Category Archives: Workplace

Remembering September 11: Lessons in Crisis Management


National_Park_Service_9-11_Statue_of_Liberty_and_WTCI’ve written several posts about crisis management, so it surprised me to realize that in over five years of blogging, I’ve never written about my experience on September 11, 2011. I’ve barely mentioned that date at all, even though the heartbreaking day not only shook me personally but provided a huge opportunity for learning as an HR executive.

I lived and worked in the Central Time Zone at the time, an hour behind the East Coast. I was in an early meeting with other members of the Human Resources staff in my company that Tuesday morning. Shortly after we started the meeting, an administrative assistant came into the room to tell us that an airplane had struck the World Trade Center. We acknowledged the tragedy, but continued our meeting. Then a few minutes later, she reported that another plane had struck the other tower. At that point, it was clear that the collisions were intentional—the U.S. had been struck by terrorists. We stopped our meeting, and those of us on the company’s crisis management team, including myself, gathered to determine the impact on our company.

It might seem that a corporation a thousand miles away from the attacks should not have any issues, but our multinational company had locations around the U.S., including on the East Coast. We had employees traveling on business. We had thousands of employees throughout the nation concerned about family and friends near the affected sites. And everyone, of course, was fearful of another strike.

Through the course of that day, we worked on the following issues:

— We immediately began providing the best information we could to employees. For the first time ever, we allowed the intra-company communications monitors at each major location to broadcast national news, rather than static screens of company news. A few departments had televisions going all day long, but we wanted employees working in departments without televisions (i.e., most employees) to have ready access to information as well. Yes, productivity suffered, but it would have anyway, and making the information easily accessible was one way to show employees we cared about their concerns.

— Our Travel Department searched the travel records of all employees away on business and contacted them to determine if they were safe (they were). Because all flights in the U.S. were canceled for the next few days, we also started making alternative arrangements get those employees home. In many cases, we had to authorize one-way rental cars from the coasts to get people home. These were expensive trips, but we knew the most important thing was getting employees back to their families during this national crisis.

— We also assisted vendor and customer representatives on our sites to make arrangements to return to their homes also.

— We prepared a video message for our CEO to deliver to all employees. By midafternoon on September 11, our communications experts had recorded our CEO in a video that we put on our monitors and on the company intranet site. The CEO conveyed his sympathy to those inside and outside the company impacted by the catastrophe and said that he and other corporate officers were as devastated by the day’s events as everyone else. He also provided information on how we were handling the crisis — that the company had located all of our traveling employees and determined none had been on the downed planes and that we were working to bring the others home as quickly as possible.

— We brought in grief counselors to our major locations to conduct group sessions with employees who were emotionally distraught by the day’s news, and provided information on our Employee Assistance Program in case employees wanted more individualized counseling.

Our crisis management team continued these activities for several days, until the nation and its transportation system returned to normal. But, of course, nothing has been the same in the sixteen years since those awful events.

I learned that day the reality of the importance of communications during a crisis. It is one thing to read articles on crisis management, like this one. It is another thing to live it and to know that what you are doing is having an impact, for better or for worse, on the morale of your organization.

I learned it is important to not only communicate facts but empathy as well. Company leaders and managers must seek out and pass on accurate and timely information. But good leaders must also be emotionally congruent with others in their organization. This emotional support is critical, even though at the same time management is providing direction and channeling people’s energy toward productive activities. And leaders must recognize that sometimes the most important thing is to pause and acknowledge feelings before productive behaviors can resume.

A crisis can be an opportunity to bring an organization closer together, but only if it is managed well.

What lessons have you learned while handling a crisis?

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Employee Engagement, Human Resources, Leadership, Management, Workplace

How to Avoid Burnout When There’s Always Too Much Work


work-2196609_640Memorial Day weekend is the traditional beginning of summer. In many workplaces the pace slows during the summer months—maybe it slows a little, maybe it slows a lot. For employees who are burned out, the more relaxed pace might help.

Still, in today’s 24/7 world, the slowdown of summer might not be enough. In fact, one of my most stressful times as an employee was one July and August when I was assigned to defend a major lawsuit. I had to take on this new work even though none of my existing work had gone away.

After a few weeks, I realized I couldn’t juggle the caseload I had. I was leaving the office completely frustrated every evening. Finally, I talked to my department head about how to reallocate the workload.

It was that or quit. I was that burned out.

A recent article in Fortune, “The Solution to Avoiding Burnout That Nobody Tells You,” by Laura Chambers, published May 10, 2017, tells of a time when the author’s supervisor told her she would have to learn to drop some balls to avoid burnout. This is counterintuitive for most high-performing employees.

