Category Archives: Management

Safetyism Won’t Fly in the Workplace


I must be getting older, because my first reaction when I read about “safetyism” was that no one ever bothered to make me feel safe when I was in college. In fact, I expected my professors and campus organizations and speakers to push me in ways that would cause me to think differently than when I started college as a seventeen-year-old freshman—and I expected that I would be uncomfortable with some of the ideas I heard. I could control some of my discomfort by choosing certain courses and programs and events over others, but I didn’t expect to have total control. Sometimes I stayed away from campus events because I didn’t want to hear what was being said. Other times I went to events, even when I didn’t think I’d agree with the speaker—I went because I wanted to learn something.

But apparently, many college students these days do not view college the same way I did.

Coddling of the American Mind coverIn The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (2018), authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt discuss the growing trend on campuses to make the environment ‘safe’ from threatening ideas. After growing up with helicopter parents and participating only in supervised activities, today’s students are not prepared to cope when confronted with ideas and conduct unlike what they have experienced in the past.

I haven’t read The Coddling of the American Mind, and so this post summarizes the book based on several reviews I have read. My purpose in citing this book is primarily to comment on what it means for the workforce of the future.

The first section of this book explains what the authors believe are three “great untruths” that children are being taught: That pain and discomfort make them weaker; that they should trust their feelings completely; and that the world is composed of a dichotomy of good people and evil people. The book then discusses the authors’ perspective on the historical, social, psychological, and political causes for these untruths. Finally, the authors attempt to offer solutions, such as intellectual humility (no one has all the answers), courage to think independently (pursuing truth wherever it leads), and emotional resilience (handling adversity by controlling your emotions and reactions).

So why is the notion of “safetyism” a relevant topic for a blog focused on corporate and employment issues? Because the college students of today will be employees within just a few years. How will young people who believe that discomfort makes them weaker, who rely on their emotions, and who see the world as a battle between good and evil survive in a corporate environment? I see serious problems when these new adults enter the workplace.

  • If young people cannot deal with emotional pain, how will they react to having their errors pointed out to them? Will they expect to have their every action praised and applauded, whether it was productive or not? How will they respond to bosses who push them to work harder or smarter? What will they do during frank performance discussions? How will they handle merit pay decisions when they don’t come out on top?
  • If they rely primarily on their own emotions, how will they react to the personality quirks and behavioral foibles of other employees with whom they must work? How will they deal with bosses who rant or make cutting remarks on occasion? How will they cope with budget cuts and other decisions that differ from their preferred courses of action? Like families, workplaces operate best when there is some give and take between the members—not every snappish comment is worth reacting to, and not every decision is all about you.
  • If they see a dichotomy between good and evil, how will they deal with people who think differently than they do? How will they compromise or find the best ideas after sifting through a number of possibilities? How will they interact with coworkers from different backgrounds and cultures than their own? How will they learn that the truth is often in the middle, and that people on both sides of a controversy can have developed their opinions rationally?

Keeping children and teens emotionally safe and protected from controversy does not turn them into adults able to speak for themselves. This emotional coddling does not prepare young people to live independently, nor to contribute openly and resiliently in the changing business environment we find ourselves in today.

Trigger warnings, micro-aggressions, safe spaces, and avoidance of unpopular viewpoints do not foster strong thinkers. Tolerance of this coddling in the interest of making students feel “safe” is no way to raise the next generation of leaders. We should hope that college campuses where these aspects of “safetyism” are rampant change their approaches to higher education quickly. Because corporations cannot afford to continue the coddling. At some point, young people will have to become adults, which might come as a rude awakening.

What do you think about the culture of “safetyism”?

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Filed under Diversity, Human Resources, Management, Workplace

Favorite Firing: Discharged for Writing a Religious Book


cute-164323_640As I’ve written before, protecting religious freedom deserves special recognition in American society. (See here and here.) The First Amendment begins “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; . . .” Thus, religious freedom was the first right protected by the Bill of Rights. The Constitution’s protection of religion was extended to all levels of government in the Fourteenth Amendment.

