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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Benefits for Care Givers

Health information has never been more readily available.  However what you hear about and what people need is often two different things.  Wed MD's Top Searches for 2011 have, so far, been Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms (Steve Jobs), Listeria (tainted cantaloupe), and Bullying (hot topic in the media). What people most struggle with, however, are the basic life balance issues and stresses that revolve around care giving.

A recent Gallup study showed that one in every six employees in America is a care giver for a minor, ill or aged family member.  Before you draw any quick gender conclusions, 46% of those are men and 54% women.  If you slice the data by age and income, the numbers increase to one in five for middle aged and older employees and those earning middle income and below.

The importance of this study, other than the human need, is that these care givers miss an average of 6.6 days per year in call-in, care-giving-related activities.  The lost productivity and paid time off benefits cost employers $25 - 28m each year.  While there's not much an employer can do about births, aging or chronic illness, finding a way to lessen the human toll and the expense of care-giving-related absences is worth addressing.

In looking at how to reduce this impact on people and business Gallup looked at several interventions.  The most effective, ranked by days saved, were:

  • 1.2 days - Counseling for assisted living or nursing home admission
  • 1.1 days - Access to support groups
  • 1.0 days - Paid vacation time that can be used for care giving
  • 0.8 days - Paid sick leave
Because our PTO program is flexible enough to use for care giving, and we have a sick bank program that can similarly be used for this purpose, I want to focus on how to access the two most effective forms of help: counseling and support groups.

If you are an employee of Thomas Nelson you have access to these benefits 24/7.  Our benefits programs are accessible at  If you don't know the password you can probably guess it or call any member of the HR team.  Once there you can find the phone number and brochure for our Cigna Life Assistance program with a 24 hour counseling and referral line, and up to three free visits with a behavior health care counselor via referral. The referral line is 800-538-3543 for employees of Thomas Nelson.

Behavioral health providers generally include Clinical Nurse Specialists, Licensed Social Workers, Psychologists, Psychiatrists, and Family Therapists.  If you need more visits than is provided by the Life Assistance program you can access the Blue Cross Blue Shield network of behavioral health providers for your state by logging into and searching a list of behavioral health providers.  These providers can usually refer you to support groups in your area for your particular issue. Our insurance pays 80% of the cost for in-network coverage and 60% out of network (your plan option's deductibles apply).

You might not normally think of "behavioral health" as a source for life-balance or care giving services.  Not only can these services help, but according to Gallup they can give you the most effective forms of help. Please see any member of the HR team if you need help accessing these benefits, but otherwise they are available to you via 800 number in the privacy of your home.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Yes, There is a Scott Agthe

Scott Agthe is a labor attorney with whom I have worked for 15 years. We started working together when I opened up new facilities in El Paso for my Japanese employer at the time.  He was a labor attorney with one of two major law firms in that city.

Scott and I worked together on the opening of a warehouse/material services center and a wire mill.  Later he moved to Austin to join a regional law firm and continued to service my needs from there.  Later I moved on to Thomas Nelson and, with a Texas operation in Plano, Scott continued to take care of my needs in that market.

Scott and I have worked complex cases together and have always been successful. We've beaten back bogus EEOC claims, phony worker's compensation claims, and consulted on the whole array of labor issues.  We know each other's voice and no longer have to say, "This is Jim" or "This is Scott". We know our kids ages and send each other a little something at Christmas.

But last night over dinner in Richardson, TX Scott and I did something we'd never done :we met face-to-face.  For 15 years Scott has been a trusted advisor and friend, and a first-rate colleague but all over email, fax, and phone.  I keep up with his practice from his web site, and he keeps up with me through my Linked In page.

My experience with Scott Agthe is proof for me that the technological developments of the last two decades really do make space largely irrelevant in seeking vendors. The critical learning for me is that we should get our vendors, advisers, service providers, or whatever we need from the person or organization that fits us best regardless of proximity or geography.

Friday, October 21, 2011

How Our Sick Bank Works

Ten years ago we combined our sick and vacation programs into a comprehensive Paid Time Off (PTO) bank.  A couple of years ago we moved from a PTO-payout program to a use-it-or-lose-it program. This was in response to the Recession for financial reasons. It wasn't simply that paying out unused sick/vacation time was an expense. It was also that accrued but unused PTO has to be booked each month as a liability against company profits due to the fact that is a payable obligation under most states' Wage and Hour regulations. Even if you use that time to take a vacation, between the time that you accrue it and the time you actually take the vacation the value of that time is a financial liability.

Moving to a use-it-or-lose-it program is a difficult move for employees. There are all manner of reasons why people forfeit unused time at year's end, from simple mismanagement all the way to work demands and won't allow for all time to be taken. For that reason we implemented Sick Bank as an extra benefit. In addition to an employee's current PTO benefit, they can roll unused time up to a maximum balance of 80 hours into Sick Bank.  So why isn't Sick Bank a bookable liability since it is carried over?  Because of the rules of the Bank:

1.  The hours have no value to you if you leave the Company.
2.  The hours have no cash value while you are employeed with the Company.
2.  The hours are restricted use in that you must have a doctor's statement.

We get questions with some regularity such as "How come I have to have a doctor's note to  use my sick time?"  The answer is simple; you don't.  Your "sick time" is a component of your PTO bank along with your vacation time.  When you or a family member are too sick to come to work, but not so sick that it is worth a trip to the doctor, you use PTO.  Sick Bank is for use when you have, as everyone eventually does, that rare situation where you are under a doctor's care and too sick to come to work for a period of days.

If we remove the restrictions on Sick Bank use those hours would become payable under Wage and Hour laws, which would then make them a bookable liability.  We would then most likely lose that benefit altogether. 

Remember, Sick Bank is an extra benefit for serious illness or injury.  No restrictions have been placed on the sick time component of our PTO benefit for use in cases of minor illness or injry.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Separating Person and Behavior

One of the hardest things for managers, especially inexperienced ones, to do in a Christian organization is to call out unacceptable behavior. Doing so can cause conflict or hurt feelings and we are taught as Christians to be kind. Working oftentimes in small work groups, offending one of your staff can mean having 1/3 of your workforce mad at you.

For that reason two things often happen: either the manager doesn't address the behavior at all or does so with so much positive "spin" that the corrective message doesn't get through. In either case two bad things happen. In the short term the behavior gets worse, and in the long term the manager gets fed up and wants to terminate the individual who may not understand what they did wrong.

Ken Blanchard, in the old "One Minute Manager" series explained how to do this well. He spoke of separating the individual from their behavior: loving and supporting the person but not tolerating what they did. It is the difference between, for instance, "You are a gossip" and, "You need to stop gossiping." By addressing what a person does, while expressing support for the person themselves, you can have even very difficult conversations candidly and without leaving bruises.

The approach works well in a Christian organization because it has the biblical basis of, "Hate the sin, love the sinner." It can also be used between peers and family members and is not just a tactic for managers. It is ultimately more honest and ethical to deal with issues straight-on, but in a loving and supportive manner, than to let things go until frustration boils over.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Fire Drill October 7th

On October 7th at 2:00 we will have a fire drill for the Corporate Headquarters.  It has been a long time since we had one for this building while the warehouse has done a much better job conducting these drills. For that reason this drill will not involve the DC.

First Responders are scattered throughout the building and cover all areas.  They are also best equipped to handle any injuries should someone become injured either during a fire or exiting the building (falling down stairs, for instance).  For that reason we will ask them to take responsibility for clearing their work area.

All employees should exit the building and go to the South lot.  If you are directionally challenged (like I am) that is the lot heading towards the airport and running parallel to the warehouse.  There each employee should find their supervisor and group by divisions and determine who was in the building at the time of the alarm and if they all got out.  HR will float between divisions with a checklist to determine if everyone got out of the building.

ELT members, Facilities team, and First Responders will gather at the pump house just off the front sidewalk.  This team will be responsible for interacting with Metro and any media that might show up in the case of an actual fire.

If we do this right the drill should be over in about 10 minutes. Our goal is to have everyone out of the building within 1 1/2 to 2 minutes after the alarm, then have a headcount within 5 minutes of gathering in the South lot and reporting that back to the ELT at the pump house. 

So if you are a Nelson employee the two takeaways you should get from this drill are (1)  you should participate fully and willingly because it is done for your safety and that of your colleagues, and (2) it will only take 10 minutes of your time.

See Jack, Eric, Scott Holloway or me if you have any questions.  Otherwise help us, and yourself, by evacuating the building and quickly organizing yourselves by division.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Continuing Power of Face-to-Face Communications

Earlier this month Gallup released an article entitled "Three Social Media Myths" in which is made three broad statements worth considering:

1.  Social Networking Primarily Happens Off-line.  It then carries over to on-line social media outlets, not the other way around.

2.  Social Media Doesn't Drive Customer Loyalty. Brand Engagement Drives Social Media Engagement.  Brand loyalty is a complex thing but once it happens it, like social networking, spills over on-line.  Again, not the other way around (i.e. you don't build brand engagement on-line).

