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Monday, December 28, 2009

Turn the Cell Phone Industry Upside Down

This a rare, off-topic non-workplace post but I'm on vacation this week and thinking about other things. While shopping for Christmas presents I briefly considered and then dismissed buying an iPhone or Blackberry for my wife. Our daughter has an iPhone and loves it; I have a company-issued Blackberry and find it handy at times. The purchase price of these devices is $450 - $500 unless you renew your cell phone contract, and then they are anywhere from $49 - $99. But that's where they lost me.

I went to my local AT&T store and found out that we don't have a line on our family share plan that is up for renewal until February. I pushed back some with the nice young man behind the counter; after all, I send enough money each month to AT&T for my home phone, Internet access and three cell phones to supply a third world city with food for a year. What's eight weeks if you're making a long-time and very good customer happy. Nothin' doin'! I'm under contract and they don't have any incentive to make me happy. That's when it hit me.

I know I'm slow, but I don't think about technology and the business end of technological companies that much. I have a full-time job, and technology is simply the tool set of our modern age. I don't focus on the latest gadget anymore than my great grandfather sat around his WPA work camp talking hammers with his fellow carpenters. Tomorrow the technology will change we'll be on to something else and I just refuse to get caught up in the hoopla over the latest gadget. What does interest me are people, and part of that interest is in the art and science of customer service and building customer loyalty.

So, thusly unfocused, I missed what the cell phone industry has done to all of us. This business has undoubtedly become a commodity. Although really neat developments like the iPhone make even guys like me sit up and take notice, cell phone stores could just as easily resemble groceries with high competition and low margins. Rather than let that happen, the industry came up with a great gimmick: offer expensive phones for next to nothing, require that the customer sign away their freedom of choice in exchange for the phone, then amortize that cost over the two or three year term of the contract. Without freedom to change companies, the industry resists commoditization. Phone prices from hardware makers and the monthly fees charged by the service providers can stay artificially high.

Here's what I've decided to do about it, and I think you should too. Hang on to your phone, save up your money, and the next time you need a phone buy it at full price without signing a contract extension. When your contract is up, you then have leverage to negotiate terms with the AT&T's and Verizons of the world. How much leverage is unknown right now; it depends upon how many people decide to take this route. What won't happen is your being held captive to a corporation at an expensive price in what should be a cheap commodity market.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Things to Blow Up I: Performance Reviews

In an industrial era where supervisors were "bosses" rather than coaches, where jobs were relatively unskilled manipulating things vs. information, and where the talent needed for these jobs was in ample supply was born the performance appraisal. The purpose was two-fold: force the occasion at least annually for the boss to speak to the worker about their performance and how they could do their jobs better, and provide a documented history of the worker's performance. That history, housed usually in the Personnel department, was primarily used for (1) review of the worker's history for purposes of promotion or reassignment, and in later years after the development of discrimination laws (2) documentation for the company to support its termination decision and defend against lawsuits.

W. Edwards Demming, the most progressive-minded and talented of all management gurus, advised American industry to end this practice in the 1950's. As is well-documented, his ideas were laughed out of the U.S. and promptly adopted in Japan whose industries recovered to outperform American companies for a generation.

The changes in how we supervise, how we work, the talent supply, and how we document have changed dramatically since the first performance reviews.

The mode of supervision has morphed from "boss" to "coach" with frequent and candid on-going communication happening throughout the year. No longer do you need to force an occasion for supervisor and staff member to talk.

The nature of the work performed in most jobs is now information-based. It is trackable and measurable and poor work is evident more quickly than in the industrial era, if not immediately evident. It is also evident to both employee, co-workers and the supervisor. A formal meeting is not required to point out opportunities for improvement.

The talent supply of information workers is not infinite. Yes, we have 15+ million people unemployed right now, but we simultaneously have highly skilled jobs open on all the major job boards like Monster and Career Builder. Thanks in no small part of the demise of public schools and nuclear families, we have lots of people and not so much educated talent. To keep this talent requires a softer, coaching-based supervisory mode that is antithetical to formal top-down performance reviews.

As Christian supervisors, we suck at performance documentation and constructive conflict. Rating inflation occurs in almost every workplace, but its a pandemic in Christian cultures. Most employees feel that they are above average and are insulted by an average rating, and supervisors don't want to insult their people. We find that comments on the appraisals are generally accurate ("Janie should not steal the company van to go line dancing during lunch hour") but are immediately followed by ratings of "Commendable" or "Outstanding". As such, this documented rating not only fails to help HR in defending against wrongful termination actions, it is actually a barrier that must be overcome in litigation preparation.

The review process does not build alignment. Reviews come at different times throughout the year. At different stages in the business cycle we have different needs and points of emphasis. Everything from the supervisor's mood to the department's budget-to-actual performance is different at each employee's review. The context is never the same for each review, and the review itself does not build alignment amongst and between the different jobs in the department and the department's role in the organization's goals and objectives. That's done informally by the coaching supervisor.

Because each employee feels they are above average, and is rated so by their supervisor, there is no meaningful link between rating and salary increases. In a 3% or 4% increase pool, if we rated based upon above average ratings, everyone would get 5-6%. To stay within budget managers typically disregard the ratings and give increases based upon other factors such as budget, position in market range, etc...

The review process is time consuming. It starts in HR where one of our staff members queries the payroll system monthly for a list of reviews due that month, and overview reviews from prior months. Next we send out an email list, and we follow up on supervisors with late reviews from prior months. The supervisors typically read last year's review to see if there's been progress made and then completes the review form, a process that takes all-together about an hour. The review meeting takes 30 - 45 minutes and involves at least two people, the supervisor and employee. The review form may or may not be sent to the second level supervisor for prior approval. It is always sent to HR for filing. All told, every review is the culmination of about 4 man hours. Multiply that by 500 people and you have the equivalent of one full-time employee's work for a year.

In summary, employees dread their annual reviews almost as much as their supervisors dread giving them. The vast majority of people leaving a review haven't learned anything new during the review meeting because they talk to their supervisor regularly throughout the year. The documented record, both in terms of how the employee is doing and the historical rating, are of limited value. The meeting does little to drive alignment between and within departments. The rating has little if anything to do with the eventual salary increase. The energy expended is significant for a process that adds little or not value.

So what should we do instead? We've discussed this with the ELT and will discuss it with all SVPs later in the month. Until then I'll reserve comment on what should replace the current system. Once we have SVP input I'll feel it appropriate to say more.

Question: What's your opinion of performance appraisals and how happy or sorry would you be to see them go?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

It's a New Year: Let's Blow Some Stuff Up

Okay so we've worked our way through the worst part of the worst recession in our lifetime. We've practiced a relentless focus on our business, watched our expenses, kept the company profitable through a variety of challenges from weak retail to financial backers who think a bible translation means English, Spanish or French. Everybody on the team deserves credit.

While focus is a great thing that keeps us on-task and taking care of immediate business it should not be the enemy of innovation. God gave us two eyes, and I believe that gives us the ability to keep one on the task at hand while the other one looks to the future.

Without taking our "eye" off our immediate needs, we need use the other one to take a fresh look at some worn-out assumptions, blow up some old programs, and continue to simplify our business. This is a well-run profitable company, but I believe there are places where we're expending energy for little return. Since we're all doing the work of more than one person we just don't have the time for that.

Over the next few blog posts I'm going to lay out a case for narratives we should shift, assumptions we should throw out, and programs we should end. I have my list (see below), but I'm really more interested in yours! If you have a "stupid things we should stop doing" list feel free to comment on this blog, send me a private email, or drop off your submission in an anonymous envelope in HR (although if you're that paranoid you might want to use gloves so we can't track your fingerprints). ;-)

My List

1. Performance Reviews - I think its time we "just said no"
2. Marketing/Publicity Job Titles - Its an old system that needs an overhaul
3. Expense Budgets - Hint: zero-based and grounded in an activity plan
4. The Equal Opportunity Narrative - I remember 1964 and this ain't it!

Okay, I've gone first. If you want to add to this series you know what to do. Feel free to join the conversation.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Skip the Social Media Staff

In the past few weeks I'm hearing discussion in our company and elsewhere about the potential need for social media specialists of some sort. I believe we should heed the history of technological innovations, get ahead of the curve, and skip this expensive and soon to be outdated step. Social media is on its way to becoming a required and ubiquitous skill set in several job families, not a position or department.

I see similarities between this technological development and two others I've experienced in my career; the use of interpreters and the adoption of the personal computer.

In international business the model was often that people of different cultures transacted business in some neutral third language or utilized interpreters to facilitate communication. It may seem a quaint notion if you're under 50, but there was a time in business where executives working in foreign countries actually travelled with a person who was paid to help them communicate. Early in my career, about the late 70's or early 80's, we saw a shift in that companies began to train staff members in foreign languages, or hire bi-lingual or tri-lingual graduates. The last interpreter I hired was in 1991; after that it was required that you speak more than your native language for almost any foreign assignment, and no mono-lingual staff members were considered promotable to positions with international responsibility. The bar was raised and has never lowered since. Companies then had to cope with the unwinding of interpreter staffs through layoffs or reassignments.

