copays. If your plan had a:

$0 copay, any increase would be capped at $5.90
$5 copay, increase capped at $5.90
$10 copay, increase capped at $5.90
$15 copay, increase capped at $5.90
$20 copay, increase capped at $6.60
$25 copay, increase capped at $8.25
$30 copay, increase capped at $9.90

This is just one example. If deductibles or co-insurance are changed by more than $5.00 + 15% of medical inflation, that change will cause grandfathered status to be lost.

Now, keep in mind, the only plans (individual or group) that are eligible for grandfathered status are those that were in effect on March 23, 2010. Many, many individual plans and many group plans out there now were not in effect on that date, and therefore are not even eligible for grandfathered status, regardless of whether the plan changes cost-sharing. People with those plans are forced to purchase plans with the more comprehensive coverage and often higher premiums, whether they want it or not. This is also why President Obama’s recent apology and vow to do something to correct the situation will be difficult, if not impossible.
Keep in mind, HHS published a notice in the Federal Register on June 17, 2010 estimating that 66% of small employer plans and 45% of large employer plans (accounting for 51% of all employer provided health insurance) would have to be terminated under the ACA’s requirements by the end of 2013.  Together with the required individual cancellations, that adds up to terminated health insurance for some 93 million Americans.

On Aug. 24, 2009, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), a doctor, made this point: "On the stump, the president regularly tells Americans that ‘if you like your plan, you can keep your plan.’  But if you read the bill, that just isn’t so.  For starters, within five years, every healthcare plan will have to meet a new federal definition for coverage — one that your plan might not meet, even if you like it." This is another point that is not understood or talked about: within a relatively short time, the grandfather option will go away.

What the previous two paragraphs tell us is that the Obama administration knew full well, in 2010 or before, that many people would be forced out of the plans they liked – they would lose their plan. What this tells me is that either President Obama doesn’t truly understand his own law; his administration has not accurately or adequately informed him of the effects of his law; or there has been a deliberate attempt to mislead the public. I’m not really sure which of those possibilities is most likely; although for all concerned, I would hope it’s that he truly doesn’t understand the regulations that were written to implement his law. I’m guessing ignorance may be better than deception.

What about the part of that promise that said you could keep your doctors? That hasn’t exactly been true, either. Many insurance companies that write individual health insurance policies have either opted out of selling individual policies, or have severely restricted the number of such plans they will sell on the exchanges. As a result, the choices of doctors, hospitals, etc. are now more limited than before the law was passed. Also, it’s now coming out that hospitals and physicians alike are choosing not to participate in the insurance plans offered on the exchanges because of the reimbursement rate from those plans.

Aetna, a fortune 100 company with $34.2 billion in revenue, has pulled out of the government-run exchanges in three states, including the state of Connecticut, where it is based. Founded in Hartford, Conn., in 1850, Aetna withdrew its application to participate in that state as reported by the Hartford Courant. The company said it was withdrawing from there and in Georgia and Maryland because the limitations those state governments would impose on their rates would not allow them to make money.

Aetna is not alone. United Healthcare, Humana, Coventry and some of the Blues have dropped out of various state exchanges. Aetna will be backing out of the individual market in California all together. Some state exchanges have only one or two insurance plans participating. Not much choice, another promise that hasn’t come to fruition.

Because of the real fear that not enough young, healthy people will sign up for insurance and thus spread the risk, companies are concerned they will lose money paying claims for older, less healthy people. For 2014, the penalty under the ACA for an individual who decides not to purchase health insurance is $95.00 – that’s it – and it won’t be imposed until that person files his/her taxes in 2015 – assuming a tax return is actually filed. That’s another little glitch no one’s talking much about.

You may not be able to keep your health plan, your doctor, or your hospital.

**UPDATE** Today, the President announced that he would allow insurance companies to continue offering the previously cancelled health plans for another year. However, the insurance industry is saying this "fix" could be disastrous. If all these relatively healthy people stay with their individual plans and don’t purchase a plan on the exchange, that will top load the exchange plans with people who were previously uninsured (and therefore more likely to be heavy users of medical care) thus raising costs for everyone after that year’s reprieve. And this doesn’t even begin to address the practical difficulties of reversing course on these cancelled plans with only about a month before the end of the year.

[Interesting fact: The ACA requires group health insurance plans to pay into a fund to help with "rate stabilization" in the individual market. The reinsurance fee is a transitional fee to stabilize the individual market. The fee funds a reinsurance program for high cost claimants in non-grandfathered individual market plans, both on and off the Exchange. So, if your group health insurance premiums are increasing, this is part of the reason, in addition to the mandated benefits that now must be a part of those plans.]

In an earlier post, I wrote about the trouble both the federal ( exchange and several state exchanges were having with their websites. Kathleen Sebelius later promised in congressional testimony that the website would be fixed by the end of November. Well, apparently, those that are supposed to be fixing it appear to be backing off that promise, as well. No small wonder. The Obama administration's adviser Jeffrey Zeints said on November 8th, that the website is "a long way from where it needs to be."

Also of note is that there are reports of security issues on, endangering enrollees’ personal information. While these concerns aren’t exactly new, they are becoming more public and prevalent.

If these weren’t such sad and hugely expensive problems, all of this might actually be funny. Come to think of it, I can’t help but be amused at the daily reports of yet more gaffes, screw-ups, failings and broken promises. It’s become a comedy of errors that has reached the absurd.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Do Americans Work Longer and Harder Than the Rest of the World?