3.  Social Media is a Tactic Waiting on a Strategy

HR is a face-to-face business.  It like so many similar pursuits from retailing to sales calls has felt the pressure of outsourcing or centralization leveraging social media communications channels. Here's a daring prediction: the next dot bomb will be some social media outlets.  There is way more hype than substance, but there is some substance.  This medium is a game changer, but it doesn't change the game's fundamentals

Most every business is a people business. Businesses who abandon that understanding and try to replace face-to-face interaction with technology won't succeed.  The exceptions to that are the technology companies themselves and those who promote it.  The rest of us need to keep pressing the flesh.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Boiled Frog Alert: Changing our Service Award Program

You probably have heard the old metaphor; how a frog placed in hot water will jump out immediately, but put in cold water and slowly heated he'll sit there and boil to death.  That happens in business so often: we have a program that works in place and turn our attention away from it until one day we find we've been boiled and hadn't noticed.

Such is our Service Award program, which had been in place a decade or so before I got here a decade or so ago.  It is a corporate incentive not charged to HR so we hadn't paid attention to the pricing, and since we administer the program nobody else had looked at the cost assuming we had.

Then we began to get complaints about the quality and selection of the awards.  When we dug in we found that, looking up those same items on on-line retailers, we were paying about double plus shipping.  Then we had a great suggestion from an employee: why not just give her the same value and purchase on-line through Amazon with free shipping?

Times like this make you feel dumb; like this should have been obvious had we been paying attention.  It took just a few days to put together an alternative program, self-administered through HR, utilizing the new p-card program. 

More details are coming, but today we received approval to ditch the current Service Award program and move instead to 100% self-administered program through  Employees will be able to buy any single durable goods item they want up to a set limit, and by taking the service award company's markup (including their mark-up on shipping!) and putting that towards the value of the award itself, the award item will be nicer. 

Many thanks to Lisa Young for the original idea, to my staff for trouble-shooting and what-iffing the program, Elaine Williams for volunteering to take on the extra work, and for everyone involved in implementing the p-card program that makes this change possible.  If we had to fill out check requests for every service award item we would not be able to take this on!

More details coming next week.  The water is feeling cooler already.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Separating Social Media Messages and Sites

If you've read this blog or followed my tweets since I started using social media you know it has been an uneven path.  I have twice deleted my Facebook and Twitter accounts only to re-start them some time later.  I have vacillated on the best use of this blog and generally questioned the whole purpose of this medium. Now a few years later I use this blog, Facebook, Twitter and Linked In on a regular basis.

The reason I use four sites when I once questioned the use of social media at all is simple; it makes sense to separate various types of communication among various outlets and restrict access to some.

If you have ever sent a Facebook friend request and been ignored, or worse yet been accepted and subsequently dropped, do not feel excluded.  I use Facebook for family and current close friends only. By that I mean if we grew up together but haven't seen each other since high school, or we work together but do not see each other socially, I don't grant you access on my Facebook page. I then restrict access to my content to anyone who is not specifically a friend or family member.

This is the place where I feel free to be candid; to communicate to my closest friends and keep in touch with (sometimes sordid) family business.

The reason I have resurrected my Facebook page for that purpose is that sometimes content intended for our internal audience (most of the readers of this blog) can come back to bite me from people outside the company.  At my level in the organization outsiders sometimes mistake my opinions for the company's positions on this or that.  Separating those two is important, and difficult, so I keep politics and religion on Facebook and reserve this outlet for business and professional topics.

This blog is my outlet for professional speech.  It is all about workplace issues and HR and little else.  Anyone is welcome to comment and I never censor comments unless they are vulgar or compromise the confidential information of an employee.  Otherwise this blog should be a place for open professional conversations.

Similarly I use Linked In for professional networking.  Just like I don't censor comments on this blog, I rarely turn down a Linked In connection.  As far as I'm concerned the more the merrier.

The hybrid in my system is Twitter.  I generally try to shy away from controversy and just talk about what I'm doing and where I'm going.  Long periods of silence generally indicate that I'm working in that part of my job dealing with confidential matters and I just can't talk about it.  Otherwise I like to mention products and services that I like and talk about places where I'm traveling to or from. I also use it to point people to blog information that I think is important, as I have far more twitter followers than blog subscribers.

For what its worth that is where I've come down on social media.  Blog and Linked In for professional communication, Twitter for travelog and blog traffic, and Facebook for private conversations with family and close friends.

Comments, ideas and suggestions are always welcome.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

New Concept Workplace, Meet Reality

There are all manner of new-concept workplaces written about in on-line and print media.  From Google to Zappos HR professionals are forever getting articles, some of them sent anonymously, about the rule-less workplace; where performance is all that matters and policies are so last-gen.

New Concept, Meet Reality.

As much as I would like to build a workplace where the rules are minimal to non-existent, there is a huge looming presence that makes that irresponsible in the form of Federal, State and Local Governments.

The various laws and regulations promulgated and enforced by various government agencies at all levels comprise a bureaucracy that can be used as a weapon against employers.  Some of these are staffed by true believers who honestly feel that greed and discrimination are institutionalized in every workplace and its their job to use the full force of government to set things right.

HR's job is multi-faceted, but it is primarily to build a fair workplace where good people want to come to work, stay a long time,  and can advance as their talents and efforts warrant.  Implicit in that same system are controls built-in to make sure that poor employees not hired, not promoted, or let go don't use the bureaucracy and its true believers to extort money from the company.

The way this is done is a system of job descriptions, performance records, disciplinary records and work rules designed to identify similarly situated people.  This is a fundamental concept that cannot be overlooked or omitted.  If a current employee complains about treatment, we must be able to identify the rules and see if they were broken by employee or management, and know what we've done in every other similar situation, i.e. with other employees who were similarly situated.

If the accusation or complaint comes through a government agency, such as the EEOC, we must be to able to provide the agency with information on every similarly situated employee and include their race, age, gender, disability status, national origin, etc...  If we can (and we always can) then we can prove that we manage by policy and not by discrimination.  If we can't (and shame on us if we can't) it gets expensive.

So as much as I'd like to make it into Fast Company or WSJ for our innovation, until there is a change in governmental structure and policy (don't hold your breath) it will be the duty of any responsible HR team to administer a system that, among other goals, protects the enterprise from all enemies foreign and domestic.

And yes, that's necessarily bureaucratic at times because that's the government-induced reality of HR.

The new concept workplaces are mostly less than 5 or 6 years old and have a small number of very young highly-educated employees.   All the major social media companies combined have about 80 employees.  As these workforces grow and their employees mature, it remains to be seen how many bogus $100,000 settlement checks are written before equity ownership mandates more traditional HR programs. Meanwhile HR pros have to put up with looking old-school and behind the times while we continue to win cases and protect the workplace.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Leading Through Your Failures

I came on board at Thomas Nelson in April 2001.  There was a lot wrong with the overall HR program for a lot of reasons (no body's fault in my estimation; just a dysfunctional evolution), which was why I was recruited.  The one thing that was going right was payroll, and by May of 2001 I had managed to screw that up pretty well.

We were closing all operations except Plano, TX and Nashville.  To do that required that we consolidate payroll processing from four ADP processing centers in four different regions of the country into one center in Atlanta.  We had a new payroll person and we didn't know what we didn't know.

The first pay date after going live with the consolidation we had 265 messed-up paychecks.  The ADP center in Atlanta, we would come to find out, trained its people on small accounts like ours.  Our instructions weren't followed and we didn't know how to find that out before the line formed outside our door. One fateful week all sales commissions were coded as "Christmas club" which is a benefit we don't have, so tens of thousands of dollars in compensation floated around cyberspace before bouncing back to us four days later. Meanwhile people needed their money and couldn't get it.  Let's just say they weren't charitable and understanding.

So here I was, "new guy" here to shake things up, and all the keepers of the status quo who opposed change were enjoying our misery a little too much.  Some of those included members of the staff I'd inherited.

So I called the staff into my office and I told them, "We screwed up, we need to understand how it happened and how to fix it, but fix it we will.  We have the talent, we'll find the resources and we'll fix it.  And, if you or anybody you know is enjoying this too much l have a message: Enjoy it while you can because you won't be able to enjoy it much longer."

Now I'll admit that I stole that from Coach Jackie Sherrill who was at Texas A&M when I was in grad school.  He got the richest coaching contract in the history of college sports at that time, won three games his first year, and used those words to put the Southwest Conference on notice.  In Year Two he went to the Cotton Bowl.  So while not original, it worked.  Here's why:

1.  When you lead a team that fails, job #1 is to acknowledge the failure.  You can't fix something until you call it by name and know what needs to be fixed.

2.  You can't tell the team "they" failed; it has to be "we" failed.  You are in charge so you get most of the blame anyway, and if you are seen as throwing blame on your staff in time of crisis you have just lost your credibility and ability to lead.

3. You must be defiant in the face of failure. If you accept the failure and become resolved to defeat so will your team, and your days in charge are numbered.