I’ve been following the case of the former Atlanta Fire Chief who was fired after he published a book about his religious beliefs. See Cochran v. City of Atlanta and Mayor Kasim Reed, Case No, 1:15-CV-0477-LMM (N.D. Ga. December 20, 2017).

THE FACTS: Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran of Atlanta wrote a book entitled Who Told You That You Were Naked? Most of the book explained his thoughts on helping men become better husbands and fathers. But a few pages discussed his fundamentalist Christian beliefs related to homosexuality and sex outside of marriage. His opinions were certainly politically incorrect and even repugnant to much of American society today. As the District Court later stated, the book contained

“passages identifying those who engage in homosexual and extramarital sex as ‘naked’—or ‘wicked,’ ‘un-Godly’ sinners—whose deaths will be
celebrated.”

Chief Cochran self-published his book and gave copies to a few of his subordinates in the Atlanta Fire Department. One employee took the book to a union official, who took it to the city’s Human Resources Department. Human Resources launched an investigation to determine if Chief Cochran’s views as expressed in the book affected his departmental leadership.

Pending the investigation, Chief Cochran was suspended for 30 days without pay and told that he would need to attend sensitivity training. He says he was told he could not conduct media interviews during his suspension, but the city said he was told not to comment publicly at all. As outlined in the District Court’s opinion, Chief Cochran and members of the Georgia Baptist Convention and others launched a public campaign to get the Chief reinstated.

After his suspension and the city’s investigation, Chief Cochran was fired in January 2015.

There was no indication that Chief Cochran had any performance difficulties in his role as Fire Chief, nor was there any evidence that Chief Cochran had treated any employee or any member of the public with any disrespect or discrimination. However, the city feared that an employee might later allege discrimination and use Cochran’s book as evidence against the city.

After his discharge, Chief Cochran filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Atlanta and its mayor, alleging violation of his First Amendment free speech rights, retaliation in violation of his freedom of association right, unlawful prior restraint of speech in violation of the First Amendment, violation of his First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion, and violation of his Fourteenth Amendment right to procedural due process.

THE MORAL: Although Chief Cochran’s religious book was at the center of the controversy, the parties disagreed on how they stated its role in his discharge. As the District Court put it:

“Plaintiff contends that he was fired because of his religious speech—which is grounded in conservative Christian principles—in violation of the Constitution, while Defendants contend that he was fired because he did not comply with the City’s pre-clearance rules for outside employment [including publication of the book] and for facilitating a massive public relations campaign against the Mayor and the City. Defendants also contend that Plaintiff’s speech made the City potentially vulnerable to employment discrimination claims and substantial disruption.”

The case came before the District Court on cross-motions for summary judgment. The District Court granted each motion in part.

The District Court went through a lengthy analysis balancing the parties’ interests as required by the Supreme Court in Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968). Quoting Pickering, the District Court described the standard:

“‘To prevail under this analysis, an employee must show that: (1) the speech involved a matter of public concern; (2) the employee’s free speech interests outweighed the employer’s interest in effective and efficient fulfillment of its responsibilities; and (3) the speech played a substantial part in the adverse employment action.’ Id. If the employee establishes the first three elements, the burden then shifts to the government to prove by a preponderance of the evidence it would have reached the same decision absent the protected speech.”

Using this standard, the District Court found in the city’s favor and against Chief Cochran on several of his claims. The claims on which the city prevailed were Chief Cochran’s First Amendment free speech rights, freedom of association rights, and his claim of viewpoint discrimination. Because Chief Cochran was a supervisor, dissemination of his book in the workplace made it “not unreasonable for the city to fear” his views might cause “public erosion of trust in the fire department.”

The Court found

“In balancing all of the Pickering factors, Plaintiff’s speech caused such an actual and possible disruption that it does not warrant First Amendment
protection in the workplace . . . ”

And because Chief Cochran was an at will employee, the Court also found that his claim that he had been denied due process was not viable— he was subject to dismissal with or without cause.

