Holiday Parties: Party Like There Is a Tomorrow (Because There Is)


nix mistletoeOne of the things I disliked most about working in Human Resources was my role as social director.  For some reason, managers thought HR should plan any parties that the organization wanted to hold—recognition events, anniversary and retirement celebrations, and, of course, the annual holiday party.

It’s probably too late for this year, but if you haven’t already arranged your company’s holiday party, here are some suggestions:

  • Be sure you follow all applicable wage and hour laws. If employees are required to attend, then they must be paid. If the event is after-hours and voluntary, then be sure no one is penalized or downgraded for not attending. Voluntary must be truly voluntary. And remember that this month is a very busy time for many families.
  • Watch the singing, praying, and any other activities that might give a religious bent to the celebration. I remember a party where everyone sang traditionally Christian Christmas carols. Some people loved it, but non-Christians were made to feel very uncomfortable.
  • Remember that alcohol is not a good mixer with work. Unless your event is at the end of the work day, off company premises, AND you are willing to monitor your employees’ behavior and arrange for rides home for those who imbibe too much, you shouldn’t serve alcohol. Sorry, folks, but it’s not worth the risk of bad behavior at and after the event.
  • Avoid dancing and mistletoe. See above regarding alcohol. Combining alcohol with dancing and/or mistletoe is just asking for trouble. Your company’s anti-harassment policy remains in full force through the party, whether it is on premises or off.

You might be better off waiting until after the Christmas spirit has worn off, and hold an event to celebrate your company’s year-end results in January.

For more on holiday parties, see

Office Holiday Parties: Revel without Regret, by Anita Setnor Byer

Planning the Company Holiday Party: A Guide for HR, by Shaun Reid

Some Advice with Your Company’s Holiday Party, by John Hyman

Yes, Most People Really Do Hate (and Dread) Your Annual Holiday Party, by  Patty Azzarello

And for an old joke describing the degeneration of one HR manager’s attempt to throw a good holiday party, click here.

When have you seen problems related to a company holiday party?

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Favorite Firing: Discharged for Saying She’d Shoot Them All


gun-161223_1280I recently read an opinion in a case, Ames v. Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction,  2014-Ohio-4774, that reaffirmed my belief that employers should control their workplaces. But even though the result was good, it took quite some time for the legal system to resolve the case.

This situation involves social media, which moves far faster than our legal system. Plaintiff’s first problematic Facebook post occurred in the fall of 2009, and the Ohio Court of Appeals didn’t rule until late October 2014.

The Facts: Plaintiff Diedree Ames was a Senior Parole Officer with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. She carried a gun as part of her job duties and supervised other parole officers. Ms. Ames had a history of interpersonal conflicts and erratic behavior. She had previously taken a leave of absence for mental health reasons.

In the fall of 2009, Ms. Ames posted during a chat session on Facebook: “I’ll gimp into work tomorrow. I guess I could just shoot them all…lol!” She continued in this vein, repeating these remarks again during the chat.

Her managers believed her statements violated the Department’s code of conduct, so she was placed on an administrative leave and ordered to undergo an independent medical evaluation (IME). She returned to work after the IME, though she did incur some discipline.

Later, plaintiff texted a coworker named Jill Brady on an employer-owned computer: “U and ur new gf r in a sh** [redaction mine] heap of trouble . . . u should know u will be tracked.”

Ms. Brady sought a protective order against plaintiff Ames, who was ordered to undergo another IME. Ms. Ames’s managers did not feel the second IME adequately addressed Ms. Ames’s propensity for violence, so they ordered a third IME. The third IME found no actual violence in plaintiff’s past, so no reason to believe Ms. Ames was dangerous.

While still on a medical leave, Ms. Ames wrote Ms. Brady again on a message board, “ . . . Feelin the heat yet? It’s coming. I promise. You f***ed [redaction mine] with the wrong person Brady, your ass is mine!”

After this third threatening post on social media, Ms. Ames was fired for violating the Department’s policy against threatening or intimidating another employee.

She then sued, alleging she had been discriminated against on the basis of a perceived disability. She claimed that because she was sent for three IMEs, the Department must have perceived her as having a mental disability.

Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. The trial court ruled in favor of the employer, but Ms. Ames appealed. On appeal, the Ohio Court of Appeals upheld the trial court, and the termination was determined to be lawful—on October 28, 2014, more than five years after Ms. Ames first sent the threatening Facebook post.

The Moral: It is still acceptable for employers to seek to maintain a peaceable workplace, free from violence by their employees. However, enforcing workplace rules against violence can be a difficult process.

In this case, the Court found that the three IMEs were not evidence that the Department perceived Ms. Ames as disabled. “The three IMEs were sought because ODRC believed that appellant had exhibited behavior that made her potentially dangerous or lethal in the workplace.”

The Court found that Ms. Ames was fired for specific conduct that took place after the third IME and could only be construed as a threat against her Ms. Brady. Moreover,

“Her termination came with a backdrop of a prior incident of posting an inappropriate message on social media, a history of ill will, charges and counter charges against Brady, and finally posting a vulgar, threatening statement toward a co-worker under her supervision.”