4.  Enroll everyone in the analysis of the failure and in the solution.  The team has to own both the problem and the solution before they can share in the success of overcoming and winning again. If they won't, the professional naysayers and cynics have to go.

5.  Do what it takes to fix the problem and win.  Nothing makes you look strong as a leader like winning. Conversely no amount of sound leadership theory makes you look good to a losing team.

Once we discovered that we didn't have reliable contacts at ADP we hired our own former ADP processor.  She worked within our team to reset our program and also rode ADP's Atlanta staff hard until they lived up to their contract.  She also educated me about how ADP worked and pointed out that my newly hired in-house payroll processor was inept.  We replaced the in-house processor, overspent our budget by $98,000 (and forfeited my bonus for the year) but we reset the payroll and HR programs like we set out to do.

Too often managers, especially in Christian organizations, don't want to speak the hard truth of, "We failed."  They don't want to lose face, or they don't want to deal with the conflict if team members can't or won't respond to their leadership.  This is absolutely the wrong thing to do.  You won't win all the time, and when you lose your team can't fix what they don't know is broken.  Be brave, fear not, and a little humility never hurt a manager or minister. Unless you think you are always going to win, this is a career strategy you need to master.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Summer of Space Projects

This is shaping up to be a summer of major projects in the Facilities part of our group.  We're making good investments in providing a safer work environment for our warehouse team and keeping our Nashville operations all on one campus.  This includes adding air conditioning to the areas of the Distribution Center where about 80% of our people work, moving the Library Archive to the DC, moving our Design and Multimedia Group into the current Library space, moving the Remainder Sales showroom into the existing DMM production room, and reconfiguring the current DMM space as growth space for new office positions.

The Cap-X was approved last week and these projects are rolling out as follows:

This week modular walls are being delivered to the warehouse to build the new Library Archive space.  This self-contained, climate-controlled room will be heat and humidity controlled to protect this very important company asset.  This space should be ready for the Library assets between June 8th and 10th.

The Library Archive will move between June 10th and 15th, after which the build-out of the current Library space will begin.  Having been finished-out as storage space when the building was built, additional HVAC and lighting will need to be installed in order to accommodate moving 12 people into this area.  New fixtures and an office will be added and this project should be completed about July 15th.  The DMM team should move between the 15th and 20th. 

Sometime in late July or early August the Remainder Sales showroom will move over to this building and the current DMM areas cubicles will be reconfigured to accommodate new positions or any currently pending space moves. 

Finally, additions to the Legal team will necessitate converting the existing Lobby B conference room into a private office.  One of the current vacant offices in the Sales area, on the other side of the elevator lobby, will be reconfigured as the new Lobby B.  No date as been set yet.

All these moves are good news.  As our business continues to improve and we carefully add needed staff our group's goal is to keep every Nashville employee here on this campus.  The benefits in communication and teamwork that we've experienced these last 2 1/2 years since leaving all leased office space are indisputable. We hope to continue accommodating strategic growth while also improving our work environment.

Monday, May 02, 2011

One To Go

A year ago this past weekend 11 families in the Thomas Nelson workforce experienced flood damage to the extent that their homes were, at least temporarily, unlivable.  Four had to be almost completely rebuilt.  One in particular, the home of Mark and Yvette Cowden, had to be bulldozed after it took Metro months to decide if they could rebuild or not.

This past week construction finally began and is progressing quickly.  Yvette recently had a baby and this family has been in an apartment with their lives on hold for a year.  When construction ends, which looks like late this month, we'll want to partner with them for whatever they might need such as moving, landscaping, etc...

This will conclude our flood relief efforts. Of our 11 families not one received a dime of aid from We Are Nashville or the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee or the Red Cross.  Even though some applied, none was given.  I personally will never give money to CFMT or the Red Cross again, especially given the Red Cross' similar problems with the billions it received after 9/11.  One organization that was impressive was FEMA.  While no large-scale government operation is flawless, this one was as close as I've ever seen.

None of what these organizations didn't do should overshadow what so many did accomplish.  This included individual donations from our people to the Flood Relief Fund,  weekends worked in service to neighbors,  and Abilene's South 11th and Willis Church of Christ's amazing mission week helping our people.  Those who could work did; those who couldn't cooked meals for those working; others wrote checks that made all the difference.  Some people did all three.

In the end the story of Nashville flood relief was neighbor helping neighbor, churches showing the love of Christ through service, and flooded families pressing through tough times with determination not to be victims.

Ten down and one to go; watch for information in the coming weeks on how you can help.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Rx HDP Off to a Good Start

Today my wife went to our local Publix pharmacy to fill two of our maintenance drugs.  Each was a Tier 1 drug under the PPO plan meaning that they were covered under a $10 co-pay each, or $20 for the two.  We paid full price for both of them which was $16!  So for the past couple of years I've been paying an insurance premium which caused these two drugs to cost me more.

When she went to pay she swiped our HSA card and it worked. Success!

For those of you, like me, chose the HDP and HSA pairing for medical coverage, I hope you are having a similar experience.  If not I'd like to hear from you, and feel free to comment on this blog.

For those of you still on the PPO plan, with or without an FSA, I'll keep you posted with our family's experience in this brave new world of quasi-self insurance.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Off the Aggregator

This morning I asked Lindsey Nobles, who reluctantly agreed, to take my blog and twitter feeds off the Thomas Nelson blog aggregator and website.  If you wish to read it you will still find it here but it won't be listed as a Nelson blog.

My intention in this blog has been to use it as a tool for (1) employee communication and (2) HR tech-talk. The former of these was successful but can be accomplished through internal email or the occasional link-out to a specific post here.  The latter has been problemmatic and is why I chose to make this change.

The big issues changing the HR landscape and about which we need to talk shop are changes in employee lifestyles,  immigration, changing demographics, and the changing religious landscape not just in our country but right here in our community.  The labor pool locally and nationally is growing more non-white, less married, less Christian (either secular or Muslim in particular) and more multi-lingual. How HR departments and employers select candidates and deliver professional services within both the American legal framework and Christian values will change to reflect the new reality. How we go about this change, what tools and techniques we use, is something about which I'd like to talk shop.

The problem with that intention is that sometimes people outside the company draw broad conclusions about Thomas Nelson's policies or values based upon my opinions.  Sometimes these are one in the same, but often times they are not.  Separating my opinion from the Nelson platform seems to me the wisest approach to facilitate an honest conversation while not becoming a distraction to our company.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Periodically Check the Calendar

When were your attitudes formed, and where?  By whom?  Are they still relevant today?

These are questions you should ask yourself periodically, especially as you (1) get older and (2) work in one organization over time.

Lately I've run into several examples of this.  I don't know if it is circumstance or because lately I've personally made some changes, but I'm noticing outdated attitudes in others. My favorite comment of late is, "Open Outlook and check the calendar; its not that year anymore."

In this position you hear all manner of things, very few of which I can repeat.  In general I see occasional perceptions about "how things are" that are 10 years behind reality.  The occasional turf battle that arose out of fear based on something that happened years ago. The occasional person who is afraid for their supervisor to know that they came to HR, as if their right to come here for anything at any time hasn't been a matter of policy for 10 years. 

The old saying goes, "What got you hear won't get you there."  Some experience is wisdom, some is prejudice, and some is laziness.  You can't just repeat what's always worked and expect that it always will.  Knowing what to keep and what to throw out is a nuance that we all must master to sustain a lifelong career.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

What A Quality Focus and Time Can Accomplish

Yesterday the Department of Transportation reported an encouraging if not amazing statistic.  Highway fatalities in this country for the year just ended were just over 33,000, the lowest in any year since 1949.  Fatalities reached their peak with 52,000 in 1972.

The reasons are many but all have their origins in various systems which have been intentionally improved over the years.

Cars are better.  Airbags, side curtain air bags, stability controls, better tires, and more recently spacing control radar in high-end models.  Highways are better, smoother, and with more gradual curves as road builders have improved their techniques. DUI enforcement is much stricter and values have changed along with the law.  Law enforcement no longer lets intoxicated drivers go with a warning.

Medical techniques for trauma have improved.  EMT response time and techniques are vastly better than in the 70's, and trauma care in emergency rooms improved significantly with doctors coming back from Vietnam and seeing how they had better techniques in the bush than did most hospitals.

Seat belt use is now mandatory and reflects a change in values.  85% of drivers surveyed report wearing your seat belt and those annoying alarms hound you until you put the darn thing on.

Why is this relevant to a workplace blog?

Because it points out what happens to a system when the people executing it become intentional about improving how things are done, not just getting things done.

In a workplace focused on quality we should have two goals every day: to accomplish what is set in front of us and to get better at how we do it.  While in our workplace we focus so much on creativity we should also leave some room for innovation.  What problems could we solve if over the next 10 years we set about to intentionally solve them?  This is how Japanese cars went from the tinker toys of the industry to the envy of the industry.

What seemingly impossible problem in your area needs to be solved?

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sooner or Later

I've been saving this post for a very long time.  As we come to the end of another fiscal year, one in which we have much to celebrate, I want to take a moment to challenge the thinking of a sub-culture within our company that looks for signs of layoffs...constantly.

