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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What Does It Really Mean to Be in a Right to Work State?

In a Right to Work state an employee's employment is at the will or whim of the employer unless there is a contract such as an individual Employment Agreement or a union Collective Bargaining Agreement.  That is technically correct, but widely misunderstood in its practical application.

Among my liberal friends this is a controversial topic.  The idea that in a Right to Work state an employee can be fired for any reason at any time is unconscionable and violates the dignity of the worker.  For my conservative friends who run businesses there is no controversy: they believe the law entitles them to make any decision they choose.  Both are wrong.

At the heart of this misunderstanding is one huge exception to Right to Work: it does not apply to state or federal discrimination or harassment laws.  These laws are the majority of risk in employment. While retaining or terminating an employee may be at the complete discretion of the employer, if that discretion is abused such that the employee is discriminated against based upon some protected class status then the employee has full recourse through state or federal agencies and through the courts.

If you are employed in a Right to Work state you have the same rights regarding equal treatment under state and federal anti-discrimination law as you would in any other state.  If you employ or supervise people in one of these states you have about as much protection under Right to Work as if you rolled yourself in bubble wrap and jumped off a bridge.

When making employment decisions I would advise you the same way I advise my clients: to have an Employee Handbook, follow it, and never let Right to Work enter into your thinking.  The real definition of Right to Work: "A false sense of security that causes you to write large checks."

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What Constitutes a Hostile Work Environment

There is probably no more misused term or misunderstood concept in most workforces than "hostile environment".  For a whole generation of workers this term has become synonymous with harsh supervisors or rude co-workers. Legally that is just dead wrong.  Often complaints come in to HR departments using the "hostile environment" term as a hot-button to spur action against the offending supervisor or co-worker. It is the hollow "gotcha" of employee complaints.

So here's the problem: there is no law against being an awful boss or a toxic co-worker unless the harassing behavior is based upon some protected class status.  A friend of mine is a great labor lawyer in Nashville who coined "The SOB Defense"  which goes something like this: "Yes, Your Honor, my client is a Son of a young, old, black, white, male, female, Jew, Gentile, and everyone in between." In other words, as long as you are a jerk to everybody then being a jerk is not illegal.

An exception to this concept is sexual harassment: where the hostile environment is made so by unwanted sexual attention or information in the workplace.  While technically gender-based, anyone of either gender can find the sexual attention or information unwelcome, so even if everyone is offended it is still harassment.

So how do you know when an unpleasant environment is a hostile environment?
  • If you are the only person of your demographic in the work group (only woman, only non-white, only person over 40, etc...) and you are the only person experiencing the hostility.
  • If you and the other people who look like you receive unfavorable treatment but others do not.
  • If the unpleasant behavior is of a sexual nature.
Otherwise you work for or with a jerk.  That stinks, but it isn't illegal.  Find another job and walk out with your head held high and your middle finger held higher.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Tennessee Health Insurance Exchange Coverage

October 1st is less than two weeks away, and on that date adult U.S. citizens will be able to purchase health insurance from the Insurance Exchanges set up under the Affordable Care Act.  If you live in Tennessee, however, it can be confusing as to how you enroll.  Here is a quick primer.

Tennessee, like most Republican-led states, opted not to participate in the Exchange program.  There is no financial advantage to non-participation; actually not participating costs the state more money in the long run.  However the "anti-Obamacare" fever whipped up by Fox News and conservative talk radio made state participation tantamount to support of Healthcare Reform.  No Republican can survive a primary election if they are seen as supporting "Obamacare".  Instead these states, Tennessee among them, choose non-participation, which then requires the federal government to set up an Exchange for them.

Since Tennesseans have to use the federal Exchange program let's look at how you do that.

The federal program is called the Insurance Marketplace and enrollment is done on-line.  If you try to Google "Tennessee Insurance Exchange" or something similar you will get a page telling you that there is no state Exchange in Tennessee.  It is unhelpful in that it does not provide you with a link to the federal site so I am not linking to it here.

As of today you cannot yet get information from the Insurance Marketplace site regarding plans and premiums.  Those are coming October 1st.  You can roam the site and get a list of local offices where you can get one-on-one help in reviewing plans and enrolling.

Finally let's take a quick look at who should, and should not, be concerned about enrollment in the Insurance Marketplace.

  • If you have health coverage through your employer and are satisfied with it then you do nothing.
  • If you are covered by benefits through the government, a retirement plan, or the military you should do nothing.
  • If you have health insurance coverage offered through your employer but can't afford it you should look into Insurance Marketplace coverage.  You may qualify, based upon income, for a tax subsidy either instantly or at tax refund time.
  • If your employer does not offer health coverage then the Insurance Marketplace is for you.
  • If you are self-employed and have no coverage, or your coverage is expensive, the Insurance Marketplace is for you.
  • If you or a dependent have a pre-existing condition and have not been able to get coverage in the past, the Insurance Marketplace has guaranteed-issue coverage with no pre-existing exclusions.

Most of the people who are critical and/or screaming about this program are not affected by it.  There are even conservative groups in some markets trying to discourage uninsured people from enrolling.  Don't get sucked up into the political and philosophical hype: we are all paying for the Affordable Care Act so that 30 million uninsured Americans can have coverage.  If you are one of them go enroll.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Using Travel Company Loyalty Programs

If you travel for a living one of the perks of the trade is the ability to keep you "points" from airlines, hotels and rental car companies.  These once were a lot more generous than they are now, with almost all of them cutting back on benefits or devaluing their points during the Recession.  Once you get elite status and can board early, avoid bag fees, and get free weekend leisure rentals and rooms then losing that status feels punitive.  There is always a catch so you need to know the fine print.

For instance after being Gold and then Platinum with American Airlines I took several trips on Southwest because their fare was lower.  I recently got on an American flight and found that I had dropped, without notice, all the way from Platinum to Schmuck in four months.  It didn't matter that I had been Gold with them since the 90's: you keep up your segments or board with the last group.

I had a similar "catch" with Avis.  After having a Wizard number since the 90s, and even though I am tracking towards 100-150 rental car days a year, I can't use all the free days I have accumulated to help my daughter on her vacation or for one of the charities with whom I work.  As such about half of them will expire.

So how do you use these programs?  Which ones are the best?

For airlines it depends on where you fly.  Searching the web for the best airline loyalty programs four show up at the top of every list in some order: American AAdvantage, Southwest Rapid Rewards , United/Continental Mileage Plus and  Delta Skymiles.  Since I cover coast-to-coast south of a line between Annapolis and San Francisco my city pairs match up best with American and Southwest.  Were I to go into small cities in the south Delta would be better as they are the strongest carrier out of Atlanta Hartsfield airport.  However living in Nashville it is cheaper to drive to the places where Delta is strongest. United owns the Midwest, both large and small cities.

