Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Costs of Workplace Stress

For the fourth year, Harris Interactive conducted their survey on workplace stress on behalf of Everest College. While the results certainly aren’t surprising, they are nonetheless, interesting. Overall, 10% more people report being stressed at work than in the previous year.

Everest College's 2014 Work Stress Survey was conducted by telephone within the United States by Nielsen between Feb. 20 and March 2, 2014 among 1,004 employed U.S. adults ages 18+. Results were weighted for age, sex, geographic region, and race when necessary to align them with their actual proportions in the population.

Again, the perception of low pay, along with long commutes combined to produce the heftiest dose of workplace stressors. The survey found that 80% of Americans are stressed by at least one thing at work. Thirteen percent of adults ranked low wages as the most stressful aspect of work. This shared the top spot with the commute to and from work, which jumped to 13 percent from 11 percent in 2012 and 9 percent in 2011, respectively. An unreasonable workload (12%) finished third for the race that stresses Americans the most at work, followed by annoying coworkers (10%), poor work-life balance (8%) working in a job that is not a chosen career (6%), lack of opportunity for advancement (5%), the boss (5%), and fear of being fired or laid off (4%).

Levels of income and education play a significant role in determining the top stressors, according to the survey. Low pay is most often cited by those with household incomes of under $50,000 and those with less than a college education. The highest earners and those with at least a college education are more likely to cite unreasonable workload and poor work-life balance.

Wendy Cullen, vice president of employer development for Everest College. "I don't think you can ever eliminate all the factors that cause workplace anxiety, but as individuals we can definitely create a plan of action to improve our careers and change our lives."

According to the American Psychological Association's Center for Organizational Excellence, and others, there are ways to help control the stress and change your job situation for the better. 

Take care of yourself. Job stress can make you physically ill. Take the time to relax and do things you enjoy – be with friends, read for pleasure, whatever makes you happy. Maintaining your physical health is important and can help you be more immune to the negative effects of stress. Take responsibility for improving your physical and emotional well-being.

Avoid pitfalls by identifying knee jerk habits and negative attitudes that add to the stress you experience at work.

Learn how you deal with stress. Do you engage in unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, drinking or eating poorly to cope with your stress? Do you lose patience with your children or spouse or coworkers when you feel overwhelmed by work pressures?

Learn better communication skills to ease and improve your relationships with management and coworkers.

Resolve your concerns. For example, if you’re stressed about a project, think about who can help to clarify the scope and required tasks. If it’s a conflict with a co-worker, think about what you can do to resolve it. Basically, the key is to take a problem-solving approach and try to fix what’s within your power.

Keep a "To-Do" list. Worried that you'll forget something important? Mentally itemizing all the things you need to get done? Put those thoughts on paper (real or virtual) and create a list of work and personal tasks and mark them off as you complete each one. It’s actually pretty satisfying to physically cross a task off your list!

Take short breaks. Take a minute or two throughout the day to stand up, stretch, and shake off the building tension. Take a 10-15 minute break every few hours to recharge and avoid the temptation to work through lunch. Productivity gains will more than make up for the time you spend on these small breaks.

Practice gratitude. Think about one thing you’re grateful for every day at work. Every time something good happens at work, write it down. Soon, you might be surprised how often good stuff actually happens. We tend to remember the one really bad thing as opposed to the many good things.

Remind yourself what you loved about your job. For most people, there was a reason they chose their career, or a particular job in their career path. Get back to that both in thought and in action. Find ways to live that on a regular basis.

Disconnect. The stress people feel comes, in part, from the pressures of today's connected world. Because of email, cell phones and the Internet, we find it more and more difficult to switch off from the workplace and concentrate on our personal lives and priorities. Take time to turn off your phone, your computer and to some degree your mind (at least as it relates to work) and enjoy your family, your hobby, your friends without the wireless umbilical to your job. And don’t feel guilty about it! We all need to get away from it at least sometimes.

Don’t be afraid to seek professional help. If the going gets too tough, get some help. Your employer may have a confidential Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that offers online information, counseling (either in person or by phone) and referrals to mental health professionals. If no EAP is available to you, consult with your physician for a proper referral.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Gossip: Poison In Your Workplace?

Gossip is rampant in many workplaces. It really seems like people have nothing better to do than gossip to and about each other. They talk about the business, coworkers, and their managers; they spread deliberate half-truths and pass on what their bestie told them was true.