We saw a similar situation with the personal computer. Again, a quaint notion for younger readers is that we used to pay people just to type memos and other documents. Skilled staff and managerial positions required no typing skills. When the PC broke on the scene it was embraced by skilled knowledge workers first as a way to improve all manner of graphic and calculating work (engineering, design, architecture, etc...) and a way for the average office worker to escape the control of the Data Processing department (another quaint notion) who controlled the main frame computer.

Within a very few years the idea that a company would pay someone to type for you became as ludicrous and paying someone to speak for you. Typing became "keyboarding" and became a requirement for practically any office job. Later the integration of spreadsheets and presentation software with word processing led to the "office suite" concept of prepackaged integrated software. Now the price of admission into any career working in an office was working knowledge of Microsoft Office, Word Perfect Suite, or similar product. Within a staggeringly short period of time about half the "secretary" positions in the country disappeared as the bar was raised for skills required to work in office positions. Today you don't think of hiring someone for a knowledge-worker position who can't keyboard and use office software.

This brings us back around to Social Media. This new technology continues to develop and morph into whatever it will become. When it finally matures the communications between people who share some affinity or commonality will never be the same. Positions like marketing and recruiting, those that connect a company with those outside its own walls, will require the people working in them to have social media skills. Those companies who decide right now to hire social media staffs to help them leverage this new technology will, by the time they build those staffs, find themselves with an expensive and outdated apparatus. They will be unwinding and disbanding their social media gurus like the interpreters and secretaries of past technological periods. I won't have a social media specialist to help my recruiters search LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter for talent; I just won't hire a recruiter who can't do that for themselves.

What makes the most sense now is to discern the essential skills necessary to communicate and mine for information on social media, and then teach that to our staffs. We should not consider for entry-level employment anyone in marketing, PR, publicity, recruiting, and business development who does not know how to navigate social media. If done right we'll be hitting our stride in mining on-line communities for business while others are expending energy downsizing or disbanding their social media groups or departments.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Live Events Division Office On the Move?

It is highly likely that we will move the division headquarters of Thomas Nelson Live Events sometime this summer. While that's not guaranteed, that seems to be the direction in which we're heading. Some might wonder why, in the current economic climate, we would do such a thing. After all, isn't that inconsistent with our measures to cut costs and preserve cash? Here's what we're doing and why.

Since the merger of the Facilities and HR departments I've been getting an education on commercial space. New space is often referred to as "Class A" space in that its new, well apportioned with a good location and solid management. Class B space is Class A space that has aged well, but no longer has the first class look of new top-quality space. Class C space is run down and tired, old and/or poorly maintained.

The Live Events division space in Plano occupies offices that its been leasing for 9 1/2 years of a 10 year lease. That space was probably Class B when it was leased by the previous owners of the company. The lease rate was very reasonable, but was a la carte. Everything is an add-on, including maintenance, janitorial, security, etc... We also get assessed for common-use major maintenance, such as when the HVAC system had to be replaced for the building. Over the years that we've occupied this space the actual "all-in" occupancy cost has been the equivalent in the Plano market of low-end Class A space.

During the period of our lease the absentee landlord has declined to put requested repairs and upkeep into that space. Last week I noticed that almost every wallpaper seam in the one larger conference room was loose. A letter sent by our broker 2 1/2 years ago requesting over a dozen "immediate" repairs has resulted in none of those repairs being made. The result of this neglect is that, according to our brokers, this space has now become Class C space at a Class A price.

Because of these factors, and a half-hearted renewal proposal from the landlord's property manager, we began looking for space a few months ago. What we discovered was that the vacancy rate in the north Dallas market (Plano, Richardson, Allen, etc...) is extremely high with some buildings having space that's been empty for 2-3 years. Our first round of price quotes indicates that we can upgrade these offices from Class C to upper-end Class B space for 30 - 40% less lease. We're also insisting on a comprehensive lease so that our division with the smallest percentage of male employees is no longer responsible for their own maintenance.

Over the next few weeks we'll issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) to and receive responses from six finalists. We've arrived at these six from an initial review of 80 commercial buildings in the Plano area. The current landlord is welcome to bid as well and its not inconceivable that they could wake up. Given past history, I seriously doubt it but anythings possible.

So that's the inside scoop for those of you in Plano who asked me if you're "really going to move this time." That's also the facts for anyone wondering if we've lost our mind. Our goal is a significant reduction in cost and simultaneously a significant increase in the quality of the work environment and workplace satisfaction. We'll be pushing hard on this for an April/May decision and a possible move in late summer.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Listen to Your Uncle Julio

Earlier tonight at the recommendation of friend and colleague Lara Dulaney I stopped for dinner at Uncle Julio's in Allen, TX. Knowing that the rest of the Nashville contingent had gone home a day earlier, and that I was dining by myself, she told me that the food was good and that I could get a full meal at the bar. I thought that was a good idea because you're not so noticeable as "dinner for one" eating at a crowded bar.

I drove the extra exit up from my hotel in Allen and found the place on an out-parcel in a shopping center that had TJ Maxx and Dick's Sporting Goods among other stores. It was mid-priced/low-upscale so nothing that felt like a waste of money. Unlike the eerily deserted restaurants I saw during lunch in the Plano area Uncle Julio's was busy at 8:00 p.m. and had the appearance of winding down from the dinner rush.

So I sit at the bar and here is where the story really begins. One of the two bartenders stuck out his hand, said, "I'm Jeff what's your name?" and asked me where I was from and had I dined there before. I told him I hadn't and he made several recommendations. What I had isn't important, but it was good. Jeff came around and made conversation. When I asked for the check he said he'd bring it but that he had something for me.

When next I looked up there was a manager standing there with plate of soppopias and honey. He also stuck his hand out, introduced himself (Josh, I think, but I may not have heard him correctly). He said, "Jeff tells me you're here for the first time. We wanted to give you a little something special and ask you to come back." I tried to share this plate with everyone at the bar because there were enough for four people.

As I'm leaving I thought about what had just happened. A fully engaged and well-trained employee made a special effort to connect with me on a first-name basis and identify me as a potential new customer. He passed that along to his manager who similarly made a first-name connection and gave me way more than I had expected. I don't believe for a minute that its coincidental that Uncle Julio's parking lot was full while others were empty.

Business is about people and human connections. Business people tend to think its about finance, but finance is to business what a score board is to the football game. It doesn't play the game; people play the game. What a company's financials tell us is what happened between people in the act of commerce. When restaurants in this area are having the same predictable Board of Directors reaction to slash expenses and cut their way to prosperity, Uncle Julio's is reaching out and taking their fair market share, and then some, by engaging employees and connecting with customers.

If your parking lot is empty, either the customer lot or the employee lot, maybe your should listen to your Uncle Julio.

Friday, November 06, 2009

While We're Reforming Healthcare Let's Talk About Doctors

I'm writing this over lunch having spent the better part of my morning going to and coming from an appointment at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center Hand Clinic. I never saw a doctor; I walked out after an hour and a half and I'll decide later if I go back. This morning reminds me of a study done in 2007 on the hidden cost of physician inefficiency.

This study, available on economix.com studied Americans 15 and over during 2007 to see how much time is spent in physician waiting rooms. That number...and maybe you should sit down, is 847 million hours in one year. In 2007 the average wage for American workers was $17.43/hr, so the total cost to the economy was $240 billion. The average American that year spent the equivalent of 1.1 hours per week in a doctor's waiting room. So, take your average hourly wage x 52 weeks a year x 1.1 and see what you or your employer are spending each year.

In all other commercial transactions in a capitalist system the person to whom you pay money is working for you. Medicine is an exception. Only in medicine do the people and institutions to whom we pay money (either directly, through our health insurance, or both) dictate the environment in which we'll wait, how long we'll wait, and what care we'll receive (you can assert your rights as a patient to guide or refuse the care offered which is not always appreciated by your physician). Timeliness, it is safe to say, is not a metric used to assess the performance of most physicians practices.

Let's draw a distinction for the rest of this discussion between routine care, which most of us receive, and life-threatening care such as rendered via oncology, cardiology, emergency medicine, etc... I never minded waiting in the Breast Clinic with my wife while her doctors were treating cancer. That's way different.

Now here's the big "ah ha." Practically all non-life-threatening care is routine. When was the last time you had an experimental treatment? If you're like most patients, its never. Anything that's routine can be analyzed and measured.

Whether you're treating a common cold or rebuilding someones knee, with a modicum of study you can determine how long that takes. You can then schedule your appointments around those needs. You don't have to know the diagnosis if you're an ear, nose and throat specialist; those coming to you are making appointments because they have an ENT need. Same with orthopaedists and double for primary care physicians.

In other words, there's never a good excuse for over booking your practice and making people wait unnecessarily.