For hotels the top four are Marriott Rewards, Hilton HHonors, Intercontinental (IHG/Holiday Inn), and Starwood.  All are strong in major markets so it really depends on whose hotel you like.  I prefer the IHG brand for reasons I've written about before.  Being diabetic I never need to be without access to a meal or snack, so a full-service Holiday Inn is a safe choice at a price my clients won't protest. Also their hotels are almost all new or refurbished.  As a backup I use Hilton HHonors which for the same price offers the Hilton Garden Inn brand.  Many of my fellow company travelers use Marriott properties although I find them more expensive on the top-end and with ice-cream laden pantries on the low-end (not good for my dietary needs).

With rental car companies the ones that get you out the door with the least hassle are Hertz, Avis and National.  While you can get great service and great cars through the others, you can kill a half hour at a backed-up counter and who wants that?   I think you go with who has the best counter in the most places you travel. For years I had a Hertz #1 Gold membership through Thomas Nelson and Hertz does a great job overall.  However regionally I fly to DFW a lot and the Hertz counter there just stinks and has for years.  Avis/Budget are one company and are everywhere I fly, and getting elite status with them gives you benefits like swapping out for any car you like and automated check-out with no rental agreement.  You get free weekends and discount coupons along the way, but I don't like their restrictions on how you use those rewards. I have contacted Hertz and National to see if they have similar restrictions and may change companies.

In terms of credit cards I prefer to use a Gold American Express although I have purchased a Southwest Airlines  Rapid Rewards Visa.  I like my AMEX because I have had it since the 80's and their security and customer service are strong.  Most travel sites I have seen list the Southwest Visa as the best card due to the lower interest rate and the accumulation of points towards free Southwest flights.  Were I using exclusively American I would use their Citi AAdvantage Card, and were I flying with Delta I would change over to their Delta Skymiles American Express.  I use my own AMEX because the points can be used for any purpose: airline tickets, hotel rooms, rental cars, or if your toaster oven goes out.

Finally, all this assumes that you are not paying for your own travel.  Mine is charged to my employer or my clients so participating in these programs costs me very little. The points and perks are just part of my compensation.  However if you are a solopreneur paying your own way I would stay away from loyalty programs altogether for these reasons:

  1. They are no longer rewards programs.  They are marketing and alternative revenue stream programs for the benefit of the company, not you.
  2. All require your loyalty to their brand even when their price is higher.
  3. The credit cards cost money to active ($200 for Southwest Visa: $450 for AMEX Platinum) and can carry high interest rates.  Mine are 12 -18% even though my credit is excellent.
  4. With most airlines and hotels you can buy-in to their loyalty program if you like their perks. 

 If you are in business for yourself  you are better off to get the lowest interest rate credit card you can find, buy the best value-for-the-dollar airline, hotel and rental car regardless of brand, and put cash instead of points in the bank.  Greenbacks never expire and can be used for all destinations.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Vocational Revolution: How the Best Jobs of the Next Decade Won't Require College

One way to look at the Great Recession of 2007 - 2012 is that it was one giant comeuppance for about three generations of Americans, mine included.  We have been "too good" to do blue collar work and have sent that message to our kids.  Now the Starbucks generations are facing a conundrum: long-term unemployment, long-term and low-wage under employment in fast food and retail, or a return to skilled trades.

Starting in the 1980's college became the only acceptable route to success, and the skilled trades fell out of favor.  Working in manufacturing HR during the 1990s I recall the first signs of a critical shortage in tool and die makers and machinists, as more and more people flocked to college rather than vocational schools.  We have not turned out enough skilled trades graduates to feed the demand since the 1970's, but off-shoring of manufacturing and delayed retirements reduced demand and lessened or masked the problem.  No more.

In trades all across the country retirements are quickly shrinking the ranks of electricians, plumbers, nurses, tool and die makers, auto technicians and nurses' aids.  Increased automation is causing a subsequent increase in the need for computer programmers and systems analysts.  At a time when the economy is picking up we are awash in lawyers, marketers and middle managers while factories and construction contractors can't find skilled people unless they train them post-hire.  Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. This has more recently been referred to as our national "skills gap".

There are some true victims in this transition:

  • Greying unskilled assembly workers whose factories have moved on and who lack the technical knowledge to get hired in today's higher-tech trades.  
  • Similarly greying middle managers whose income levels make it difficult to re-tool
  • "College" graduates from on-line programs who have run up as much as $200,000 in student loans for jobs paying in the 30's and 40's.  
  • New college graduates with white collar degrees that don't qualify them to do anything but be trained post-hire and for whom management track jobs (see middle managers above) no longer exist.
Two venerable business and finance organizations have recently noted this need for more skilled trades. Kiplinger's list of the best jobs includes almost completely hands-on, value added positions; many of which may or may not require a college degree.  Forbes went one step further, listing the fastest growing jobs from the bureau of labor statistics and noting, "These are only unskilled jobs if by unskilled you mean they don't require a college degree."  

So mamas, its okay to let your babies grow up to be cowboys...and electricians...and sonogram operators...and physical therapists...and elementary school teachers.  We've spent the last years trying to raise little Alex P. Keaton's and for our trouble we got high unemployment and two and half generations of people who can't change their own oil.  That sound you hear off in the distance is the pendulum swinging back this way.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Obamacare 2013 and 2014: What You Need to Know Now

Earlier this year the Department of Health and Human Services announced a one-year delay in the implementation of key provision of the Affordable Care Act. Because of the highly politicized nature of this law there has been much said about the law "falling apart" and similar comments that would lead some to think that the whole act is on hold. Nothing could be farther from the actual situation so employers and employees must know what to do to keep in compliance. This law is already partially implemented and key provisions roll out this year and next. Here is where your company should be and what it should be preparing to do if it has 50 or more employees.
2013 Changes

For the current benefits plan year, or for any plan year beginning during calendar 2013, health plans must execute the following changes:
· Healthcare Flexible Spending Account (FSA) deductions are now capped at $2,500.

· Women’s preventative health services now must be covered at 100%.

· Comparative Research Effectiveness (CRE/PCROI) fees of $1 per covered employee are due.

· Employees must be notified 60 days in advance if their coverage changes significantly.

In addition to these plan changes, state Insurance Exchanges will be up and running in all 50 states by January 1, 2014. Open Enrollment for Exchange coverage starts October 1, 2013 for coverage beginning January 1, 2014. It is the employer’s obligation to notify all employees of the option of Exchange coverage before October 1. A sample notice or notice template is available from HHS or your broker.