Actually, author Laura Chambers describes a more nuanced approach to managing the workload than simply not doing projects. She describes two kinds of employees, the burnouts and the droppers, and says neither is ideal.

She says that when there’s too much work to accomplish, the best approach is to become a “communicating prioritizer.” She suggests identifying what you believe the top priorities to be, discussing them with your supervisor and team to be sure there is agreement on what the priorities are, then focusing on the highest priorities.

As a manager, Ms. Chambers says about her staff:

“When they communicate their priorities, it shows me that they’re on their game, they’re confident about where they’re headed, and I know I can count on them delivering with confidence. It also demonstrates that they’re managing their own work-life balance, rather than relying on someone else to manage it for them.”

Turns out, I didn’t do so badly in going to my manager to discuss what I could do and what I couldn’t. I was communicating, as Ms. Chambers recommends. However, in retrospect, I see that if I had offered more proactive suggestions myself on how to reallocate the work, I might have done better. My manager and I worked it out, but I put most of the burden of prioritizing on him.

And perhaps Ms. Chambers’s manager could have done better by helping her prioritize than by telling her to drop some balls.

How have you managed periods of burnout in your career?

1 Comment

Filed under Leadership, Management, Work/Life, Workplace

Employer Health Care Benefits — Preparing for 2018


medical-563427_640

I last wrote about health care in late March, shortly after the House of Representatives failed to bring the American Health Care Act (AHCA) to a vote. Since then, after a few amendments, the House did pass the AHCA, but with all the other brouhahas in Washington over the last few weeks, it’s questionable whether the Senate will get to health care anytime soon.

There are some good provisions in the AHCA as passed by the House. Among other things, the AHCA makes the following changes to Obamacare:

  • The individual mandate was repealed, as was the employer mandate;
  • The 2.3% medical device tax was repealed;
  • The net investment tax was repealed, as was the .9% Medicare high earner tax;
  • The Cadillac tax for expensive plans was delayed (and will probably never be permitted to take effect, since neither Republicans nor Democrats like this provision); and
  • Health Savings Accounts were expanded, effective in 2018

All of these provisions provide less government control over the health care marketplace. In the long run, these changes would generally be helpful for employers.

Still, as most people recognize, without an individual mandate, some incentive is necessary to get healthy people to opt into health insurance before they get sick and to maintain that coverage. The AHCA continuous health insurance coverage incentive replaces the individual mandate penalty. This incentive operates much like HIPAA certificates of coverage. As long as they do not let their health insurance lapse for more than 63 days, individuals cannot be charged higher premiums because of preexisting conditions. Moreover, the premium penalty for the first plan year cannot exceed 30%.

There is an exception to this 30% limit, but the exception permits insurers to charge late enrollees with pre-existing condition higher premiums only if the state has waived the community rating rule and the state has established a high-risk pool to help people with preexisting conditions fund their coverage.

The AHCA is far from a perfect bill, and it is likely to face substantial amendments in the Senate before it comes to a vote in that chamber. And Congress has many other priorities this session as well. So what will happen with respect to health care legislation by the end of the year is anyone’s guess.

Nevertheless, we are at the time of year when many employers are examining their options for health plans for their employees for the year ahead. What should employers do in this time of uncertainty?

Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, is still the law, so until Congress acts, employers must comply with the mandates and reporting requirements. With the individual mandate in place, employees will want to know their employer-provided health care options in a timely fashion.

Moreover, although the Cadillac tax has been kicked down the road and its ultimate implementation is uncertain, avoidance of the tax—or preparation for it—will take time to structure.

For 2018 at least, the current employer responsibilities are likely to remain in place. Employers must continue to manage their benefit plans, tweaking them as makes most sense for their workforce. There remain many reasons why employers should support their employees’ health and wellness if they want to be employers of choice.

Employers, what concerns you the most about health benefits in 2018?

Leave a comment

Filed under Benefits, Human Resources, Law, Workplace

Lessons Learned in Office Remodels and Relocations


beige-316396_640Over the years, I’ve been involved in two corporate department remodels, once as one of the primary designers of the new office space, and the other time as a department chair when members of my staff worked on the layout and logistics. Neither was an enjoyable experience, but I learned important lessons along the way. Here are my primary takeaways:

1. Have size and space guidelines, but don’t be rigid

One of the remodels involved attorneys, who insisted they needed private offices because of attorney/client privilege issues. But some of the lawyers were not high enough in the corporate hierarchy to warrant private offices in the corporate guidelines. The attorneys won that argument.