For various reasons, the American workforce, or the American economy and businesses, are often compared to that of other industrialized nations. These comparisons are often done as a means to justify, one way or the other, an opinion or theory about whether our workforce is ahead or behind other countries on measures such as worker happiness, employment laws, benefits, and of course, productivity.

Recently, CareerBuilder surveyed workers in the 10 largest economies across the world to see how their workplace behaviors stacked up. A slightly different focus than other such comparisons, but interesting nonetheless. So, how do you compare?

Many of us in the working world have similar routines. Our commutes may vary, our work environment may vary, but Americans are generally pretty focused on our jobs and careers, next to our families.

In China and the U.K. the typical (based on the survey response) workweek is 31-40 hours. However, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, India, Japan, Brazil and the U.S. report between 41-50 hours per week.

It appears that American workers are leaning toward more of a casual dress environment than has been the case in the past. Only 11% of respondents report working in a business formal attire atmosphere; whereas India reports 50%. The next largest "formal" countries are China (38% and Japan (37%).

Do you socialize with your co-workers? The Chinese certainly do. 98% report attending happy hours or other social events with co-workers; Brazil was close behind with 93%. While certainly not unfriendly, the U.S. was toward the bottom on the list with 41% reporting hanging out with their work buds outside the office.

A rather pleasant surprise shows up in our preferences for communicating with each other. Despite the popularity and ubiquity of cell phones, and smartphones in particular, it still seems that we prefer face-to-face conversations over talking on the phone, or even digital (includes email and text). Fifty-nine percent of Americans prefer face-to-face conversations over phone conversations (30%) or digital means (10%). I have to admit those numbers surprised me, but in a good way! All ten countries surveyed showed similar preferences; although Brazil and Japan’s figures are more spread out among the three methods.

Are we leaving the office at the office? Eighteen percent of Americans report taking work home one day a week, while 26% say they never take work home. That seems to leave a pretty large number of folks who take work home more than once a week. But working folks in the other countries seem to be able to leave it all at the office in higher numbers than we do, with Japan leading the pack with 59% saying they never take work home. The others run between 30% - 40%.

How often do we take a break and get away from it all? Seems like the Italians need to chill a bit. 64% report taking only 0-7 days of vacation or other personal time in the last year. 46% of Japanese workers report taking 35+ days away in the last year; while 27% in the U.S. report 8-14 days off. Check out the infographic linked above for more details.

What does all this mean?

I’m not entirely sure. However, according to The Conference Board, the U.S. was the 3rd most productive country in 2012, behind Luxemburg and Norway (productivity = total economic output divided by the number of hours worked). While productivity in pretty much all industrialized nations has seen slowing the past several years, we are still showing strength in this area.

Are we happy? That’s a question that the The Legatum Institute has been studying for at least the past five years. It uses a mixture of traditional economic indicators alongside measurements of well-being and life satisfaction. The result is a list of 142 countries, covering 96% of the world’s population and 99% of global GDP, ranked from most to least prosperous. Legatum scores the world’s countries on entrepreneurship, personal freedom, health, economy, social capital, education, safety & security, and governance. You can see the 2013 results here.

Norway tops the overall list, as has been the case since 2009. The U.S. comes in at #11 (out of 142 countries). So, even though we seem to work more and longer than other countries, we’re still fairly happy with our lives, at least based on these measures. The U.S. scores better on this index that the other countries noted above whose citizens work fewer hours and take more vacation time.

I guess the only thing I can say that it’s clear that our happiness as workers, and maybe as a nation, is way more complicated than how many hours we work or how often we take vacations. When you look at the factors that Legatum measures, that is well borne out. Maybe we need to stop focusing so closely on just those few things and look at the bigger picture.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Defining Professionalism

We often know what it isn’t. But, do we know what it is?

What does it mean to be professional?

The Merriam-Webster definition of professionalism is "the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person"; and it defines a profession as "a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation." Great. While this definition tells us what the word means, it doesn’t do much to help us understand what qualities, traits and characteristics are displayed by a professional. One can certainly possess specialized knowledge and skills in a particular discipline, which may qualify one as a professional in that discipline, but what does it mean to be professional, or display professionalism?

A large part of being perceived as a professional has to do with the way you behave toward and present yourself to others.  This can entail everything from the simple to the sublime. Possessing the following characteristics, or developing them, will go a long way toward establishing yourself as a true professional, regardless of what your profession – or your job – entails (in no particular order):

Honor Your Commitments. If you make a promise to your boss, co-workers, or clients, keep it. If you won't be able to meet the deadline, produce a report or fill another job task, let your boss, co-worker or client know as soon as possible.

Be Honest. Tell the truth and be upfront about where things stand. Don’t exaggerate your knowledge, skills or abilities. Don’t lie about why you can’t come to work, or finish a project.

Be On Time: Showing up late, whether for work or meetings, says you don't care about your job and don’t respect the time and effort of others.

Be Reliable and Consistent. Do what you say you’ll do, when you say you’ll do it (see Honor Your Commitments). You want people to be able to depend on you.

Be Competent. Be good at what you do, and rather than letting your skills or knowledge become outdated, always strive to keep current in your area of expertise, whatever that may be.

Stay Focused on Work. Don’t let your private life interfere with your job. Don’t spend time at work attending to personal matters. Don’t air your dirty laundry at work. While confiding in a close friend at work is usually okay, sharing too much information with the entire office is not. Be careful who you talk to, especially when discussing problems with your significant other or family.