2014 Changes

Prior to 2014 plans were able to designate themselves as “Grandfathered” or “Non-Grandfathered” for purposes of the Act. Beginning in 2014 plan changes must be implemented regardless of this status. These include:
· Annual dollar limits on essential health benefits must be removed from your plan.

· Pre-existing condition exclusions are also prohibited and must be removed.

· Child eligibility for coverage up to age 26 must be included in all plans.

· Eligibility waiting periods of more than 90 days post-hire are prohibited.

· Co-payments must be counted toward the calculation of out-of-pocket maximums.

· Clinical trials must be covered.

· CER/PCROI fees increase to $2 per covered employee.

· Employees must be provided a Summary of Benefits in plain language

 Starting in 2014 and extending through 2016 a Reinsurance Fee will be assessed to all plans of roughly $63 per covered life (including dependents) to establish the insurance exchanges and stabilize the private insurance marketplace. Insured plans will most likely see this cost, paid by their insurer, passed on in their premiums. Self-insured plans must pay this fee directly.

In addition, with the state Exchanges up and running, the Individual (Employee) Shared Responsibility Mandate takes effective. The impact will be that all adult citizens must have health insurance. If your employer-provided insurance is less expensive than Exchange coverage you may experience higher enrollment in your health plan.

In 2014 some individuals purchasing Exchange coverage become eligible for tax credits. These would be given after filing 2014 taxes (during tax season in calendar year 2015). Employees are eligible for credits if (1) they make less than 400% of the Federal Poverty Level and (2) the coverage offered by their employer’s health plan is not affordable as defined by the Act.

As I travel around I hear conservative talk radio claiming the law is "falling apart". Some states have it almost fully implemented such as California, New York and Oregon. There are benefits to employees and employers, and consequences for non-compliance, so know what you need to do next. I welcome questions about the ACA on this blog.


Friday, August 30, 2013

Business Travel is Easier Now

I am a 70-80% on-the-road consultant with clients from Annapolis to San Diego.  I have over 35 clients in 11 states.  I did this kind of work in the 90's with 40-50% travel usually involving regular trips to the same half-dozen-or-so destinations.  I can say after 9 months on this job that its easier now than it was back then, even though I travel more, because of advances in technology across a number of fronts:
  • Smart Phones
  • Mobile Computing (Wifi and VPN)
  • Better Designed Luggage
These developments make the travel less lonely and less taxing physically. 

I know it isn't news to you that smart phones are a game-changer in society, not just travel or business.  But take a moment to consider what we used not that many years ago.  I started travelling with one of the first Intel 286 laptops and a pager. This was before the first cellular phones.  I was gone from Sunday night to Thursday night every other week and often travelling in Mexico or Canada.  For the first two years there were no international pagers, so when I crossed out of the US I could not be reached.  Now with Outlook and Facetime on my iPhone my company and family and I can find each other anywhere at any time. I can check email from anywhere as well as chat with friends and family on social media. 

Mobile Computing
My current employer does not use tablets for travelling ; we use HP Elitebook laptops.  So even though we aren't using the slickest Mac or tablet technology, we have VPN access into the company server.  Aside from VPN, I travel with an AT&T mobile hot spot.  Combined with on-board airplane wifi I have the luxury of being locationally agnostic.  I can access the corporate server and research client needs at any location from the side of the road (where I have done video interviews sitting on the trunk of a rental car) to an airplane seat (where I am writing this post).  Not having to relocate for work and yet work for anyone in the country is a game changer. That has been the case for IT staff and management for years but now it is literally available to any intellectual property or administrative services career.

This may not sound like a big deal, but I am almost 20 years older than the last time I did this job.  Combine the greying of the skilled workforce with the advancement of women into these types of jobs (not true when I was on the road before), being able to haul your stuff around injury-free is a big deal.  The developments with the most benefit are spinner carry-ons, large spinner suitecases, and "mobile office" bags.  Spinners do not require you to support part of the weight of your bags; rather you just push it forward.   The wheels on the major label bags are high-quality and smooth.  You can turn a spinner carry-on sideways and push it down the airplane aisle to your seat rather than bumping along between rows or carrying it.  Large spinner suitcases with pop-up handles can be used to stack your small bags on top and push the stack as one item.  Mobile office bags like the one I use roll with a long telescopic handle and allow you to move freely.   Once my other bags are checked I never have to pick it up.  It stores under the seat in front of me and has a strap where it stacks securely on top of my suitcase.

With these advancements a guy in his 50's with orthopedic issues can never stop moving and yet stay injury free. With Skype and Facetime my wife and I have a video chat every night instead of me going dark in some foreign country for 2-3 days at a time.  With social media I have conversations with multiple friends daily.  My next experiment will be having my "home" office days in remote locations.  Why do they have to be in Nashville?  They could just as easily be on a beach or a mountain somewhere.  It is only the desire to be home that requires me to ever go home for office days.

I may eventually get tired of this, but I predict that it will take years.  Right now "not" going into an office and "not" supervising people is sweet.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Travel Tip: Southwest Airlines is for Regionals

After eight months in this job I have gotten to know several people in this company and others who do what I do.  They may be in Sales, Marketing, Nurse Consulting or whatever field, but one thing they have in common is that they travel all the time.  The other thing they have in common is that Southwest is their airline of choice.  Why? Change Fees! 

Southwest advertises heavily that they don't charge bag fees.  However most professional travelers rarely check luggage so that doesn't affect our expenses.  What really does hit our companies' pockets is the $150 per change fee that every other airline imposes if you change after your trip is ticketed. 

In order to keep our expenses (and that of our clients) low we need to book as far in advance as possible.  However you never know what is going to come up and it is not unusual to change 30 - 50% of your travel arrangements post-ticketing.  The last time I tried to fly American for one project I had three $150 change fees on a $540 ticket.  The changes were unavoidable and the charges, almost equal to the original ticket price, were nuts.

As far as the downside of Southwest, the waiting in line, getting a high number and a middle seat, etc.. there are strategies you can use.

1. Download the SWA App for your phone and check in on-line 24 hours in advance of your flight.  You will almost never get a high number. 
2. Set an iPhone or Outlook alarm 24 hours in advance of your flight so you can be one of the first to check in and you won't forget to check in.
3. But things happen and sometimes you don't remember.  SWA reserves A 1-15 for its Business Select customers.  If all of those aren't used and the plane isn't full you can pay $40 and buy up to one of those positions at the gate. 
4. You can check on-line and see what the upgrade to Business Select would cost and consider biting the bullet.  For one trip it was under $100.  For my current trip it was over $800 so I set my Outlook alarm and checked in on my App.  I was B15 flying out on a very inexpensive ticket.