This is a paradigm that we should shift while we're reforming American health care. If more patients demanded timely care, and took their business elsewhere when they didn't get it, then timely care would become a measurable performance metric in physicians and clinical practices. Those operations, for all the good they do for humanity, are also businesses and are sensitive to customer pressure. As patients we just usually don't think to exert it and we should.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Push Back When Medical Bills Seem High

One of my family members recently had an endoscopy procedure. It was recommended at this stage of life and was purely preventative. According to our UHC insurance that procedure is covered at 100% when its a preventative screening. After the test the physician met with us and told us the results were "unremarkable".

Note my surprise, then, when I received and EOB for the procedure asking me for $800 as my portion of the expense. We called UHC who explained that physician's office had coded the procedure as "General Illness" and so our plan would only pay 80% after a $500 deductible. I tried to explain back to them that the procedure was covered at 100%, to which they replied that as long as the bill was coded anything other than "Preventative" there would be a deductible and co-insurance.

Next I went to the physician's practice at Vanderbilt Clinic. After three phone calls over four weeks and ever-elevated blood pressure, I took an unusual step. I jointly emailed our UHC rep, the physician, and the VUMC billing dept rep explaining that someone had made a mistake; either the physician was wrong when he told us that he found nothing, the coding was incorrect when an unremarkable test result was coded as an "illness", the billing was incorrect if a preventative screening was billed as an illness, or the claims processing was incorrect if a co-pay and deductible was applied to a preventative service.

Well, none of them were amused and I did have to make a phone call to Vanderbilt Patience Advocacy. Eventually, on 9/23 (8 weeks after the service date) the physician's bill was reprocessed and paid at 100%.

So all was well. Until it wasn't.

Two weeks ago I received a $297 bill for the hospital's portion of the billing for this same procedure. My wife called while I was at work and Vanderbilt Patient Billing explained to her that this bill had already been reprocessed and that UHC would only pay 80%. We did indeed owe this. Two days later, this last Saturday, I received a final notice from Vanderbilt on this same balance.

Monday morning I called Patient Billing. I found that their customer service calls are taken by their accounting staff and I had a 40 minute conversation with a lady determined to tell me I was going to pay the bill. One supervisor conversation later and this bill is now in coding for review, which is what has to happen before it can be recoded and billed properly.

This long narrative is meant to make these points.

1. Vanderbilt's medical coding and billing has stumbled in recent months. I'm not sure what's wrong over there, but you should look at your bills and make sure that what they're charging you squares with what you understand your benefits to be.

2. You should question any charge to UHC and to your provider that is for more than you think you owe.

3. Make sure and get a printout of your scheduled benefits off myuhc.com or from HR, as the first time we asked UHC about our benefit they misquoted it until we faxed them our benefit schedule.

4. Keep your cool. The people who take these calls are accustomed to yelling and screaming and you make yourself refrigerator noise when you do. Get your facts together and beat them with kindness, calm, reason, and superior facts.

5. Medical billing staffs are not terribly well trained or well qualified. This profession is like Education and Human Resources. Anybody can get into the field so while you can have professionals of high quality and integrity you can also have under performers make a career out of making mistakes. Don't ever assume that your bills are coded correctly.

6. Ask HR. Before you let any of this make you crazy, come see us. We deal with these types of issues all the time.

Whenever I deal with my own insurance I get really concerned for everyone else. I've been administering benefits for 25 years, I know bad work when I see it, and I'm not afraid to call it out. If I have this much trouble, what does everyone else do? My concern is that you pay it and move on.

Before you pay something you don't believe you owe (because the providers and insurers will certainly let you!), come see us.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Education vs. Training

There are two thankless sub disciplines in HR and I've done both of them: Training and Executive Compensation. You can never satisfy the majority of your stakeholders and some days you don't feel that you satisfied any of them. I don't manage executive comp at Thomas Nelson (the Board does that) so I'm spared that cross to bear. With training I have indecision. On the one hand we need it and I am duty-bound to advocate for it, knowing that if I get a budget I'll have the thankless job of delivering a product that at best will get mixed reviews. It is my most severe instance of, "Lord, how do I pray?" at budget time.

Part of our training regimen is that every three years we train or retrain all supervisors of two or more people. We use various forms of feedback to determine the content. We get requests of those who do the job and feel they need more training, requests of employees who say their supervisor needs certain training, and we observe problems from our seats in HR and see what skill problems cause people problems.

So this month we started delivering supervisory training (not leadership training; that's different) to all supervisors, rank of VP and below, who supervise two or more people. The training is right down the hall from my office and I roam the hallways on breaks to get feedback. Some feedback comes to me via email and drop-ins to the office. The wide variety of opinions from "fabulous" to "total waste of time" make you wonder if these folks were in the same room with the same instructor. It reminds me of some truths about training that everyone should keep in mind.

1. You get out of it what you expect - I've had people who had this same information in NLU hear it again as members of the leadership team and still think its "good stuff." These tend to be people whose supervisors were "thrifty" and disinclined to invest in their training. They approach these sessions like water in the desert and we could probably present to them the recipe for dog food and they'd love it. Conversely, Mr. Starbucks who comes in an hour late and instantly begins checking email roundly pronounces it inferior.

2. Training is Vocation, Not Education - Training topics range from making pivot tables in Excel to the supervisor's roll in tracking hours worked. My friends and colleagues with advanced degrees from prestigious institutions sometimes take training as an insult. After all, what can a training class tell them that Presumptuous U hasn't already imparted? Plainly stated, I've had colleagues and supervisors who were both educated and uneducated. My experience has been that education is no leading indicator of a person's ability to organize, instruct, think creatively or implement strategy. To specifically reference our current supervisory training, if education made for good supervisors we'd all go straight to management right out of college.

3. Come Humble- To be trained requires that you not come into the room knowing it all. There is a vulnerability that is required to accept information from someone else in front of your colleagues. If you're too proud, or too afraid, to ask questions you won't get much out of your time in the seminar.

I know of what I speak. I am currently going through continuing education over the course of several weekends. Except for a couple of hot-shot attorneys I am further in my career and outrank everyone in the room. I'm learning a ton because I (1) expected to learn, (2) took this as an opportunity to pick up new skills and (3) came in with questions rather than answers.

On my way home from the first weekend I made a mental evaluation of the material and found that I knew half or more of the information presented. It was my willingness to suspend where I was in my career and come thirsty to the training that allowed me to absorb the half I didn't know. Approach training in that spirit and you'll seldom be disappointed.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Williamson Medical Center and United Healthcare

Several of you have asked about the latest in Williamson Medical Center's dispute with United Healthcare. For those of you who don't know, UHC dropped WMC from its network effective October 2nd. We have monitored this situation and communicated clearly with UHC regarding our concerns. We also continue to recommend that patients of physicians practicing out of WMC call their doctors and/or WMC administrators and encourage them to come to terms with UHC.

Network contract negotiations are not unusual, even though this type of hardball isn't common. This situation is the collision of two profit-minded monopolies. WMC is the only hospital or surgi center of any size in the Franklin/Cool Springs corridor. UHC is one of only five remaining multi-state health insurance conglomerates in the country. Both think the other needs them more and is waiting for the other guy to blink.

My sources tell me that both sides are still talking. That's good as it would be a loss for both companies and our people if negotiations broke down completely. The root of the conflict is money. WMC is asking for the highest network reimbursement rate of any hospital in the state of Tennessee. It believes UHC will blink because of the significant percentage of its patients that are health care decision makers (CEOs, CFOs, Presidents, etc...) for their companies. UHC believes that it has such a large share of the market that WMC can't operate profitably without their covered insureds (that's you).

We continue to monitor this situation and will let you know more as we know it. Meanwhile, for emergency care WMC is still considered in-network. Regardless, you should never pass up a hospital looking for an in-network hospital in case of emergency. For elective care you need to go elsewhere for now.

Jim

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Changing Nature of "Off-Hours Conduct" Policies

Most companies of any size (and any sense) have a policy against egregious off-hours and off-property employee conduct. Thomas Nelson is no exception. Unlike policies on specific workplace behaviors, these policies are intentionally vague and are intended to address a wide variety of non-work behaviors that reflect negatively on the employer's reputation. Such policies are rarely used today, but when used their very nature has changed significantly.

Like so many traditional corporate workplace rules, the history of off-hours conduct policies goes back to the U.S. military. Aside from violations of military rules of conduct, for its officers the military used a catch-all rule against "Conduct Unbecoming and Officer" to address off-base conduct that besmirched the integrity of the military in general and its leadership (officers) in particular. Chief among these violations were public moral failings (drunkenness, carousing, etc...) especially while in uniform.

In the corporate setting these rules often translated into the company's judgement on an employee's personal life. In small "company town" communities they were most often applied to employee personal moral conduct, disciplining or terminating employees with the rationale of, "We don't want someone like that in our company." In my own experience it was mostly applied by my bosses toward unmarried women with multiple partners, gay men and lesbians.

While the same vague policy language still exists today its being applied in an entirely different context. Definitions of what is immoral have changed to the point that personal morality is almost never addressed under these policies. At the same time employees' on-line presence brought about by social media (especially Facebook and to a lesser extent Twitter) connects the employee and their personal expression with their employer's brand and reputation in a very public way.