This was undoubtedly our comeback year so as we move forward to build a better Thomas Nelson I'd like to ask this simple question: how can we as Christians contemplate and come to terms with the gravity our own mortality and eternal destination and yet gyrate uncontrollably at the thought of losing a job?

Over lunch one day Sam Moore told me the story of how he came to buy Thomas Nelson from Lord Thomson.  Undoubtedly many of you have heard or read that story, although some of our newer or younger people haven't.  It is one of the great lines on this topic and what follows is the abbreviated version of what Sam told me.

Lord Thomson, British publishing magnate getting on in years, notices the success of Sam's upstart Royal Publishing on 7th Avenue in Nashville.  He calls Sam to lunch in New York and asks him to come work for him running Thomas Nelson, whose brand had lost its way in the marketplace.  Sam says, "I won't come to work for you but I'll buy it from you."  One of Lord Thomson's staff quickly jumps in the conversation and says, "Lord Thomson does not sell companies, he only buys them."  Sam replied, "Lord Thomson, the Good Lord has designed it so that eventually we all sell."

And so it is with our jobs...

I will eventually leave Thomas Nelson.  It could be after I get my gold watch for my 80th birthday like Jack Countryman (although thankfully he's still here!).  It could be next year in a disagreement with my bosses or in 10 years due to disability or an offer I can't refuse.  I'll eventually leave my job in some fashion just like I'll eventually die.  I've come to terms with both as much as anyone can in advance of it happening and so my work experience is generally positive.

The economic and financial paranoia of this recession is easing.  Our future looks bright.  As we move forward together I encourage you, whether you work at Nelson or elsewhere, to make plans for your retirement; to pay off your debts and to have an emergency fund. Come to work with the same surety and outlook with which you come to your Church.  To strain at job security and swallow mortality whole is illogical and makes your day, and mine, harder than it has to be.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Thankful Monday

This morning as I was doing my usual 6:30 email and web news check the big story was another Abercrombie and Fitch stumble. Adding to its history of sexualizing pre-teens, the company recently made the news for selling a push-up padded bikini top marketed to girls as young as seven. 

The news caused me, on a groggy Monday morning, to pause and be thankful for where we work.  While we're not without our problems (what workplace isn't?), I wondered for a moment what it would be like as a person of faith working at A & F.  How could you be proud of your company?  How could you feel good about going to work knowing that you contributed to a product line and company culture that makes money turning second graders into sex objects?

By contrast last week I spent a day in Abilene visiting the missionaries who had come to Nashville for flood rebuilding and relief.  They reminded me that it was the inspiration of our products that caused them to form domestic mission teams.  They not only perform domestic mission work but have also built an orphanage for deaf children in Kenya.  This congregation of 250 supports 2 1/2 paid missionaries overseas.  They give us and our products a lot of the credit.

I went there to thank them, on behalf of Thomas Nelson, for their help with one of our own whose house had flooded.  Instead they thanked me for the inspiration of our products.

So fresh off that visit I read about A & F and said a quick prayer of thanks for working at a place whose products inspire the best in our readers.  I also said a quick prayer for those working for employers of which they are ashamed.  May they find a way out and support their families some other way.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why I've Not Blogged and What's Next

After posting almost daily I've been silent for about a couple of weeks.  Since my last post we've been at the individual counseling stage for employees making important and sometimes difficult benefits choices.  I've also been to Texas to do the same for our Live Events workforce.  The days have been too full to allow much blogging time.

I've also been avoiding topics other than Open Enrollment until April 1st.  We have been using this blog as a place to post FAQ-type information for Thomas Nelson's benefits plans.  This has driven traffic to the blog.  Because of this I've shied away from op-ed pieces; I don't want anyone thinking that I've driven them to my blog so they could be exposed to my opinions on one topic or another.

After April 1st I hope to get back to regular posts on more general workplace topics as our benefits enrollment deadline will have passed.  I may also have one more post on the CAN-DO ordinance before Metro Council, as its Final Reading is April 5th.

Meanwhile, if you're a Nelson employee, remember that Monday, March 28th is the deadline for your benefits decisions.  You legally have until the 31st and we'll honor elections up until that time, but it takes 2-3 days to get your elections in the system and your coverage will start a few days late.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

So What Constitutes a Medical Emergency?

In the choice between P and S networks one of the most common concerns is emergency room care.  We always say, "Never drive past an ER", meaning that you should never think about in and out of network in emergency situations.  Another reason is that emergency care (which is different from emergency room care which could include going on the weekend for the flu) is covered in our medical plan at the same in-network rate at any hospital.

When we give this response the first very reasonable question we get is, "So what is emergency room care to Blue Cross?"  The concern is that a person might go to an out of network hospital thinking something is serious, find out that it isn't, and then be stuck with a big ER bill for out-of-network treatment.

Here, exactly, is the Blue Cross Blue Shield definition for emergency care.

An emergency situation is defined by a "prudent layperson" who possesses an average knowledge of health and medicine, as a medical condition that develops itself by symptoms of sufficient severity, including severe pain.  Failure to provide such treatment could reasonably be expected to result in:
  • Serious impairment of bodily functions
  • Serious dysfunction of a body organ or part
  • Could reasonably be expected to place the person's health in serious jeopardy
  • Threat to the health and safety of a pregnant woman who is having contractions or to an unborn child
  • Danger to self (including psychiatric conditions and intoxication
While there is room for debate after the fact, here are three things for you to consider.  We have had the same possible situation historically with in and out of network ER care before ever going to BCBS.  In ten years of managing the plan we've never had an issue with ER care charged as non-ER care.  Also there is an appeals process and you should use your HR department to help as your advocate if there ever is an issue.  Finally I've reviewed the list of acceptable medical billing codes that count as emergencies and it is 138 pages long.

Remember, if its an emergency go to the nearest ER.  We'll help you sort it out after the fact if there is a problem, but the chances of you having a problem are slim.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Why Are We Moving the Book Archive?

While plans are not yet finalized, the word appears to be out that we're planning on moving the company's archive to space in the warehouse building.  All manner of speculation ranging from dead-right to ridiculous has made its way around the building.  I'll take responsibility for not getting out ahead of this story; it is a proverb in HR and PR that if you fail to tell your story someone will tell it for you, facts or no facts.  So what's the real story?

We are out of space. 

With the recession-era move of all offices into the Corporate building, and subsequent subleasing of our other spaces, we are committed to one location for our publishing operations.  We are about to embark on a new budget year with less than five spaces left in our building.  When the new budget year rolls around on April 1st we will begin to receive requisitions to hire those approved positions and we have no place for them to go.

Our options were to reduce all cubicles down to 6x8, making more work spaces in this building by cramming people closer together and cutting down on the amount of counter and file space for every person.  We eliminated that idea as too disruptive and detrimental to the work environment.

We could lease more space.  This is not only unacceptably expensive, but it reverses the operational advantages we gained from having Publishing, Sales, Marketing, Operations and Administration in one building. 

Our other option was to look for something to move out of this building.  This building houses people, storage, archives and equipment.  Much of our storage is in rooms where we can't put people, including our mechanical rooms.  The building HVAC and servers can't move, and we're not splitting our team. That leaves the archive, which can go anywhere so long as we provide the correct humidity and temperature.

There is more to be determined and written about this at a later date as decisions are made.  For now its sufficient to articulate what we're doing and why.  Questions and comments are, as always, welcome.

Monday, March 07, 2011

If "Preventative Services" are Free, How are They Defined?

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the law behind Congressional Healthcare Reform also known as PPACA) mandates that all preventative services be delivered at no cost to the insured patient (that's you if you participate in our health plan).  So since most everyone at some point or other has been burned by the specificity of how an insurance carrier defines covered services, the big question so far as been, "What exactly is considered a preventative service?" 

Here from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee PPACA flier "Preventative Services" is how BCBS defines these services. 

All Members

• One-a-year preventive health exams. More frequent preventive exams are covered for children up to age 3

• All standard immunizations adopted by the CDC

• Screening for colorectal cancer (age 50 – 75 ), high cholesterol and lipids, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and depression

• Screening for HIV and certain sexually transmitted diseases, and counseling for the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases

• Screening and counseling in primary care setting for alcohol misuse and tobacco use; tobacco cessation counseling in the primary care setting will be limited to eight visits per year

• Dietary counseling for adults with hyperlipidemia, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, coronary artery disease and congestive heart failure; limited to six visits per year


• Cervical cancer screening

• Screening of pregnant women for anemia, iron deficiency, bacteriuria, hepatitis B virus and Rh factor incompatibility

• Advice to promote and aid with breast-feeding

• Mammography screening at age 40 and over, and evaluation for genetic testing for BRCA breast cancer gene

• Osteoporosis screening (age 60 or older)

• Counseling women at high risk of breast cancer for chemoprevention, including risks and benefits


• Prostate cancer screening at age 50 and older

• Abdominal aortic aneurysm screening at age 65 – 75


• Newborn screening for hearing, phenylketonuria (PKU), thyroid disease, sickle cell anemia and cystic

• Development delays and autism screenings

• Iron deficiency screening

• Vision screening

• Screening for major depressive disorders

Please note that annual limits apply to some: for instance, I have two physicals a year to monitor a personal health condition. One of those will be considered a free preventative health screening, the other will be considered diagnosis-related and applied toward my HDP deductible.
Never neglect your health, but it is always a good idea to have your doctor check with BCBS for coverage before undertaking any potentially expensive procedure. Knowing up front prevents surprises after the fact.