Do what you want, but these Regionals I've met can't all be wrong. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Travel Tip: IHG Rewards Club

For years I have been a frequent customer of the Holiday Inn brand of hotels.  Now before you turn up your nose know this: almost all their properties have been remodeled.  There are still some terrible ones (Louisville - North in Clarksville IN) but by and large everything from the Express to the Crowne Plazas are newly constructed or renovated in the last five years.

But that isn't my point.

These are owned by International Hotel Group or IHG.  IHG appears to be moving their customer loyalty programs into one branded Rewards Club and because they have nine brands there is enough critical mass to staff a 24-hour, 7-day per week customer line.  So as a Holiday Inn Priority Club member I can call and get a live person anytime.

And what does said live person do?

They find hotels nearby and make reservations for you on the spot.

Several times I have ended up in a city only to find that the travel office or the client has failed to properly make my reservations.  Sometimes I am booked into a community guest room with a twin bed (which if you've met me you know won't work), or my reservation was for last week, or next week, etc...  I call my Priority Club 800 number, give the operator my address, and ask them for a property with a vacancy nearby and the rate.  I get options over the phone in less than 30 seconds, approve the reservation, and they use my credit card on-file.

I have been a Marriott member, and am currently a Hilton Honors member.  Neither of them have this service.  If you travel a lot like I do, get yourself a Priority Club or IHG Rewards Club account.  It will save you some midnight when your plane lands and you have no room.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

George Zimmerman and the "Low Ready" Solution

This is off-topic for me; it has nothing to do with HR.  It does have to do with a passionate belief of mine: that people have the right to protect themselves and their loved ones from harm. The exercise of that right, I believe, should include the measured and rational use of guns. In exercising this right I have received Conceal and Carry training and permits in two states.

Believing as I do in the Conceal and Carry program, the Treyvon Martin case in Florida has grieved me considerably.  It highlighted to the nation, and to the delight of gun control advocates, the exceptionally rare occasion of a permit holder being involved in an unwise use of their weapon.  Permit holders are the most law abiding of citizens and almost never engage in an unjustified shooting. You could argue all day over whether the Martin shooting was or wasn't justified; people who go on about this all-day have no good information and just add their own prejudices about race and guns to the noise. That is not significant to my point.

What is significant is that George Zimmerman apparently did not follow Conceal and Carry protocol in the moments leading up to the shooting. Use of the "low ready" protocol might have prevented this loss of life.

For those of you who have not been through one of these programs, here is a quick primer.  There are typically three positions for your weapon:

  • holstered
  • low-ready
  • ready
The holstered position is obvious: in your holster and concealed, safety on, hands off the weapon.  The ready position is also fairly obvious: weapon un-holstered, both hands on the weapon, safety off, finger on the trigger with the gun pointed at the threat. This is used only in response to an immediate and identified threat.

The low ready position is the transition point between the other two and the opportunity to prevent problems.  It is weapon un-holstered, both hands on the grip in firing position, weapon in front of you and  pointed down to the ground at about a 45 degree angle, safety off but trigger finger on the side of the barrel.

This position is extremely important.  It allows the potential shooter to assess the tactical and legal situation in front of them. 

  • Is the threat identifiable to a high degree of certainty?
  • Is there anyone behind the target who could be hit by a missed shot?
  • Is the threat immediate?
Low ready provides both the potential shooter and the threat the opportunity the make good decisions.  It provides the threat with visual information that the potential shooter is armed.  It also provides the potential shooter with an opportunity to verbally warn the threat not to advance toward them further. It arguably protects the potential shooter against a charge of Assault with a Deadly Weapon, because the weapon is never pointed at the potential threat. 

In most cases, low ready presentation causes the threat to retreat and any bystanders the opportunity to move to safety.

So now let's plug this information into the Zimmerman/Martin shooting.  First of all, the police dispatcher told Zimmerman not to follow Martin.  It is always a good idea to accept police instructions and Zimmerman, according to what I saw of the trial, did not.  Then once out of the car Zimmerman did not pull his weapon until engaged in a fight.  At some point in the altercation it is reasonable to assume that pulling the weapon into low-ready would have afforded Martin, armed only with an Arizona Tea and bag of skittles, the opportunity to retreat.

This is what permit holders are supposed to do: avoid a threat, but then warn the threat ahead of eminent danger with low-ready presentation, then retreat to safety, or discharge their weapon, depending upon the actions of the threat.  That Zimmerman failed to follow this protocol may have led to Martin's death: we weren't there so we don't know for sure.  But in case you are ever in such a situation, or in case you just think all permit holders have John Wayne delusions of masculinity, maybe this information will prove to be useful.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The Healthcare Reform Delay: What it Means for You

Yesterday's announcement by the administration, combined by a new approach by Congressional Republicans, changed the game completely for Healthcare Reform (HCR).  The White House, almost without warning to anyone, delayed by one year the key provision requiring employers to provide affordable coverage to all full-time employees (defined as 30 hours per week or more) or pay a fine. It was to take effect January 1, 2014 and now has been delayed until that same date in 2015.

Most of the heat around implementation was coming from the law's quirky definition of a full-time employee.  The issues are:

  • The definition of full-time as 30 hours is at odds with the Wage and Hour definition for purposes of calculating overtime at 40 hours.
  • The definition only applies to medical coverage, leaving benefits administrators a choice to administer coverage differently for medical or adopt the extra expense of changing eligibility rules for dental, vision, etc...
  • The 30-hour rule is not for hours worked as with Wage and Hour: it is 30 hours paid, meaning that all forms of paid time off (vacation, sick, PTO, jury duty, paid leave of absence, etc...) had to be rolled into the calculation, thus requiring that complicated reports be written.
  • In the guidelines from the government I have yet to see a definitive set of criteria for these reports: every company was making their own and faced IRS penalties if they did them wrong and denied coverage to a legally-eligible employee.

Because the counting period for the calculation of 30 hours per week required a six-month look-back period, businesses were already having to start writing and running hours-worked reports for part-time staff.  July 1 was the start of the first pay period where reporting should be run if businesses, some already starting their FY 2014 budget cycles, wanted to know the number of newly eligible employees for next year.

Meanwhile Congressional Republicans yesterday introduced bills to redefine the minimum number of employees required for a company to have to comply with the Act, from 50 to 100, and a redefinition of a full-time employee.  It signals a new approach in their opposition of the law: from grandstanding bills to repeal it (even when they knew they didn't have the votes) to a strategy of chipping away at its key provisions.

The White House's delay combined with the GOP's new strategy puts a whole new set of variables into the HCR situation.  It will almost certainly remain law and be implemented, but there is now enough uncertainty that businesses should adopt a wait-and-see attitude on changing eligibility rules and offering benefits to employees not currently covered.