In completing profiles on social media sites one common step is to tell where you work. That's a step that occurs in the early stage of joining the site, and is soon forgotten. After that its easy to miss the fact that what you say in public can in some instances reflect badly on your employer. Another complication is the use of personal accounts on social media sites to promote your employer or its products during work hours, and then the use of the same site for personal expression after hours. Now you've joined your personal brand to the employer's brand and here's where the line between personal and professional expression becomes blurred.

As if this wasn't already a recipe for a fun day in an HR conference room with your boss, as the TV commercials say, "Wait, there's more!"

Whose reading what you write? More people than you think. On top of the people whom you know "follow" you are a group of lurkers who sign on to the sight and look up company employees, especially managers, but who never register or officially follow you. This happened to me recently when what I considered to be a personal tweet (I'm not on any company aggregator for Twitter like I am for this blog) came back to my office in the form of an offended employee. One controversial opinion of mine about public option healthcare received comments from Nelson staff and management, both on Twitter and in person, none of whom follow me.

You can make your Facebook private but then you can't effectively use it to promote the company, its brand or its products. You can block people whom you don't want following you on Twitter, but that doesn't address the lurkers who can easily outnumber your followers. If you have a public Facebook account and use Twitter you can accurately assume that nothing you write is private.

I'm not sure of the solution. It seems to me that you either must edit yourself for all on-line content incongruent with the company's brand and reputation, or you should establish separate personal and professional accounts. Otherwise anyone with a social media presence identified with their employer runs the risk of violating off-hours conduct rules. The more wholesome your employer's brand (Hello? Bible company!) the greater the risk.

Its a sticky situation and the new rules of the road are being written almost daily. Today I received a flier for a conference in Chicago on "Social Media and HR" so at least I know we're not the only people facing these new challenges.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Take a Big, Deep Breath...

I've been all over the corporate office building and burning up email in the last few days. My level of activity has apparently raised alarm in places because we've had several quietly asked questions lately along the lines of, "What's going on?"

Here's the skinny. Amy in Benefits is out on maternity leave (expected back Monday) and HR Manager Jack is in-and-out on Jury Duty until October 8th (thanks a lot, Smyrna). The HR Department most days is Dawn, Elaine, and me. Factor in lunch hours, days off, sick kids, Elaine's new grand baby and Jack's anticipated grand babies (arriving Friday) and we're operating with two people a lot of the time. You're seeing me because you're most likely not seeing anyone else from HR.

Mystery solved! To quote Chevy Chase, "Sometimes a banana is just a banana."

Jim

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

401(k) Catch-Up Contributions

I learned something today that should be passed along to our Nelson team, especially those 55 and older or who will turn 55 in the near future. The IRS guidelines allow maximum contributions up to $16,500 per year. This "maximum contribution limit" changes almost every year and is a feature in the law that prevents 401(k) plans from becoming a wealth building tool for executives rather than a retirement plan for all employees.

If you're 55 and over you can also make additional annual deferrals known as "catch-up contributions." This feature allows older workers who may be behind in their retirement savings to contribute up to an additional $6,000 per year.

In our plan, and most plans, the methodology for maximizing your contributions was cumbersome. You had to separately elect catch-up contributions. Then as Plan Administrators we had to wait until you had contributed your $16,500 maximum before directing the Record Keeper to accept your additional payroll deductions as catch-up contributions.

I learned today that, among many technological advantages to or new Vanguard 401(k) arrangement, their system is smart enough to do all this for you. If you are 55 or older and have deferred a percentage of your salary that will exceed $16,500 annually the Vanguard system will automatically take all contributions after that point and consider them as catch-up. The system will then accept contributions up to $22,500 ($16,500 + $6,000) before stopping your deferrals.

As you plan for your retirement and consider accelerating your contributions, you can defer whatever flat percent of your base pay that will lead you to $22,500 and the Vanguard system will take care of the rest. Its one more reason that, at this early stage, I'm a happy Vanguard customer.

Jim

Saturday, September 12, 2009

I'll Take Care of That For You

In an recent conversation, just as a throwaway comment, our Live Events COO Vance Lawson quoted Zig Ziglar (paraphrasing here) that, "The world still opens up for people who say, "I'll take care of that for you"." I hadn't heard that in awhile, but it precisely sums up what I'm seeing and experiencing in this economy. The rules have changed and your policies no longer matter. What matters in chasing the fewer consumer dollars out there is doing what it takes to be of service to the customer and your employer.

Simultaneously I'm overseeing three departments and rebuilding two boats. I see every day at work those who struggle and those who succeed with the tougher work loads. Off work, I'm spending my own scarce capital in the final stages of these two projects the type of which I never thought I'd do. In both the corporate and personal situations the demarcation of success is not necessarily the number of hours being worked, but the attitude of those doing the work. If you recognize that everything has changed and you've adjusted accordingly, you're hanging in there pretty well. If your instincts are bad and you're still working and doing business like you always have, you're struggling.

In the economy of 18 months ago there was room for quoting policy to your customers; dictating to them the product quality and pricing which you want them to have. I have blogged before about sales people who want to sell me what and how they wish rather than selling what I want at the price I want to pay. Before I was the exception and now I'm the rule. The corporate employees who are doing well are showing creativity and resolve and developing new products, new ways and places to sell those products and ways to control or reduce the cost of product. Those who aren't are struggling.

In my boat world I took my dad's miniature pontoon to a local dealer for what I thought was going to be a $1,500 quote for a refurb. What I got back was a $6,000 "best case" bid. Now since I'm cheap and going in for half of those cost (and a share of the boat) there was no way six grand was happening. I challenged the dealer and got, "That's how we do it because that's what it takes to get it right." I told him $2,500 was our max (since half of that was coming out of my pocket) and how could we economize to hit that number. He was having none of it.

Later that night I sat down and planned out a project schedule of everything that needed to be done, and hit Craigslist. Over the next two weeks I screened independent handymen and mechanics, many of whom had lost their day jobs and started their own businesses out of necessity. I had to kiss a couple of frogs before finding the Princes, but I settled on two handymen and one mechanic. All three had, coincidentally, the Zig Ziglar response to everything I asked; "I can take care of that for you."

Labor Day evening we water tested the pontoon on Old Hickory, then took it over to Percy Priest and launched it at Four Corners Marina. On Thursday I took a PTO day and took my dad fishing on Priest for his first time on that lake without a guide since the 1960s. Total price tag, $2,650 against a $2,500 budget.

Trailering the boat to Priest from my home I passed by the $6,000 dealership and waved. That guy could have had my money and I would have been in the water in July if he'd tried creatively to solve my problem (old boat, limited funds) instead of quoting his policies. He didn't realize that the ground had shifted beneath his feet; that his competition was no longer just the other dealers in the lake area. It now includes a large number of skilled trademen-turned-entrepreneurs launched by the recession.

In the corporate world the competition for sales is no longer between big businesses, but now includes the array entrepreneurs working from home and similarly "inspired" by corporate downsizing. Similarly the competition for jobs is not just between you and the others at work who do your job, but includes the many, many good people wanting to get back into the workplace.

So for now and the foreseeable future, possibly a half dozen years to come, quoting policy and dictating price is old news and a remedy for failure. The path to survival and success is listening to your customer, caring about their needs, and finding a way to use the resources at your disposal to solve their problems. It actually always has been the recipe for success albeit forgotten in the boom economy.

Oh, and another thing about satisfied customers is that they tell other people and help make new customers. If you need good handymen, a great marina, or an outstanding mechanic I am glad to pass those along off-line if you'll drop me an email.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Social Media Conflicts at Work

According to the number of seminar emails and fliers I'm receiving the new "hot topic" in employment law is how social media impacts the employee/employer relationship. I've begun to see this within our own walls. This truly is a new area where mistakes can be made and relationships can be damaged if everyone doesn't know and observe the appropriate social and legal boundaries.

Most of the problems created by Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and LinkIn accounts revolve around two issues: employee criticism of employer and supervisor and the unwelcome reading of personally posted on-line material by supervisors and co-workers. For the employee there are risks from posted materials meeting the legal definitions of libel, slander, breaches of confidentiality with the employer's private information, and conduct that damages the employer's brand or other protectable interests. For the employer, especially supervisors, the risk is invasion of privacy and arbitrary or capricious employment actions taken on the basis of private or non-work communications.

For reasons of space and brevity I won't go into legal details, but if you're interested in a typical case you can research Pietrylo v. Hillstone Restaurant Group for more information.

So what are the boundaries? Nobody is totally sure because the precedents from case law are still being decided. From my perspective here are some common sense guidelines to keep everyone out of trouble.

