Category Archives: Workplace

Deconstructing Your Grievance Story


Last week I attended the Heartland Mediators Association’s conference featuring Eileen Barker as the speaker. Ms. Barker spoke about forgiveness. In a single post, I can’t do justice to her day-and-a-half seminar about forgiveness. And she only touched on a part of her twelve-step forgiveness process. So I will focus on one step in the process—deconstructing our grievance stories.

As a mediator, an attorney, and a Human Resources professional, I have heard many, many grievance stories over the years. In the legal context, the grievance story takes the form of someone who feels wronged who wants to punish the person or institution that wronged them—whether it be the other person in a car accident, the owner of the premises where they fell, the manager who fired them, or any other situation causing them pain or grief.

ForgivenessWorkbook coverWe all tell stories to find the meaning in what is happening in our lives. According to Ms. Barker, there are three essential elements in a grievance story:

1. The aggrieved individual interprets an event in a personal way, as something intended to impact him or her in a negative way.

2. The aggrieved individual blames someone else for how he or she feels.

3. The aggrieved individual tells a story in which he or she is the victim, powerless to control the situation.

Note that these are my articulations of the three elements. For more, see Ms. Barker’s Forgiveness Workbook: A Step by Step Guide, available here.

Let’s take a workplace example: I’m thinking of a time when I did not get a job I thought I was well- qualified for. The hiring manager told me that he “would sleep better at night” if he hired the other candidate. I immediately took that statement personally—I interpreted the remark to mean that he believed me unqualified and he would worry about me in the role. I felt mortified to think he thought I was unqualified and shamed that I had even put myself forward for the position. And I blamed him for making me feel that way. Of course, I was the victim—there was nothing I could do to change the situation, because he had the power to decide who to hire.

Deconstructing the story involves changing the three elements of the grievance story:

1. Looking for another way to tell the story so it’s not about the aggrieved individual.

2. Looking for the positive intention in the other person’s action, not blaming them.

3. Turning the story so that the aggrieved individual is the hero, not the victim, to give him or her back the power.

In my example above, I had to re-frame my story to tell myself that the hiring manager was looking for the best person for the job. I had to accept that on paper the other candidate had more experience than I did, even if I believed I was best able to take the job where it needed to go in the future. By retelling the story, I could see the hiring manager’s positive intention—he wanted the best person for the job, even if I disagreed with who that was. And I had to find ways to take back my power. Within a few weeks, I accepted another position that allowed me to grow professionally, even if it wasn’t the position I had first applied for and that I really wanted.

Deconstructing my story took time. I was quickly able to move on from my initial feelings of mortification and shame. But it took a couple of years for me to see the advantages of the situation I’d found myself in and to realize that I grew from the experience and that maybe I was better off than I would have been had I been thrust into the role I’d applied for.

This deconstruction of our stories is part of how we come to forgive. I later reported to this hiring manager and we built a good working relationship. I forgave his unfortunate comment that he “would sleep better at night” if he hired the other candidate (though obviously, I never forgot it).

When have you told yourself a grievance story about a situation in your life? How did you deconstruct it?

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What Employers Should Expect on Immigration Issues for the Remainder of 2018


USCIS logoOne of the biggest impacts that the Trump Administration has had on the workplace is in the area of immigration. Although the need for foreign workers remains a huge issue for many U.S. employers, particularly those needing skilled technical workers, the Trump Administration has made it more difficult for foreign nationals to obtain the appropriate visas.  Even intracompany transfers are taking longer to process.

The Harris Poll conducted a survey in November and December 2017. Data from that survey indicated:

  • 70% of employers say having a global workforce is very or extremely important to their talent strategy
  • 53% of employers expect to hire more foreign nationals in 2018
  • 85% of employers say the current U.S. immigration system has impacted their hiring and retention strategies
  • 44 percent of employers say U.S. visa applications have become more difficult (up from 35 percent last year)
  • 58 percent of employers say their Requests for Evidence have increased
  • 42% of employers say the biggest change they have noticed over the last year has been increased foreign national anxiety and questions

See here for more from Envoy, a global immigration services provider, regarding the Harris Poll survey.

In today’s low unemployment environment, immigrant workers are one of the few ways employers have to increase their applicant pools—a necessary part of growing their businesses. Nevertheless, given the Trump Administration’s predilections, which begin with the President and his cabinet members, it is likely that employers will continue to struggle in their efforts to hire immigrant labor.