To be frank, I think the District Court erred in giving so much credence to the disruption in the workplace, much of which was caused by the investigation itself. Also, the Court cited the social media campaign by plaintiff’s allies as evidence of disruption, but the plaintiff should not be held at fault because his situation was controversial in the city of Atlanta.

Although the District Court ruled in part for the city, the opinion also favored Chief Cochran in part, granting summary judgment for Chief Cochran on his prior restraint claim. The Court found that the city’s pre-clearance rules were an unlawful prior restraint and imposed “unbridled discretion” on city employees. Therefore, the Court held that the city’s decision to fire Chief Cochran for disseminating his book without approval “does not pass constitutional muster.” The city had not provided objective standards, and therefore the city could not require its employees to obtain permission before expressing their religious views.

As a result of winning on the prior restraint and unbridled discretion claims, Chief Cochran was eligible to receive his back pay and attorneys’ fees. In October 2018, several months after the District Court’s ruling, the City of Atlanta and Chief Cochran settled the case. In the settlement, Chief Cochran received $1.2 million.

This would have been a cleaner case had the Court recognized Chief Cochran’s religious expression rights more completely, but in the end, this was an expensive lesson for the city. And a good outcome for government employees who choose to express their religious beliefs, no matter how unpopular those beliefs might be.

Public employers should be careful when they restrict the speech and religious expressions of employees. Government employees should not face the chilling effect of possible discharge for expressing their religious opinions—whether in books, on social media, or in person. They should be free to state beliefs on their own time without fear of losing their jobs.

Under the Pickering framework, public employees, particularly those in supervisory positions, need to take care not to interfere with effective and efficient fulfillment of their agency’s responsibilities. But they should feel free to state their beliefs without fear of retribution.

What do you think about the protection of religious expression in the workplace?

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California Will Require Women Members on Corporate Boards: A Good Idea or Not?


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One of the most popular posts on this blog discussed the advantages of privately held companies having a corporate board with outside directors. I argued that outside directors can provide broader and deeper knowledge relevant to the business than company management can. If shareholders select directors with expertise the business needs, and if those directors develop ongoing knowledge of the business, the company will benefit.

My post dealt with private companies, but boards of directors can serve the same function in public companies of all sizes also. When board members bring expertise and when they develop ongoing company knowledge, they can contribute greatly to the company’s success.

Obviously, then, it is important for shareholders to choose wisely when electing board members. In the usual course of affairs, management (generally the CEO) proposes board candidates. But boards of larger and more sophisticated companies often have board selection committees that propose the candidates. However the candidates are selected, and shareholders then approve or disapprove the choices.

conference-2110768_640My premise is that who is on the board makes a difference.

So what happens when jurisdictions adopt diversity requirements for directors? California has just become the first state in the U.S. to require large companies to have female directors, Will that requirement help or hurt California-based companies?

California Senate Bill 826, which Governor Brown signed into law last month, mandates female directors on company boards. The stated purpose of the law is to advance gender diversity. SB 826 requires all publicly traded companies with headquarters in California to have at least one woman on their boards by the end of 2019. And by 2021, firms with at least five board members will be required to have two or three women on the board, depending on the total size of the board. If companies do not comply, they face fines of between $100,000 and $300,000.

About 94 publicly traded companies headquartered in California currently have no female directors and would be affected by SB 826, assuming they do not change their board membership by the end of 2019.

But will this law lead to improved corporate governance and financial performance?

It is tempting to say that companies should be able to locate sufficient women with the credentials to provide the expertise required. And most of the time that will probably be true.

It is also tempting to say that women provide a different perspective than men on management. And in the wake of the #MeToo movement, that is true in certain circumstances and about certain issues.

But I am cynical enough to believe that corporate management is usually not sufficiently broad-minded to look far enough for women capable of serving in board roles. I believe competent women exist, but some competent women will have backgrounds different than their male counterparts, and they might be passed over for consideration. And so, it is possible that the same women will be tapped repeatedly for board roles.