Employees
  1. Be gracious and kind in your comments. If what you say isn't negative or unfair you can skip everything else below.
  2. If you want to post private information for your friends and family only, make your social media pages private. You can't say on the one hand that this is your personal and private information and then post it publicly on the web.
  3. This isn't an absolute protection. If your page is private and you have 50 co-workers as followers the impact of a negative comment about your company or supervisor is the same as if you said it in the hallway in front of a group of 50.
  4. Don't divulge confidential information about your employer or anyone else.
  5. If you read information on someone else's private page, repeating it is the same as overhearing a hallway conversation or eaves-dropping on someones phone. Sometimes telling a supervisor what you read on someones social media page is justified (abuse, threats of suicide, illness, etc...) and that's up to each individual's ethics.
  6. If you read something on someones Facebook or Twitter that offends you, follow someone else. Its not a matter about which to complain to your supervisor or co-workers.

Employers

  1. If an employee's page is private, don't seek the information that's on it. You can get the password from a co-worker or log in on a PC where a saved cookie gets you in, but its the equivalent of looking through a keyhole.
  2. If you cruise your co-workers or employees' social media pages and you get offended, whose fault is that?
  3. Know what are the protectable interests of the company and never bring up anything from someones social media page unless it damages a protectable interest or violates an agreement. The person must have identified themselves on their page as being associated with the company and then engaging in conduct (discussions, posting pictures, etc...) that reflects negatively on the employer's brand.
  4. Know if any company information posted by the employee is available elsewhere in public forum. If so, move along. If not, you have a confidentiality issue that is actionable.

90% of the social media conflicts I've seen can be avoided by good taste, mutual respect, and the keeping of confidences. Just like in the off-line world!

Sunday, August 02, 2009

All About Us

In its July 25/26 Weekend edition, the Wall Street Journal printed a fascinating article, "A Class of Generals" about the West Point class of 1976. From this class have come five Generals currently leading major military units in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the first time in West Point's 207 year history that one class has produced generals commanding two wars simultaneously.

What is fascinating about this story, for those of you too young to remember, is that the class of 1976 entered West Point in 1972, at the low point for prestige and morale in the U.S. military. This was the period immediately post-Vietnam and in the midst of Watergate. It was decidedly uncool to be in the military at all, much less pledging your life and career to lead its soldiers.

Yet this one class has produced 33 active or retired generals from its 855 graduates. Not since the class of 1915, which produced Generals Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, who led the U.S. through World War II, has one class had such an impact on military leadership. Asked why they came, most said as part of their families' traditions, a sense of duty, and some had scholarship or other opportunities that made it their best opportunity. Today, after stepping into an organization in which they believed when it needed them most, they are a class of professionals who will go down in history.

Reading this reminded me of a similar group, this from the sports world in my native Kentucky. The 1991-92 University of Kentucky men's team is revered in our state as "The Unforgettables." Due to flagrant recruiting violations under then Head Coach Eddie Sutton, the U of K program was banned from postseason play for two years. The best players left the program and the best recruits went elsewhere. Four seniors, Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhus, John Pelphrey (now coach at the University of Arkansas), and Sean Woods stayed with the program. All were native Kentuckians who, because of family traditions stayed together and with the program.

Their reward was a new head coach recruited from the NBA, Rick Pitino, who in turn recruited great underclass players. In the '91-'92 season they went 29 - 7 and lost to eventual national champion Duke in what is often called the greatest college basketball game ever played. All four players' jerseys are retired at UK. Their rise from the bottom of the SEC to national prominence in one year turned around the UK program for a decade.

Which brings me to us. Eighteen months ago there were around 660 of us; now there are around 480. I won't go back through what we endured in the year between April 2008 and 2009; you know that all too well. What I can tell you now that is probably news to you should make you feel good about yourself and your teammates. The staff reductions of 2008 actually happened in six phases of planning and implementation over a 14 month period. During this time every single one of us was discussed at some time or other. The magnitude of the downsizing, and the fact that it came in wave upon wave, necessitated an examination of each and every job and person. Was the job necessary? If so, which person was the right one for the job and who should go?

So, if you're here at Thomas Nelson right now, today, you are good at what you do. You have been vetted and approved, and you're regarded as someone who knows what they're doing. That doesn't give any of us a pass on doing our job everyday, but it should make you pause for a moment to hold your head up. Like the Class of Generals and like The Unforgettables, you are leading and performing at a unique time in our history. You're doing that almost completely because of who you are and what you believe, not because its raining money on Nelson Place.

And, since nothing happens accidentally, you are where you are for a reason. As we near the mid-point in this very difficult Q2 may this be an encouragement to you that you can also pass to anyone around you who needs it.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Doing Good in 140 Characters or Less

Mother Teresa said, "There is more hunger for love and appreciation in the world than for bread." Kentucky historical figure and leader Henry Clay said, "Courtesies of a small and trivial character are the ones which strike deepest in the grateful and appreciating heart." In other words, showing appreciation for people has power and fills a need that transcends the workplace, building friendships and forging loyalties along the way.

I've followed the development of social media with a suspicious eye and written about that on this blog. I unplugged my Facebook and MySpace accounts as huge time wasters, reinstated my Twitter account and maintained my blog. The purpose of so much social media is marketing, or purely personal use such as "friends and family" type communications. My world, on the other hand, is focused both professionally and personally on face-to-face communication and the keeping of confidences. There doesn't appear to be much use for social media in those endeavors...or maybe not.

Today I came across a series of websites that offer, either free or for sale, inspirational and motivational materials. When you talk as much as HR people often do, you sometimes need new material. What struck me in reading through the content on these sites is how many praises, phrases, and encouragements use 140 characters or less, which is the format on Twitter. This gave me an idea that I would like to propose to everyone. Please read on...

In my early days as a supervisor I, like many, was taught MBWA: Management By Walking Around for those of you who didn't have jobs in the 80's. While you were walking around, observing your operations for yourself, you looked for ways to "catch someone doing something right" (which was another 80's management phrase). The power in acknowledging good work while walking around was that other people heard it. Rather than the private note, it was the public praise on the job site in earshot of co-workers. When done well, it is amazingly well received and highlights what good work looks like and the praise that it should bring.

If a significant portion of our workplace is moving into the social media arena, it seems to me that there should be a social media equivalent to MBWA. What if each of us, while scanning our email, IMs, Twitter messages, and Facebook friends found something each day to publicly praise? What if each day or two or three, we used a Tweet or Facebook entry or Blog post to acknowledge someone in front of everyone? While I still prefer face-to-face conversations, I don't believe the social mediasphere has to be all tech-talk, product promotion, and baby pictures.

I'll end this post with a real life example; something that's praiseworthy and going on right now at Thomas Nelson. We have subleased the last floor of our Two Lakeview Place office space, which we abandoned early this year when moving all office staff into our corporate headquarters. Today our Facilities team is doing the hard work of moving out all the excess office furniture, leftover marketing materials, overstocked Bible samples, and trash off of the 6th floor so that the sublease tenants can take possession August 1. They spent the week planning the move, spent the morning loading, came to the All Employee Meeting, and had the delivery trucks staged in the back parking lot when the doors unlocked at 1:00. They're sweating, working hard, and doing a great job. Such a great job in fact, that they aren't a distraction and few people know what they're doing.

By contrast, my wife has been home all week from her job at Easter Seals because of a less coordinated move. That organization changed offices, and has been a whole week in their new space without phones or Internet. Hourly staff members like my wife have nothing to do, and so are being told to stay home. Easter Seals doesn't have a professional, first-class Facilities group and has to handle this amongst themselves. This type of problem has never happened at Thomas Nelson because Scott Holloway and his team won't allow it to happen.

This is a true story, and well-deserved public praise for some great members of our Nelson team even if I did take more than 140 characters. Now, gentle readers, its your turn. Tweet somebody doing something right.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Government Run Healthcare Makes Sense

As a young man I was a Reagan Republican raised in a family of Goldwater Republicans. My views have moderated significantly during the ensuing years but the one thing that hasn't is my belief that each individual is responsible for their own outcomes in life and should pursue them without outside interference or restriction.

With this type of outlook it might then surprise you to know that I favor a national health care plan, either a public "option" or the conversion of the current system into a single payer program similar to the Canadian system.

Why in the world would I feel that way? Simple; for the last 20 years I have had the responsibility over group health plans and have had to deal with insurance carriers.

In the last 10 years the health insurance industry has grown more profitable, has consolidated to just a handful of carriers, and makes literally life-and-death decisions about your health care based upon profit-and-loss considerations. In years past we as corporate Plan Sponsors have been able to influence some coverage decisions by using the leverage of taking our business elsewhere. That influence erodes more each year and has never been less than it is now. That's because there's almost nowhere else to go and the carriers know it.

Our last health care negotiations were hurt by the fact that only four multi-state fully-insured carriers remain: United Healthcare, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Aetna, and Cigna. No matter which of these is your carrier, that means you're only marketing to the other three. As a rule, Blue Cross has the highest quotes by about 30% as they focus on margin rather than volume: if you want a better price than your current carrier that means you're marketing to only two others. During our recent re-marketing effort (to see if we could get a better deal than we got at our April renewal) we had UHC as our incumbent and Blue Cross was immediately out of the running due to price. The Aetna and Cigna representatives' main questions during our negotiations was "what's the other guy's quote?"