Don't Gossip: While you may be tempted to tell your co-workers what you heard about Suzy or Sam down the hall, gossiping makes you look like a middle school student. If you know something that simply must be shared, tell someone who has nothing to do with your workplace, like your sister, brother or best friend. And if the "gossip" is vicious? Think about just forgetting it and let it go.

Be Accountable. When something goes wrong, don’t look for ways to avoid blame or pass it off on someone else. Taking responsibility for a mistake -- and then learning from it – is a true mark of a professional.

Support Others. Share the spotlight with co-workers, take the time to show others how to do things properly, and lend an ear when necessary.

Be Humble. If you're unsure how to perform a task, ask for help. If you're too proud to take direction or criticism, you're putting pride ahead of the good of the team and the health of your career.

Communicate with Care. Avoiding comments that make others uncomfortable or undervalued is expected, of course, but true professionals also grasp the soft communication skills, as well. For example, when you give feedback, be careful to do it in a way that will be helpful and constructive, rather than belittling. Listen to input from others even when you think you know best; you may learn something!

Dress Appropriately: Not every job requires a suit and tie. Whether you have to be "business formal" or you can wear more casual clothes, your appearance should always be neat and clean. A wrinkled suit looks no better than a ripped pair of jeans. Wear the type of clothing your employer requires or desires. Revealing clothing is a no-no in probably 95% of workplaces. Flip flops, shorts and lingerie strap tops should be saved for the weekends.

Fight Fair: It’s a fact that you will occasionally have disagreements with your co-workers, or maybe even your boss. You might think that something should be done one way, while someone else thinks it should be done another way. No matter how upset you are or how strongly you believe you are right, screaming isn't allowed, nor is name calling or door slamming. Calmly explain your opinion and be ready to walk away if the other person can't be swayed or if he or she begins to lose control.

Be Kind. Treating others with patience and respect enables constructive criticism and stronger relationships. Treat others as you'd like to be treated.

Be Prepared. True professionals are always prepared. This requires planning, timeliness, and attention to detail. Focus on improving your time management and planning skills, so that you're always in control.

No list is exhaustive, and this one certainly isn’t either. However, it’s a fair bet that displaying these attributes will ensure you’re seen as the professional you want to be.

Professionalism is at its core, I believe, a state of mind. If you don't have it now, you can achieve it, by selecting how you act and what you do, by simply deciding that you want it. Every job has value. If a job needs to be done, then it is worth doing. If it’s worth doing, it’s certainly worth doing well. Conducting oneself professionally is part and parcel of doing a job well.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

What’s Up with the Affordable Care Act?

It’s more like what’s up, down, in, out and sideways. The last year or so has been predictably crazy, with more changes and delays than you can shake a stick at. Not to mention that many of the regulations that will dictate how everything will work are still being written, or being revised before ever being released. For HR and benefits folks, keeping up with this monster is challenging at best.

The recent government shutdown has left its own mark on this landmark law. The congressional debate over the shutdown, according to the HR Policy Association, included three possible amendments that may well be a part of future changes; since none of them made it into the deal to reopen the government at this point. One would delay the $63 so-called "reinsurance" fee that must be paid by health insurance issuers (and that will be added to the premiums employers pay for group health plans). This $63 is imposed on each and every body an employer sponsored plan covers and is intended to help offset the costs of high-risk individuals in the individual market. The second is to change the definition of full-time employee used to determine how many employees a business has, and which of them has to be offered coverage, which in turn will determine if penalties will be imposed on those businesses for not offering the required health insurance coverage. Currently that definition is anyone who averages 30 hours a week or more. Traditionally, and fairly universally, 40 hours a week has been the base definition of full-time. Lastly, a call to eliminate the tax on medical devices. This is a 2.5% tax on all medical devices (think pacemakers, artificial knees, hearing aids, etc.) charged to the manufacturer of the device, which of course, will be eventually passed along to the consumer, via the charge the insurance company will pay for that pacemaker you need.

Additionally, the 30 hours per week question was the subject of a hearing in the House Small Business Committee's Subcommittee on Health and Technology, where support for increasing it was expressed by the ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Janice Hahn (D-CA).

Many in the business community – and union leaders – have criticized this definition, saying it will cause businesses to reduce the hours of part-time employees below 30, and prevent them from working additional hours that would result in them averaging 30 hours per week or more, in order to keep them below the current definition of "full-time". As a result, members of the House and Senate have already introduced the Forty Hours is Full Time Act of 2013. This bill would increase to 40 the number of hours an employee would need to work to be considered "full time." While there are many who argue that this is a "myth" of sorts, I happen to believe that any number of jobs that are negatively affected by this law is too many. Our economy can’t really sustain any hit to jobs. Further, why trash-can a long standing concept of what is full-time, forcing business to change many policies and procedures based on it, or to manage to two different definitions resulting in both administrative hardships as well as confusion among employees?

The big news in recent days is the rollout of the health insurance exchanges, or marketplaces. To describe this rollout as rocky would be a bit of an understatement. The federal exchange, has been plagued with serious glitches since opening on October 1st.  Several of the state exchanges have had problems as well. It appears that many of the problems have stemmed from the requirement for people to register, and enter all their personal information, before even being able to browse the health plans available, before they’re ready to buy. Notably, Kentucky’s website did not require people to register first before browsing; and their website has had few problems, and has since enrolled tens of thousands of people. Compare that with Maryland, who has managed, as of Monday, October 21, 2013, to enroll fewer than 2,500. President Obama at one time likened the process to that of shopping on Does Amazon require you to enter your name, address, age, marital status, children’s info, income, payment method, etc. before browsing the site for the items you want to buy? Ummm, nope.