Moreover, female candidates selected after passage of SB 826 face the stigma of being “affirmative action candidates.” Their opinions may not be given the same credence that male board members’ opinions receive. The problem with any legal mandate is that it stigmatizes the very people it purports to help.

On a more practical note, Wharton research shows that adding female directors to a board does nothing for company success. The gender composition of the board does not matter, for better or for worse, when it comes to improving financial performance.

The California statute will face legal challenges. Legal scholars, even those who believe the law is “well-intentioned,” have called the mandate unconstitutional, because the Supreme Court has previously ruled that the makeup of a corporate board is governed by the state where the corporation is is chartered, not where it is headquartered, which is what the California statute purports to cover.

The Wall Street Journal reports that 35% of new directors in Russell 3000 companies (one broad cross-section of public companies in the U.S.) have no female directors at present. So if laws like California’s SB 826 are passed in other states, the composition of many corporate boards will change. Perhaps it would be wise to wait to see what happens in California before more states jump on the board diversity bandwagon.

And will California’s mandates stop with gender diversity? What is to keep the liberal California legislature from mandating racial diversity? What about sexual orientation? Religion? Age?

In the meantime, public corporations in California will have to choose whether to comply or whether to fight the law. Privately held corporations in California remain free to decide for themselves the composition of their board, and even whether to have outside board members at all.

What do you think about requiring a diverse board composition?

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Managing Personal Crises and Work


clinic-1807543_640

I had another topic planned for today’s post, but then life got in the way. A relative had a health crisis I had to deal with. This crisis made me decide to write about the ongoing struggle for balance between work and other aspects of life, a struggle that never ends, no matter what stage of our career we’re in.

This past week was certainly not the first time that personal issues have interfered with my professional plans. I raised two children while working full-time in a demanding professional job. When one of our children was ill, my husband and I often argued about who needed to to to work more and whose work responsibilities could be put on hold for a day . . . or two. Most of the time we were able to split the burden fairly equally, but it didn’t always work out that way.

Both my husband and I were fortunate because we had some control over our calendars . . . most days. But we each had some courtroom appointments and other meetings that could not be rescheduled.

We were also fortunate that, while we might get raised eyebrows from coworkers when we couldn’t be at work for family reasons, we were respected enough and we had others in our workplaces dealing with similar issues. Therefore, our careers were not seriously at risk. I think we both might have earned more over the years if we had not been viewed as professionals who did sometimes have to juggle family responsibilities, but we weren’t going to get fired over an absence or two.

For the past ten years I have been self-employed, working as a mediator and Human Resources consultant. Now I have even more control over my calendar, but I am also more dependent on the number of hours I work for income.

bulletin-board-3233653_640I was fortunate this week. I could instantly juggle my schedule to deal with the current health emergency. It meant I skipped one meeting and wrote this blog post off the top of my head instead of a post requiring some research. Some weeks I have obligations I would have difficulty rescheduling, but this week I could do it. So I did. Without any hesitation.

At this point in my life, I relish flexibility more than a higher income. And I know I am fortunate to have the resources to make that choice.

I encounter many younger professionals who haven’t yet had to make serious choices between work and other responsibilities. I also know many senior professionals who look askance at the decisions I’ve made to reduce my scheduled commitments—and therefore my professional status. There are days when my diminished income and role in the business world bother me, but most of the time I am happy with the trade-offs I’ve made.

What choices have you had to make over the years? What choices have others around you made? How do you feel about both your own choices and those of your coworkers?

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Planning for a Mediation: Determining your WATNA, LLATNA and MLATNA to Get to Your BATNA


business-3152586_640Corporate executives and Human Resources professionals sometimes find themselves representing their employer during mediations. I’ve been not only a mediator, but also a corporate representative and an attorney during mediations. In all these roles, I came to see the importance of preparing for the mediation.

Just as you would for any negotiation, it is important to know what you and your company are trying to achieve. (If you’re an attorney reading this, it is just as important that you know what your client needs to achieve.