I have spoken with immigration attorneys who confirm that U.S. Citizenship and Immigraton Services have placed increased emphasis on Requests for Evidence, which has significantly slowed down the granting of visas for well-qualified foreign nationals.

Here are some likely immigration actions and decisions in the remainder of the year:

  • By the end of June 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to issue a decision on the Trump Administration’s travel ban. This decision might clarify some of the limits of the Executive Branch in the area of immigration policy.
  • Congress and the President could strike a deal any time on the Dreamers (undocumented workers brought into the U.S. as children), which is likely to permit Dreamers to remain in the U.S., though with further actions to limit immigration in other areas or to enhance border security.
  • USCIS is likely to continue to scrutinize foreign nationals seeking work authorizations, particularly those seeking H1-B visas.
  • Similarly, there are likely to be more restrictions on visas for family members of foreign nationals already authorized to work in the U.S.
  • 2000px-U.S._Immigration_and_Customs_Enforcement_(ICE)_Logo.svgMore workplace raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers are likely to continue to increase the numbers of workplace raids, leading to more deportations of illegal workers.

For more on these efforts, see here and here.

Given heightened activity in the field of immigration enforcement, employers need to increase their vigilance on complying with immigration laws. Employers also need to be more proactive in seeking the foreign workers they need to be competitive. Here are a few specifics actions that employers should consider:

  • Conduct internal audits of I-9 forms, preferably with the help of outside counsel, so that any problems are properly addressed. A strong audit can provide a “safe harbor” and/or reduce fines if the government later determines that unauthorized workers are in fact employed by the company.
  • Start any visa applications in support of foreign nationals well in advance of the time the company needs the employee to begin working. Leave time to respond to Requests for Evidence, which USCIS is more likely to send than in prior years.
  • Monitor developments on the Administration’s travel ban, Dreamers, and other issues that might impact your workplace. Be prepared to act immediately to comply with any changes.
  • And remember that the U.S. immigration system is based on very detailed regulations, so be sure to use experts with knowledge of the changing immigration bureaucracy.

Increased scrutiny of immigrant visas and documentation impacts not only the ability to hire the types of skilled workers needed in a timely fashion, but also the morale of those already employed. Employers in areas most likely to face workplace raids or I-9 audits should address their employee relations issues as well as the staffing implications of the Administration’s policies.

What immigration issues have you experienced in your workforce recently?

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Managing Sexual Harassment Claims in the #MeToo Era


gear-67138_1280Now that I am only posting twice a month, I have less opportunity to comment on news issues that affect corporate management. But the #MeToo movement accusing many public figures in the entertainment and political world of sexual harassment has had an effect on other workplaces as well that is important to recognize.

I won’t list all the men (and occasional woman) outed for their past behavior. What is more important is how corporate managers and Human Resources professionals should respond going forward.

With the increased visibility of sexual harassment in a variety of workplaces, more employers are likely to see claims raised by their employees. The same was true in the weeks after Anita Hill’s allegations of harassment during the 1991 Clarence Thomas Senate confirmation hearings. Even though Senate confirmed Justice Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court, sexual harassment became a topic in many workplace discussions that year.

In some ways, corporations are ahead of politicians in addressing harassment issues. Ever since the Supreme Court’s decision in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 106 S. Ct. 2399 (1986), sexual harassment claims have been serious risks in the workplace.

And ever since the companion cases of Burlington Industries v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998), and Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775 (1998), employers have had a framework for how to minimize their exposure to claims of harassment based on the creation of a hostile work environment. Elements in that framework include:

  • Having a strong anti-harassment policy
  • Making it easy for victims to raise claims to someone other than the alleged harasser without fear of retaliation
  • Training all employees regularly on what the policy is and how to use it
  • Taking every claim seriously and investigating thoroughly, and
  • Taking appropriate action, if harassment is found.

And yet, even with these policies and practices in place, navigating harassment claims remains a minefield.

In the past thirty-some years, I have handled complaints against everyone from high-level executives to frontline employees. The #MeToo movement emphasizes that no one gets a free pass on harassing behavior.

I have dealt with everything from completely false accusations, to mentally ill employees alleging harassment because they are paranoid, to workplace flirtations and dating gone wrong (probably the most common problem), to quid pro quo demands in exchange for advancing a woman’s career, and even cases involving rape of a coworker.