The question for other employers now is whether it will always take three IMEs and a lengthy history of inappropriate and threatening conduct before they can fire a wayward employee.

I would hope not.

Employers should continue to take all allegations of threats against their employees seriously. It only takes one employee attempting to make good on one threat to bring deadly violence into the workplace.

Like the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, all employers must insist that employees take responsibility for their words and actions, no matter how many lawsuits and appeals result. The safety of other employees may be at stake.

When have you had to deal with a workplace threat? What happened?

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Managing Time & Other Resources: When Do You Take the Easy Way Out?


yoga“The body wants to do the easiest thing possible,” my yoga instructor said to the class a couple of weeks ago. His remark reminded me of my first college class, Economics 101, when the professor began our semester with the words, “Economics is the science of getting the most output for the least input.”

We all want to take the “easy way out,” whether it be in physical endeavors like stretching and strength building, or whether it be our use of resources such as time and money. We want to expend the least physical and mental effort we can and get the greatest result.

Other adages related to resource management include

  • Anything worth doing is worth doing well, implying that we should work until we have done the best we can.
  • The perfect is the enemy of the good, meaning that we should do “enough,” but not strive for perfection.

So which philosophy is the best to adopt, whether at work or in other aspects of our life? Do we strive to overcome our instinctive quest to do things in the easiest way possible, to settle for “good enough”? Do we do enough to get by, but not worry about doing our best? Or do we put out all the effort we can, hoping that the extra effort will pay off?

The answer, of course, is that it depends.

I’ve written before that “systematic neglect” is a valid decision-making philosophy. As I learned from Robert Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, part of a leader’s responsibility is to decide what not to do, which tasks to ignore. However, we are responsible for the consequences of our neglect.

During my career, there were times when I decided that it was in my best interest to expend extra effort and put out a stellar work product. But there certainly were other times when I put a project on the back burner long enough for it to go away entirely.

And there were times when I was caught with a project undone when it bubbled into crisis mode.

I wished I could tell ahead of time which tasks would become unnecessary and which would become catastrophes. Unfortunately, making good judgments on these issues takes a lot of experience, and even then, it is an inexact science prone to failure.

Still, most of us figure out a balance between doing everything and keeping our sanity. At work, figuring out our own personal balance is part of learning who we are and where we fit in the organization.

It is critical to figure out our balance to be successful, whether we are an individual contributor, a manager, or a CEO. We learn to think about which projects have short-term impacts and which have long-term criticality.

We also learn that the balance changes constantly, as our job changes and as the organization’s needs change.

Whether to take the easy way out is ultimately a decision we make every day. In yoga class, in our careers, in our families.

Think about a time when you took the easy way out—did it work?

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A Novel Approach to Training and Development


As the end of the year approaches, managers and HR professionals responsible for training activities might want something unusual for their development programs and opportunities. Might I suggest using a novel to provoke workplace discussions about management and leadership issues?

This isn’t a unique idea—the Navy used the movie, Twelve O’Clock High, in its well-regarded Command Excellence training program. Business school classes and diversity programs use vignettes and case studies to raise issues all the time. A book simply creates a more complex world for discussion.

My novel, Playing the Game, is set in a corporate world familiar to most employees. If you are an HR professional developing curriculum for new or middle managers, if you are an executive coach needing to launch a discussion with a client, or if you are a manager wanting to get your employees talking about workplace issues, take a look at my book and see if it might help.

Other professionals who might find uses for the novel are

  • lawyers and estate planners initiating conversations about family succession planning in small businesses
  • in-house counsel wanting to talk to managers about legal topics such as reductions in force, employment discrimination, and copyright
  • managers and HR professionals trying to improve work group communications and conflict management

You can find the questions from the discussion guide in the back of the book here. But you can also create questions more suited to your particular needs. If you’d like to chat about the book before using it in a training program, please contact me at SaraLRickover (at) gmail.com.

I’m also available for group conversations via teleconference or Skype with any work groups or book clubs discussing Playing the Game.

My novel is available in both paperback and ebook formats on Amazon (Kindle) and Barnes & Noble (Nook).

What other novels would be good for leadership and corporate training programs?

PTG Rickover cover

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Vote Tomorrow (If You Haven’t Already)—Pros and Cons of Early Voting and Mail-in Voting


vote-stars1I’ve made my political leanings on many topics clear in this blog, but I encourage readers of all political persuasions to vote tomorrow. I’ve worked on several voter registration drives over the years, and I have probably registered more people who vote contrary to me than I have supporters. But I believe in the importance of every eligible citizen weighing in on the issues of the day, and tomorrow’s election is no exception.

In recent years, many states have loosened their requirements for early voting. Some states permit voting more than a month before election day. Other states (including Washington and Oregon) now conduct their elections completely by mail, without any polls on election day.

I have worked most of the elections in my precinct for about six years now, and I see pros and cons to early voting and mail-in balloting. First, readers should realize that a common election day was not required early in our nation’s history. The first time the United States had a common election day for the Presidential election was in November 1848.

