Crisis Management: Lessons from Ebola for All Employers


ebolaUntil a few days ago, I didn’t think the Ebola crisis was likely to have much impact on the American workforce. I still don’t think that most U.S. employers will have to deal with Ebola exposure on their premises. But as I listen to the news, I have come to believe that there are lessons that all employers can learn from what has happened since the first Ebola patient was identified in Dallas.

First, let me emphasize that employers in the healthcare field do need to prepare immediately for the possibility of their employees being exposed to Ebola. They need a plan to implement at a moment’s notice. I am not experienced in dealing with infectious diseases, so I won’t presume to tell healthcare managers how to address the risks to their employees.

Second, many workplaces have had to deal with health scares in the recent past, from the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) to the 2009 swine flu (H1-N1) pandemic. Even if Ebola does not spread, other health issues will impact employers in the future. We all need to be prepared.

pulsenet-team-300pxFor the general employer population, here are some questions we should be asking:

On Health Scares:

1. What should we do if employees report exposure to Ebola or another infectious disease? Do we quarantine them? Will we pay them while they cannot work? What monetary and non-monetary support will we provide them and their families or help them obtain from other community resources?

2. Will we change our travel requirements for employees in response to health concerns? If so, how will we get necessary work and communications done with less travel?

3. How will we address our employees’ fears?

4. What has worked and not worked in the responses from the Centers for Disease Control, from the Dallas hospital where Ebola was first found in the U.S., and from the White House? How will we prepare to do better if we are faced with impact from a pandemic in our workplace?

5. Do we know who the local authorities are dealing with health disasters in our area? How do we build channels of communication now?

On Non-Health Crises:

6. If our next disaster is not Ebola (and it probably won’t be Ebola), what is the most likely risk to my company’s employees? How are we working to reduce that risk?

7. If something deadly happens in our workplace, how will we communicate? What audiences will we need to talk to, and what messages does each audience need to hear? Who will be our spokesperson?

It is the responsibility of leaders in every organization to reduce the number of “unknown unknowns.” Only by asking questions such as these, can you be prepared. You may not know what will cause a crisis in your organization, but something will. “How might we handle that?” is a far better thing for leaders to say than “That will never happen here.”

For other posts on crisis management, click here and here.

What is your organization doing to reduce its risks? What are you doing?

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Recognize Conflict Resolution Day on October 16


CRDayWebBanner2014 (1)The Association for Conflict Resolution sponsors Conflict Resolution Day this year on October 16, 2014. The primary purpose of the day is to promote awareness of mediation, arbitration, and other forms of conflict resolution in schools, families, businesses, communities, governments, and the legal system.

As an employment attorney and Human Resources practitioner, I am most aware of how important conflict resolution is in the workplace. How many times have small differences of opinion or small slights between co-workers grown into unsolvable problems?

Managers, HR people, and others in corporate roles should think this week about how to reduce conflict in their workplaces. Some conflict is healthy, of course, but only if the conflict is managed in healthy ways. Managing conflict requires first that it be recognized, and second that there be non-inflammatory methods to reduce and resolve the conflict.

Here are some suggestions of actions to take this week to manage conflict in the workplace:

  • Contact a colleague with whom you have had difficulties and take him or her out to lunch to listen to his or her perspective. Just listen.
  • Get your team together to raise issues where time, budget, and other resources are too scarce. Develop a plan for how decisions on these issues will be made in the future—note that you don’t have to resolve the resource allocation issues themselves, but only agree on the process for decision-making.
  • Develop diversity programs to address conflict over differences in perceptions based on race, gender, and other perspectives. It helps to start small on what can be very emotional issues.
  • Begin to develop an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) process in your organization, which might include mediation, peer review, arbitration, and other tools, before employees bring legal claims against the organization.
  • If your organization already has diversity and/or ADR programs in place, use this week to publicize them. Ask for suggestions on how to improve them.
  • Conduct conflict resolution training for customer service representatives in your organization designed to address customer problems before they escalate toward formal complaints and lawsuits.
  • Recognize the best conflict resolution leaders in your organization. These aren’t necessarily the people who paper over issues the best. These are the people who can constructively address conflict in ways that all involved believe are fair and respectful.