Friday, March 04, 2011

High Deductible Plans and Medicare Part B Don't Go Together

Those of you who have reached or are approaching age 65 have an extra decision to make regarding our Open Enrollment. You are or soon will be enrolled in Medicare Part A, which is free and automatic for U.S. citizens. This covers hospitalization, nursing homes, skilled nursing facilities, and some home health. This does not impact your group insurance decision at all.

What is an issue is whether or not you should take Medicare Part B, which covers physicians, outpatient procedures, and durable medical equipment. Part B must be elected and will cost you, for this year, at least $1,384.80 for the next 12 months. In our opinion, and that of our broker Corporate Benefits Alliance, this coverage will not pay more in benefits than you'll pay in premium (see chart).

Now before your eyes gloss over, let's walk through it.

Medicare pays 80% (you pay 20%) after a $162 deductible. Medicare is always the payer of last resort, but it will pay its portion between the $162 Medicare deductible and the $1,200 Blue Cross deductible. That totals $830 in benefits ($1,200 - $162 deductible = $1,038 x 80%).

After you've reached $1,200 in medical bills your Blue Cross insurance kicks in at 80%, making Medicare secondary. In the coordination of coverage rules for Medicare, it will pay whatever Blue Cross does up to the limits of Medicare's coverage. Because Blue Cross pays 80%, and Medicare pays 80%, Medicare will pay nothing else. You pay 20% until your total out of pocket reaches $8,800 (a rarity)and then Blue Cross pays 100%.

The coordination of these two coverages means that you'll pay $567 more in Part B premium that you'll ever receive in benefits.

Bottom line: if you have Parts A and B you don't need to elect our coverage. If you have Part A and want a Blue Cross High Deductible Plan you should not elect Medicare Part B.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Guest Post: "Why was that High Deductible Plan so SCARY?" by Matt McCurry

Let’s face it : most of us like security. When it comes to our health I would venture to guess that we all love security. Health, and the lack there of, can be a scary thing , and that’s why I was willing to pay for “peace of mind”. Two years ago I subscribed to the theory that paying the highest insurance premium had to be cheaper than paying the doctor or hospital for their services out of my own pocket. It also gave me the sense of security I was looking for in regard to my family’s health. I was married , we had just had our son , and I knew we would be going to the doctor quite a bit because that’s what infants like to do.

So what changed my our mind? Our wonderful HR department had just sent out the new insurance premiums , and after I picked myself up off the ground I decided that I really need ed to weigh out every option. I read up on this crazy thing called an HSA and found it to be quite intriguing. Not only was it a way for us to save up for medical expenses , but it was also an investment opportunity. What!?! I know - how amazing is that? So after looking at the traditional PPO premium (which I think was around an appendage per pay period ) and the High Deductible Plan premium I decided to dig in and run the numbers.

I won’t bore you with the details but the numbers blew my mind . It was painstakingly obvious that the HDP was the better option. When I came to work that Monday I discussed it with a coworker who had gone through the same exercise that weekend. After we ran the numbers about 50 different ways, and even though it was counterintuitive to everything we had known, I decided that this was our new plan.

Instead of paying money to an insurance company on the front end that would pay my bills IF we had them, it would be better to save that money and pay the higher deductible. By applying the difference between the two premiums into an HSA , in six months we had the funds available to cover the higher deductible. What about those first six months? It can be a concern , but it went by faster than I thought and the funds were in place before I knew it.

This is my experience and I have to say it was one of the best decisions my family has made in regard to our finances. We have been doing this for two years and this year we met the full deductible. At the end of the day we still spent less. I encourage everyone to at least consider the High Deductible Plan ; you might just be surprised.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

S and P Network Hospitals

With the start of Open Enrollment, one of the biggest issues for Tennessee staff is whether to take a plan with the Blue Cross Blue Shield network S or network P. The most common question is, "What's the difference?"

Well, here you go:

Hospitals in the S Network include Vanderbilt, St. Thomas, Baptist, Nashville General, Williamson Medical Center (Franklin), University Medical Center (Lebanon), and Middle TN Medical Center (Murfreesboro).

The HCA hospitals, which are in the P network but not in the S Network, include: Centennial, Southern Hills, Summit, Skyline, Stonecrest, & Hendersonville Medical Center.

A complete list of P and S network providers can be found here. Note that there are several network listed on that page but only P and S are available in our plan.

A complete list of HCA hospitals, none of which are available in the S network, can be found here.

As always, see any member of your Human Resources team with any questions you might have.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Benefits Education Week March 14 - 18th

March is Open Enrollment month for Thomas Nelson. Every year we have a Benefits Fair in Nashville, and attempt to get local resources to visit Live Events offices to deliver similar information. This year in Nashville we'll devote the entire week of March 14th - 18th for education on some important topics.

In addition to raising general awareness on the benefits available to our emplmoyees (i.e. our Benefits Fair and electronic communications), our points of emphasis will be:

1. High Deductible Plans and Health Savings Accounts
2. 401(k) participation and diversification of investments
3. Home ownership and refinancing

We chose these points because the medical insurance market is moving toward almost all high-deductible plans. We won't be there this year, but could be by next. With the 401(k) match still suspended, wisely saving and investing your own money is more important than ever. Also, being in the plan is necessary to take advantage of any future restoration of matching contributions. Finally with interest rates at historic lows, but credit still hard to come by, we want to leverage our corporate banking relationship with Fifth/Third Bank to help our people obtain information on lowering their home payments or purchasing that first home.

Please mark your calendars and take advantage of information you'll receive simply because you work at Thomas Nelson. Live Events staff will have a separate schedule of vendor visits, and I play on coming down to answer Open Enrollment questions March 22nd and 23rd.

Mon 3/14
9:30-10:00 Fifth Third Home Mortgage Workshop – Refinancing, Cafeteria area
10:00-12:00 Fifth Third Mortgage Representative available for individual consultation, Lobby Meeting Room B

Tues 3/15
12-5 Benefits Fair, Corporate Cafeteria Conf. Room

Wed 3/16
9:00-10:00 Vanguard 401(k): Diversify Your Plan Investments (breakfast provided), Corporate Cafeteria Conf. Room
10:30-11:30 Open Enrollment Meeting, Corporate Cafeteria Conf. Room
12:00-1:00 Vanguard 401(k): Save More (pizza provided), Corporate Cafeteria Conf. Room
1:30-2:30 Liberty Mutual – Auto 101 (snacks provided) , Corporate Cafeteria Conf. Room
3:00-4:00 Vanguard 401(k): Invest in Your Future - SPANISH (snacks provided), Warehouse Break Room
4:30-5:30 Vanguard 401(k): Invest in Your Future (snacks provided), Warehouse Break Room

Thurs 3/17
9:00-10:00 Vanguard 401(k): Save More (breakfast provided), Corporate Cafeteria Conf. Room
11:00-12:00 Vanguard 401(k): Invest in Your Future (pizza provided), Warehouse Break Room
1:00-2:00 Vanguard 401(k): Diversify Your Plan Investments (pizza provided), Corporate Cafeteria Conf. Room
3:00-4:00 Vanguard 401(k): Invest in Your Future - VIETNAMESE (snacks provided), Warehouse Break Room

Friday 3/18
9:30-10:30 Open Enrollment Meeting, Corporate Cafeteria Conf Room
1:00-2:00 Fifth Third Home Mortgage Workshop – First Time Homeowners, Corporate Cafeteria Conf. Room
2:00-4:00 Fifth Third Mortgage Representative available for individual consultation, Lobby Meeting Room B

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Guest Post: "An Accountant Runs the Numbers on the High-Deductible Health Plan" by Darlene Mangrum

I have been enrolled in the HDP insurance plan through Thomas Nelson for two years. The HDP insurance plan is based on the principle of the insured having a deductible and no co pays. Once the deductible is met, the insurance pays 80% of medical costs and the insured pays the remaining 20%.

In the HDP plan offered by Thomas Nelson, the deductible for our current year is $2,400 for employee + 1 and family coverage. What that means is that you will pay $2,400 out of your pocket before the insurance pays anything. I know that seems like a big pill to swallow, but consider the cost/benefit of the HDP over the PPO. When thinking about deductibles, there are differences between the PPO and HDP. With the PPO, you pay higher premiums, you pay a $35 co pay each time you visit the doctor, and you pay a co pay of $10, $30, or $50 for each prescription at the pharmacy. In the PPO none of these payments are credited to your deductible. With the HDP, everything counts toward the deductible. So once you reach out of pocket expenses of $2,400, you then only pay 20% of any future medical expenses for that calendar year. Deductibles are always calculated on a calendar year.