There are lots of materials written about knowing your BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement) before settling a case. But how do you decide what your best alternative to settling the case is? Remember that your BATNA cannot be dependent on anything the other party in the case does—it must be something that you can control or that you think will probably happen regardless what the other party does.

Determining your BATNA can’t be done in a vacuum. It is often easier to start by determining your WATNA — the worst alternative to a negotiated agreement. Sometimes, the worst alternative is the company goes bankrupt. Other times, it’s a huge PR debacle. Or maybe the worst that can happen is only that the company loses some money, but it isn’t a significant hit to the bottom line.

Only by deciding the maximum amount at stake can you decide how important this case is, and thereby decide how much to throw into settlement. (Note that though I might talk in terms of money, there are often other important resources at stake also—reputation, intellectual property rights, etc. Those must be put in the equation when valuing the case also.)

Other important considerations in determining the BATNA are LLATNA and MLATNA. I have seen parties to mediations get hung up on the least likely outcome in the case—their LLATNA (Lease Likely Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement). They see a 2% chance of winning big, and that’s all they can focus on. But your LLATNA should not determine your BATNA.

By contrast, the MLATNA is the Most Likely Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. It is a much more useful concept.

For example, If the outcomes to an employment lawsuit could range from the employer winning its attorneys’ fees (with a 2% likelihood of occurring) to losing $1 million plus the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees of $150,000 (with a 5% likelihood of occurring), the MLATNA might be losing $100,000 plus the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees of $150,000 as well as your own (with a 40% likelihood of occurring). Or the MLATNA might be winning the case, but having to pay your own attorneys’ fees of $150,000 (also with a 40% likelihood of occurring). Now you have a range to work with—the case is worth at least $150,000 and up to at least $400,000 (the damage award of $100, plus $300,000 to cover both sides’ attorneys’ fees.)

Clearly, it is important to have some advance discussions with your attorney about the range of outcomes in a case and the likelihood that each might happen. Attorneys will not commit to specific outcomes, but they should be knowledgeable enough to talk in ranges both of verdicts and probabilities. Only after assessing the possible outcomes in the case—as well as the likelihood that each might happen—can you decide what you are willing to settle the case for.

You might go with a simple weighted average of the possibilities for your walkaway point. Or you might decide that the WATNA is so bad that you will lean toward settlement at (almost) any cost short of that. Or you might feel optimistic and look only at cost of defense as the settlement value of the case. But the point is, you need to consider all the possibilities.

Once you’ve looked at the range of outcomes, what do you do?

You and your counsel should discuss your mediation strategy. Where do you want to start your settlement offer? How do you get the other party talking in your settlement range? What do you have to offer that has no cost or is of little importance to you, but very important to the other side?

Then take your planning to the next level: What do you disclose to the other party in a general session? What do you disclose to the mediator in caucus? Who should be present at the mediation to maximize your credibility and persuasiveness to the other side?

* * * * *

The purpose of this post is to emphasize the importance of planning prior to a mediation. When planning, you need to consider and evaluate the possible outcomes of the case. Then set your strategy to land you in the settlement range you desire.

But be flexible. You don’t know what you don’t know. You might learn new facts during the mediation that cause you to rethink the possibilities.

When have you planned effectively for a mediation or other settlement discussion? What worked for you?

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Filed under Human Resources, Management, Mediation

Delegating Too Much and Too Little, and Finding a Balance


Delegation Model 1I posted a couple of years ago about problems I had with delegation during my career. I was reminded of these issues again when I read a recent post by Mary Jo Asmus of Aspire Collaborative Services Inc., entitled “The Upsides of Delegating.”

As I wrote before, when I first began supervising other professionals on projects, I either delegated too much to them (essentially providing them with no feedback) or I delegated too little (and micromanaged their projects). I provided very little coaching, in either case. It took me several years to figure out how to provide the right level of oversight, depending on the person’s experience and ability. And to learn how to provide emotional support, in addition to the substantive support needed to reach a strong project outcome.