In this scenario its no wonder that the insurance industry is howling about the prospect of a government "option". Entry into this monopolistic and recalcitrant marketplace by a strong competitor would change the landscape to favor people rather than carriers.

Personal liberty would also be increased through a government plan because I believe many people with serious health conditions stay with their employers because our health care system is employer based. To change jobs and risk losing yours, or to start you own business and become self-employed means risking becoming uninsured. According to Dave Ramsey, even though foreclosures have been the highest on record this year personal bankruptcies due to unpaid medical bills are four times that of bankruptcies due to home foreclosure.

I'm loathe to depend on government for anything. But with government I have an elected representative that I can call if my government health plan isn't working. Who do I call if my carrier cheats me on coverage or overcharges me? The current health care system is dictating who can and cannot afford coverage, what is covered, and (since its employer based) where you can work. As such, I would suggest to you that the solution to this lack of freedom is, paradoxically, the government. I can elect my representatives but I'm stuck with my UHC rep.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Back to Basics on Security

Last week we had a (thankfully) minor security breech that resulted in an a team member's cell phone being stolen off her desk. Someone from outside the company walked past the front desk like she knew where she was going and wandered the building for 12 minutes before leaving the way she came in. She then walked around the property for 8 more minutes trying doors (unsuccessfully) before leaving through the back field. By the time our staffer noticed the theft and reported it to her cell phone provider the thief had made 60 phone calls and sent 72 text messages, all to pre-paid phones. We identified one call recipient through a paid cell phone registry, pulled up her name in the local court website, and discovered a long history of petty theft and drug use. In other words, this was a professional job by professional petty criminals.

In reviewing video and talking to our employees we've discovered how this happened, and it represents a breakdown in some fundamental disciplines that we must reiterate.

  1. Front Desk Security: Challenging Strangers - We use the reception desk to give a positive first impression of the company. That won't change. However, these nice ladies don't know everybody, and sometimes people get ill with them if they stop someone who turns out to be an employee or long-time contractor. I have given them instructions beginning noon today to ask, "Can I help you?" anytime they don't know someone. Since they can't know everybody, some employees may get asked and that's okay. I urge you not to be offended as these ladies are doing this (a) under instructions from me and (b) for your safety.
  2. Front Desk Security: Requiring Name Badges - All non-employees are required to sign in daily to wear a visitors badge at all times. That is not a new policy, but one roundly ignored in some parts of the company. Beginning at noon today that policy will be strictly enforced. Nobody thought a thing about the young woman walking through our building because its not unusual to see temps, contractors, family members, etc... in the building without a badge.
  3. Children in the Building - Five people who saw this very petite young woman thought she was someone's teenager because its become so common to see children in the building. Our Handbook is specific and has not changed in eight years that the workplace is no place for kids. Visiting for a short period of time and escorted the entire time is fine. Staying with you after you've picked them up from sick day care just long enough to arrange alternate care or wrap things up and go home is also fine. Hanging out here with you half a day, or wandering the halls, or sent to your workstation unescorted from the front desk has to stop.
  4. Noticing People Who Look "Wrong" - You know what I'm talking about: sometimes you just see someone who looks out of place. Every employee in this building should feel empowered to say, "Can I help you?" and make eye contact with a stranger not wearing a visitors badge. If you feel uncomfortable doing that, call Facilities or HR and we'll do it for you.

I'm the first to acknowledge that our security is bass-akwards and has been for years. We should have swipe badges for access into the building. We'll make our fifth annual attempt at that with the next budget cycle, or anytime this year that we think the money might be available. Until then our security is each other and the array of security cameras operated by Scott Holloway's fine staff. Meanwhile please come see me if being asked who you are or asked to wear a visitors badge offends you. Just don't fuss on the nice ladies at the front desk.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Importance of Pushback

We're a relatively small company as corporations go. Aside of our core vendors, like printers, we're just large enough to need first-class service but too small to be a priority customer. To get first-class service you want vendors who also service large accounts like Coke and Google. The problem is that, by comparison, our business will almost never be such a vendor's priority. The common result is that you get second or third priority, your account gets served by trainees, and the service you receive suffers. Managing in a company like ours makes it more important than ever to master the skill of pushback.

This month I've had issues at ADP, one sub-group at Vanguard, a confidential potential vendor whom we've asked to quote, one internal department, and (through my Homeowners Association) the Metropolitan Police. I'm just back off vacation and still in Margeritaville mode and just wanting to slide happily through the days; instead I'm having to periodically put on my "SOB" cap and push back on bad service. With the exception of Metro's Thin Blue Bureaucracy, service is improving on all fronts.

So how do you push back when you have no leverage? Actually, I find that leverage is not required and the solution is to simply stand up for yourself and your business unit. I know that sounds corny or simplistic, but I see it more as a simple and elegant solution. If service isn't satisfactory, just say so. You'll immediately get an excuse and simply don't accept it. Ask the person giving the bad service for a solution, and if they don't have one ask them who in their organization or chain or command would have one. When you ask that question, what the vendor hears is, "He wants to talk to my boss." Nobody wants that distraction or negative feedback, even from a small customer.

This actually works for pricing and billing as well. If you don't like the price of something, ask for a better one. If they don't offer a better one, ask them how long this price is good for since you'll need to shop. I'm always amazed at the price-lowering power of walking away and shopping elsewhere.

If you get a bill that doesn't sound right, ask for an explanation. If you don't agree with the explanation, ask for a better resolution. If the vendor rep doesn't have one, ask who in their company or chain of command you'd need to talk to for resolution.

There is amazing power in not accepting an answer with which you don't agree. That power is multiplied by persistence; not satisfied x not going away = results. Just by making the people whom you're paying aware that you're "not satisfied and planning to stay that way until its fixed" starts a chain reaction that almost always results in a better situation; better service, better pricing, and better overall value.

There are people in this world who get less than they deserve because they won't push back. If they have stewardship responsibilities in a company, church, or other organization then whoever they represent is similarly not getting what they deserve. To be an effective head of anything, your family, a department, a ministry, or even a company you need to master the skill of effective pushback. Go ahead, give it a try...you'll thank me later.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Fuss About the Employee Free Choice Act

Over the next few weeks we'll hear more in the press about this piece of legislation, called by some informally as the "Card Check Act", as it winds its way through Congress. Its a bad bill but it may pass anyway as the AFL-CIO has pumped a reported $500m in campaign contributions to both parties in what may be its last stand as an organized body. I say this bill is bad because it will make union campaigns more prevalent, more intimidating and more prone to employee-on-employee threats and violence. I'm not quoting the Chamber of Commerce line on this; I've seen it with my own eyes working on the company side in three Steelworker campaigns in Kentucky.

To understand this bill we first have to visit the process of how a workplace becomes unionized, so I'll digress just briefly.

Union elections are governed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a federal agency whose members are appointed by the President. Republican presidents tend to stack it with pro-business members and the Democrats stack it with pro-labor members. Its regulations are basically unchanged from decade-to-decade, but how those regs are interpreted changes with each administration.

Under NLRB rules a labor union can petition for an election if it has cards signed from at least 30% of the workforce. A union will begin a card signing drive, person-to-person and often in secret. At some point in the drive if/when word gets around the workforce the union will officially notify the company that it has in-house employee organizers and lists their names. Those individuals are (supposedly) then protected from termination/retaliation by the company.

Once the union can certify to the NLRB that it has 30% cards signed the NLRB notifies the company of an impending election and sets a date. A "campaign" then starts in the open during which time the company campaigns to its workers why it should stay union-free, and the union campaigns as to why the workers should vote for union representation. Finally a secret ballot is held on company property with NLRB observers who certify the results and notify both the company and union. The winning margin for either side is 50% plus 1 vote.

If the workplace votes union, negotiations begin. The union and company can agree to terms, or sometimes they don't. When they do, a contract is signed and the workplace implements the controls and restrictions of a union shop. When they don't, the union may or may not call a strike, after which time the company more often than not hires permanent replacement workers and continues operations.

So what's wrong with this system? Plenty. Unions often use threats, intimidation, and promises it can't keep to get cards signed. Because of this fact, which they know well, no union I know of will petition the NLRB for an election if they don't have at least 60% cards signed. NLRB regs say that only the party with the authority to make good on their promises is bound by its regs to tell the truth in a campaign. Since the union has zero authority to make anything happen, it can promise anything and does. In other words, most unions cheat.

Problem is, so do most companies. Officially a company can't Threaten Intimidate Promise or Spy (TIPS). To do so creates an "Unfair Labor Practice" charge and they can be fined by the NLRB. That's all fine and good, but the fines are a token amount when compared to the added overhead and lost productivity of going union, so most companies cheat. Most workplaces prone to unionization are semi-skilled occupations for which employers can find and train permanent replacement workers. If the company loses it has two nuclear options; replace the workforce in its intirety or close the operation and move it to another state or country. All that is expensive so there's a financial incentive to cheat big.