As reported by CNBC, a survey conducted by uSamp found that 50% of those surveyed were not able to log on without encountering technical problems like errors and "try again later" messages, many were kicked out mid-process. 25% of those trying to get on the websites were not able to create an account at all. Only 19% had no problems. cost three times as much as originally anticipated, and will most certainly cost even more to fix.

Also, a recent CNN story reported that an insurance industry source stated that insurers are receiving faulty information about new customers from, including duplicate forms, and missing and garbled information.

Yesterday, NBC News reported that the deadline for signing up for coverage could be delayed by as much as six weeks. But it wasn’t clear if that would require approval by Congress or could be done by the Department of Health and Human Services administratively. Under the prospective change, individuals will only be expected to have started enrollment by March 31 to avoid incurring the penalty. Meanwhile, and this is interesting, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is drafting a bill to delay the mandate for a year.   Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, called for an extension of the open enrollment period to allow people more time to purchase coverage. Who didn’t see this coming?

During the hearings today, a lot of grilling took place – including that of executives of CGI Federal, the main contractor hired to build They all spent a lot of time pointing fingers, (CGI saying it was not its decision to launch the website in spite of known problems, but the government’s) and another interesting, but quite predictable fact was revealed: the software was not thoroughly tested before going live. It was tested for barely two weeks before October 1st.

Probably my favorite quote of the whole thing was when Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, a Democrat, responded to statements that the site crashing was due to a high volume of traffic, "Amazon and eBay don't crash the week before Christmas, ProFlowers doesn't crash on Valentine's Day." That was priceless.

There are more hearings to come in the next week or so. Can’t wait for that. 

One of the most significant delays of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act was the delay of the penalties to businesses for not offering health insurance to full-time (30 hours per week) employees. The so-called Employer Mandate. Many people are not aware that the requirement to offer health insurance (deemed of minimum value and affordable) was not delayed itself. Only the penalty was delayed. However, since the penalty was delayed, the reporting required of businesses also had to be delayed. This reporting is designed to tell the government, among other things, which people (employees) would be eligible for a subsidy should they choose to buy insurance through one of the exchanges, and therefore possibly trigger a penalty to the business. What does that mean? It means that people filling out the online applications at the exchanges are on the honor system when asked on the application whether their employer offers them health insurance, and when asked what their household income is, etc. So, there is no way to reliably validate whether any particular person is legitimately eligible for a subsidy under the Affordable Care Act. It has been reported that once the employer mandate is fully in effect, that efforts will be made to verify eligibility for the subsidy, and to seek reimbursement from those people who were not truly eligible. I don’t see that happening, do you?

Finally, it has been frequently reported that Congress exempted itself from the law. That is not true. However, they did afford themselves a benefit that the rest of us don’t get. Under the law, if you are offered health insurance from your employer, but choose to buy insurance through the exchange, you will not receive the employer contribution to the premium you would have received if you took the insurance your employer offered (also, many employees pay their premiums with pre-tax money, but will lose that benefit as well when purchasing on the exchanges). But guess what? Congress, their staff, the President, Vice President and their political appointees, will still receive their employer contributions to their premiums, and most likely the pre-tax treatment of their premiums. Nice.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Time’s A Wastin’

"I need so much time for doing nothing that I have no time for work."
Pierre Reverdy 

It's no wonder that so many workers are tempted to waste time doing personal business on the Internet during the workday because of all the conveniences it provides: from shopping to reading local news to communicating with family and friends, the Web allows us to do just as many personal tasks as it does business-related functions. Few managers will argue much about the occasional breather or decompression provided by a quick look at the news. But too much, is……well, too much.

The sheer number of available distractions is mind-numbing. More than a billion Facebook users upload more than 350 million photos each day. More than 100 hours of video are posted to YouTube every minute. Huge volumes of new data and photos are uploaded to the web continually.

A recent survey from found that the amount of time Americans waste at work jumped 5% from last year. Web surfing and using social media were again near the top of the list, with chatting with co-workers (not work-related) the biggest time killer. News sites, surprisingly enough, came in high. (Uh, oh. Does SHRM count as a news site?) The individual website topping the list, at 15% of all respondents, was Facebook. 

82% of employees age 26-32 and 76% of employees age 33-39 waste time on a daily basis.

Guess what? The sector with the most wasted time is government (there really isn’t any surprise here, is there?); 25% of government workers said they waste a few hours a day at work. On the other hand, the industry that wastes the least time is healthcare, with 16% of workers claiming they never waste time on the job. Folks on the West coast wasted more time than those on the East. 

Why do people waste so much time? 

When you hire people, you expect them to use their time efficiently and do the job right.  According to data from the survey, employees give the following reasons:

34% of employees say they are not challenged
34% say they work long hours
32% say there’s no incentive (motivation) to work harder
30% are unsatisfied with their work
23% are bored
18% say it’s due to low wages

What do you do about it?
There is an ideal balance between productive activity and down time. It's unrealistic to expect 100% productive activity all day, every day. These work distractions existed before the Internet. The key is for companies to manage these time wasters to a workable level.  Here are a few things to consider.