In the other remodel, some Human Resources managers received private offices and others at the same pay grade did not. The decisions rested on who spent significant time counseling employees. Those who did not get private offices had access to small conference room near their cubicles.

The biggest issues actually involved administrative personnel, some of whom dealt with significant amounts of paper and needed more space than the guidelines permitted. In retrospect, more individuality would have been a good thing.

With today’s move away from cubicles to more open space environments, these issues may become even more significant. Have a philosophy, but allow for exceptions when warranted.

2. Keep technology needs in mind

The legal office redesign I worked on came at a time when personal computers were just beginning to be used. Some lawyers were technologically adept, and others had never used a PC. But we mandated space, equipment, and Ethernet connectivity for everyone.

In both of the remodels I was involved with, file storage was a critical need. Over time, the move to paperless work environments are likely to accelerate. These days, large monitors, wi-fi access, or portable tablets may be the critical features necessary for efficiency.

But what will the technology of the future require? Involve your IT personnel in anticipating what your office will need in the next five years at least . . . the next decade if you can see that far into the future.

3. Natural light is important for morale

One of my departments moved to space that was underground. We did everything we could with pale colored walls and good lighting, but we couldn’t avoid the feeling that we worked in a cave.

The other department moved from underground space to space with windows. The temptation was to put managerial offices against the windows, but we avoided that. We kept the windows open to all, which made our support personnel feel much more valued. Those managers who had enclosed offices had to step outside to get a view (which was only of a parking garage anyway), which helped keep them less isolated from their staff.

4. Give your planning team leeway to make decisions

There are a myriad of daily decisions involved in relocating a department. How to lay out the space, what color paint, fabrics for the furniture, just to name a few. The planning team should be empowered to make most of these decisions—or at least to narrow the options. That’s why they’re on the team.

If the department head reserves all decisions for himself or herself, the planning team will end up demoralized, management time will be wasted, and the plan will be idiosyncratic and unlikely to stand the test of time.

5. Involve all employees in the process

Just because there is a planning team doesn’t mean that other employees should have no say in the process. Hold a kick-off meeting where everyone can voice opinions. It will help the remodel team to know which issues are emotional for employees.

And have a few milestone meetings or send out periodic updates to the whole department. Keep people informed on the progress and timeline and what decisions have been made to date.

beige-316395_6406. Make it fun

One of the planning teams in our remodel called themselves the “MOO-ve” team. They adopted a cow logo which they included on all their communications. At least we had something to laugh about as we sorted through forty-plus years of files before the department relocated.

Those are six lessons I learned during my work on office relocations. Here’s an article with another list of lessons learned. And for articles on the nitty-gritty of planning an office remodel, see here and here.

What have you learned when relocating an office?

Leave a comment

Filed under Management, Workplace

How Do I Get My Priorities Accomplished? Integrating the Ivy Lee Method and Real Life


2a83xpt89bWe are one-quarter through 2017. Have you accomplished 25% of your goals for the year? Are you on track to complete your goals? If not, you may be working on the wrong things. So how do we make ourselves more productive? How do we stay focused on our highest priorities?

There are many consultants and coaches who purport to have systems. One such system is the Ivy Lee Method (for more, see here and here), which says to spend a few minutes at the end of each day determining the six most important things to accomplish the next day. This methodology requires discipline to limit yourself to six items. Then prioritize those six items in order of importance.

At the start of the next day, begin with the most important task, and do not do anything else until it is finished. Then move on to the second task. And so forth, to see how far on the six items you can get, always completing each item before moving on to a lower priority item.

Put your unfinished items on the list of six for the next day, unless they are of lower priority than six other items to be accomplished the next day.

Do this every day.

No more than six items. Work the list in order of priority. Every day.

In theory, this system is good. But most of us have interruptions we cannot avoid. Or meetings we have to attend. We do not control our time sufficiently to work through one item on the list to completion before we must move on to something else.

The solution, I think, is to wrest back control of our time to the maximum extent we can. If you’ve tried the Ivy Lee method or some other process, and it isn’t working for you, here are some specific solutions:

1. Reduce your list of daily priorities to four or five items. There is no magic to the number six. Maybe on days when you know you have only a little time available, accomplishing one or two tasks is all that is reasonable. But make those tasks count—still choose your most important priorities.

2. Cut the items on your list into smaller chunks, and prioritize the chunks. Instead of an item like “contact all my stakeholders,” you list each phone call you need to make in order of priority. Most significant projects take a long time to accomplish. What is the one step that will move the project forward most significantly? Put that step on your priority list for the next day.

3. Make sure you have some time on your calendar each day for solitary work. Eliminate meetings where possible. Reserve time on your calendar. If you have an assistant who schedules your time, make sure your assistant knows your solitary time is inviolable. (Except, perhaps, for your spouse or the CEO.)