So what's the solution? According to the unions, who basically wrote the Employee Free Choice Act, the problem is the election. Since companies cheat during elections, the unions propose that we do away with them and have the NLRB certify a union based solely on card signing. In order to keep companies from negotiating too forcefully after that, the company will have 90 days to come to terms with the union before an NLRB arbiter will be appointed to hear both sides and mandate the terms of the contract to the company. The bill will prohibit replacement workers.

Any good organizer will tell you that getting cards signed is the easiest part of the election. I have seen wild promises of promotions and pay raises, I've seen women pulled into restrooms and manhandled until they agreed to sign cards. I've seen people threatened in parking lots to get them to sign cards. People sign the cards and avoid the intimidation knowing that they have a secret ballot and can vote their wishes without fear. Employee Free Choice, ironically, will deny people in the workplace the opportunity to vote their will and conscience free from intimidation.

The solution to the current system's problems is as simple as raising the fines and penalties for unfair labor practices. The existing NLRB system worked well for decades up until the point where it became far more economically feasible to cheat rather than to follow the rules for both sides. Keep the system, multiply the existing fines x 10, pull business licenses for both sides in cases of repeated violations, and keep the private ballot. That provides employees with the most free choice.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Finding Your Next Job

MORE magazine weighed in this month on the use of web technology in finding your next job. Their thesis was that the game has changed; nice resumes on Crane stationary with good cover letters have been replaced with social media, a personal web page about your professional abilities, and a web marketing strategy. In the last year I've probably gotten an equal number of unsolicited resumes and unsolicited social media contacts (from Facebook friend requests to LinkIn invitations).

With a tough job market its an easy sell to say to a job seeker that they aren't getting results because they aren't using the right technology. Unfortunately that's not totally true. Technology is a work tool, much like in an earlier tech era your tools might have included a lathe or a hammer. Updating to more modern tools (let's just say a power lathe and a pneumatic hammer) may increase the speed of a process, but it doesn't change the basic process.

You build a house from the foundation to the frame to the roof, plumbing and wiring, exterior walls, and then interior work. That hasn't changed even though power tools have sped the process. You still have to do the job right; the roof can't leak, the wiring must work, and all the walls have to be square (unless you're Beazer and then all bets are off...but I digress).

Like home building, the basics of job search haven't changed although the tools have improved. You still find a job through networking and reputation. The use of social media and email can speed the communications process in helping you find open positions and getting the word out that you're looking for work. You still have to interview well and close the deal (land the job) and that involves preparation and research like it always has.

In the last 15 months 177 people have left our company. We pledged, as an HR department, to help anyone who'd let us and to keep following up with people until they found work. We checked in this past week and about 65% have found a job. Some have landed elsewhere in better positions for more money; others have found "a" job from a lateral move to a survival job. A handful (maybe 10%) are going back to school, staying home with children, etc...

In talking with some of these good people it becomes obvious that in spite of all the new technology people still get their next job, first and foremost, through networking. I met a representative from one Nashville non-profit at a convention in Atlanta. He told me he was looking to hire a particular position. I gave him a recommendation and he smiled, telling me that someone else at Thomas Nelson had already sent that person's resume to him. The lady had an interview the next Monday and is currently a candidate.

Now don't miss what happened in this example. The former employee had such a good reputation that, without her doing anything, a co-worker and an exec at her former employer put her name out by word-of-mouth.

I have also fielded a considerable number of reference calls on our former employees. Similarly, when I've recommended someone I've often gotten the, "I'll call around and check them out" response from the prospective employer. This aspect of job hunting hasn't changed since the advent of non-farm jobs. I have not, to date, heard of anyone getting hired from a LinkIn recommendation. Reference checking is still done over the phone, person to person.

The secret to finding your next job is 90% your reputation for doing great work and your personal brand for being a person of integrity at your current job.

Social Media can help, but only so much. MORE magazine is right when it says social media invitations have replaced resumes; I throw unsolicited social media invitations in my Outlook trash with the same speed that I throw unsolicited paper resumes in the waste basket under my desk.

So how do you find your next job, and what is the role of the new technology in doing so? Its a two-fold mixture of old and new tech.
  1. You need a good resume. That "content" is just like book content and can be delivered on paper, via email, or through social media.
  2. You need a professional email address from which to send resumes. One friend of mine at a religious non-profit showed me a very nice looking resume received from "hotgirl69@..." and needless to say it went in the trash.
  3. You need to tell everyone who has a favorable opinion of you that you're looking for a job. Networking through people who would give you positive word-of-mouth puts positive buzz into the marketplace.
  4. Follow that up by sending them a copy of your resume so that they can forward or hand it to someone they know.
  5. Google yourself and make sure that any information out there is positive. You probably can't do anything about it if its not, but you need to be able to respond to a question about it if asked during an interview.
  6. You need a web presence, open to public view, such as a LinkIn page or personal home page. That will put positive information, that you planted, out for a web searcher to find.
  7. Get samples of your work together. Contact former colleagues to retrieve non-proprietary samples of things your done on the job. You should keep samples of work you do anyway. Showing an interviewer a physical example of something you've done is much more powerful than just saying you've done it. In HR we get lied to a lot during interviews.

Most importantly, if you still have a job (and remember, most people still do) now is the time to build your brand and reputation. If you're a kiss-up, kick-down politician who walks over people in the workplace, social media won't help you. The kind of conversations that happen when people check your references are what we in the HR world refer to as karma.

If you're known for quality work, integrity, professionalism, and for being the kind of person people want to work with then you'll sell yourself. Social media well-implemented will then help you do that faster.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Valuing Diversity Includes Language

For about eight years of my career I worked off-and-on along the Mexican border. My employer at the time had 9 manufacturing plants on a corridor from Juarez through Chihuahua City to Torreon. On the border about half the people with whom I worked spoke English. The further I got into the interior the fewer people spoke any English at all. I spent one whole week in Torreon by myself and encountered no one who spoke a word of English.

Imagine for a moment being in meetings for hours at a time where not a word of what was said was understandable to you. Think for a moment about the concentration that it takes to look interested and be polite while not having the slightest idea what's going on...for hours at a time.

That, friends and neighbors, is what its like for some of our non-English speaking warehouse staff to attend our all-employee quarterly meetings.

In order to bring our 40 or so non-English speakers into the conversations about our business we made sure they were invited to these meetings. Some who spoke good English would interpret for the others in Vietnamese or Spanish (as the case may be). After each meeting we would receiving complaints from Anglos (as my Mexican friends call us white boys and girls) about how distracting it was to have "those people" talking all through the meeting.

So next we began renting headsets so that one interpreter in each language could broadcast one interpretation to the employees rather than having multiple conversations. The result... complaints about the interpreters being a distraction.

In a few hours we will have our next All Employee Meeting. We are trying a different room layout and placement of the interpreters to minimize the distraction to everyone else. However, some distraction is unavoidable. The alternative to interpreters is to have separate meetings for these groups (segregation by national origin? I don't think so...) rent expensive Plexiglas interpretation booths to soundproof the interpreters from the rest of the group, or discontinue the service altogether. The last option would involve either making these meetings optional for non-English speakers or asking them to sit through long meetings with no idea of what's happening.

Or there is another option. We can be tolerant of the distraction and know that its worth the trouble. The statement that this service makes about the value of each employee regardless of their ethnicity or national origin is worth the distraction. The statement this makes about the value of everyone no matter what their role in the company is worth the distraction. The statement about the rest of us, that we're willing to tolerate the distraction, is important. Basically we can't say with a straight face that we value a diverse workforce...just so long as everyone speaks English.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Life Less On-Line

Its been two weeks since I deleted my Facebook and Twitter accounts. There have been a couple of times that I've thought, "I'll write a quick tweet on that" but couldn't. Otherwise its been a good move to make my life less virtual and more temporal. Since social media is all the rage and Twitter is gaining popularity by leaps and bounds why is swimming against the tide working for me? Here's my critical learning at this point.

1. Social Media is best suited for promotional communications. As such, promoting yourself, your products, your services, or some political or social agenda is the sweet spot for this media. Communications that are critical or negative are ill suited for social media audiences; the posts don't read as well, the wording has to be more carefully crafted so as to be diplomatic, and you lose the spontaneity of the tweet or FB update.

2. Related to point #1, social media is best suited for sole proprietors, independent professionals, or heads of organizations. Posts discussing positions, directions, and opinions are more positive by nature coming from these individuals. Those working within organizations, however, are more prone to censor communications giving their point of view from the middle. For example, I know of a staff member who tweeted about a "dumb, boring" meeting and the meeting organizer was one of their followers. The higher up the food chain you are, including being the sole proprietor of your own food chain, the more likely you are to be candid. The further down you are, the more likely that you'll stay with personal interests and news and avoid posting about what's going on at work.

3. Social Media is ill suited for confidential information, and those whose careers deal in confidences. You can imagine the problems it would create if I were to tweet, "About to terminate a 25 year employee and I'm bummed" or, "Counseling an employee in a physically abusive relationship." If your job doesn't communicate outwardly, but instead protects confidential information (HR, Accounting, Law Enforcement, etc...) social media posts are problematic.

