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Friday, August 24, 2007

How We Know All Employees Are Legal



I have for some time wondered how long it would take the political demagoguery of the immigration issue to manifest itself as racist behavior in everyday people. The immigration debate in this year's local elections can best be described as putting the modifier "illegal" in front of a host of nouns (immigrant, foreigner, etc...) in order to mask mistrust and disapproval of foreign nationals in public forums. Leadership is communication, and with this type of local leadership we've been bound to get what happened this past week.

We had a caller from outside the company reach one of my young staff members to question her as to how we screened for "illegals". When pressed for specifics, he mentioned one of our Hispanic employees by name and said that he "knew" she was illegal because she was on his list. He claimed to have a list of illegal immigrants working for our company, that he was with "the neighborhood watch" and that he would be "checking back in on us from time to time" to see if we were hiring illegals. By the way, the employee he mentioned was hired under a valid U.S. work permit and is very much legal.

We also had an anonymous suggestion that a different employee was "illegal". That too turned out to be false.

That we received a phone call or a suggestion wouldn't be reason enough for me to write about. What continues to concern me is that our political discourse, particularly the absence of national leadership and the wrong type of local leadership, breeds a climate where we have a new accusation to throw at foreign-born citizens. With the current momentum, the "I" word ("Illegals") will replace the "N" word in the racist lexicon, but with no social sanction to the person who uses it. This will particularly hurt Hispanics in our community and make us all look like we need another lunch counter demonstration to awaken righteous Nashvillians.

Equally concerning is the fact that new regulations from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and new state and local laws place the burden for screening illegal aliens on the shoulder of employers, since the government won't do its job of protecting the borders and investing in economic development in the countries whose people migrate here. This makes accusations against employers potentially damaging from the distraction and cost of immigration audits and investigations.

So, since leadership is communication, allow me to lead on a couple of subjects:

1. Thomas Nelson does not hire illegal immigrants. We do this because its the law and for no other reason. Having worked in Mexico and seen Third World working conditions, I have no problem hiring anyone with enough grit and determination to make it all the way to Nashville. However, that's against the law and we always comply with the law. Everyone who is hired goes through a criminal background check which includes a nation-wide social security number trace. We have eliminated candidates due to this screening and we will continue to do so. We comply with the law in completing Form I-9, which requires one of my staff to physically review and handle the identification papers of every new hire. In cases where we have temporary work permits, we periodically go back through our files (as we're doing this week) and make sure all are current. When they aren't, we go to the employee and request updated permits as a condition of continued employment.

How do we know this works? Remember, we submit FICA payments for each employee every two weeks. If any company submits FICA to the government under a phony SS#, it gets a "no-match letter" at year's end from the Social Security Administration (SSA). That company then, under new regulations from the Department of Homeland Security, has 90 days to resolve the issue or remove the employee. We have not received a no-match letter since implementing the nation-wide social security trace five years ago. If you're looking for an employer with loose practices to criticize for hiring illegals, go look somewhere else.

2. Thomas Nelson values people of all nationalities who want to work here. This HR department is the point at which all candidates start. We are a diverse group of professionals and we don't care about your age, race, religion, national origin, private life, disability status, shoe size, hair color, weight, politics, or favorite type of music. If you have the skill and the passion for what we do, all else is secondary. The only exceptions are (a) that you be eligible to work in the United States (because that's the law), and (b) that you not be an Alabama football fan, although we have a re-education program that will have you employable to wearing orange on Football Fridays in no time.

In my church we believe that there are four sins that cry to heaven; that are so egregious that they offend and diminish the dignity of the human person made in the image of God. Two of them are injustice to wage earners and injustice to foreigners. Since most first-generation foreign workers are in lower-wage jobs, what I saw this week does both, and as Christians we can do better than that.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

We Interrupt The Business Life for Real Life

At 2:15 a.m. on Saturday the phone rang, and it was my Dad telling me that my Grandfather was gravely ill in the Critical Care unit of the Regional Medical Center in Madisonville, KY. Having just celebrated his 90th birthday with us two weeks before, Ed Thomason had suffered a series of mini-strokes from which he recovered within 30 minutes to 3 hours each time; but had this time suffered a significant stroke from which the doctors did not expect him to recover. His nurse called my dad since he lived two hours away, and he gave me a heads-up that the situation was grave. At 4:45 a.m. the phone rang again; Dad was in Madisonville by that time and was calling in the family. Luther Edward Thomason departed this world at 8:15 a.m. with all of his descendants who could be reached holding hands around his bedside. This included his wife Louise, 88, to whom he had been married for 73 years and their only son, my dad, who turned 70 earlier this year.