Challenge employees.  Since many respondents to the survey cited boredom or lack of motivation or satisfaction as reasons for wasting time, challenge them. This doesn’t mean just piling on more work. What it does mean is that you can give them more or different responsibility and challenge their initiative, decision-making and creative skills. 

Be more visible. Have managers and supervisors spend more time on the office floor. It’s not necessary to look over shoulders; the simple presence of management can be a deterrent to time wasting. Additionally, the increased interaction might lead to a better understanding of problems that exist and possible solutions. 

Have a strong technology policy – and enforce it. Define what is and is not acceptable; clearly communicate the consequences of unacceptable usage. Also consider an acceptable usage policy for personal mobile devices in the workplace. Ultimately, they need to know that there is work to be done first and foremost and that abuse will lead to restrictions.

Hold your managers and supervisors to the same policy and hold them accountable for the productivity of their staff. 

Here’s an interesting little tidbit from a couple of these surveys: Imagine an employee who works 2,080 hours per year (260 days). If she is in the top the bracket of time wasters, she wastes 520 hours per year. That’s 25% of her total hours at work spent on unproductive activities. Now, multiply that, or even a part of that, by a large percentage of your employee base. Do you want to have that much time, and money, wasted?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

References: Giving and Getting ‘Em

Why are we doing this to ourselves?

This week’s post is really more a rant. Sorry, but sometimes it just has to be said.

As an HR professional, I do the much of the interviewing at my organization, and I conduct all the reference and background checks. To say this is a chore I intensely dislike is a bit of an understatement. In fact, it often sets my hair on fire. Hiring managers and HR folks both know how frustrating and yet how very necessary it is to check applicants’ references. Unfortunately, it can be an exercise in futility, or at least one with very few returns.

It’s no secret that hiring managers have learned that in order to get substantive references, they have to bypass HR at the applicant’s former employers. But there’s a dirty little secret that many of you may not know: HR pros often avoid each when checking references. Why? Because we torture each other by either using cryptic language or worse, refuse to give any worthwhile information. Sure, some of us are able to cultivate relationships within our own industry, or in our own geographic location and are able to speak with one another openly, but we do have to try to get information from employers with whom we’re not familiar and with whom we don’t have a relationship. While HR is often not the one to decide whether to provide references, we’re the ones to toe the line and follow our company policy. Companies will heed the advice of their own attorney, or the many other attorneys who advise never to give more than name, rank and serial number.

Why do we do this? Why do we, and our management, fail to realize that all this stonewalling only makes it difficult for good employees to find new jobs, and results in bad employees being passed around?

The short and simple answer is that "we" want to avoid the potential liability should anything we say about a former employee be considered defamatory or discriminatory. Some people even still believe it’s illegal to give a "bad" reference. It isn’t; not at all. There are no federal laws restricting what information an employer can disclose about former employees. If someone was fired, the company can say so. We can also give a reason. For example, if someone was fired for stealing or falsifying a time sheet, we can explain why the employee was terminated. The employee failed a drug test? Yep, we can say that, knowing we have the drug test results. Did the employee arrive late to work 5 times a month for 6 months, which can be officially documented through time sheets or automated attendance systems? Yep, we can say that. Did the employee fail to meet documented sales goals after repeated coaching? Yeah, we can say that.

Would it surprise you to find out that several states actually have laws that require employers to provide (usually on request) to former employees "service letters" that state the reason the employee was separated from service? (Check this out) Yeah. And those same laws provide a certain amount of indemnity to employers who provide this information – factual and accurate information – in good faith compliance with the law.

Legally, we can say anything that is factual and accurate, and non-discriminatory. Even in states that do not have laws requiring service letters, giving factual and accurate information provides us with protection from claims of defamation.

However, factual and accurate (or the failure to be factual and accurate) may be where some have gotten caught up in the lawsuit trap, and why now, we’re all so damned afraid to speak openly and honestly about the performance of former employees.

So, as to not leave this as just my rant of the week, here are some ways we can be useful to both our fellow employers, and to those employees who deserve to find another job without our making it difficult for them:

Just the facts: Limit your answers and comments to accurate, documented information. Don’t speculate about the possible reasons for the poor performance or bad qualities; keep your opinions and speculation to yourself.

Keep it real: Don’t give false flattery, either. And never gloss over serious behavior or performance flaws of former employees. You do not want to get caught up in a potential negligent referral claim from the other employer.

Get written releases: You can do this on the front end or the back end. During the application process, there is often a notice/release the applicant signs allowing the potential employer to perform a criminal background check, reference checks, etc. These can be provided to the applicant’s former employers when you begin the reference checking process. Or, you can have a practice of having all separating employees sign a release, an agreement that gives you permission to provide information to prospective employers (and promises not to sue over the information you provide).

Designate one person to provide references: Have one trusted person in your organization authorized to provide reference information on former employees. Designating one person will lessen the chance that anyone will say something that may come back and bite you. Normally, this person would be in HR. Companies should be allowing HR, who are trained and have the requisite knowledge to avoid liability, to give and get references.

In sum, don’t give false information, or make disclosures of private information with malicious intent, or with the intent to mislead. Don’t violate employment discrimination laws (i.e., only giving good references to former white employees, and bad references to former black employees). Simply be truthful. We should never be afraid to give accurate information to prospective employers. Maybe, one by one, if we can start responding honestly and accurately, we’ll begin to receive the same courtesy when we’re making those reference calls.