These ideas are not limited to corporate workplaces, but can apply in nonprofits, government agencies, schools, and other workplaces as well.

What other ideas do you have for promoting Conflict Resolution Day in your organization?

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Hanlon’s Razor Explains (Almost) Everything


How did I live almost six decades without hearing about Hanlon’s Razor? I read an article in The Wall Street Journal on September 25, 2014, titled The Source of Bad Writing, by Steven Pinker, which described this theorem. Hanlon’s Razor and its corollaries explain almost everything in life.

Hanlon’s Razor states:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Although no one is certain where this saying came from—variations of the adage have been attributed to persons as diverse as William James, Albert Einstein, and Robert Heinlein—it does explain a lot. One variation states:

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, but don’t rule out malice.

If you want to be even more forgiving, here is a more complete series of postulates derived from Hanlon’s Razor. These statements may not be provable, but I believe them to be true:

  • Never assume malice when stupidity will suffice.
  • Never assume stupidity when ignorance will suffice.
  • Never assume ignorance when forgivable error will suffice
  • Never assume error when information you hadn’t adequately accounted for will suffice.

See RationalWiki.org, which cites here, which links here.

In The Wall Street Journal article the theorem was used to explain why so much writing is bad. According to author Steven Pinker, bad writing results from knowledgeable people simply not understanding that not everyone knows what they know. He says:

The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows—that they haven’t mastered the argot of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.

What is required, according to Pinker, is that writers get feedback from their readers to find out what is unintelligible in their writing.

How many times have you thought someone had it in for you? I think it is human nature to jump to this conclusion when we are thwarted by bosses and co-workers, spouses and annoying relatives, bad drivers and government clerks. The reality is that the people we encounter in life are simply ignorant or have not considered our point of view, just as we are probably not considering theirs when we jump to the conclusion that they want to harm us.

In my own life, I can apply Hanlon’s Razor and its corollaries to:

  • The idiot cab driver who cut me off on the freeway yesterday, who probably just didn’t see my vehicle when he realized his lane was ending.
  • The parties in a mediation who can’t resolve their dispute, when I can see clearly what they ought to do.
  • My family members, when they again do something I have asked them many times not to do. They probably just forgot.
  • My nemeses, when they behave in ways seemingly designed to thwart me, but probably are just pursuing their own misguided agendas.

I’m not saying that there aren’t times when people want to hurt you. But those times are far fewer than we first believe. Now that I know about Hanlon’s Razor, I’ll try to remember that it’s ignorance and stupidity that causes problems, not necessarily malice.

Can Hanlon’s Razor explain some of the problems in your life?

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Play For More Than You Can Afford To Lose


My novel, Playing the Game, is in large part about leadership. The epigraph in the novel is a quote from Winston Churchill:

“Play the game for more than you can afford to lose . . . only then will you learn the game.”

I took the title of my book from this quote. One of the themes in the novel is that there are people in leadership roles who are unwilling or unable to lead, and others who would like to lead who don’t have the opportunity.

I’ve seen many attributions of this quote to Winston Churchill, but I haven’t been able to find the context in which he said it. For me, it means that you have to throw your whole self into what you’re doing, if you want to become good at it. Risk more than you can afford, and then you’ll learn what the “game”-whatever your game is-is all about.

As people read my novel, I hope they will think about the characters I created. Do any of these characters risk everything? Which are pulling back? In what ways to they pull back, and why?

I also hope readers will reflect on their own lives, as I reflected on mine while I wrote the book.

When do I risk more than I can afford to lose? Not very often.

When am I willing to risk something? Frequently. If I hadn’t risked my time and effort and been willing to face some ridicule from colleagues and friends, I would never have published a novel.

I am proud of my novel, and hope that you will take a look at it. You can find it here on Amazon and here on Barnes & Noble.

Thank you, and good luck as you strive to play the game.