Realistically, we have to expect some gossip – we are human beings, after all – but unchecked gossip can be destructive and downright poisonous. As managers, there are times when we must step in and quash the chattering. We need to act when the gossip becomes disruptive, is hurtful or damaging to an employee’s reputation or damaging to workplace interpersonal relationships, and we need to step in when the gossip has the effect of putting a damper on employee motivation and morale. That can be a culture issue we’ll want to change. Who wants to work where people expend more energy on talking negatively about each other than doing any productive work? This kind of information about your company atmosphere can and does get out into the community; you don’t what that to be your company’s reputation.

Should you have a policy prohibiting gossip?

It’s not uncommon for employers to have such policies. However, as has been the case in many areas of workplace rules and policies regarding employee conduct, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has stepped in with their $.02. In Laurus Technical Institute the administrative law judge found Laurus’ policy on gossiping to be unlawful as it was too broad and could be interpreted to limit employees’ right to discuss wages, hours and other conditions of work. So, writing a policy prohibiting gossip may not be the best route to take. It may be better to handle it under a broader conduct policy and expectations for professional behavior in the workplace.

While you may not want to prohibit employees from say, complaining about their supervisor (protected activity?), there are limits to what you should allow. If the gossip crosses the line into bullying or harassment, you have potential liability under federal and state discrimination laws, for instance.

You can manage gossip in the same way you would any other undesirable behavior in your workplace. Coaching, when possible, can be effective, if the gossiper is receptive to an empathic understanding of the negative effects of such gossip. But, when needed, a serious conversation between the employee and manager or supervisor will often be necessary. As with any disciplinary or corrective discussion, be sure to follow through with consequences if the behavior doesn’t change.

On a more global level within your workplace, remind employees that if they have issues or questions about policies, that their supervisor or manager (or HR) is normally the best person to answer these questions.

I often think that if people would spend as much time and energy on their job as they do on gossip and drama at their job, we would all be richer, more successful and much happier. Too much to ask for? Probably. :)

Thursday, May 15, 2014

What’s in Your Handbook?

Your Employee Handbook, that is…


While there is no law that requires employers to have an employee handbook, it’s a good idea to inform your employees upfront about your expectations, rules and policies in a consistent and uniform way. A properly written handbook can provide your company with legal protections. You can find many opinions on whether you should even have a handbook, or how long or short it should be if you do have one. However, given the sheer scope and number of employment laws and regulations, saying too little can be as risky and saying too much.

To that end, let’s look the basics that should be included in an employee handbook.

Disclaimer: This may be the most important part of any handbook. In fact, it should be front and center (and maybe even at the end!). Make it bold and obvious. You want to clearly state that the handbook is not a contract or guarantee of employment and that employment is at-will (Google it!). Also state that the company reserves the right to change, add or delete items with or without notice. A statement that the handbook supersedes all other previous statements of policy and procedure and is the ultimate word on company policy should also be included.

Introduction: This is where you give a brief description of the company, its mission, vision, values and goals. You can give a corporate history and describe your product, services and customers.

Employee Definitions/Classifications: Clearly define your company’s definition of full-time, part-time, temporary (and if appropriate, independent contractor) status. Never use the word "permanent," as it has legal implications that you do not want to convey. Likewise, having a "probationary" period or defining any employee as probationary is not recommended. The implication can be that if the employee makes it past the probationary time, she will be permanent. Since employment is at-will (unless you’re in Montana) there’s really no need for a probationary period; it doesn’t allow you any more flexibility in terminating someone’s employment than you have at any other time.

Define the Work Week: State the work week as the seven-day period during which you calculate overtime. Don’t define the work week as Monday through Friday; that could possibly limit your ability to ask employees to work weekends or past normal hours on weekdays.

Pay/Performance Appraisals/Promotions: Spell out your methods of payment; every week or every two weeks or whatever. You can include your overtime policy, and discuss your pay structure. You can also talk about how the performance appraisal process works and how promotions are decided or granted.

General Policies and Procedures: Define and list all the basics. You can cover dress codes, pay periods, time sheets, and cell phone use at work or while driving; employees’ use of computers, e-mail, or voice mail, and anything else that is important to your business.

You have a choice to highlight the policies, but include the procedures - the "how-to" of each policy - in another document (i.e., a policies and procedures manual). This method can help keep your handbook to a manageable size, while still giving employees specifics on how to abide by those policies. Just be sure that all employees receive (and acknowledge receipt) of procedures manuals, as well.

Sexual Harassment/Discrimination/EEO Policies: You must be clear and specific that your company has no tolerance for harassment or discrimination of any kind. Be sure to include multiple ways for employees to register complaints and different people to whom they can complain. Define a clear procedure for employees to report such behavior, as well as your obligations as an employer. State your policy on equal employment opportunity.