*sigh* Yeah, I don’t really think so, either, but it’s worth a try, isn’t it?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Employee Recognition Programs – Pass or Fail?

Employee recognition programs are all the rage, and actually have been for decades. As business leaders, we want to show our employees that we appreciate their hard work, and especially appreciate when they perform above and beyond the standard expectations. But, are we getting it wrong?

A research project completed by Bersin & Associates came up with some very interesting results. In organizations where recognition occurs, employee engagement, productivity and customer service are about 14 percent better than in those where recognition does not occur. However, while millions of dollars are spent on various recognition programs, 87% of those programs focus on tenure (service awards); recognizing people for staying with the company. Their research found that tenure-based programs have virtually no impact on organizational performance.

In researching for this article, I’ve found similar results from many studies and surveys. While we’re all about recognizing people, we often aren’t very effective in rewarding the behavior we really want to see repeated. It appears that we either focus on the wrong things, or structure the programs in ways that don’t motivate employees in the way we would like.

For instance:

Employee of the Month programs are a popular form of recognition. However, they tend not to be all that effective at rewarding employees. Rarely do these types of incentives identify what must be done to get the award. As a result, choosing the winner sometimes becomes a chore management must perform, deciding whose turn is it this month, or is perceived by employees as a popularity contest. Most organizations fail to establish measurable and recognizable criteria. The selection is not transparent, so it fails in its goals for employee motivation and retention.

Attendance programs/contests. Why do you feel you need to reward someone for meeting one of the most basic requirements of a job – showing up? There’s no real motivation to do a great job; showing up is not doing a great job.

Money is not employee recognition.   It’s critical to understand that money is not employee recognition. Money is compensation. Most employees look at bonuses and compensation not as employee recognition of exemplary performance but an expected entitlement.

It’s not individual.  Whether they enjoy a baseball game on the weekend or a steak dinner, it’s important you find out what your employees want. This is insight into what motivates them.  Recognition for great work should be personalized, because nothing will discourage your employees more than a ‘one size fits all" reward. 

It’s not spontaneous.  Recognition and reward should be tied to a specific achievement and received ‘in the moment’ to encourage repetition of the desired behaviors. Too often rewards and recognition are delayed until the end of the month or the end of the year.

It’s too hard.  If your employees have to jump through hoops to give or receive recognition, they’ll lose interest.  It doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective.  Avoid putting obstacles in the way by including everyone and encouraging recognition in all forms – peer-to-peer, e-cards, on-the-spot; whatever works.  Don’t be afraid to mix it up and keep it interesting to encourage involvement. 

It’s unfair.  Recognition should be an equal opportunity. If it’s structured to favor only top performers, it’s not only unfair but unrealistic for the majority of your team.  Instead, put objectives in place and tie recognition to your corporate values so that everyone has the chance to be rewarded for their input.

So, let’s go back to Bersin’s study and see what might make for good recognition programs. Examples include:

1. Recognize people based on specific results and behaviors. Give your employees awards for specific behaviors and performance. For instance, delivering outstanding customer service when a particular problem occurred. This creates a culture of "doing the right thing."

2. Implement peer to peer recognition – not top down. Employees indicated they feel much better when they are recognized by their peers. Why is this? Peers know what you’re doing on a day to day basis, so when they "thank you" for your efforts the impact is much more meaningful.

3. Share recognition stories. One of the most powerful practices identified in the study was "story telling." When someone does something great and is recognized by their peers, tell people about it. You should mention them in a newsletter or company blog. These stories create employee engagement and learning.

4. Make recognition easy and frequent. Make it simple for employees to recognize each other. People who do great things are now visible to everyone else!

5. Tie recognition to your own company values or goals. When you give someone a "thank you" award, the award is tied to your company’s strategy (customer care, innovation, teamwork, or even a revenue or cost-cutting goal). I truly believe this is probably the best way to make any recognition program a success for an organization. Rewarding employees for behavior that fulfills your mission, vision and values will serve to strengthen the organization and telegraph exactly what you, as leaders, see as important.

Other keys to good employee recognition programs:

  • Attainable and concrete goals
  • Multiple winners
  • Employee-specific rewards (i.e., what motivates a part-time, temporary employee is not the same as what motivates a long-term employee)
  • Use individual "surprises" rather than an awards banquet—it’ll keep the focus on a job well done
  • Employees at all levels should be recognized for their work, including supervisors and managers
  • Recognition programs should come from the managers who have a day-to-day interaction with the employee, the one who manages, appraises and corrects them.

Ultimately, use your organization’s core values as a foundation to your recognition program. Your core values should be a guideline for your employees to know which behaviors you value as an organization and which behaviors will be rewarded.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

Why they make managers crazy, and what to do about employee excuses

One-time or infrequent incidents might be understood or overlooked, but managers really cannot afford to accept excuses for ongoing performance problems. In any organization, employees quickly notice when excuses are allowed and by tolerating them, you create a culture of avoidance rather than responsibility.
We hate when someone comes to us with an excuse. We hate having to deal with tardiness, or too many sick calls. We hate when people don’t make deadlines. We hate when people make too many mistakes and don’t seem accountable for their jobs. We hate when people refuse to take responsibility.

While giving an explanation may often be necessary and accepted, making excuses is never acceptable and may only convince your boss you’re not able to handle your job responsibilities. Or possibly even worse, that you don’t really care about your job or the company’s mission.