Churchill quote

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U.S. Firms Face Increasing Difficulty Obtaining L Visas For Foreign Employees


USCIS bldgOver two and a half years ago I wrote that the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Service was restricting their issuance of L visas. This problem continues.

According to one immigration attorney, the L-1B denial rate has increased from 27% in FY2011 to 34% in FY2013. See also US L-1B visa refusal rates increase, March 31, 2104, on WorkPermit.com.

L visas permit managers and employees with specialized knowledge who work for foreign affiliates of U.S. companies to come to the United States to work for the U.S. branches of their firms. L visas help American businesses operate seamlessly around the world, moving talent where the company determines it makes most sense for their managers and key employees to work.

When a company is willing to bear the expense of applying for an L visa for an employee, it is likely that it makes economic sense to the firm to transfer the employee, rather than to find and train an American worker for the job. In my own experience, corporations move their key employees to bring needed knowledge and skills to the U.S. or to further the careers of these critical workers. They don’t go to the trouble of transferring an employee on a whim.

As one immigration attorney told me,

“My client has spent a lot of money on trying to get this employee to work in the U.S. That alone should tell USCIS he’s got specialized knowledge.”

Yet this attorney and others complain of continuing problems getting the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to approve applications for L visas. In an increasing percentage of cases, USCIS is sending out Requests for Evidence (RFEs), which prolong and complicate the visa application process.

There are two types of L visas. The L-1A visa covers managers of a department or function, and the L-1B visa covers workers with specialized knowledge.

Although it should be relatively easy to determine when an employee manages a department or function, USCIS is more frequently demanding specific information on how the person for whom the visa is requested will set policy for the organization or function and what discretionary authority he or she will have. See 8 CFR 214.2(l)(1)(ii)(B) & (C).

Sometimes managerial status is easy to define, but often corporate decision-making is layered in ways that even fairly high-level managers do not have complete discretion to act alone. This does not mean that the manager is not managing an important function or department. Often, complicated approval structures are needed to be sure that businesses comply with employment and other regulatory requirements. Corporations should be given leeway to structure their management teams in ways they think best suit their business and compliance issues.

Similarly, it is often difficult for the company to define specialized knowledge in ways that satisfy USCIS. The regulation defining the level of knowledge required states that it must be:

“Special knowledge possessed by an individual of the petitioning organization’s product, service, research, equipment, techniques, management, or other interests and its application in international markets, or an advanced level of knowledge or expertise in the organization’s processes and procedures. (8 CFR 214.2(l)(1)(ii)(D))

This requirement often proves a sticking point in the L visa application process. Oracle reported that one of its foreign employees was denied an L-1B visa because USCIS didn’t think he had specialized knowledge, even though the employee had written the manual explaining the software in question. http://www.workpermit.com/news/2014-03-31/us-l-1b-visa-refusal-rates-increase

clipart border agentI argued when I wrote about L visas two years ago that

“Businesses should have substantial leeway to bring in foreign employees with knowledge of their business.  Employers know better than USCIS which of their foreign employees are needed here in the U.S.  They should have the flexibility to move workers between their affiliates.

“We ought not penalize employers that are spending the time and money to bring their workers here legally, while ignoring other aspects of current immigration law.”

That is still my position. Firms should be encouraged to bring work to the U.S., and to do so, they need to be able to decide which employees they most need to manage and operate their facilities in this country.

When have you had difficulty with immigration issues?

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Dealing With Your Nemesis


conflict-405744_640I recently was visiting the town where I grew up and encountered someone I’d gone to school with. We were classmates all through elementary and high school, and I always considered her my nemesis.

I got better grades than she did, but not by much. And she was popular, athletic, and a cheerleader from junior high on. Our parents were friends, too, so we sometimes took summer vacations together.

When I saw her recently, I realized how much our lives had diverged since high school graduation. From the perspective of four decades later, I could be glad my life turned out the way it did. I wouldn’t have wanted to face some of the challenges she did. But I sincerely hoped that she was as happy with her life as I was with mine.

Time had made our differences far less important than they seemed in high school.