Premiums for PPOs are higher than premiums for HDPs. Since insurance premiums are deducted from your paycheck, it’s easy to forget how much you are actually paying for insurance. For example, the PPO annual premium for Employee + 1 is currently $2,410. The HDP annual premium for employee + 1 is $638. That’s a difference of $1,772.00. By choosing the HDP option, you could use some or all of the difference in premiums to fund an HSA bank account that can then be used to pay for actual medical expenses.

Nelson offers payroll deductions to fund your HSA account. You can use a debit card or checks to pay medical expenses from the account.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when considering the HDP:

• Annual premiums are lower.
• Your charges from physicians and pharmacies are at a discounted rate.
• You pay for medical services as you use them instead of paying high premiums for services you may not need.
• All medical expenses you pay are counted towards your deductible.
• Only people with an HDP can set up an HSA bank account.
• HSA accounts are owned by you.
• HSA accounts are not a “use it or lose it” account. The funds roll over and accumulate year to year if not spent.
• HSA money is portable and can be moved with you when changing jobs.
• HSA accounts can be used as an investment vehicle-after the age of 64, you can withdraw your money from the account for any reason.

Darlene is a Senior Accountant working primarily with both Women of Faith and corporate Payroll reconciliations and journal entries. She has been with the company 9 1/2 years.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Guest Post: "Why I Chose a High Deductible Health Plan" by Mandy Mullinix

I consider starting a Health Savings Account (HSA) in conjunction with a High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP) to be one of the best financial decisions I’ve ever made.

I came to Thomas Nelson in August 2007 after five years of working at a small-business that unfortunately did not have a large enough pool of workers to get good health insurance at a competitive price. As a result, I watched my health insurance premiums and co-pays increase dramatically year after year. By early 2007, I was paying close to $100 a week (or $5,200 annually) just for bare-bones coverage that came saddled with huge out of pockets costs.

My “a-ha” moment came that year when I actually sat down and read an Explanation of Benefits letter and saw just how little my insurance at the time paid my doctor. My son had been for a normal visit for some routine kid-sickness he had at the time. He didn’t have an x-ray, blood work or even an injection. It was a simple doctor visit and we received a script for an antibiotic. I remember paying the doctor a $35 co-pay, so you can imagine my shock when I read the EOB and saw all the insurance had left to kick in was $9.00. We made few visits to the doctor in 2007, which is a wonderful blessing. However, when you realize I paid in well over $5000 to receive maybe just $100 in actual benefits, you don’t have to be a mathematician to see why I started looking for an alternative to a traditional PPO plan.

I had read online about HSAs and thought that would be a good idea for me. I equated it to how I shopped for car insurance. I pay less in premiums if I agree to a higher deductible. The trick with it though is to actually save the difference for the deductible should anything happen (not pocket it, as is tempting). Unfortunately, a HSA/HDHP was not offered at my former job, but I started my HSA as soon as I was eligible for benefits here and haven’t looked back.

I’m going on my fourth year now in the plan and haven’t had any difficulties. My initial concern was how doctor’s offices would handle the billing/fee payment part (since most want your co-pay money upfront). I shouldn’t have worried. They all know they have to submit to my insurance first, then send me a bill for my portion which I pay with my HSA debit card. The exception to this is my dermatologist’s office. They somehow know up front what charges I am responsible for, but that’s even easier because I simply pay before I leave and there is no bill needed. Prescriptions work the same way. I drop them off along with my insurance card, then when it’s ready I pay for it with the HSA debit card. My pharmacist knows I’m in this plan and lets me know if a certain medicine is going to be expensive. If it is, we call the doctor and see if there is a lower priced alternative. The trick to making this plan work for you is to communicate your participation to both your doctor and pharmacist.

In the past three years, I’ve saved significantly more than I paid for medical claims. And since the money in my account rolls forward, I can use it for future expenses I may incur.

Mandy works as a Marketing Coordinator in trade book Publishing. She is a single mother and sole support of her family. That she's made the High Deductible Plan and Health Savings Account program work for her shows that most any family can benefit from this program. - Jim Thomason -

Monday, February 21, 2011

Guest Post: Strengthen Your “Critical Connections” at Work

Michael Lee Stallard and Jason Pankau are co-authors of Fired Up or Burned Out ( Michael is president of E Pluribus Partners, a leadership training firm. He writes about leadership and employee engagement at his award-winning blog, Jason is president of Life Spring Network, a Christian discipleship and leadership training ministry (

Research has shown that people perform better if they take time to create checklists that break their work down into necessary tasks. Here is an approach we recommend. Make a list of those individuals whom you count on you in order to do your work well and the individuals who count on you in order to do their work well. Think of these people as your “Critical Connections.” Strengthening your relationship with them is, in addition to making checklists, another key to achieving excellence in your work.

With each Critical Connection you should strive to develop a “Rational Connection” and an “Emotional Connection.” A Rational Connection is a “meeting of the minds” in terms of what has to be done by whom and what date it needs to be completed by. Frequently, mistakes are made when one individual presumes a meeting of the minds when in reality it doesn’t exist. An Emotional Connection is how you feel about an individual and how they feel about you. How we feel about people has a impact on trust and cooperation. Research has shown that Emotional Connections affect the amount of effort people put in their work up to four times as much as Rational Connections.

Here’s a two-part process you can use to be intentional about strengthening your working relationship with these individuals. First, periodically sit down with each Critical Connection and explain your W3 task list. A W3 task list describes what the task is, who is responsible for a specific task, and when it must be completed. It looks like this.

Verify Books Shipped
Marketing Plan
Foreign Rights Agreement Completed

Sandy Bradley
David Schroeder
Daisy Hutton

December 1
December 1
January 15

After you share your W3 task list, ask each Critical Connection to tell you “what’s right, what’s wrong and what’s missing” on your W3 task list. Work through any differences until you reach agreement. You might even consider confirming what you agreed upon in an email to each Critical Connection. This practice will help you establish a Rational Connection with each Critical Connection.

You might think of Emotional Connections as being established when you interact with your Critical Connections as human beings (as opposed to the task interactions we have where we interact with individuals as “human doings”). We recommend having lunch or coffee periodically with your Critical Connections. Ask them questions that are unrelated to work such as where did they grow up, what are their interests outside of work, what’s their favorite movie or what kind of music do they like. Look for ways to help them in their work and life outside of work.

By developing both Rational Connections and Emotional Connections with each of your Critical Connections, you will be more effective at work and, as you get to know your Critical Connections better, you’ll enjoy your time at work even more.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Our Benefits Direction

We're pretty much finished with this year's insurance renewal negotiations and, as expected, it was another brutally frustrating year. Our claims experience was outstanding yet again, with claims running between 80 and 90% of premiums. While that would normally mean a flat renewal (as underwriters have to project this trend out 15 - 16 months to reach the end of next plan year), this year it means another set of increases.

How could this be? Trust me when I say we've asked that question repeatedly for weeks. The answer lies in three places: (1) the general mess that is the state of American health care, (2) the lack of competition among insurance carriers, and (3) the unfunded mandates of the Health care Reform law. I'll save you my personal views on what's wrong with our health care system, other than to say that we spend a huge amount more than any other nation on earth and rank somewhere around 10th in life expectancy.

The lack of competition comes from the fact that the multi-state, fully-insured carrier market is down to Blue Cross in each state, Cigna, Aetna, and United Health care. At any one time whoever carries your policy is one, so you have a market of three; and they all watch each other. Present your renewal case to any one and the first question you'll get is, "What's everybody else doing." They won't admit to that because it would arguably violate anti-trust, but that's what happens.

This year we're already with the Blues, and Aetna is shaky financially. United Healthcare and Cigna, when shown Blue Cross' quote, declined to quote saying that they couldn't' undercut it enough to entice us to convert.

So as bad as our renewal ended up being, on top of that Healthcare Reform mandates will make up 5% of our total benefits cost for FY '12.

In order to give our people reasonable options we'll most likely implement the following changes:

1. The PPO, P-Network option, which is a Nashville-only network that includes HCA hospitals at a higher negotiated cost, will not continue into next year. This plan was costing us substantially more than the other plans and yet most of the utilization was in the S network (deeper discounted). It appears that most of chose this option just asked, "What's the best plan?" and didn't choose it for HCA access.

2. The PPO, S-Network will continue to be part of the plan, but the premiums will increase substantially. That's because this plan's cost is significantly more than High Deductible Plans, and if you choose this option it is just that you pay for what you choose.

3. The two High Deductible Plans will remain in the plan, and a new provider for our FSA and HSA cards will come on-line around April 1st.

Rates and specifics will come soon via internal emails and memos. For now it is important for all Nelson employees to understand two facts:

- That the Company is still paying the same proportion of your health care costs that is always has: the increase in cost is not from our shifting cost to our people.

- That the days of having any PPO option are probably numbered. We will probalby be an all-HDP medical plan by next April.