As leaders and managers, we sometimes see that it’s easier for an employee to come up with an excuse than it is to actually get something done. We need to address excuses and challenge our employees to be better.

Excuses that set our hair on fire
Traffic was bad (or the parking lot was full and I couldn’t find a spot, or……whatever) for the fifth time this month. Really? You know your route to work, you know what times parking is the worst. Plan ahead. The occasional traffic accident is inevitable and no one is going to hold it against you if this happens once in a great while, but you’re an adult, plan for the delays you have a reasonable expectation will occur frequently. If you mmake something like this a habit, honest or not, your boss won’t be too sympathetic.

It’s Mary’s fault, she didn’t give me what I needed. Ok, so this might be both an explanation and an excuse. Don’t wait until the deadline has passed. If you’re waiting for a co-worker to do her part and it’s not forthcoming, alert your boss to the issue, do what you can to encourage that person to get the work done. Blaming someone else will not make you any friends or help you in the future. Managers should also not accept such a situation, either. If Mary, or Joe in another department, has not produced what is needed, check into it. Don’t allow your employees to fail because they didn’t have what they needed to get the job done.

I don’t know how to do this. Admitting you don’t know how to do a task, after the fact, is a surefire way to lose the confidence of your boss. On the other hand, asking for help at the beginning, asking to be shown how something should be done is quite OK and actually desirable. Also, taking the initiative to do some research on your own to figure it out can be a great way to show that you’re willing to admit you don’t know everything (none of us do) and that you’re willing to make the effort to get it right. The other side of the coin is that managers need to make sure their staff has the knowledge, resources and appropriate authority to get the job done. Not doing so is setting people up for failure.

I didn’t know; no one told me. Of course not. We didn’t tell you about the new policy or the old policy or…..whatever. We really thought you were psychic. Seriously, we disseminated this information in twelve different ways (in memos, emails, on the company intranet, in the newsletter, in meetings, one to one conversations, ad nauseum. Please, just read what we give you; listen to what we communicate in whatever form we communicate it. Don’t ever assume whatever it is doesn’t apply to you.

Everybody makes that mistake….. Some people think that mistakes are okay because they might be common. If you’re a good employee, you’re not "common". Double check your work, use available resources to ensure your work is accurate and follows protocol. Even "common" mistakes made frequently will still lower your stature in your boss’s eyes.

Jack is so unreasonable, I can never meet his standards…Difficult people will always be around; you need to get used to dealing with them, whether they be customers or co-workers. You make yourself valuable when you find ways to deal with difficult people. However, if there is someone who is consistently difficult to work with, managers need to address that to ensure work flows smoothly and the team is not stymied in its goals.

What can leaders and managers do to limit excuses and promote accountability and responsibility?

Lead by example. Do not make excuses either for yourself or others and do not allow employees' excuses to distract you from the issues at hand. Take action promptly to address problem behavior. Allowing poor performance because of excuses will simply serve to show staff this approach works and they will do the same thing.

Take no responsibility for and avoid giving advice on employees’ personal problems. You are not responsible for your employees’ personal problems, and in fact, may run afoul of any number of employment laws if done badly. Focus on work-related and performance issues. Refer the employee to the employee-assistance program and/or to HR to deal with personal issues and stay away from the temptation to fall into the counselor or parental role.

Focus on solutions. Recognize that the behavior has already happened, and no amount of excuses will change what has already occurred. Inform the employee that you are less interested in the reasons why the problem occurred than you are on fixing the problem and preventing it from occurring again. Emphasize that the employee is responsible for ensuring that the problem behavior does not continue.

Ask questions. Determine the root cause of the problem. If an employee indicates he didn’t have time to complete a project, ask, "When did you start working on it?" or "How did you prioritize your time?" Or, if an employee says, "No one from the xyz department returned my email" you can ask, "Did you try calling them?" or "Did you let me or another manager know this?"

By asking the right questions, you’ll be able to demonstrate—without having to actually say it—that many excuses aren’t really reasonable. But beyond that, asking these types of questions will communicate to your employees that you’re not just going to accept excuses, but that you’ll work to resolve the issue with substance.

Take action quickly to deal with the problem behavior (I know, I’m repeating myself, but this is important). This makes it clear to the employee and others within the organization that consequences exist, regardless of excuses.

While it’s important to focus on responsibility and accountability for getting the job done, don’t ignore legitimate issues. Managers can use these instances to provide development opportunities and advice. Offer time management strategies that have worked for you; make resources available for learning new tasks, technologies or procedures (while making the employee responsible for utilizing them). In other words, ensure your staff has the knowledge, resources and appropriate authority to do the job.

Ultimately, as a leader or manager, we have to answer to someone as well. Don’t let excuses force you to have to make excuses to someone else later.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Leading With Your Values

"Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny."
Mahatma Gandhi

Most organizations have a mission/vision/values statement. It may include concepts such as integrity, quality, respect, teamwork, customer service or innovation. Often companies prominently display their values on plaques, posters, business cards, marketing materials and annual reports.

Our personal values get us going every morning, help us choose the friends we’ll have, the relationships we’ll build, and, the groups and organizations that we’ll work for or lead. Our values influence every decision and move we make, even to the point of how we choose to make our decisions.