Such ended the earthly life not of one of our generations great thinkers or passionate missionaries, but one of the truly down-to-earth great guys who ever drew breath. Cars loved him, fish feared him, and I never met anyone who found him hard to talk to. He was the second-oldest and longest-enrolled member of the First Baptist Church of Dawson Springs. His death is made harder by the fact that it is the first in our family in 24 years, since the passing of his mother Jessie while I was in graduate school.

Born at home in Caldwell County, KY in July of 1917, Ed Thomason had a 10th grade education and, except for working in an aircraft factory during WWII, never roamed far from his home town. He saved the money he made at the aircraft factory in St. Louis and bought the Standard Oil station in Dawson Springs where he'd pumped gas as a kid. He later added an auto parts store, then the Texaco Station, and in retirement had a small car wash until his health would no longer allow it.

Although a Thomason by name, that branch of our family was heavily inter-married with the Ausenbaughs and picked up a healthy dose of German hard-nosed determination. Not only did he work his way up to owning his own businesses, but I remember being 10 or 11 and watching Ed study for and get his GED in his late 50's. He balanced that inherited grit with an easy smile and a disposition that put you instantly at ease. He was one of the nicest and most genuine guys I ever knew.

He retired modestly but comfortably in 1973 living in the same house in which he and his wife, the former Louise Clark, had always lived and in which they raised their son. His entrepreneurship inspired my Dad to go into business for himself, and the opening of a new drug store in 1985 (pictured in black & white below) and our gathering for Father's Day this year (pictured in color below) show four surviving generations of our family 22 years apart. That's Ed in the sweater vest and jacket in '85 and seated at center right in '07; our "baby" Rachel is in my arms in '85 and at my side in '07. That's my Dad trading a Pharmacist's uniform for a barbecue apron.















We will lay Ed to rest on Monday morning in Rosedale Cemetery in Dawson Springs. I'll be out of the office at least Monday, and possibly Tuesday depending upon how quickly I recover from being up all night a couple of nights in a row, and depending upon how my grandmother and dad are dealing with this loss given their respective ages. Late Monday after the funeral Dad and I, like two Chingachgooks from The Last of the Mohicans, plan a private visit to the nearby McNeilly family cemetery where our Ausenbaugh and Creekmur ancestors are buried.

We all have families and every family has a story. Yours does too and I'm not saying mine is any better or more special. But this is part of our story; part of who we are as people. Births and deaths remind us that our work life should be subordinate to our family life and not the other way around. The Business Life has fewer boundaries every year and the temptation or the habit to substitute business for family is a national epidemic. Dad and I are just as or more susceptible to this than most, so for the next couple of days we're going to repent of that, bury Ed, and help Louise cope with what must be inconsolable grief. I'll see you mid-week and we can go back to talking about EBITDA, Requisitions to Hire, and all the other stuff that pays the bills.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Change Your (Work) Mind, Change Your (Work) World

Work was once much simpler than it is now. Your home life happened at home, your work life happened at work, and your social life happened everywhere else. The boundaries were easier to define: work happened at set hours and at a work site, and when you left the workplace you left your work. All of us working in knowledge work occupations know that this has changed dramatically.

I'd be 10 years behind the times if I claimed that this was a new observation. But as we change our company culture and move towards more flexible work arrangements, what is a new observation for me is that the workforce that wants these arrangements is often its own impediment to change. I had to deal with a department this week that turned on one of its own, who was coming back from maternity leave on a flexible schedule to accommodate child care. The sniping about "full-time pay for part-time work" when the person was delivering their work assignments well and on time was troubling. It really pointed out while alternative work arrangements are desirable, achievable, and (I think) inevitable they open up a whole new realm of conflicts between those whose jobs permit it, those whose jobs won't, and those who would complain about anything given the chance.

So, while I don't have a solution, I do have a challenge for each of you. Ask yourself these questions:


1. Can my job be done outside the company facilities without extra expense? If so, where would I do that work if I had my choice?

2. If I can work at home, can I get quiet time to do quality work, or will I have crying babies and talkative neighbors and demanding spouses to deal with? In other words, is my "alternative" work place any better than my current work space?

3. If a co-worker can work from home, but I can't, will I mind? Will I be reasonable and charitable when I need something from someone that I have to IM or email or call rather than roll my chair back and ask?

4. If my co-worker works from home half days and accomplishes their work from 8 p.m. to midnight, rather than 12 - 4 p.m., is this going to bother me?

5. If someone works for me and they're not working right outside my office, is my first instinct going to be that they're not working?

For alternative work schedules to become a reality we're all going to have step back and ask ourselves how we work with one another as cohesive teams and respected colleagues when we're not all in the same space at the same time. Think about these issues, and I welcome your comments. Remember, change your mind and change our world.