Thursday, May 30, 2013

Is Everybody Happy?

Getting the most from Employee Satisfaction Surveys

Do you conduct employee satisfaction surveys? How did they go? Did you get useful information, and what did you do with that information? An even better question might be why did you conduct a satisfaction survey?

Some organizations conduct stand-alone employee satisfaction surveys. Others are getting the input and evaluation of a larger group of stakeholders (customers, donors, community partners, etc.) and include employees as part of a broader snapshot of how an organization is doing; how well it’s accomplishing its mission.

The quality of the responses you receive can depend on many things, some of which you really can’t control. The people most likely to respond are those that are very dissatisfied, or those who are very satisfied. Those in the middle aren’t often motivated enough to respond. As a result, the data can be a bit skewed.

There are a few things you can do to increase the likelihood of getting a representative sample of opinions. But the first step is knowing exactly why you want to do a survey in the first place. Have you gotten the idea that your employees are not happy? Do you have any idea why they might not be? Or, are you just taking a pulse and trying to be proactive? Are you committed to doing something meaningful and constructive with the data you collect? If you haven’t thought about these things, you probably shouldn’t be surveying your employees.

Communicating that the information you get is intended to be used to improve the workplace, and therefore not just doing it because you think you have to, or because an outside entity requires you to do so, may increase the response rate among your employees. Of course, once collected and analyzed, you have to provide some feedback, and make an effort to communicate that you heard their concerns and are committed to addressing them.

The way questions are worded is also important. You don’t want to ask leading questions, or ask respondents to rate statements that may lead to desired responses. An example of leading statement might be "My supervisor’s door is always open to me" and ask the employee to agree or disagree with that statement. At the very least, give a scale of agreement or disagreement that’s wide enough to encourage a more considered response.

Invite specific comments. A simple yes/no or agree/disagree isn’t always that helpful to you. For instance, receiving a "disagree" response to the statement of "our benefit package is sufficient" may not mean that employees think your benefit package stinks. If you invite an explanation to that response, you might find that your communications about your benefit package may need improvement because some simply don’t understand what you actually offer. Big difference.

Don’t lose control of, or lose sight of, your data. You don’t really want to know that Jane Doe made a particular observation or comment, but you do want to know that 5 out of 30 people made the same comment. If you’re doing the survey in-house, enlist your bean counter to help with the data analysis. Remember, averages are often of little real value. One high or low level response can throw off the number and be very misleading. A simple calculation of a median data point might be more useful. If you use an outside vendor to conduct or analyze the data, more sophisticated calculations will most like be done, assuming your response rate is high enough.
Allowing employees to self-select to participate in the survey is not the best method. Again, self-selection is likely to attract only those with very strong opinions one way or the other. For the highest reliability and validity, every employee should participate, or a random selection strategy should be employed. Offering some sort of incentive to participate can often be effective, as well.
The results should be communicated openly, honestly and completely. Even if they’re not what you really wanted to see. Doing so will go toward building an atmosphere of honesty, integrity and trust. Most importantly, you need to be prepared to actually do something with, and about, the results you receive. You also should be tracking progress and communicating any successes and failures along the way.
Knowing what your employees think about working conditions, pay, benefits and relationships with co-workers and supervisory staff can be beneficial and can give you direction on what may need to be changed, improved or discontinued. But, one of the biggest problems with employee surveys is the expectations the survey creates. For a survey to be taken seriously, employees must be convinced that it's being conducted for meaningful reasons. They need to believe that management wants to know what problems exist so problems can be resolved. Employees expect that management will do something about problems that come to light. Expectations created by a survey become a major problem if you do nothing with the information you receive. The damage that can be caused by what will be perceived as an empty effort will not easily be repaired.
In order to get the most out of any employee satisfaction survey:
  • Know why you’re conducting the survey, what you intend to do with the results
  • Choose your questions carefully. Make sure you really want to know the answers.
  • Make a carefully worded, but realistic commitment to address the survey's results.
  • Communicate the results, honestly and completely.
  • Follow through on your commitment to address the results
Employee satisfaction surveys are not for the faint of heart. You will see comments and observations that will be painful to you. But, if you’re committed to getting the pulse of your organization, you have to take the good with the bad and do so with your eyes open and a willingness to admit there may be weaknesses. Or to be positive about it, challenges that can be met.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Whose team are you on, anyway?