4. Social Media updates clog your inbox. I had about 40 FB friends and an equal number of Twitter followers. I averaged 21 email messages a day telling me that I had received a message from one or the other of these accounts.

5. Social Media keeps you in touch with people. Since deleting my accounts I am not as in tune with the 80 individuals with whom I was connected. Restoring that connectedness without the downsides (above) appears improbable.

6. That assumes that you want to stay connected. My job brings me in close and sometimes intense contact with people. I love the people with whom I work, but off-hours I'm not always interested in seeing or hearing from anyone. The Twitter and Facebook communications aren't always welcomed intrusions into my home office.

7. You need a hand-held device. Waiting until you get home to tweet or update misses a lot of the point. I was at a large Catholic wedding in Louisville last weekend, and if you've been to one you know that its an organized drinking event that starts with vows. There were so many funny observations and pictures I could have shared had I had an account and a web-enabled phone. If you're going to network through social media, buy the hardware.

I am toying with the idea of getting back onto Twitter, but just toying. I have flowers to buy and plant, three difficult guitar pieces to master, and there's so much about my work life right now that I can't say to anybody much less to the whole world. I'm getting so much more done in the temporal that I'm not interested in getting much more virtual than I am already. Its an evolving conversation I'm having with myself and there may be more to come as I work through all this.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Why I'm Optimistic

"Are things ever going to get better?" That's a question I've heard several times this week and here's why I think the answer is, emphatically, "Yes."

In the midst of a tough economy, and after an exceptionally hard year I see signs that make me feel like the worst is behind us. Externally there are signs of life in the general economy. First time home buyer activity is higher than expected, and manufacturing activity (while depressed overall) beat analysts expectations this week. These developments helped bolster the stock market and as it improves we should start to gain back some of our depressed 401(k) values. The market analysts with which I've spoken tell me that the stock market typically leads employment gains by about six months coming out of a recession.

Remember that six month number because you'll see it again below.

Internally we now have a single operational executive running Sales, Marketing, and Publishing. These formerly separate divisions now can't help but coordinate their activities and work together, and that's huge.

We now have our best marketer and product developer (our CEO) developing product and strategizing with our Publishers. In our business new product from inception to market is about 200 days, but product currently in the pipeline can be improved or marketed more effectively in about half that time. Look for the impact of Mike Hyatt's influence on products to show up in about 4 - 6 months.

There's that number again.

During this past year our sales began to falter as retail activity dried up, beginning somewhat around July but taking a big hit in October. Since that time we've reduced our overhead significantly with painful staff reductions but also in other more positive moves such as consolidating all offices into the Corporate Office Building (except for the Live Events division in Texas). Our overhead expenses are the lowest that anyone with less than 10 - 15 years service can remember.

When we start to annualize 2008 sales (our FY '09) we'll be against weak numbers with extremely low overhead, and that's a recipe for sales increases and profitability. Combined that with what I hear is a very reasonable sales budget, and we have a recipe to beat expectations in the last half of FY '10 or in about six months.

There it is again.

With the executive reorganization also comes the ripple effect of management realignment throughout the company. With new managers over different areas comes a different perspective on each business unit. That generally leads to fresh ideas and an uptick in efficiency. For example, Vance Lawson will be making some HR decisions at Live Events in his new role there, and I picked up his Travel and Facilities departments. Neither one of us may be a better or worse manager than the other, but all three areas will benefit from a fresh perspective.

The Executive Leadership Team is pared-down and making faster decisions. Rather than a group of 10 that often lumbered through decisions the ELT is now three people (CEO, COO, and CFO) who go into a room and make a decision. That will make the whole company more nimble and able to respond quickly to changing business conditions.

Our core sales channel, Christian Retail Sales, was our strongest FY '09 performer. That tells me that our core business is healthy and that the weakness in the business is mostly the external economy and in non-core products.

I'm not saying that all the bad stuff is over. I think we're in for about 4 - 5 more tough months but with our situation improving after that. If we will all stay focused on executing our roles, serving our core customers, putting great core products out into our core markets, and constantly looking for dumb stuff to stop doing (every business has these) then we're going to be fine.

Monday, March 30, 2009

So You Have a New Boss...

With the recent shakeup in executive leadership it seems like half the building has a different supervisor this week. With that comes the usual anxiety, plus a little additional angst given that its happening during a time of economic travail. I both have a new boss and picked up two departments that haven't reported to me before.

While having a new supervisor can be a challenge at first, here's a few reasons not to jump off the roof.

1. Its not about you! Changes in the executive ranks ripple through an organization. You weren't assigned to a new supervisor to "straighten you out" because you're a screw-up. This has nothing to do with you so just roll with it.

2. There aren't many bad ones. The people to whom you could possibly report are whittled down to a handful of capable managers. If a manager is on our org chart they are seasoned and have a good heart. I can't think of many exceptions so whomever the "luck of the draw" threw your way, you'll be fine.

3. You're not too bad yourself. No disrespect to any of our former colleagues, but if you're still here after the year we've had you're pretty good at what you do. You can chin the bar with the new boss.

There's plenty of challenge ahead of us in this troubled economy. Stay the course and give your new supervisor, whomever that may be, a fair chance. If they ask you to prove yourself, well, just do it and don't get insulted because you've proven yourself to others before them. Once you establish trust in your new situation it will look like your old situation and life goes back to normal.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Work From Here

I've had a couple of questions lately about the future of Work From Home. To be completely transparent, we've fielded questions from Board members and executives alike on what this program is and does. Here's an update that might surprise you.

WFH was a response to two pressing issues several months ago. Gas prices had gotten to around $4/gallon in Nashville, and with headcount reductions we were spending about $350k in rented office space charges for room we didn't need. We didn't have enough space in the Corporate Office building to close Lakeview Place. I became concerned that increased commuting cost would lead to a call for a cost of living increase that the company couldn't afford in an economy growing more unstable by the day.

The answer, as my grandmother would have said, was as plain as the nose on your face. Develop the systems for remote work, require space sharing as a condition of working remotely, reduce commuting costs to their pre-gas-hike levels (by reducing the number of trips), and get out of LVP.

Today gas prices are down below their pre-WFH levels. We are out of LVP and have, as I understand it, about half of that space leased. Let me be very clear to anyone reading; we would not have been able to move out of LVP and get all office staff into Corporte without WFH.

So what's next for WFH? Candidly, nothing. This is a program that has served its purpose. HR will not be promoting it further because the business necessity for it has passed. Going forward, jobs that make sense to perform remotely should be done off-site, and jobs that make sense to be performed in the office should be done in-house. People who work in the office most of the time may, on occasion, need a day off-site to perform work requiring concentration and that should be allowed.

Every business cycle has its unique needs, and now I wonder if the most pressing need for the company is to have more people in the office more days. We have fewer bodies, and in service departments such as HR WFH could reduce customer service during lunch hours and the upcoming vacation season. In a market where we're looking for every sales and product idea, face-to-face collaboration is more important than ever.

This isn't a mandate or an announcement of a change in policy; I don't run any business unit but my own. I do believe however that some of you should consider shifting your schedule to more days in the office. We can take advantage of being on one campus and build the type of teamwork needed in this challenging climate. The day will come again when we'll grow. Instead of then renting another building, we can leverage what we learned implementing WFH to keep our space charges low, generate cash, and pay down our debt.

Monday, March 23, 2009

On-Line Streamlining

On Friday of this week I will shut down both my Facebook and Twitter accounts. In place of communicating via those outlets I intend to be a more consistent and diligent blogger. There are several reasons for this move which I will explain just briefly.

  1. I usually check all these accounts after dinner. That process entails checking Nelson email, personal email, Twitter updates (both reading and writing), looking at who added or dropped me on Twitter, checking Facebook updates from my "friends", and leaving comments. I could set up a link that combines Facebook and Twitter updates into one process, but that only saves a few moments of what takes about 45 - 60 minutes.
  2. My other personal interests, be they gardening or guitar or a few home improvement projects slated for the spring, suffer from the time taken up with living in the on-line world. Every so often my wife would like for me to just sit down and watch TV with her and I rarely ever do.
  3. After slacking off for the winter, I am back walking 4 miles every night (yes, every night) in what may be my last opportunity to stay off insulin.
  4. 99.9% of the people on Facebook are good people that I haven't seen since high school. I share with them mostly the accident of geography (i.e. from 1966 to 1978 our parents lived in the same school district).
  5. 90% of what happens on FB are games that are time sucks.
  6. Those who follow me on Twitter can also follow this blog.
  7. Most days, my life's just not that interesting to me much less to other people :-)
Life is about balance, and I'm not abandoning on-line communication or community. This is a great communications tool and I'll continue to use it as such. I'm just going to substitute late nights spent staring into my monitor for some spring sunshine, dirty hands, rehearsal time, time with family and friends IN PERSON, and exercise.