A major emphasis during Open Enrollment and all during FY '12 will be education about High Deductible Plans and Health Savings Accounts. Everyone should make plans to learn more about how these programs work. They really are good programs and can save you money if used correctly, or cost you if not. We've avoided making them our only options due to complexity, not because they are bad options.

More to come...

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Moment to Appreciate Gender Progress

Last Tuesday I hosted a coffee-talk session with our staff members hired one year ago or less. I wanted to get a first-hand view of what we were doing well and not-so-well now that we're hiring with more frequency. I didn't realize until the list spit off the printer that every one of these individuals were young women, almost all in their early-to-mid twenties. This turned the session from a look at "newbies" to a session exploring age and gender issues as well.

I had my usual list of questions: from generally how they liked it here to what do they specifically like to what do they specifically not like. I was very pleased with almost all of what I heard. We are doing a very good job connecting mission and people; not just articulating our company mission and values, but in selecting people with a passion for who we are and what we do. Almost everyone in that room appeared to be a really good fit. Most of the negatives revolved around on-boarding, initial training, and some miscommunication about PTO. There was nothing I heard that couldn't be addressed.

It was when I asked the question, "So since you are all young women, tell me what its like to work at Thomas Nelson as a woman." The best way to describe the facial expressions and body language was, "Huh?" as most had no idea what I meant. When I expounded about if they felt they were treated with respect, as equals, and perceived an environment of equal opportunity there was an almost unanimous "yes" in the room. They spoke of being on all-women teams, having women supervisors, seeing women in leadership as role models, etc...

Having been at Nelson 10 years this was rewarding. More important was the fact that I had to explain what I meant when asking the gender question. I've been in HR for close to 30 years and I've seen a lot change during that time. I'm married to a 50-something wife who remembers having to stand at attention in front of the high school principal to prove that her skirt (shorts weren't allowed) touched her knees. I had a relative who almost died in the 1970s waiting for a hysterectomy because her husband wouldn't give the doctors his permission. There are literally thousands of such examples in society and in the workplace. These young women have no such frame of reference. They entered the workplace after the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings.

And now here's the big lesson. Providing equal opportunity is to this generation like paying time-and-a-half for overtime or providing a 401(k) plan. You don't get a cookie for doing it, but not doing it brands you as no place they will work. The impressive progress of society in these last 30 years comes with expectations and assumptions that they are respected and get an equal shot at success. If you're a manager who doesn't yet get that; who gives lip service to equality but holds on to your biases, beware. If you thought dealing unfairly with a generation of women who see gender behind all issues was tough, try it with a generation of women who don't.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Eight Gables and the Lesson of Debt

We are spending a long Valentine's Day weekend once again in Gatlinburg at Eight Gables Inn, a favorite of ours for some years. This year we've met the third owner since we began coming here. The results of this new ownership, in place since November, is significant. The situation here has a lesson to teach for businesses and individuals about debt.

The last owner, a dear lady who we liked a lot, simply paid too much for this property. During her tenure prices went up to cover that debt, which was structured pre-recession. During the recession, due in part to the higher prices, occupancy went down as did service and the number of available staff.

The new owners, from all indications, paid considerably less. The property had been on the market for some time before it sold. The new owners also operate a string of wedding chapels in Gatlinburg so this property is an adjacency for them; book the chapel and house the wedding party in one package: operate the Inn as normal otherwise.

The impact is noticeable. First of all, prices have dropped about 30%. The parking lot was full this morning, and there are about three times more staff than usual. The facilities are still a little tired from years of ownership that couldn't reinvest, but there are small visible improvements with more planned. The place has the feel of something about to come roaring back.

Have you seen a business example of this recently? How many companies are straddled with pre-recession debt and can't invest in people or infrastructure? How about a friend (I have a couple) who overbuys for their home as compared to their income and has a great house in a great neighborhood, but no shrubs?

The lesson is to never overpay for anything. Whether it be a car, a home, or a business you can operate smaller and better rather than over reaching and struggling. This should be one of the rules for the "new normal" of the post recession economy.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Nashville's Anti-Discrimination Issue

Once again the Metro Council has taken up the issue of requiring companies that do business with the city not discriminate against gays and lesbians in matters of employment. Mayor Karl Dean was quoted in today's Tennessean newspaper that if passed, he will sign it. The Nashville Chamber is asking to slow down consideration of the measure for more study; in other words, they don't favor it but need more time to know just why.

Its time for this measure to pass. Discrimination is good and necessary so long as its based upon performance and behavior. You should, as an employer, pay more, give more, and advance people who perform in favor of those who don't. The word "discriminate" has a negative connotation based upon its use in the civil rights struggle, but leaders must do it every day to lead an organization. It is discrimination using factors other than performance and behavior that run counter to both Christian and American values.

Labor lawyers and traditional managers don't favor sexual preference discrimination because it complicates the employment landscape. How do I know the sexual preference of an individual I'm about to discipline, terminate, or not hire? I understand that argument, believe me I do. But the framework is already there to accommodate new restrictions using the existing non-discrimination framework (methods, policies, procedures) that HR departments already use in employing minorities and women. It really isn't that big of a deal.

I would suggest to Metro and to the Mayor's office that they go one step further. Once enacted, they should ask for all employers who are not city contractors to sign a pledge to uphold the law voluntarily. In a region not known nationally for tolerance (the South's reputation has not caught up with the fact that we're pretty open-minded in our urban areas), this would brand Nashville as progressive and tolerant and would give us an additional advantage in landing new businesses and creating new jobs.

"But that lifestyle is not Christian," you say? Well I'll leave that theological debate to others. Almost all Christian companies employ non-Christians whether we know it or not. Chances are some of the Christians that those companies employ engage in immoral behavior at times without losing their jobs. Our goal each day should be a workplace where performance, behavior and adherence to our core values in the workplace are all that matters. Banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in all workplaces would be a huge step in that direction.

Friday, February 04, 2011

A Simple Solution to Retaliation Charges

Thompson vs. North American Stainless, LP is the latest ruling to send labor lawyers spinning. This US Supreme Court ruling expanded Title VII protections against retaliation to cover third party employees. In Thompson lower courts had ruled that the employer had retaliated against the fiance of a terminated employee who had brought legal action against them. The employer's defense was that Title VII didn't cover third parties. That the Court ruled for the Plaintiff has caused a new selling opportunity for labor law seminars, as law firms want to teach all of us in business how to protect ourselves from third party retaliation claims.

This is much hysteria about nothing for a couple of reasons. First Title VII already protects against "affiliative discrimination" i.e. protection against retaliation for whites who worked with and/or are friends with a non-white who brought an EEOC charge. Protection of third parties is not a new theory.

Second you can avoid third party retaliation claims with a simple countermeasure: don't retaliate.

One of my first Regional Managers back in my Wal-Martian days taught me that leading people who don't necessarily support you is the highest form of the managerial arts.

If you are in business and you run your operations for efficiency instead of trying to make sure nobody's feelings get hurt you will inevitably be charged with something. Work through the charge and focus on the work. Forget about who did what, trying to exact payback, running off the sympathizers, etc... That only gets you your own version of Thompson.

Getting accused of something at some point in your career is the norm in management; you are probably not doing your job if you don't. Prevailing against charges, self-correcting if you inadvertently do something wrong, and not retaliating are the three elements to keeping you and your workforce focused on business and not conflict: no seminar required.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Better Unemployment Numbers for Nashville

This morning the Tennessean announced that the jobless rate in Nashville had dropped from 9.3% a year ago to 8.1% last month. That sounds good... actually that is good. But what exactly does that mean?

The Chamber of Commerce lists the adult workforce in Nashville at 787,389. Allowing for those commuting in from outside Nashville and undocumented/uncounted workers, let's just say that the total adult workforce in 850,000. Remember too that at any one time about 4% of the workforce is in transition; just moved here for their spouse's job, just had a baby and out of the workforce for awhile, just graduated and looking for that first job, etc... Historically Nashville's unemployment rate, even in boom times, is 4.5%.

So the real unemployment rate, that percentage of people who want a job and can't get one, is the difference between 8.1% and 4.5%, or about 30,000 people. That's still a large number but in a community of over a million people, its 3% of the population. Put another way, 97% of everyone in Nashville and surrounding counties who want a job has one.

This isn't to make light of the tragedy of long-term unemployment. About half of those unemployed nationwide have been so over a year. Just keep in mind when you hear the staggering figures about 15 million unemployed people that there is context behind those numbers and that, locally, we're recovering.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Weather As Drama

This morning WSMV in Nashville, usually my favorite local station, reached a new low in weather reporting. With a light snow falling amidst rising temperatures and substantially clear roads, the warnings and imagery would have you thinking Donner Party. Our parking lot is almost empty, and much of that due to Metro Schools lack of courage in closing yet again when it didn't have to. Other absenteeism can be traced to folks looking at their televisions and not out their windows.