Delegation Model 2I once saw a diagram of four styles of delegation. The labels on the diagram have slipped my mind, and I don’t recall the source. But essentially, the diagram differentiated the styles of delegation based on the substantive and emotional support that the manager provided to his or her subordinates.

In those early days, I spent my time on the substantive side of delegating, without much involvement in the emotional side.

Delegation Model 5Over time, I became more flexible in my management and delegation style. In fact, with the seasoned professionals who reported to me in my last few years as a manager, I provided little substantive support and learned that I should vary the emotional support I gave them, based on their personalities and the difficulty of the assignments they faced.

In fact, I came to see my role as deflecting the corporate politics they faced, so that they could focus on the substantive expertise they brought to the project.

As my best boss told me often, the best way to solve a problem is to throw good people at it. And let them do their jobs, even when you would do it differently. I took those lessons to heart, though it took me time to learn to trust others more than myself.

How has your style of delegating changed through your career? Where can you improve in delegating?

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What Is the Future of HR—Business Partnership or Employee Engagement?


HR signI wrote last September about the relevance of HR in changing times. Recently, I’ve seen several articles on TLNT.com that caused me to again reflect on the future of HR.

Let’s start with a story from DisruptHR entitled “It’s Not Complicated. HR Is About the People,” dated June 20, 2018. That story presents a video by Andrea Butcher which argues that HR professionals should not necessarily become business partners, if doing so takes them away from focusing on the people. Focusing on the people drives business results, because people are what drive business results.

Then I read another DisruptHR story called “HR’s Job Should Be to Encourage Conflict,” dated June 13, 2018. In that piece, Amanda Ono says that the best employees want to learn and grow . . . and they will only do their best work if they disrupt the status quo. So HR should help them by encouraging conflict in the workplace that will change things. She proposes that HR

“Train people on what healthy conflict means. Train people on how to engage in healthy dialogue.”

This sounds like another way of emphasizing people in the organization, albeit emphasizing top talent that can influence change and improve results.

In another TLNT article, “You Can’t Build a Talent-Driven Organization Without HR,” May 3, 2018, Michelle M. Smith writes that HR is under increasing scrutiny for ineffective talent strategies and lack of a strong business perspective. The thrust of her article is that it is the responsibility of corporate leadership—not just of HR—to be focused on finding and developing top talent, but HR must support them. This, of course, is the gist of HR being a business partner.

“The CHRO [Chief Human Resources Officer] of a talent-driven organization must be a great business person, not just a great people person.”

So which is it? Should future HR leaders focus on the business or the people?

The truth is, you can’t do one without the other.

My heart is in employee relations and in developing a great place to work. But if I ignore the business needs of the organization, it will not be a great place to work. If I only focus on employee engagement, without engaging them in what the business requires, I will not be serving anyone well.

And so says Susan Gallagher, in “Fast Growth Means You Need to Pay Extra Attention to Culture,” June 19, 2018.  She writes:

“Culture is the most critical part of your talent strategy when guiding your employees through the stages of rapid company growth. Keeping your people connected to your company’s core values is essential before, after, and – importantly – during the growth period, which itself challenges your company’s beliefs and behavior.”

Although her focus is on growth, the importance of culture and employee engagement is true wherever a company is in the business cycle. Moreover, Ms. Gallagher says:

“Culture cannot be dictated from the top; it must be integrated into all levels of your management team and down through the rank and file.”

The title of this post—business partnership or employee engagement—doesn’t capture the complexity of the workplace. The right answer is . . . HR must focus on BOTH. It is HR’s role to help the organization’s leaders articulate the connection between employee engagement and business results.

As Susan Gallagher says:

“Put yourself in the shoes of different groups of employees and how they will be affected. Get granular and look at different constituencies of your workforce. . . . you want your people to be as invested in the change as you are and happy about making it happen.”

Now that sounds like a focus on employee engagement AND business partnership.

Which focus do you emphasize? Business partnership or employee engagement?

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