As for individuals, nothing in these changes alters the implementation of Insurance Exchanges in each State.  In states which agreed to run their own, those are coming October 1st: in those that did not the federal government is supposed to have those running by January 1, 2014.  How "affordable" that coverage will be remains to be seen, but since it is guaranteed issue it will still benefit those who cannot obtain coverage elsewhere.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

How To Administer Benefits to Same-Sex and Cohabitating Partners

This week the Supreme Court struck down a key provision in the Defense of Marriage Act, essentially clearing the way for same-sex marriages in states where those are allowed.  For Group Benefits Administrators in plans that only cover spouses in traditional marriages this presents a complex set of problems.

Consider for a moment that only 13 states recognize same-sex marriages while the rest do not.  Add to that some states, such as Illinois, that don't allow same-sex marriage but do recognize domestic partnerships.  If an employer covers employees in multiple states but still only covers "spouses" under the traditional definition the complexity and potential for legal challenge is huge.

Now add to that the growing phenomenon, especially among younger workers, of cohabitating opposite-sex couples with or without children.  While it may be practical administratively to draw the line at the marriage license ("we cover married couples but not unmarried ones"), the end result works against the purpose of a group benefits plan: to attract and retain good talent.  Having similarly situated employees working side-by-side but extending insurance coverage to this one, but not that one, introduces unfairness and resentment into the workplace.

There is a simple and elegant two-part solution to this problem:

1. Extend benefits to Domestic partners, married or not.
2. Use a "Declaration of Common Law Marriage" form to document eligibility for any non-married partner.

I first came across the "Declaration" form in El Paso, Texas in the 1990's. State law there requires that common law spouses and the children of common law marriages be eligible for employer benefits.  Now remember, this is Texas, not a bastion of liberal thinking and one of the more religious states in our nation.  This methodology has been in use there over 30 years and the world didn't end. You can also find a similar form on the Web commonly used in Canada.

Now I can hear the protests:

  1. "This promotes gay/lesbian/shacking-up behavior!"
  2. "This increases businesses cost of employee benefits!"
  3. "This is another step on the slipper slope!"
To this I would simply respond that those are social and religious arguments and complaints about where society is heading.  That is not the purpose of this post. If you are an HR and/or Benefits professional you have to go into the office Monday and figure out how to legally and defensibly offer benefits that attract and retain top talent.  Use what is written above to do that: I leave the rest to the politicians and culture warriors. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Are You Saving Enough to Retire?

I have written before on the subject of retirement savings estimates.  So many of the calculators put out by investment firms are scare tactics designed to help market their products.  Today via a New York Times article I came across the non-profit Employee Benefits Research Institute and their calculator.  I recommend it highly.  Similar instruments from investment houses tell me I have 19 - 20% of what I need for retirement already saved.  This calculator shows 47%, and this with 20 years left before my intended retirement date.

I don't recommend this calculator because it is telling me something I want to hear: I am recommending it because the organization behind it is not trying to sell us anything.  That gives it great credibility in my eyes.

Of course no calculator can take into account other non-investment events or strategies you can use to prepare.  Moving to a smaller house, moving to a smaller town with a less-expensive real estate market, inheritance from parents, appreciation of the value of your tangible assets such as your home, etc... You should consider all such options when making your plan.The main message, as in prior posts, is to clearly see your "gap" between current assets and what you'll need; then put together a practical plan to close that gap.

We will be the first generation in modern history to try and retire without a defined pension plans, as 401(k) plans did not exist before the mid 1970's and companies did not do away with their pensions in large numbers until the early 1980's.  You need to recognize the need and make a plan, but not throw up your hands and give up because some investment company calculator said you needed to save $2million in the next 20 years.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

How to Legally Use Criminal Background Checks

This week the EEOC filed suit against Nashville's own Dollar General as well as BMW over the use of criminal background checks.  The comments I have read on-line about this move test the bounds of ignorance even for on-line comments.  What the EEOC wants employers to do is what departments I run have done for years.  It really isn't that complicated.

The EEOC is concerned with an overreach and/or misapplication of background screens to the point that they exclude non-white minorities at a disproportionate rate. This is a valid concern, as non-whites are arrested and convicted at a higher frequency than whites.  The EEOC's complaints primarily center around using arrest records rather than convictions, going back too many years, and having a blanket policy that excludes criminal histories that have no bearing on the job sought by the applicant.

In April the EEOC issued guidance on how to legally apply background checks.  In case you don't want to wade through all this I can give it to you in a few simple steps.

1.  Do not have a policy that any criminal history disqualifies a candidate.  Now before you think me permissive (that is not my reputation at all), think about this.  Some offenses are minor in nature, or completely unrelated to work performance such as offenses arising from domestic disputes.  I once had an applicant who as a 20 year old found out that her boyfriend was actually married and had not told her.  She got liquored-up and used her car to mow-down his white picket fence and mailbox so as to announce their affair to his wife.  The fence was valuable enough to be a felony destruction of property and the mailbox was, you guessed it, a federal offense.  Under many companies' policies she would have been unemployable and that is ridiculous.

2.  Set your hiring criteria as "Management Discretion." Use all information gathered to inform your discretion, but have no disqualifiers unless state law requires it (think health care and Office of Inspector General Disqualified Persons checks as such as exception).

3. Use grace and discretion.  Was the offense last year or 10 years ago?  Was the individual grown at the time, or in college or otherwise immature?  An offense committed the same number of years ago but  by a 17 year old or a 37 year old makes a difference.

4.  Consider the job.  If an Accountant has a DUI history but a desk job they are probably okay to hire. If a truck driver or Nursing Home Van Driver has the same history they should be disqualified.

5.  Give the applicant and chance to respond.  One of the EEO complaints against Dollar General was that they allegedly had an applicant disqualified because of erroneous criminal background history.  Many people have the same name, and background checks are not an exact science.  First make sure that the applicant confirms that the criminal history does indeed belong to them.  If not you can re-run the check. If they do admit that it is theirs you have taken a verification step that argues against a theory of discrimination.

My guidelines were always that theft and violence were disqualifiers unless the offense happened a very long time ago. That applied doubly for violence against women.  I could never bring myself to hire someone who was a threat to the assets or workforce.  Short of that I am open to hearing the applicant's side of the story while always mindful to protect the legitimate interests of my employer.