When an allegation of harassment first arises, there is no way to know which situation one is dealing with. Sometimes the facts become clear very quickly, but other times the truth is hidden in murkiness. The standard is not “beyond a reasonable doubt” but what is “more likely than not”—is there a credible complaint of harassment and what actions are necessary to stop it from occurring again?

When the allegations of harassment are false, the male (99% of alleged harassers are male) feels wronged and his career can be damaged through no fault of his own. And when the allegations of harassment are true, the woman feels disbelieved and disrespected by the slow pace of a thorough investigation. When the allegations cannot be proven one way or the other, no one feels the process has worked. Whatever the outcome of the investigation, coming to the wrong answer, or not addressing the problem with appropriate action, taints the workplace.

So what are managers to do?

The best way to handle a claim of harassment has not changed in the #MeToo era from the steps outlined in Burlington Industries and Farragher. Take every claim seriously. Treat all parties involved with respect. Do your best to find the truth.

And above all else, make it clear from your own behavior that harassment in the workplace—harassment of any type—will not be tolerated. Stop the jokes, whether they be sexual or racial or homophobic. Treat every employee in the manner you want your loved ones to be treated at work.

In addition, in the age of smartphones and social media, recognize that anything you say or do might someday become public. Would you be proud to have your language or behavior show up on someone’s Facebook feed?

Once you as a manager are modeling the appropriate behavior, expect your employees to do the same.

It all comes down to company culture. Make sure yours does not tolerate harassment of any type.

What changes have you made to how you handle sexual harassment claims because of recent publicity on the issue?

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Dealing with the Flu and Other Infectious Diseases in the Workplace


FluIQThe cost of the flu on American businesses is staggering. One article states that the flu causes 100 million lost work days each year. Because about two-thirds of the time lost is taken as paid sick days, employers loss over $10 billion in productivity. Meanwhile, the other third costs employees $6.8 billion in lost wages.

This year’s flu season is one of the worst in modern times, according to most news reports. As someone who suffered through it last month (despite a flu shot in September), I am sympathetic to those who get sick. I was fortunate that my schedule allowed me to stay at home for a week, but many workers don’t have that flexibility. What should employers do to manage through flu seasons?

OSHA provides basic recommendations for those who don’t work in healthcare (who obviously need to use greater precautions). In general, OSHA recommends that employees exercise basic hygiene and avoid contact with those who are ill.

OSHA further suggests that employers do the following:

  • Promote vaccination
  • Encourage sick workers to stay home;
  • Promote hand hygiene and cough etiquette
  • Keep the workplace clean
  • Address employee travel concerns.

The CDC and NIOSH have published similar guidelines for employers.

Managers, how does your workplace measure up? At a minimum, employers should maintain high standards of workplace cleanliness and offer vaccinations free or at minimal cost to employees through medical plans. But how does your workplace culture handle employee absences and travel issues?

Too many employers set performance goals that do not tolerate absences that don’t amount to FMLA-covered serious health conditions.

allergy-18656_640For example, I never sought medical treatment for my illness last month and didn’t take any medications other than over-the-counter remedies. Yet for three days I was unable to concentrate on much, and I didn’t have any energy for several days after that, though I did get quite a bit of work done at home during my recuperation.

In fact, about 80% of sick employees go to work for part of all of the days they are sick.

Does your workplace make maximum use of flexible work practices? Granted, some jobs lend themselves more to flexibility than others. But where working from home, reduced or shifting hours, or other flexible arrangements are possible, are your employees encouraged to use them when they are ill? What about when their children are sick?

And do your leave policies permit machine operators, technicians, and others who must be in the workplace enough sick days to avoid spreading illness to others on your premises? Encouraging good attendance is important, but it shouldn’t be the primary measure of successful performance.

One employee in the workplace who misses two or three days from work is preferable to that employee infecting five other employees who then each miss one day. The cascading effect of contagion is much more costly than dealing with sick employees on a more humane and flexible basis. And, as the statistics cited at the top of this post indicate, the total costs are huge.

How do you think employers should balance productivity and flexibility when dealing with sick employees?

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Favorite Firings: Stray Discriminatory Comments by Management Complicate Litigation


operation-540597_1280In the Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory newsletter for December 4, 2017, there were three cases reported that dealt with comments by management personnel about employees. In each case, when the employee sued, the employer was unable to get past a motion to dismiss or a motion for summary judgment. Thus, in all three cases, the company faced lengthy litigation that might have been avoided, had managers been more careful with what they said.