Then I got to thinking about all the nemeses I’ve had at work. Here were some:

  • The attorney who was slightly more senior than me who grabbed the best assignments and only passed on the grunt work she didn’t want.
  • The HR director who monopolized our mutual boss’s time.
  • The division VP who wouldn’t provide the feedback on incentive plans that the CEO had ordered me to get.

How should we deal with difficult people in the workplace, the ones who seem to be trying deliberately to make our lives a challenge? Here are a few ideas:

1. Talk to the individual. Maybe the person doesn’t know the impact of his or her actions on you. Or maybe there’s some problem that individual has that you didn’t know about. Even if their actions are deliberate, or they don’t care, at least you’ve put them on notice that you’re aware of their behavior.

2. Get support from your manager, mentor, or others. Find out if others have had the same experience. Again, there may be information or history on the situation that you don’t know. What have others done about the problem? Is there a way for you to complain together to obtain relief?

3. Document your issues. When you talk to your nemesis, make sure to put a note in your files. Better yet, send a follow-up email—in a polite tone, or even a friendly tone, if you can manage it—setting out the problem and any agreed changes. A thank-you for any commitments to change wouldn’t hurt.

4. Suck it up. Sometimes a problem isn’t worth confronting. Or sometimes the advice you get from others is not to do anything. You will then have to decide whether you can continue working with that person or not. Whether you decide to stay or leave, at least you haven’t burned any bridges with that individual or others.

Conflict is an unavoidable part of working with other people, so we will all face it at some time. How we choose to deal with conflict determines whether the problem gets better or worse.

Who were (are) your workplace nemeses, and how have you dealt with them?

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Favorite Firing: Employee Terminated for Peeing in a Cup


Human Resources managers find themselves dealing with the oddest situations. Some of them are quite gross. This Favorite Firing involves a guy who was terminated for peeing in a cup. When I first heard about the case, I assumed it was related to urine testing for drug use. But this case had nothing to do with drug testing—this was an employee who peed in a breakroom.

sterile-urine-cupFacts: The case of Johnson v. American Signature, Inc., Case No. 11 C 6467 (N.D. Ill. March 26, 2014), dealt with an employee who claimed he had “urinary urgency” and couldn’t get to a bathroom at work in time to relieve himself. So he urinated in front of a coworker in a breakroom in the workplace. He placed the cup on the breakroom counter, then moved it under the sink in the breakroom, and later disposed of it in the restroom.

After he was fired (surprise!) for this unseemly and unsanitary behavior, he filed a claim for disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act, claiming that his “urinary urgency” was a disability. The employer, a furniture retailer, claimed to know that plaintiff Johnson had mobility problems, but said it knew nothing about his “urinary urgency.”

The employer said that after its investigation, Mr. Johnson was terminated for violating the employer’s policy against “personal conduct which substantially impairs the associate’s ability by reason of its detrimental effect either on the associate’s relationship with other associates or the business or reputation of the company.”

This policy is vague enough to cover just about anything, but urinating in a common area in the workplace would have a detrimental effect on anyone’s relationship with coworkers.

The District Court that considered the case found that even if Mr. Johnson’s urinary problems were a disability, the employer had not known about it. Although Mr. Johnson claimed that the furniture company should have accommodated his disability, the Court found that the employer couldn’t accommodate what it didn’t know about. Moreover, Mr. Johnson had not tried to ameliorate his problem prior to the events leading to his termination, even though he had been aware of his urinary problems. He made suggestions only after his workplace “accident.”

As a result, the Court found that the employer could not have discriminated against Mr. Johnson and granted summary judgment in favor of the employer.

Moral: The moral of this story is that anything can happen in the workplace. And anything that can happen usually does.

Beyond that, the moral is that employers should engage in an interactive dialogues with employees when they learn of any employee disability or potential disability. They should also investigate after a workplace problem that might be related to a disability.

But employers are allowed to use common sense. And when an employee behaves inappropriately in the workplace without previously informing the employer about a disability, disciplinary action is warranted, including termination.

For more on this case, see the Court’s opinion here. And thanks to the Employer Handbook blog for reporting this case.

When has your employer had to deal with an unsanitary condition in the workplace?

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