That is what the EEOC wants employers to do.  I have done it for years as have departments I have led.  It isn't that hard, it is perfectly legal, and it also morally the right thing to do.  A mistake made due to youth, alcohol or impetuosity should not keep good people from making a living.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Five Reasons Why You Should Hire Someone Just Released from Thomas Nelson

This past Friday was "it" for some really good people in the Service and Ops departments of Thomas Nelson.While this is certainly not the first or the last reduction happening in the wake of the Harper purchase of  Nelson, it is one of the more significant.  If you own a business, manage a business unit for someone else, or know someone who is hiring you should grab one or more of these folks and soon.  Here is why:

1.  This is a shut down of whole departments, not a "thinning of the herd"- Harper has an operations center in Scranton, PA and is shutting down some Nashville support departments.

2.  These people have been carefully vetted prior to Harper's acquisition - During the recession years we executed 6 rounds of staff reductions across all divisions.  Since then the organization has done little hiring in support areas.  Each of the people being released this week were reviewed multiple times and deemed to be the strongest players.

3.  These people could have found jobs elsewhere before now but did not want to leave - Thomas Nelson was a special place to work.  Most of these people have been with the company 20 - 35 years; this was their family and they had hoped to find other positions right up to the time they left.

4.  They all still worked - We ran a lean service and ops group and there was no place on board for slackers.  Nobody you interview from this group will have been retired on active duty, even after 35 years.

5.  They are good "people" - Part of the vetting process both in annual reviews and reductions in force was congruence with Nelson's Core Values.  You can't do better in terms of hiring solid citizens who will never embarrass your business.

Please help distribute this post around Nashville.  Depending upon which social media outlet you find this post, "like", "retweet", "comment" or send up a smoke signal to your followers.  Everyone who needs to hire good people should know that they have a rare opportunity to pick up people who should not be on the market were it not for this merger.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Employer Property Rights vs Human Rights

Two conflicts of employer property rights vs the rights of employees have come up in different places, but with similar questions of priority and principle.  In both cases employers have taken what is a legally and morally untenable position that their right to control their property is a superior consideration to the rights of their employees while on that property.

In Tennessee the "Guns in Trunks" bill makes it illegal for an employer to terminate or discipline a state-licensed Conceal and Carry permit holder for keeping a gun in their vehicle on company property.  The essence of the law is that the permit holder's right of self defense should not be compromised throughout the entire day, nor their job endangered,  because they spend part of that day on the property of an employer with a no-guns policy. The Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and gun-control advocates have opposed the law on the basis of safety.

Those policies, just so you know, have exceptionally little to do with safety: they are about liability protection for the employer. I've written several handbooks and you can trust me on this.

The other property rights issue comes out of my Church, as the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) opposes the Health Care Reform law's contraceptive mandate.  They have chosen to fight the law in court, not just based upon religious conscience, but on the basis of private property rights.  Their theory is that Catholic workplaces such as hospitals, schools, and clinics, are private property.  It is, in their view, an offense against religious liberty that their funds on their property have to fund something they find to be morally wrong.

The problem is that these institutions (1) are open to the public and (2) hire non-Catholic employees and (3) take federal Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements drawn largely from non-Catholic taxpayers. How you apply controls assigned to "private property" to those facilities and circumstances is anyone's guess.

To believe the claims in either of these examples is to accept the position that a landowner's right to control his or her own property extends to an ability to control the non-work personal conduct of all who set foot on that property.  As an employer that is clearly and overreach. In the case of the USCCB, accepting their position extends their right of control past their property lines and into the private reproductive choices of their employees.

Just for clarity, stepping away from the employer/employee context momentarily, I would totally support the USCCB if those facilities accepted no public funds and hired only Catholics.  Once you step into the public arena and accept public funds the rules change.

People are more important than property. As such individual rights should always trump property rights, lest the individual become on the level with and synonymous with property.   As these conflicts wind their way through courts and legislatures, look for the law to eventually uphold that concept. The alternative is a plantation mentality that is contrary to our American ideals.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

New Post: Four Reasons Why You Don't Have to Hire Medical Marijuana Users

Medical marijuana is now legal in 18 states and the District of Columbia.  As these states proliferate the number of doctors willing to write such prescriptions and the sources for medical marijuana grow. Inevitably users with valid prescriptions are starting to show up in the applicant pool of your workplace.  

It is not unusual in one of these states to get an applicant who fails a pre-employment drug test.  As is standard procedure, the Medical Review Officer of the drug testing company or the HR professional asks the applicant to explain, and hears that they have a valid prescription. Then my phone rings...

"Do I have to hire this person?" is the usual question I get.  The answer is simple:  "NO!" Here is why:

1. Marijuana is still an illegal drug - There is misalignment between the federal and state governments on this matter, but regardless of the state statutes marijuana is still illegal under federal law. Your policy against "illegal drugs" still holds even if your state disagrees and the applicant has a valid prescription.

2.  Your safety policies apply - The effects of marijuana include slower reaction time and impaired judgement.  Whether the jobs you have are medical care-giving or operating heavy machinery, being under the influence of this drug makes the work unsafe for the employee and/or others.

3.  Your policy against being impaired by a legally prescribed drug applies - If 1 and 2 above don't work for you, let us assume that your applicant is right and that their prescription is valid and legal and makes them eligible for hire.  Most companies have policies that forbid employees taking legal prescription drugs from working if that drug impairs them.  Think about a strong cough syrup containing codeine or strong pain medication following a traffic accident.  Even if the marijuana prescription is legal and valid its effects put the user under your legal drug impairment policy and unable to work.

4.  These aren't the people you want to hire - Lets face it: medical marijuana is massive work-around where the laws on the books haven't caught up with societal attitudes.  Medical marijuana started out as "compassionate use" exceptions for cancer patients needing relief from chemotherapy side-effects.  More and more I see applicants whose prescriptions are for "anxiety" or some other diagnosis by exclusion.  The vast majority of medical marijuana prescriptions go to recreational drug users.

With all the good unemployed or underemployed people out there you can do better with your hiring.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

An Call to Noble and Ethical Competition in Christian Publishing

I wrote this post in 2008 and continue to stand behind every word.  For a group of people who profess to follow Christ, the use of gossip as a form of industry competition is disappointing.  I have interacted with all the publishers in Nashville and can paraphrase the industry's best seller when I say that there is none without sin in this manner. 

Christian publishing is my third industry. I started my career in retail, moved to durable goods manufacturing (auto industry), and then came to Thomas Nelson. In all three industries, as I'm sure is the case in every industry, there is off-campus interaction among competitors. Not only is Christian publishing not an exception, it is the most incestuous and interconnected industry I've experienced. Its practitioners, whether acting on behalf of their companies or not, often engage in some of the lowest forms of competition I've experienced.