4. Delegate projects to others, or eliminate them. If certain projects are never making it to your list of six priorities, then perhaps they should not be among your goals for the year. Discuss them with your manager and make sure the two of you are in agreement on how you are prioritizing them.

5. Reserve time for interruptions. There will be times when your managers or external authorities impose new priorities on you. In my own situation, I often found that my inviolate work time was violated by my managers or high-maintenance clients. Then it became a matter of reserving even more time, so that I had time for the interruptions as well as the high-priority tasks for the day.

Planning is critical to getting things done. So make your plan work for you. And remember, when planning your discretionary time, you are accountable for what you do and what you don’t do.

When have you had difficulty planning and prioritizing?

Leave a comment

Filed under Management, Workplace

Favorite Firing: Discharge for Dishonesty Is Not FMLA Retaliation


FMLA DOL.pngWhen the Family and Medical Leave Act became law in 1993, it immediately changed the relationship between managers and employees. It became much harder to discipline employees for attendance, if their absences were even arguably covered by the FMLA. But a recent case demonstrates that if an employee lies about his or her need for FMLA leave, then discharge for the dishonesty is appropriate. See Sharif v. United Airlines, Inc., No. 15-1747 (4th Cir. Oct. 31, 2016).

The Facts: Masoud Sharif, an employee of United Airlines in the U.S., had suffered from a diagnosed anxiety disorder for several years, and he was frequently absent from work due to panic attacks. For many years, United Airlines approved his requests for FMLA leave. In fact, in the two years prior to his discharge, Mr. Sharif took 56 days of approved FMLA leave.

Mr. Sharif and his wife (also a United employee) went on a three-week vacation to South Africa in 2014. He used time-off days for most of the time, but not for two days in the middle of the scheduled absence. He tried to swap shifts for those two days within United’s swap policy. He found someone to cover one shift, but not the other. While still in South Africa on the day that his absence was not covered, he called to request FMLA leave for that shift. (He did not call to request the leave until it was too late to fly back to the U.S. from South Africa, and he had no airline reservation back to the U.S.)

The Sharifs returned to the U.S. in time for Mrs. Sharif’s first scheduled shift after the irvacation. United then noticed that Mr. Sharif had only requested FMLA leave for the one shift he was scheduled to work during his vacation. Mr. Sharif had similarly taken FMLA leave during a planned absence in 2013. Therefore, United decided to investigate.

When United managers questioned him, Mr. Sharif first claimed he was not scheduled to work on the day in question, but he did not explain why he requested FMLA leave for that day. He gave inconsistent and implausible statements about trying to fly home from South Africa, then claimed he suffered a panic attack over his inability to return home, which is why he requested FMLA leave.

United determined that Mr. Sharif had been dishonest in his request for leave and during their investigation. Dishonesty was a violation of the United “Working Together Guidelines.” The airline suspended him without pay. United was prepared to discharge him for fraudulently taking FMLA leave and for making false representations during the investigation. On the recommendation of his union, Mr. Sharif retired, so he would not be terminated.

Mr. Sharif later filed suit alleging the threat of termination constituted retaliation for taking FMLA leave. The district court granted United’s motion for summary judgment, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed. The Fourth Circuit held that termination of employment for abusing FMLA leave and for lying during an investigation into the FMLA abuse is not retaliation under the FMLA.

The Moral: This is another case where an observer wonders what the employee was thinking. Several of Mr. Sharif’s statements were easy to refute based on airline schedules. The whole situation—leaving one day uncovered in the middle of an international vacation, then requesting FMLA leave on that day—would raise the specter of employee dishonesty in any objective mind. Common sense should prevail in a case like this, and fortunately it did.

As the Fourth Circuit held,

“Sharif has failed to create an issue of triable fact that the explanation United Airlines provided for his discharge was a pretext for retaliation for taking FMLA leave. To hold otherwise would disable companies from attaching any sanction or consequence to the fraudulent abuse of a statute designed to enable workers to take leave for legitimate family needs and medical reasons.” [emphasis added]

In its decision, the Fourth Circuit provided guidance for determining whether FMLA retaliation has occurred, when the circumstances surrounding the request for leave or the leave itself triggers an investigation and adverse action. The Fourth Circuit stated that an employer’s retaliatory intent “can be established either by direct evidence of retaliation or through the familiar burden-shifting framework articulated in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 800–06 (1973).”

The well-known McDonnell Douglas analysis requires the employee to establish a prima facie case of retaliation. If the employer then rebuts the prima facie case with a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse action, the employee then has the burden to prove that the proffered explanation is pretextual.