The advantage of early voting is that citizens can vote when it is more convenient for them, which should increase turn out. However, a disadvantage is that when voting is permitted over a long period, citizens cannot include information that surfaces during debates or in the media and last-minute developments in their decision-making.

Moreover, I see value in citizens coming together on a common date (or narrow window) to decide on their elected representatives. It just feels more democratic when we all act at the same time.

Balancing the pros and cons, I support early voting of a week or two before election day. Six weeks feels entirely too long. But I can see allowing citizens a free opportunity—without having to explain their need to vote before election day—to vote the week before the election for their personal convenience.

With respect to mail-in voting, one advantage is that voters can research the candidates and issues as they cast their ballot, and their choices might therefore be more informed. However, in every jurisdiction, voters who care can research their decisions and take that information into the voting booth with them. So this advantage is only important if voters won’t do research before going to the polls, but would if they voted at home.

The disadvantage of mail-in voting is the increased possibility of fraud. When a ballot is voted at home, there is no way to ensure that someone else does not complete the ballot for the voter and simply tell them to where to sign. This could happen when a parent completes the ballot for a college-aged child, or if an adult child or other relative or friend completes the ballot for an elderly person who may not be able to see well or may even not have the requisite mental competence to vote. Or parties or candidates could buy votes and demand to see the completed ballot before making the payment. All these fraudulent situations are easier in the absence of supervised polls.

Based on my experience as a poll worker, mail-in voting is more likely to result in fraud than the absence of photo identification cards, which is the issue being debated in many states this year (though I support reasonable photo ID requirements for voting as well).

What does any of this have to do with corporate America? I believe that workers who are educated about and engaged in the political process are more likely to be educated about and engaged in their jobs as well.

What do you think of the loosened requirements for voting in recent years?

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Addressing Domestic Violence Problems in the Workplace


DVAM_Posters2October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and I shouldn’t let it close without acknowledging the impact of domestic violence in the workplace.

Over one million women and over 800,000 men are physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually in the United States. With that many people impacted, you can be sure that some percentage of your workforce has dealt with domestic violence issues in their families.

Managers and Human Resources professionals need to know how to address domestic violence issues when they surface in the workplace. Not only can domestic violence bring its violence into the work site, but the victim might also have performance issues, when she (or he) is injured and cannot do the job, unable to come to work, or emotionally unstable because of the abuse.

The goals in addressing domestic violence should be (1) care and concern for victims of abuse, (2) maintaining the safety of the entire workforce, and (3) improving the productivity of your employees. While you need to have a victim-centered approach to the problem, you also have a duty to the workforce as a whole. In some situations, you might need to raise the issue of domestic violence to protect yourself and others at work.

There are many employment law issues that can arise in domestic violence situations, including questions under Family & Medical Leave Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, and federal and state sex discrimination laws. Consult an employment law attorney if you suspect an employee is a victim of domestic abuse that is causing concern in your workplace.

When I worked in an employee relations capacity at one employer, we had to tell an employee not to come to work to minimize the likelihood of her abusive spouse trying to follow her to work. She was able to get to relatives out of town, but her absence raised questions of pay for the time off and how to code the absence. We agreed to pay her for her absence, and showed it as a personal leave that did not impact her attendance rating.

For another example of a domestic violence situation that spilled over into the workplace, see here.

If you feel you need to explore whether domestic violence is an issue for your employee, questions to start with might include

  • Do you feel safe at work?
  • Do you feel safe coming to work and going home?
  • If you think you need them, do you have any difficulty using the physical and mental health benefits we provide?

These questions start with workplace issues and may permit your employees to engage in discussions of problems in their home lives.

Keep a list of local domestic violence resources available, including phone numbers for hotlines and women’s shelters. Remember that many victims are men, so know which resources provide services for male victims as well. Your state’s domestic violence coalition website will probably have good resources in your area. To find your state’s coalition, click here.

Also, get some materials from these local resources to keep in your Human Resources area so employees can contact these domestic violence services on their own. Employee Assistance Program referral information is also important to have at hand.

Here are some other things you can do to minimize the risk of violence in your workplace:

  • Whatever you do, be aware of your own safety and the safety of other employees. Review your workplace security procedures and have a security guard close by. If you don’t have security guards, have another manager or trusted employee within shouting distance who can make an emergency call.
  • Where you think there is a serious risk of violence in the workplace, alert local law enforcement and ask them to patrol your premises or stand by while you talk to the employee.
  • Make your staff aware that they should not give out last names, addresses, home phone numbers, personal email addresses, and other personal contact information of any employee to anyone other than approved managers.
  • Similarly, instruct your staff to talk only to employees about work-related matters. They should not talk to employees’ family members without specific approval from the employee, which should be requested only when absolutely necessary.

Remember, you cannot force employees to use any the EAP or any other domestic violence resources you offer. But it is your duty to take all appropriate measures to reduce the likelihood of domestic violence problems spilling over into the workplace and harming your workforce or reducing your organization’s effectiveness.

When have you had to address a domestic violence issue in your workplace?

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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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