Mind you, people have been hitting Nelson below the belt long before I got here and, if you are a competitor reading this, how's that working for you? I'm not complaining because of an injury or as a sore loser because we're not losing. What I am asking is how people can profess Christianity on the one hand and engage in the type of dirty competition I sometimes see in this industry, especially among competitors in the Nashville market.

Here's what I'm talking about.

In my other two industries you inevitably run into your competitors off-campus. You may be in the same city and the same hotel bar after pitching to the same potential customer. You may be out to dinner with your wife and run into your competitor and their spouse in the same restaurant. It could be at the local Chamber meeting or whereever. It happens and I usually like to have good relationships and engage in friendly competition.

In these improptu meetings you'll always get the loaded question. One time when the auto industry was considering moving production from Mexico to Thailand, I had a competitor ask, "What kind of pricing are you seeing in Thailand", which was meant to see if we were looking at Thailand or not. In another case a competing store manager asked, "How much are you selling of "x" product", which was to see if we were carrying that product. Such questions designed to gain intel on products, prices, strategy, etc... are just part of being in business.

In Christian publishing, especially in Nashville, I get an entirely different type of question. I recently ran into a former Nelson employee, who works for a competitor, on a plane ride back from Dallas. The first thing out of his mouth even before "Hello" was, "Boy I bet Mike's under a lot of pressure with that new Board, isn't he?" I ran into another former Nelsonite one night this week whose first question after "Hello" was, "How bad are things over there? I'm sure you must be under so much pressure." During my almost eight years at Nelson I have been pumped for information from countless competitors here in Nashville, most of them former Nelson colleagues, on a wide variety of topics including:

  • "Is Sam Moore really crazy?"

  • "I hear you guys are being sold"

  • "I guess you're glad to be owned by a Catholic"

  • "I hear you guys are having a layoff" (4 - 6 times a month for eight years)

  • "I hear things are bad there" (I got this even during our three years of record profits) get the picture by now.

So what's the purpose of these types of questions? Gossip for business purposes. The extraction of just enough of a reaction that it can be interpreted to suit the competitor, and then repeated in competition for authors, employees, and just for the sheer joy of the gossip.

The positive that I've seen in all this is the good that it says about our company. I've never had anyone ask what was wrong with our distribution operations. I've never had anyone ask what was wrong with our sales force. I've never met anyone over a drink that as asked, "I hear your call centers can't answer the phones on time." I've never heard how poorly our books are written or marketed.

Overall, if gossip is the worst competition we experience then I'll take it. But if you work for a competitor, or carry tales back to one, and you see me in Nashville then I'm glad to see you, talk to you about our families, health, politics, faith, products, or just about anything else you want to talk about. What doesn't interest me, and what shouldn't interest you, is the below-the-belt stuff that seems to fascinate this industry.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Why You Don't Get Hired (Even if You Are Christian)

(This post, recently updated, was first written in 2008 after a series of applicants who tried "Christian guilt", unsuccessfully, as a strategy for getting an interview.)

There is, unfortunately, a sub-culture within Christianity that believes an undesirable outcome means that those responsible are unchristian.  I've been in HR for over 30 years in four industries and I can say that this is unique to staffing Christian businesses.

In the mind of the applicant the narrative goes something like this:

1.  God spoke to me and told me that I was supposed to work at your company.

2.  You aren't interviewing me or hiring me.

3.  You must not be Christian because you're not doing God's will

So just to be clear, here are the reasons (either singularly or in combination) why we don't hire someone:

1.  There isn't an opening  (I can't make a spot that doesn't exist)
2.  There is an opening, but you are not qualified
3.  You cannot tell me what position interests you ("please read my resume and tell me what you have")
4.  Your resume shows lots of jobs, an uneven salary history, and is missing former supervisors
5.  Your salary demands are two or three times more than the position pays and you want to negotiate
6.  You are "high maintenance" as an applicant (so what will you be like as an employee?)
7.  You can't pass a drug test
8.  You can't pass a criminal background check
9.  You don't live near any of our locations but want to work from home right from the start
10. You are applying for an entry-level job but want us to pay for your relocation

Note that none of these has anything to do with us not being Christians. Actually we are.  Really, we are!

Please know that I mean no disrespect to the millions of people trying their best to find work in a still recovering economy.  We in HR are in the people business and we never take people's needs for employment lightly. We treat every applicant with courtesy and respect.  My focus in this post is that subset of applicants who want to tell me that God or my exec team will punish me for not hiring them.

Maybe the reason you are not getting hired is much closer to home than me or God (see 1 - 10 above). Instead of the guilt trip, or the God's gonna get 'cha strategy, focus on targeting a job for which you are qualified, writing a cover letter (remember those?), writing a really clear resume, maybe take a class or two to update your skills, and be courteous to the HR people you contact.

I believe prayer works, but prayer and really solid preparation on your part is a great combination.

Friday, April 12, 2013

I Know This Much is True

Note: This post was written in September of 2011 and was never published until now.

This year I passed my 30th anniversary doing corporate work. There is nothing like an anniversary to make you reflective.  Here are ten things that I've learned, much of it the hard way.

1. Work for Good People.  Stay at your current job, in school or even on unemployment rather than working for people you can't trust.  All other truths that follow below go out the window otherwise.

2.  Trust the People Who Employ You.  See #1 above if you can't.  Trust is seen by your employer as loyalty and good people will trust and reward you in return if they feel that you trust them (and work hard).

3.  Hire Good People.  It is a false choice that you have to look over bad behavior to keep good performance. Set as your standard that you require solid citizens who have the skills and the work ethic to do the job.  Overlooking schmuck-like characteristics because you need to fill a job now, or because the schmuck does good work and makes you money will always, always, always come back to bite you. 

4.  If You Want Good Employees to Love You, Go First.  If you want positive relationships you have to show people that you value them as individuals and that they aren't just a disposable pair of hands. Doing little things that people need when they need it says way more than Company picnics and service awards.

5.  Everybody Talks About the Boss.  Mother Teresa was one of our most laudable modern-day saints and yet at times suffered dissension amongst her staff.  If a Saint in Heaven can't please their staff every day what hope do you have?  Don't take it personally and stay focused on your work.

6.  Don't Just Make a Living, Build a Life.   You may retire from  your job in 30 years or quit it tomorrow. Your career should support the life you want to build, not the other way around.

7.  No Corporation Holds Your Head While You Throw Up.  Sacrificing your relationships for your job is a recipe for ending up alone. 

8.  You are Never as Good as Your Successes or as Bad as Your Failures.  If you screw up the worst thing you can do is get down on yourself and lose the self-confidence you need to succeed. When you succeed just remember that you had a team around you that was indispensable. Also remember that you and were also playing with the house's money instead of investing your own.  Both your successes and failures belong not only to you but to a lot of other people.