Why employees feel HR is not on their side. Or…..Here, we’re random and unfair!

Ideally, we’re all on one team. However, it’s clear many people don’t really understand the relationship.

We in HR walk a fine line, each and every day. Our job is to represent and support management in the mission of the company; in order to do that, we have to manage and support our resources (human resources). If done well, in my opinion, that also translates into being an advocate for employees. I believe, as do many others, that what that advocacy really means to employees is not well understood.

What does it mean to represent and support management and employees? How does that work? We do both in many ways.

In order for companies to operate legally in terms of our employees, there are hundreds of laws and regulations we must follow (when you consider state, county and city, maybe even thousands). HR is tasked with making sure the company complies with all of these laws and regulations. In this sense, we advocate and support both the company (management) and the employee, since complying properly normally results in employees being treated consistently and fairly; and the company continues to operate within the law. What you think is our insistence on being too "by the book" and inflexible, is really the necessity to follow the law so we all continue to have a place to come to work!

Any particular employee may not agree it’s fair if she doesn’t get what she wants, but our own individual definition of what’s fair is not necessarily consistent with what the laws we must follow consider to be fair. (And to be fair, what some may view as "unfair" does not make it illegal.) We need to be fair, and consistent to all, as much as possible; not just to one or two.

Most employees don’t understand or see that HR is in a balancing act between representing and supporting the business and fairly dealing with an employee’s complaints. The employee views the situation in terms of how it affects her. But, she does not understand that making an exception for her involves the concept that we may very well have to make the same exception for others, who may in fact be less deserving of that same consideration. Doing so can be impractical from not only a business standpoint, but actually ends up being -- unfair.

It’s not unusual for someone to come and complain to HR about another employee, a supervisor or manager. We can’t simply act on one report of potential wrong-doing. Would you think it fair if you suffered consequences based on one person’s opinion that you violated a policy or did something wrong, one time? Not likely. So, we need more documented evidence that a problem actually exists before acting on it. This benefits both the employee and the company. People need to be told what the expectations are and given a chance to correct. Immediate action by HR or management on a complaint is not always prudent. There will always be exceptions (violence, harassment or discrimination, for example). Again, done correctly, everyone is represented and supported.

In a similar vein, if an investigation of some type does occur, and if some disciplinary measure is taken, we’re not going to announce it over the loudspeaker. We’re all about confidentiality. Employees who don’t see an obvious result of their complaint may think nothing was done and feel they were ignored. Think about it, would you want us to discuss with other employees what performance issues you have and what was done to correct them? Not likely. This often comes up when an employee is terminated. Everyone wants to know why, but we really can’t tell you why. Don’t assume you know both sides of the issue, simply because we can’t give you an explanation. Again, you don’t want us blabbing on about you, do you?

HR can’t be everyone’s friend. If we try, it can come back to bite us -- big time. If we make close friends at work, others may feel we’ll "play favorites", and be unable to trust us, even when that’s simply untrue. Or, and this gets ugly, those friends may actually expect favored treatment, and when we don’t give it (because we’ll be prepared to support management rather than the friendship), become angry and resentful. As a result, we tend to keep our distance for the most part. However, that results in many employees not really seeing us as employees, too.

Finally, what many people don’t realize is that HR is often not the decision maker. We certainly advise, recommend, suggest and yes, even advocate for a particular decision or policy. In the end, however, the final decision is often made by the CEO or owner of the company. Do we always agree? Nope. But, we’re not going to tell you that, either. It’s really bad form for any good HR pro to blame another manager for a decision with which she doesn’t agree, or to openly disparage such a decision. Our job is to properly implement those decisions, and so you may not know who made the decision.

The bottom line is we’re all employees; we’re all paid by the company for which we work. So, saying that since HR is "paid by management" they only support the company and not the employee, doesn’t really make a lot of sense. We all support the company – by working to make a product, or offer a service – whatever the company does. We just have different roles. All roles represent and support each other and if done well, we all get something out of it. There is no "us vs. them". It’s all us. Or should be.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Are you paying your employees correctly?

For the fifth year in a row, there has been an increase in the number of wage-and-hour lawsuits filed in federal court, according to calculations by the Federal Judicial Center. Plaintiffs brought 7,764 suits between April 1, 2012, and March 31, 2013, about a 10 percent jump since 2012. A spike in cases occurred in 2003, when the number of these suits nearly doubled from 2,035 to 4,055. They shot up again in 2007, to 6,786 suits. Though the number of actions dropped off the following year, to 5,302 in 2008, they have been climbing steadily ever since.