The Fourth Circuit explained that both pretext and employer intent can be demonstrating by considering

“ ‘among other things, the historical background of the . . . decision; [t]he specific sequence of events leading up to the challenged decision; [d]epartures from the normal procedural sequence; and . . . [any] contemporary statements by members of the decisionmaking body.’ See Reno v. Bossier Parish Sch. Bd., 520 U.S. 471, 489 (1997) (quoting Vill. of Arlington Heights v. Metro. Hous. Dev. Corp., 429 U.S. 252, 267-68 (1977)).”

The Fourth Circuit went through these factors and found that United’s past acceptance of Mr. Sharif’s FMLA claims, Mr. Sharif’s inconsistent explanations, the timing of his and his wife’s vacations, and the lack of any attempts to make return reservations so he could work the shift, all demonstrated that United did not retaliate.

Mr. Sharif also claimed that he should have received lesser discipline for not working the shift. However, the Fourth Circuit cited the frequently quoted words supporting court decisions in support of employers:

“courts are not ‘a kind of super-personnel department weighing the prudence of employment decisions.’ DeJarnette v. Corning, Inc., 133 F.3d 293, 299 (4th Cir. 1998).”

Because Mr. Sharif’s offense amounted to “misrepresentation and fraud,” the Fourth Circuit found that discharge was appropriate, thus establishing that there are at least some occasions in which an employer can still manage attendance.

Have you ever dealt with suspected FMLA misrepresentations? What was the outcome?

Leave a comment

Filed under Human Resources, Law, Management, Workplace

When Your CEO Dies


man-76202_640I’ve been interested in succession planning since my early years in Human Resources—and particularly in succession planning at the top of the house. Perhaps that’s why my novel, Playing the Game, begins with a CEO near death and the impact that has on the corporation. So I read with interest a recent article that dealt with how to cope with the death of a key executive. Of course, the most important point is to be prepared.

“What Would Happen If Your CEO Died?”, by Branigan Robertson and Sean Reis, published on February 2, 2017, on the always excellent TLNT.com, asks what HR should do to minimize the impact of the death of a key executive.

Here are the recommendations the authors make, along with my commentary:

1. Purchasing life insurance on high-ranking managerial employees

For most companies, this is a matter of balancing cost against risk. In my opinion, insurance will only make sense for some companies—typically larger companies, or those in which an executive’s passing could end the organization’s existence. For other companies, particularly where a successor is in place, insurance may not be necessary.

2. Knowing who is next in command for each critical position, including the CEO, to fill immediate leadership gaps

This is critical. Everyone should have a back-up, just as stage actors have stand-ins. In some cases, this will be a deputy or assistant to the executive. In other cases, power will devolve up the corporate ladder, and the deceased executive’s boss may need to act in an emergency. In still other situations, a former executive might be called back into the role. And in the case of the CEO, a Board of Directors member may need to fill in, if there is no executive the Board trusts.

The important point is that stakeholders need to know immediately who acts in place of the deceased (or incapacitated or otherwise unavailable) executive.

3. Having access to all critical information

Arranging for ongoing access to critical information is part of any good crisis management plan—and the loss of a key executive is certainly a crisis. Part of the issue is making sure someone has access to corporate information, such as server passwords, financial records, tax returns and payments, bank account and payroll information, debt instruments, shareholder and Board member information, key contracts and insurance policies, critical vendor and consultant contact information—the list goes on.

And each business will also have critical systems of its own, and all of these need a crisis management plan. What systems in your organization have only one key person with access to the data?

In addition to critical corporate information and documents, it is important to know how to access contact information for employees’ family members—at least one next-of-kin or emergency contact for every employee.

4. Dealing with emotions

The loss of a key employee will impact the morale of the entire organization—the more respected and liked the individual, the more the rest of the employees will grieve. And the more critical the person was to the organization, the more employees will worry about their future.

Other leaders need to recognize, validate, and overcome employees’ sense of loss—often when these leaders knew the deceased the best and are most devastated by the death. It is probably a good idea to bring in grief counselors (usually from the company’s Employee Assistance Program, if one is in place), to help the organization mourn the loss and move on.

5. Having a succession plan in place to speed filling the position on a long-term basis

Beyond the immediate need to deal with the crisis and keep the business running, it is important to get back to “business as usual” as quickly as possible. The only way to do that is if the position is filled or the duties of the deceased executive are otherwise distributed. The more planning done in advance, the easier this will be.

Is your organization prepared to lose a top executive?

2 Comments

Filed under Human Resources, Leadership, Management, Playing the Game, Workplace