Defining Values-Based Leadership
Values-based leadership has been defined in many different ways, but is primarily defined as leading by example, doing the right thing for the right reasons and not compromising core principles. Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer, Inc., remarked, "The only thing that works is management by values. Find people who are competent and really bright, but more importantly, people who care exactly about the same thing you care about."

But when values are ignored and people don’t live by them, they have no meaning. Even worse, the atmosphere becomes hypocritical and toxic, and employees may lose respect for both the organization and its leaders. It is one more reason people aren’t engaged with their work.

When values are incorporated into action, however, people feel purpose, direction and connection with their job and their organization. When employees connect to company values they have even more commitment, higher productivity, and better engagement with each other and customers or clients.

Leaders must take responsibility for their organization’s values and for making sure their employees share in those values. This is never easy. It’s one thing to agree with lofty words and concepts; it’s quite a bit different to turn them into action. Leaders, at all levels, are responsible, and need to be held accountable for, ensuring that employees not only know what the values are, but how to put them into action; how to behave and perform in day to day activities to live the organization’s values.

How do leaders put values into action? What steps does a leader need to take to clarify what is needed to lead with values?

Know your organization’s values: Think about what the organization’s values really mean to you and to your leadership style. You need to know which of your behaviors demonstrate those values.
If your organization’s beliefs and principles don’t have meaning for you, you won’t be able to make them meaningful for anyone else. Do your values, beliefs and principles mesh with those of your organization? In some cases they won’t. We don’t often see our personal set of values in terms of things like customer service or teamwork. But, the personal value of having respect for others does fit in with these organizational values.
It’s essential to make sure that an organization’s values translate into behavior and performance.

Walk the talk: Show your employees what the organizational values mean through your actions and behavior. People learn by observing their leaders. Bringing values to life is a behavioral issue. You’re a role model for your employees.

Actions speak louder than words. Most of your employees will follow your lead. No one is perfect, however. When problems or crises catch you off guard, your immediate reaction might not align with your personal or organizational value system. But you can take a step back, and ask yourself, "What guidance do our values provide for handling this situation?" You can make corrections to show that you are concerned with doing the right thing according to the values your organization promotes.
Teach values to your employees: You have to make it very clear that you expect your employees to live by your organization’s values. An effective way to teach values is through asking questions. When you ask people what they value, you can point them in the right direction. Asking questions can help people learn how to apply critical thinking skills on their own

Remove barriers to working with values: As a leader, you need to smooth the way for employees because there will always be obstacles and barriers to values-driven performance. You need to identify roadblocks, eliminate or minimize them, or show them how to deal with those that can’t be removed.

Reward and recognize those who live the values: Most leaders know that effective feedback must be specific and timely. It’s not really effective to tell someone that he or she is doing a great job. What does that mean? Instead, you can say something like, "I saw you go out of your way to help Mary yesterday in order to solve a problem. That’s a great example of our organizational value of teamwork (or customer service, or quality) in action. I appreciate what you did."
Smart leaders actively search out opportunities to catch people doing something right and thank them for doing it. Recognizing and rewarding behavior that’s in line with values is the single best way to ensure that it continues. Recognition for specific, desired behavior or performance is far more effective than more generic rewards, such as years of service or attendance.

Redirect those who aren’t living the values: This is one of the more difficult aspects of leading and managing. You must hold people accountable when they are not living the values. There will always be some who don’t want to get with the program, and you have be the one to deal with this problem or everyone suffers. If you don’t, you’ll lose credibility and the respect of others, and the organization and its customers will suffer.
Exploring the reasons they are doing what they are doing (or not doing) and why they choose not to live the values can provide valuable information and lead to a change in behavior. Some reasons employees may not be acting in line with your values may be:

  • They don’t know why the values are important.
  • They don’t know what they should be doing to live/work with the values.
  • They think values are for other people, not them.
  • They don’t get rewarded for living the values.
  • Nothing happens when they don’t live the values.
  • Quite simply, they don’t like the values and refuse to live them.

As a leader, this presents the opportunity to engage them in some meaningful conversation about what is important to them, how their personal values can align with the organization’s, and how their personal behavior is in conflict with organizational values.

The really difficult part is when disciplinary action is in order. Be specific and timely about what behaviors need to change. Redirecting people who are not living the values is one of the most important things a leader must do. To do so is to ensure your credibility and to reinforce the importance of values.

Every member of your workforce is responsible for values-driven business practices, but they look to you for examples of how the values translate into action. You set the tone. When you take a cavalier attitude to values or lose sight of them, even temporarily, you give your employees permission to do the same.

For a person to succeed in any organization, he or she has to understand what is really important to the company, its values. We do this by looking at what’s rewarded, observing how people get ahead and who gets promoted, and watching and listening to what senior managers do and how they spend their time. Unfortunately, too often what senior managers say and what they do are ambiguous or contradictory.

Why are values so important? Most of us would like to believe that what we are doing makes a difference to others and that our work is important. People aren’t motivated when they feel that what they are asked to do is worthless or contrary to their fundamental beliefs and values. Also, most of us also want to feel that we are valued as people, not just as employees. We want to be respected for who we are, not simply for what we do. We also respond positively to being around others who share similar beliefs and with whom we can build relationships.

As business leaders work to accomplish the organization’s goals, it’s important to remember that values endure. They are absolute, unchanging and non-negotiable. In a world where change can be dizzying, values offer us touchstones to define our actions, our decisions and the manner in which we treat others. These factors represent the fundamental basis upon which we shape our ability to lead.