Given this increase in claims, and the risk to employers, are you sure you’re paying yours correctly? When you don’t, you run the risk of awards for back pay and penalties, possibly criminal penalties, attorney’s fees, time and trouble and the damage to your company’s reputation.

We know the basics. We know we must:
  • pay minimum wage (federal rate is currently $7.25; some states have higher rates).
  • pay premium pay (1.5 times regular rate ) for hours worked over 40 (some states require OT for working over 8 in a day).
  • maintain an accurate record of hours worked.
The form the wage takes does not determine how the employee is paid.  Non-exempt employees could be hourly, salaried, commissioned, paid by the day, paid by the job, paid a piece-rate, or paid in many other ways, but the above four requirements still apply. You can call a non-exempt employee salaried, but it doesn’t make them exempt from overtime.

There’s also often the misconception that employers may provide "comp time" in lieu of overtime compensation. For private employers, comp time is not permissible under the FLSA. Only government employers can provide comp time to their employees. However, there is currently a bill in Congress that would amend the FLSA to allow private employers to offer comp time to employees, within certain guidelines. There are opponents to this bill, so we’ll have to wait to see if it becomes a reality.

Contrary to what many believe, the FLSA does not require employers to give:
  • Vacations and holidays
  • Lunch breaks (not counted as work as long as the employee is relieved from duty). However, some states have enacted legislation to require meal periods, paid and unpaid. Check your state laws.
  • Rest periods (but if rest periods are given, breaks of 10 to 20 minutes are compensable)
  • Sick days (again, check state laws!)
As a result, these non-work hours do not need to be included in calculations for overtime purposes. Some employers do, and that is also fine, but it is not required by law.

In addition, be careful about making deductions to the pay of non-exempt employees. Most deductions cannot effectively reduce the hourly rate below the minimum wage. However, the FLSA does permit employers to make some deductions from employees’ wages, even if it does take them below minimum wage or overtime due, but only if the deductions are required by law, such as:
  • State and federal taxes
  • Social Security
  • Child support orders
In addition, an employer may generally make deductions for things that cut into minimum wage or overtime provided they are authorized by the employee and are strictly for the employee’s benefit. For example, group health insurance premiums, savings bonds, charitable contributions and wage advances are allowed.

Employers cannot make deductions that cut into the employee’s minimum wage or overtime if the deduction is for the employer’s benefit. Deductions for cash shortages, or the sale of goods or services at a profit or the cost of repairs of vehicle or equipment damages caused by the employee cannot reduce the wage to below minimum wage.

What are some of the biggest mistakes employers make in paying their employees?

Working off the clock
Some supervisors, in an effort to get the work done, may end up inadvertently implying that the employee needs to work, but be "off the clock" when doing so. In some cases, supervisors have been known to explicitly state such. This is expressly illegal under the FLSA. Sometimes employees voluntarily work off the clock even though they know that any overtime needs to be authorized. Once a supervisor finds out about unauthorized overtime, they might therefore refuse to pay for it. That is also expressly illegal. In order to prevent an employee from working unauthorized overtime you can control how many hours the employee works for the remainder of the work week. For example, if an employee works late on a Wednesday, and as a result will most likely work more than 40 hours for that week, you can give the employee a day off during that work week.

When an employee continually works overtime without prior approval, you must deal with the situation in a disciplinary fashion, but the hours must be paid. This often shows up with people clocking in a bit early or clocking out a bit late, or sometimes more common, beginning work even before clocking in or continuing to work after clocking out. You should have a strict policy against this and make sure all employees and supervisors are aware of it and adhere to it.

Independent contractor or Employee?
This can be a complicated subject, but basically if you control the workers hours, what he does, when he does it, and how (the process) he does it, then he is most likely an employee. See the IRS test for more info here

Travel Time
Normal home-to-work-to home commuting time does not need to be compensated, but there are rules about paid travel time. For example, if an employee is called back to a place of work because of an emergency, the travel time involved in the callback is compensable.  If the employee is required to report to a particular place (office, dispatch center, etc.) at the start or end of a work day, travel time between the place of reporting and the actual work site must be paid time. However, travel time from home to the starting location for the day, and from the ending location for the day to home, is not compensable under the FLSA.