THE FACTS:

In Creese v. District of Columbia, Case No. 16-2440 (RMC), D.C.D.C., Nov. 11, 2017, a corrections officer alleged that he was fired because he was not “manly” enough. His supervisor had made a few comments such as, “[n]o pretty boys needed in jail, so you need to take your earrings out.” The judge found that plaintiff produced enough evidence of impermissible gender stereotyping to survive a motion to dismiss his Title VII and Section 1983 claims.

In Sestak v. Northwestern Memorial Healthcare, Case No. 16-C-6354, N.D. Ill., Nov. 28, 2017, plaintiff Sestak, a labor and delivery nurse, alleged age discrimination after she was discharged for cause. She claimed that an unidentified individual stated that “older nurses would have difficulty” complying with new guidelines because older nurses “are too slow and spend too much time with patients” and that one of her supervisors stated that “older nurses’ often have difficulty understanding when the mother and baby become separate patients.” The court denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment.

In Carter v. A&E Supported Living, Inc., Case No. 16-00574-N, S.D. Ala., Nov. 29, 2017, a nurse was removed from the shift schedule at a group home for intellectually disabled individuals and then sued for pregnancy discrimination. She cited supervisors’ comments to her as evidence that she was removed from her work schedule because of her pregnancy and/or the related “high risk” conditions that the supervisors believed her pregnancy presented. One supervisor stated plaintiff “was at risk to be hurt and [she] didn’t want that for her or her unborn child, for her baby; nor did [she] want to put the people that [the employer] serve at risk…” Plaintiff was required to provide medical documentation that it was safe for her and her unborn child for her to perform the duties of her position. The judge denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

THE MORAL:

The general legal standard is that stray comments in the workplace do not automatically lead to violations of the discrimination laws. However, they can be evidence of a discriminatory intent. And, of course, the more egregious and frequent the remarks, the more likely courts are to find liability. I’ve written other posts (see here and here and here) about how supervisory comments can get their employers into trouble.

In each of these cases, the employer put forth nondiscriminatory reasons for the actions taken against the employee. But the existence of the supervisors’ comments about pregnancy or gender or age complicated the cases enough to let the judges refuse to grant the defendants’ dispositive motions. The employers may end up winning these cases, but they face lengthy and expensive litigation before they do. Settling the cases may prove to be the better option.

Moreover, in the environment we face today, with heightened sensitivity toward sexual harassment and discriminatory remarks, employers would be well advised to re-emphasize the need to avoid even casual comments about employees’ health, appearance, and any other topics that might touch on a protected status.

It’s a shame that we must be so careful in the workplace and avoid many topics of everyday conversation, but it’s the safest course. As demonstrated by these three cases decided by different courts in recent weeks, supervisory comments continue to present litigation challenges to employers. It is best to involve Human Resources and lawyers if there is any question about what topics are permissible to discuss.

What’s your opinion on the current state of conversation in the workplace?

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Five-Minute Meetings—I Wish!


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Last week I read an article by Sue Shellenbarger in The Wall Street Journal entitled “Can You Keep Your Meeting to Five Minutes?”

All I could say to myself was, “I wish!” My corporate life involved days full of hour-long meetings. Almost every meeting, it seemed, was scheduled for an hour.

In a matrix organization, this means a lot of meetings, just to keep up with one’s bosses, staff, and peers. A direct supervisor. A dotted-line supervisor. Six peers in the line organization I supported, as well as six Human Resources peers. Six direct reports. (Those last three categories varied, but six is about average.) That’s 20 hour-long meetings a month.

Then there were the group staff meetings, which were usually two hours long—one for the line organization, one for the HR organization, my own group staff. That’s three more monthly meetings.

There were also periodic all-day meetings with one group or another. Each of those meetings had agenda items that were one hour long—six or seven meetings packed into a single day.

And none of the meetings were real work. Most of them were just to keep tabs on what’s going on. So add in the project team meetings, the crisis meetings (when an employee needed serious discipline or firing, or an employee complained to HR), and the meetings with outside consultants.

Sometimes decisions were made, but often the meetings were status reports. I can read a status report. I can ask questions in a phone call or email or text message.

It wasn’t that the meetings were completely wasted time. They did insure that people were on the same page. They did build relationships among people whose jobs often took them in different directions working with different parts of the organization.

But for every meeting to default to an hour? Probably too long.