There were two accidents, count them, in Metro Nashville that required emergency workers. The footage of one of those accidents played continuously throughout the morning weather coverage. Some young cub reporter was dispatched to Clarksville showing footage of a slushy street with cars moving at nearly full speed. His comment? That it was surprising how fast traffic was moving given the dangerous conditions. He also pointed to Wilma Rudolph Blvd. where "last week over 200 wrecks were reported." Well, there were over 200 wrecks in all of Clarksville last week (he later corrected himself), but if there were 2,000 wrecks last week what does that have to do with today's conditions?

I left the house, drove my 20 minutes to work, and there was no snow on the streets. None. Zip. Nada. Metro Schools and local media combined to create unnecessary absenteeism that's disruptive to families and to business.

You can't yell, "Fire" in a crowded theatre. There are crimes against hate speech. How about a law against fear mongering that contributes to lost wages and productivity?

Just remember when you watch local weather that its sponsored by Kroger; the people selling you milk and toilet paper.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Inevitable Younger Boss

Unless you get to be CEO, at some point in your career you'll work for somebody younger. When that happens it stings for a lot of reasons. It is an unpleasant right of passage like the loss of an older friend or grandparent. It tells you where you are in your career unless you do something drastic to shake things up. What it tells you about your career status may hold true even if you do shake things up.

Organizations, as much as they may try to adopt egalitarian language, are pyramids. There are fewer positions the higher up you go. Along the way you reach a point past which you won't rise higher. You know that in your intellectual mind just like your know your own mortality. You just don't want it brought front of mind like when one supervisor moves on or retires and the next one is younger than you.

This can happen for several reasons. You can be a professional in a skill that supports, but is not at the core of, your employer. I'm an HR professional in a publishing company, for example.

Other less pleasant reasons for a younger boss are that the company thinks this youngster is better suited for tomorrow's skills, or that they've assessed the two of you and just think the other person has more potential.

So after you get the news and absorb the shock, what's there to do? Here are some suggestions.

1. Don't chalk it up to discrimination. If you take the easy way out you'll miss the self-examination that is needed for you to benefit from this development.

2. Ask the decision makers why it wasn't you. Also ask what you would need to do to be the right candidate next time, if they're willing to support you in that effort, and what they see your career track to be going forward.

3. Seek advise outside your company. Get a second opinion and decide for yourself if your company is right or if they're just made a terrible oversight as to your potential.

4. Make a decision and move forward positively. Whether you decide to shop your skills on the market, seek to close the skill gap with your current employer, or transfer to another department, do it. Do it and don't let the decision cause your performance to erode through poor attitude. You can't make a positive change in a negative frame of mind; people smell it. You can, with the same amount of energy and a better outcome, turn other's negative opinions of you into motivation.

To handle this type of career turning point you must first expect it. Unless you're going to work for yourself, or be CEO, it is going to happen. Skip the anger, self-doubt, and suspicion and turn it into the energy needed to deal with this inevitable point in your career.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Fool's Errand

Our daughter works in HR for a local state-supported non-profit. They absolutely, positively prohibit employee use of social media at work. Don't do it, don't think about it, don't even think about thinking about it. This means she violates organizational policy whenever she updates their Facebook page or posts job openings on Craigslist.

You can't make this stuff up...

Now before you think I'm picking on one organization I would submit that there are a lot of old school traditionalists that are still of the mindset that social media use at work can be banned. The State of Tennessee where two of my relatives work has blocked eBay at the firewall. Many others have blocked Facebook. What all of these types of organizations fail to recognize is that a game changer has arrived.

Mobile Social Media. Here's why this changes everything.

According to Research in Motion approximately 50 million people use mobile social media applications, most notably Twitter and Facebook. At current sales projections this same report estimates that number by the end of 2012 to be 800 million.

Instead of a single phone usage communicating two-ways between two people (caller and receiver), one post can communicate instantly with tens of thousands and start a hundred thousand collatoral conversations. Our CEO can reach 90,000+ followers with one tweet from anywhere in the world instead of reaching one person with a phone call or email.

Vanguard's Vision 2010 report estimates that only 15 million adults in the world don't have a cell phone. Yes, you read that correctly, don't have a cell phone. In the next five years that number will be cut in half.

The Economist recently reported on a Chinese company making light-weight solar panel kits that sell in African for the equivalent of $70 U.S. dollars. One small panel on a grass hut provides enough electricity for a small cook stove, a few light bulbs, and a cell phone charger. Yes, you read that right as well.

Combine all these innovations with the rapid development and deployment of smart phone hardware and higher band-width networks (3G, 4G, etc...) and you have a worldwide e-ecosystem that operates outside of your company firewall.

Want to ban certain sites from your workforce? They'll access them on their phones. Want to control their phone use? Well, have you seen the small size of those phones? Hope you have cameras in the ladies room...

Workforce control is the SOP of weak managers who limit information out of personal insecurity or fear of hard conversations. Good management engages its workforce in the conversations pertinent to the business, especially the tough ones, and earns its respect. Concerned about confidentiality? Put confidentiality agreements in your Handbook and Employment Agreements and deal with violations as they come up. Oh yeah, and hire the right people and treat them well. Don't be afraid to get rid of the rest. Loyal and engaged people are better than the best security.

The better model is what we've done at Nelson. Encourage really good people to engage the marketplace in social media conversations that are good for the business. This current technology, much less whatever is coming next, makes your firewall obsolete except as a way of protecting your servers from hackers and viruses. Companies soon will have a simple choice; the fool's errand that brands your company as backward or the policy of engagement.

Monday, January 10, 2011

What It Takes to Get to Work

Please don't mistake this for a rant because it absolutely isn't. I have a bias for coming to work and I always, always do unless I'm so sick that I can't get out of bed. I have missed work because of road conditions a total of two days in the nearly 30 years that I've been working for companies. This doesn't mean as much as it used to; technology has changed the nature of work to the point that much of it can be done from anywhere. Missing a day here or there while working from home, especially if schools are closed and you are watching kids is sometimes the better part of valor.

But what if your work won't allow that? What if you have to work in order to get paid and pay your bills? I find that a lot of younger workers don't understand what that takes. Here are some things I've learned and where my "I always go to work" comes from.

I grew up in a rural community of 1,200 where almost every man did one of two things; worked on the farm or worked in a factory. A handful of people were shopkeepers like my pharmacist dad. Our family had a drug store and two farms and I grew up farming while my parents went to work in town. Our town had three sewing factories that employed almost all women so the men commuted to Bowling Green and Louisville, 30 and 90 minutes each way respectively.

What each of these three groups had in common was simple: nobody was on salary and if you didn't work you didn't get paid. We had no middle class; we didn't know we were all working class until we left and lived somewhere else. This fostered a culture where neighbor helped neighbor, but where everyone took responsibility for being able to get to work no matter what. Farmers' herds had to eat no matter what the weather, and indeed had to eat more during snow and cold. Factory workers had to punch in at 7:00 or 7:30 an hour-and-a-half away on good days; up to three hours or more in the snow. Shop keepers took in what they sold, and medical professionals like my Dad had to go in at all hours during the cold and flu season.

What I observed in that culture sticks with our family today. If you must be there instead of working from home, and/or you want to develop the reputation of being the person who is ultra-dependable and always there it starts with some fundamental and intentional decisions.

1. Where you live relative to work - Whenever we've moved we always check the route between that house and work and ask ourselves if we could get up that hill or back down that steep driveway. If we felt it inhibited our ability to get to work we passed on that house.

2. Own a front-wheel, all-wheel, or four-wheel-drive vehicle - This doesn't have to be expensive. A small front-wheel-drive vehicle will get you to work almost any time unless you have a difficult hill or driveway (see 1 above). If you do, four-wheel-drive is essential. Buy an older model if expense is an issue and stick with common models where parts aren't overly expensive or difficult to find (Toyota, General Motors, Ford, Jeep, etc...).

3. Have a roadside emergency kit - You should always have a tow rope, small folding camp shovel, flashlight, blanket, jumper cables, rock salt or cat litter. These are indispensable if you or someone you come across ends up in a ditch. Store them in a truck box or a heavy plastic tote in the rear of your vehicle.

4. Practice, Practice, Practice - So many people don't get out on the roads because they are afraid. While the weather is icy, take your vehicle out to an empty parking lot and practice skidding and recovering. Most icy road accidents are caused when inexperienced or frightened drivers over-correct. Knowing your vehicle and how it steers and stops will keep you from being your own worst enemy.

5. Own snow boots and a heavy coat, and take them with you on the road - Dress to be on the side of the road even while taking steps to make sure you aren't. Every so often you may slide off anyway. Having the right clothes can be the difference between a bumpy ride and a threat to your health.

6. Keep your cell phone charged up - Being able to call for help keeps you from having to flag down help and hope for the best.

Remember that the keys to going no matter what start with where you live and what you drive. You also need to be prepared through practice and the right clothing and equipment. Is all this necessary to hold a job in today's world? Most likely not. Is it necessary to be that rare person who never, ever misses work and builds a reputation for incredible dependability? Absolutely! That, Gentle Reader, will take you farther in your career than people with more ability.