What happens when non-exempt employees travel for work? Generally, any travel that takes place during the employee’s normal hours of work must be paid, even if the travel occurs on a day the employee is not working. So, if an employee generally works Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the employee must be paid for out-of-town travel on Saturday or Sunday between those same hours. Of course, a non-exempt employee must be paid for the hours of work while they are away, for instance, if they’re attending a conference. Any personal activities they engage in before or after normal work hours, even while still at the conference, need not be paid. 

Docking Pay of Exempt Employees
Exempt employees are paid for the work they do, not the hours they spend doing the work.

Employers who "dock" the pay of salaried employees for hours they are not working may be treating the employees as hourly workers, which can threaten their exempt status. The rules as to docking were somewhat loosened by recent, new Department of Labor (DOL) regulations.  However, there are still limits to an employer’s right to make such deductions. 

An employer may dock a salaried employee who is absent for a full day for "personal reasons" (other than sickness or accident), but docking for absences of less than a day is problematic.  Likewise, a salaried employee absent for a day or more for illness or injury may be docked, as long as the time is charged to a sick pay or similar plan to compensate the employee for such absences. Also, exempt employees may be docked as a result of disciplinary suspensions issued for violating major safety rules or workplace conduct rules.  Regulations under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allow that docking an employee for taking intermittent leave under the statute will not defeat the "salary basis" test.  However, this is limited to situations in which the absence qualifies for FMLA leave.

Improper Designation of "Exempt" Employees 
Employees will not qualify as exempt supervisors unless they are paid a regular, fixed salary – but many employers pay their supervisors hourly, which will fail the test for the exemption. But keep in mind, just paying an employee a fixed salary, instead of by the hour, does not exempt the employee from overtime requirements. You can use the DOL’s FLSA Overtime Security Advisor as a guide. Find it here

On Call Pay 
This is such a common mistake and so many employers misunderstand the rules. For non-exempt employees, the general rule is that employees need not be paid for "on call" status if they can effectively use the time as their own, for normal activities outside of work.  For employees who have some form of "on call" status in their work, the law recognizes a distinction between "waiting to be paid" (non-work status) and being "paid to wait" (work status). Simply carrying a pager or cell phone doesn’t usually prevent an employee from carrying on normal activities outside of work, and not all employees who carry such devices must be paid for the hours where they might be called to work.  On the other hand, requiring that the employee stay home, or be within a short distance from the workplace, might be enough of a restriction so that the employee must be paid.  Regardless, the employee must be compensated if actually called in and required to perform work.

So, there you have it. It pays to pay your people correctly and legally!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

I applied. When do I start?

 Uhhh, what? Strangely enough, it’s not all that unusual to have an applicant think that just because he filled out an application or sent in a resume, or even had just one interview, that he’ll automatically be offered the job; to think it’s a done deal. Somehow, people have gotten the idea that they’re entitled to a job, owed a job and all they have to do show up.

So, maybe you’ve worked hard in school (either high school or college), gotten good grades and now it’s time to get a job. Maybe you feel like you’ve paid your dues at another job and are ready for the next step in your career. But, whatever level you’re seeking, are you really qualified for the job for which you’ve applied? Job seekers need to honestly assess their experience, skills and attitude before heading in for that interview. Hiring managers and human resources will be looking at your skills, your experience, your emotional intelligence and maturity, as well as other qualities. Coming in with an attitude of entitlement will most likely get you nowhere fast.

Here are a few things to keep in mind, and have ready answers for during interviews:

Education: Include college, workshops, etc. What did you study, what did you learn? Have you had opportunities to apply what you’ve learned, or is it all classroom application so far? Remember, just because you aced the test, doesn’t mean you can apply that knowledge appropriately in a work environment.

Experience: Not just paying jobs and internships, but think about volunteer gigs (what skills did you gain?) Even a hobby might have netted you some valuable experience and skills; parsing that down to something an employer would see as valuable is the trick.

Skills: Be honest with yourself. Think about what you’re very good at, good at, maybe adequate and lastly, what you cannot do (yet), or what you won’t do. Do not say you can do something, (or will do something if you really won’t), or possess a skill you do not have. Few things will sour an employment relationship faster than discovering the person you just hired can’t do the job. And if the interviewer is at all skilled herself, she may figure this out during the interview, and you will have blown your chance.