Leave Policies: Whether planned leave or attendance issues, covering this topic early in the employment relationship is recommended. Include policies on all types of leave that your company offers or permits, such as vacation, sick days, jury duty, bereavement or other personal leave. If leave is only available to some employees (full-time vs. part-time, for instance), clearly state and define who is eligible for what and when. Making sure you establish that employees must have leave approved ahead of time is important.

Include federal (FMLA) or state mandated leave policies in this section.

Benefits: While important to include, there is no need to provide all of the details in your handbook, as it’s not unusual for details of benefits to change from year to year. You don’t want to have to revise your handbook every time you change your benefit plans.

Disciplinary Policies: Never the most popular section of a handbook, it is nevertheless, essential. Define employee misconduct and explain the consequences of such misconduct, but never lock yourself into a plan of action by using absolute statements. Use "may", "could" rather than "will". Reserve your right to judge incidents on a case-by-case basis to determine appropriate action. Also, don’t limit the scope of misconduct to just what’s included in the handbook. Include a statement like "misconduct includes, but is not limited to…..".

Grievance or Problem-Resolution: You should spell out the procedures for any employee with a work-related grievance. Knowing what options are available will help resolve issues quickly. It also sends a good message to employees, letting them know that you care about their views of a difficult situation.

Acknowledgement: In order to protect your business, and verify that your employees are aware of what is expected of them, and what they can expect of you, it is important to include an acknowledgment page that the employee signs, dates and returns. The acknowledgement should state that the employee understands it is their responsibility to read and follow the policies.
Since many states or localities have specific employment-related laws and regulations, be sure to include those in your handbook. Many of them mirror, or expand on similar federal laws; you can put them in those specific sections.

Keep your handbook up to date and make sure you walk the talk. If you have a policy covering a particular topic, follow your policy – consistently. It can be said that the only thing worse than not having a carefully crafted handbook or policies manual, is not following it!

Finally, have your newly written or revised employee handbook reviewed by an attorney; preferably an attorney who specializes in employment related matters. While never perfect, you want your handbook as airtight as possible.

Give your employees the roadmap they need to focus on their job, and provide yourself with the structure and protection a handbook can provide.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

NLRB and Your Company’s Email

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has been very busy the past few years inserting itself into company handbooks, at-will statements, social media policies, as well as its efforts to fast track union elections and hinder employers’ ability to effectively respond to union organizing activity. In yet another effort to usurp employer control and aid unions in organizing, the board is looking to overturn its own decision in Register Guard from 2007 (see here). It issued an invitation for public comment to solicit advocates to submit briefs on the issues, pursuant to its review of Purple Communications, Inc. where the administrative law judge ruled that an employer did not violate the NLRA by prohibiting use of its electronic equipment and email systems for activity unrelated to its business purposes.

What does this mean? Let’s look at what the decision in Register Guard did for business in this regard. It basically codified (at least under the NLRB’s purview) a concept under which business had and has been operating for many years – that a business has the right to restrict the use of its processes, resources and equipment (including communication systems) to business-related uses only. Makes sense, right? A business should be able to control the use of its own property.

An important aspect to the Register Guard decision was the board’s finding that allowed employers more flexibility in permitting charitable (and personal) solicitations while prohibiting organizational or commercial solicitations, even if that includes union solicitations. As long as the prohibition does not on its face, discriminate against employees’ exercise of Section 7 rights.

For instance an employer’s policy can distinguish between communications that are not of a similar nature:

  • Invitations for an organization vs. those of a personal nature
  • Charitable vs. non-charitable solicitations
  • Solicitations of a personal nature vs. those for the commercial sale of a product
  • Business-related use vs. non-business related use

Your business can have a policy that allows for solicitations for a charity (United Way, Race for the Cure, etc.) but prohibits solicitations for non-charitable organizations such as Pampered Chef, or a union.

Should the NLRB overturn Register Guard, such policies will ostensibly be a violation of the National Labor Relations Act, specifically Section 7 rights of employees to engage in concerted, protected activity to improve their wages, hours and other conditions of work – in other words, to organize. Your email system will then become a free tool for union organizers. What other doors will that open in terms of use of your communication systems? As we all know, unintended consequences can be as bad as those intended. 

It is extremely unfortunate that this board, and the administration that allows it, continues to erode employer rights as to the management and control of their business. Given the ever decreasing numbers of union members, these efforts are very transparent attempts to shore up that flagging institution. Is it really advantageous to our country and our economy to pass laws and regulations that so restrict the rights of the very entities that maintain our economy and therefore, our lifestyle? Does it really make sense to regulate and legislate the health of an entity to the detriment of a whole nation’s economic health?  