I typically had five or six hours of meetings booked on my calendar before I walked in the door each morning. I instructed my administrative assistant to keep two hours free on my calendar every day. She could move the time around to fit in meetings, but I wanted the two hours to get some actual work done. Some days she couldn’t do it.

I got more done in half a day on the weekend than I did in a full day during the week. Because on Saturday and Sunday there were no meetings.

So a five-minute meeting? Even if there were three times as many meetings, I would have come out ahead. Or a default of 30 minutes for a meeting would have improved my time management ability.

I remember one presentation I was scheduled to give to the company’s executive committee. My hour-long slot got pushed back until I only had fifteen minutes. My topic was admittedly a longer-term priority than some of the day’s other agenda items, so I understood why I was the presentation that got squished.

I had a sixteen-slide deck to present. I could hear the sigh of relief when I asked the executives to turn to Slide 13. The earlier slides were data, which I wanted to be sure they saw. But what was important for the time I had left was the decision they needed to make. That discussion started on Slide 13. We reached a decision in the 15 minutes of time that remained. We didn’t have as rich a discussion as I had wanted. But we moved my project forward.

I know I’m whining in this post, about too much time in meetings, about the wrong types of topics discussed in meetings, about having my own meeting time cut. But the bottom line is true—organizations spend too much time meeting and not enough time doing.

For more on holding more productive meetings, see “How to Improve the ROI of Your Staff Meetings,” by Dianna Booher, posted November 9, 2017, on TLNT.com. As Ms. Booher points out, meetings cost time—do you know how much your meetings cost your organization?

What meetings do you attend that could be shortened, delegated, or eliminated?

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Alpha Dogs and Leadership


dogs-1231010_1280Because this blog was on hiatus all summer, I didn’t comment on the political stalemates and morasses during those months. And I’m not going to comment directly on the ongoing issues today. But what I saw over the summer—and what I continue to see this fall—reminds me of a situation I encountered many years ago involving “alpha dogs” in a corporate setting.

My work group attended a gender diversity program sometime in the mid-1990s. I was not in management at the time; I was one of several individual contributors who ranged widely in seniority. I was in the middle of the pack at the time.

One of the comments about gender differences that the facilitator made during this gender diversity session was that men often try to be the “alpha dog” in a meeting by one-upping the other men in the room. Women, on the other hand, care less if they are seen as the highest power in the room. (Keep in mind that this program took place decades before Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” philosophy became vogue.)

I might have forgotten this “alpha dog” comment, except that a few days after the diversity program, I was talking about it with a male colleague, one of the more senior employees in our group. He freely admitted, “That’s why I have problems with [our male boss]. He and I both want to be the alpha dog.”

I thought about it. He was right—these two men did both try to be top dog. And trying to be the alpha dog wasn’t working for my colleague, because he didn’t have the corporate authority to pull it off. He wasn’t the boss, but he often tried to be.

I made a deliberate decision. As a fairly young and introverted female, seeking to be the alpha dog wasn’t going to work for me either. Therefore, I would consciously act like I was NOT the alpha dog. I would not overtly try to one-up other people I encountered in the workplace. I would defer to others intentionally. I would seek to provide good service to my colleagues and clients, rather than to command them. That didn’t mean letting others step all over me, but it did mean not being arrogant or seeking top billing on projects.

I’ve written before about “servant leadership,” a philosophy that advocates leading by serving others. I didn’t hear of that concept until ten or more years after the 1990s gender diversity program, but it resonated with me when I learned about it.

How did servant leadership work for me?

Generally, it worked well, at least through the middle years in my career. Over time, there were more and more times when I had to take command and make decisions. And occasionally, I didn’t get as much credit for my work as I thought I should have. But those times were less frequent than one might expect.

However, there were times after I moved into senior corporate roles when more of a command approach might have worked better. There were definitely people—mostly men, but a few women—who took advantage of my understated approach or who thought me weak. I could usually deflect them by being the best prepared person in the room, but there were a few jerks who only understood power, who only thought highly of other “alpha dogs” and sought to be the “alpha dog” with everyone except the CEO. They were never my favorite people, but sometimes I did have to flex my style to deal with them effectively.

dogs-1231008_640Unfortunately, many of today’s leaders—particularly the partisans on both sides of the aisle in Washington—seem to be of the “alpha dog” mentality. One-up-man-ship is all they understand. And so our nation has become increasingly polarized. If more of them would exercise servant leadership, we would all be better off.

What leadership style have you generally used? When have you had to flex your style?

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