When you get that interview, remember:

Don’t assume anything. It’s an interview. The hiring manager is in a decision making process (as you should be!). It’s just the beginning. As a job seeker, it’s certainly important to show confidence in your abilities. But add a healthy dash of modesty and an even healthier dash of honesty. Take care not to give off an air of arrogance or entitlement. Employers want to hire people who are confident but humble, enthusiastic and ready to roll up their sleeves to get the job done. A positive attitude can get you farther in some cases, than just skills and experience alone.

Ask intelligent questions. Ask about the job itself, ask how you can contribute. Ask what it takes to be successful in this job. Don’t ask about the pay, benefits or vacation time – at least not in the first interview.

Who you know will not always help you. Networking can be an effective job search tool. Being able to find a quality referral can be immensely helpful. Often, when a "known quantity" refers a candidate, we feel a certain confidence in that applicant. But, please, for the love of all that’s good, don’t assume that just because your mother, father, sister, brother, cousin or neighbor works for the company, or knows someone else who works for the company, that you will be hired – no questions asked! It’s not in the bag and don’t come in thinking it’s in the bag. You still have to earn that job offer. And you have to keep earning it. If you realize and live that truth, you’ll begin to reap the rewards of hard work, skill and experience.


Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Mean Kids on the Block

Bullying at Work, at School, and even on the Internet

No, I’m not making fun of what seems to be a growing problem. It’s in the news, on TV, the radio, online. There’s a new story every week. Some are simply heart-wrenching, many are downright unbelievable.

There have always been, and most likely always will be, bullies. It used to be the bratty kids on the playground pulling the shy girl’s hair or pushing the chubby boy into the mud. Now, it can go well beyond that, and have far reaching and serious consequences. Certainly, the Internet plays a part in making what might be childish, but normal behavior, into a much more public and widespread trashing of a person’s self-esteem and image. Today though, even adults seem to be engaging in such behavior.

The recent disclosure of the Rutgers basketball coach's behavior toward his players is a prime example. One of the more surprising aspects of that story was how long that behavior had been going on before someone blew the whistle, and the fact that many of the players and others simply accepted it.   This along with too many reports of teens being seriously injured, or even committing suicide after having endured endless harassment and abuse from their peers.

In my opinion, many of these incidences are dangerously mislabeled as "bullying"; when in fact, we’re really talking about assault. And should be dealt with as such.

And even the workplace is not immune. We HR folks know this well. There have always been the few nasty managers and co-workers who made life miserable for those around them. Social psychologist Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, has said that bullying behavior in the workplace is surpassing incidents of sexual harassment and racial discrimination. The "mean girls syndrome" is well known in workplaces. [Note: I read an interesting book recently titled Mean Girls at Work that outlines the different types of personalities and how to deal with them.]

A recent AP article notes a management association survey that found that 56 percent of companies have some kind of anti-bullying policy, usually contained in an employee handbook or code of conduct. Most said their response to bullying allegations depends on the circumstances but could include suspension, termination, reassignment or mandatory anger management training. If not a specific bullying policy, I’ve found that businesses often have policies prohibiting harassment, threats and physical violence.

Bullying incidents are most often verbal abuse, such as shouting, swearing and name-calling, malicious gossip, rumors and lies. The use of technology, such as Facebook or other social media sites, accounted for about 20% of incidents, the survey found.

More than a dozen states have recently or are currently considering passage of a Healthy Workplace Bill which would hold employers responsible and allow employees to pursue lost wages, benefits and medical expenses. Namie, and others, are strong supporters of this bill. The US Chamber of Commerce is not. "We would look at a bill like this as overreaching," said Marc Freedman, executive director of labor law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He said the bill would punish an employer for acts of its employees that it may not be able to anticipate. And could we really prevent it? Policing social, even when toxic, interactions in the workplace would be extremely difficult. But, we need to lay the blame squarely where it belongs – on the perpetrator, not on the employer.

Furthermore, aren’t we simply giving a new name to an old (age-old) problem? Somehow this type of behavior is becoming more acceptable, more common. I just don’t think using the term "bullying", regardless of where it occurs, gives it the importance it deserves. However, businesses should react to harassing behavior and deal appropriately with offenders, and I believe most do just that.

I’m just not so sure we need to legislate against bad behavior.