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Importance of Doing the Right Thing

And building your network

What does doing the right thing – personally and professionally – have to do with building your network? Pretty much everything.

Every career-focused website and publication constantly drills into us that it’s vital to build our professional network as a means to start, maintain and further your career. But many of us often struggle with how to do that. Yes, it can take work, but I’ve also found that a network can be built without you even being aware you’re doing anything special.

Doing the right thing, both personally and professionally – and making this your default mode of operation – will provide you with a wealth of good will, trust and respect. Those things will build an impressive network.

In other posts, I’ve discussed professional integrity in terms of business and managing people. Integrity means doing the right thing whether or not anyone is watching. It means having the courage to do the right thing, even if the consequences will be difficult. Building a reputation of integrity can take years, but it takes only a second to lose; it’s important to not do anything that would damage your integrity.

Let’s look at that again in slightly different terms. How do we "do the right thing"?

Deliver Results
Show people you can get the job done – the right things, and the right way. Accomplish what you’re hired to do professionally, and deliver on your personal commitments. Don’t overpromise and don’t make excuses for not delivering results.

Always improve. Increase your knowledge and capabilities. Be a continual learner. Act on the feedback you receive; never consider yourself above feedback. Don’t assume your knowledge and skills will be sufficient for coming challenges.

Keep Your Commitments
Say what you’re going to do and then do what you say. Make those commitments carefully; be sure you can keep them and do so. Don’t make excuses for commitments you’ve broken. Apologize when circumstances prevent you from meeting your commitments, and then make up for it.

Don’t be Greedy
Give credit to others when it’s due. Give others opportunities to do things for which they’ll receive credit; spread the (professional) wealth.

Speak the Truth
Be honest, tell the truth. Let people know where you stand. Use clear and direct language. Call things what they are; don’t sugar coat. Don’t manipulate people or distort the facts to suit yourself.

Be Accountable and Expect it from Others Around You
Hold yourself accountable. Hold others accountable. Take responsibility for results or failures. Don’t avoid or shirk responsibility. Do your job and deliver your results in a timely fashion so your co-workers are not left hanging. Don’t blame others when things go wrong.

Face Reality and Pass it On
Face issues head on, even the "unmentionables" (when possible!). Tackle the tough stuff, even if no one else will. Acknowledge what isn’t said. Don’t ignore or bury the real issues.

Show Real Concern
Genuinely care for others – and show it. Respect the dignity of every person and every position or role. Treat everyone with respect, even (or especially) those who can’t do anything for you. Show kindness in the little things.

When you prove yourself – consistently and continually – to possess these characteristics and qualities, your reputation as someone people can count on, and want to be associated with will grow quickly. Your network will have developed without any specific network-building effort on your part.

But we do have to maintain our personal and professional networks, as well. Again, I think this can be done easily if we follow the above principles and remember it’s all about being an active part of a group (whether that group is our professional associates, our family or our personal circle of friends).

Be an active participant in other people’s network. Think about it, we do this all the time. A colleague will call and ask "Do you remember when xyz happened? How did we resolve that?" Or someone needs to find a resource or information and asks your help. Jump in and offer that help! Give of yourself freely and others will give to you when you ask.

Help others to build their network. Take the time to introduce people you know to each other. I learned the value of this early on, and as a result of the example of a wonderful colleague – Christine Walters – She actively makes this a part of her professional mode of operation. And it’s an awesome way to help others and yourself.

Share ideas and information. Are you LinkedIn, or a part of any professional association? Share interesting articles. When you come across an article or other information that could be useful to others in your circle – share it! Don’t keep it all to yourself. As an HR professional, it’s difficult to keep up with the changing employment laws and regulations. Pass it on when you learn something new, or a new twist on something old. Being known for sharing your knowledge always reaps great rewards.

Ask for advice or ideas. Yep. Even while you’re sharing great ideas with your network, your network is a source for great ideas for you. And they will appreciate your confidence in them when you seek their support and advice. Obviously, this can be a great resource when you’re job-hunting, but it’s equally useful to get fresh input in your day to day job responsibilities or on that new project.

Always follow up/respond. Even if you’re unable to help right then, drop an email or a quick phone call to tell the person contacting you for help that you’ll get back to them as soon as possible – and then do so! Show that you’re reliable, that you can be counted on. If it turns out that you can’t provide the help or information requested, tell them and maybe you can refer them to someone who can.


Do the right thing – professionally and personally – and your networks will grow themselves.