9.  Your First Instincts are Usually Right.  You got where you are by having good judgement.  When you get an "icky" feeling about a decision or a person step back and pay attention. Go get a second opinion from someone you trust.

10. Leadership is Service.  Anyone who wants to advance their career so that they can "be the boss" should never be allowed to supervise another human being.  The boss' job is to be a leader, and the leader's role is to serve their team and to make everyone under them successful. If your desire is to "be" served go into some other line of work.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Listen to The Conversation

What is being talked about inside your company?  Growing companies have a language all their own, and so do contracting ones.  Listening to what is being said is harder than it seems because, like the proverbial boiled frog, changes are subtle and sometimes elude notice.  Hearing what is being said, and knowing what it means, can be two different things but hugely important to your career.

I was in the Japanese auto industry in the 90's during its period of frenetic growth.  The opportunities it afforded me propelled my career years ahead of what it would have been in a slower environment. We could not build factories or hire people fast enough, and the emphasis was on how to find, retain, train and develop people.  The competition was for who got responsibility for new business, plants, customers, and product lines.  The tension in the company was typically about how much could get done and who could get to a hot spot (usually Mexico, Canada, Japan, El Paso, or Detroit at that time)in the quickest time frame and stay there the longest to get something done.

During the end of the 90's new competition arose. The American Big Three licked its wounds and got better, and new product lines from Korea entered the U.S. market as German car makers expanded their offerings.  Automobiles, and the parts we made for them, became commoditized. Margins shrunk, the budget cutters began to control the conversation and the result was stagnant wages, benefits and opportunities. This happened just as an opportunity in another industry came about and my decision was easy.

My first years in publishing were exciting. The company had hit bottom, trading at $6.89/share over concerns ranging from lack of succession to loss of focus. My job was to help with a fix, sell or close process, to refocus the company, and to help the CEO/founder choose a successor.  The resulting improvement in our finances felt a lot like growth, but it wasn't.

When the Founder sold, instead of rejoicing in our opportunity to modernize his company I should have been asking a more fundamental question.  "If he does not see opportunity here any longer is there any opportunity left?"

Over the next six years the internal conversations shifted from,  "Who could we buy?" to "Who might buy us?" We closed down our internal management development program and the conversation shifted from, "What is my next career move?" to "Who is safe?"

Know where your company is heading by what is and isn't being said.  Is there an active management development program?  Are benefits attractive and not just "competitive"?  Are raises assumed or in doubt?  Was a bonus paid last year or contemplated for this current year?  When competing voices argue internally, do the pro-growth and development voices of operations, sales and marketing prevail, or do the cost-conscious voices of accounting and finance trump all else?  Is the tension between managers over who gets the promotion, the best people and and the new business, or over who survives?

Listen, know where your company stands, and act accordingly.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

What I Couldn't Say at Thomas Nelson

Looking through past posts in the editing section of this blog I came across no less than 35 that I wrote and never published. A couple were withheld because they did not turn out well.  The majority, however, were self-censored because of my position at the time in religious publishing.  They aren't "sex, drugs and rock & roll" posts by any means.  They are those that I felt might offend the most intolerant of that company's stakeholders. That is no longer my concern.

I worked in Christian Publishing for over a dozen years.  During that time I met a wide variety of authors, ministers, book store owners, and end users of our product.  What I discovered was that the vast, vast majority of Christians are far more tolerant and liberal in private than they dare be in public.  There is a shrill minority of loud, intolerant bullies within the Church that punish moderation.  Within the Church there is often insufficient courage to stand up to them and so they go unchallenged. Now that these individuals hold no sway over my employment I am going to let some good posts see the light of day.

I have no intention of poking anyone in the eye or be critical or any person or company, and certainly not any former employers.  I do intend to be honest and genuine without fear. I invite you to keep reading and join in the conversation with comments back to any post that so moves you.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Should You Relocate and Soundproof Your HR Office?

Several of my clients are smaller employers in the 75 -200 employee range.  As such the HR department is more often than not housed in the suite of offices around the Executive Director.  In some cases it is because in the early days of the organization the HR Director and Accounting Director were the same person.  After the workforce and operation grew the roles were split but the office stayed the same.  In some cases the roles are still combined.

The problem with this arrangement is that it is a gauntlet of management that an employee must run to get to HR.  It is highly unlikely that the visit will be confidential, even if the door is closed. Part of the inhibition employees feel in coming to discuss concerns is that their boss will know that they came to HR about "something", and any visit could cause reprisals if the supervisor is of such disposition.

Another issue in HR offices is privacy due to the construction of the office itself.  Often air ducts allow adjacent offices to hear the conversation.  It is not uncommon in our line of work for nosey employees or supervisors to go to an adjacent office or stand outside the office door to hear what is being said.

To ensure confidentiality and privacy I recommend, from my own personal experience, the following:

1. Relocate the HR office to a place where there is no other management.  Employees will feel more comfortable coming to discuss their concerns.

2. Run the duct work from the office into the open space above an open area such as a cubicle or production area.  The noise from the office is disseminated into the crawl space and competes with other office noises.

3. Install weather stripping around the inside of the office door, and install a threshold.  If the door has vents or glass, replace it with a solid door.

4. If walls are thin, install carpeted double-thick cork board as bulletin boards, starting three feet from the baseboard and extending to six feet above the baseboard.  You can never have too much bulletin board space, you can hang pictures from it just like sheet rock if you like, and the conversations that occur both seated and standing will be muffled by the cork board and kept private from the adjacent office(s).

I have some some or all of this at different offices of my own HR departments.  The total investment at the last one, Thomas Nelson, was about $300.  It made several people feel better, and impressed with our commitment to their privacy, when they would look around the office before saying something sensitive and hear me say, "Don't worry, I've had the office sound proofed."  Try it!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Balancing Caregiving and Work

People are living long and working longer; as a society we are seeing possibly the largest portion of the workforce in our nation's history who are both still at work during their later years and caring for a parent, sibling, or other older relative. Our family lost one of our dear neighbors this week after a long health struggle related to his age; and we see family members reaching that age where they need more from us.  In HR we see more and more of these types of situations showing up at work every year.

Aging isn't the only issue driving care giving among the workforce.  Medical science has saved many lives, but those are often lives lived thereafter with a disability of some sort.  From combat to car wrecks, more people who would have died a generation ago survive but require care.  Coincide that with the two-job couples that didn't exist in our grandparents time and the result is that no matter who in the household ends up as the caregiver, they will usually have to balance work and these new responsibilities outside of work.

Care giving often results in two separate phenomena for the caregiver: burden and stress.  These are two very different issues.  Burden is the work load that results from the care needed by the family member.  Stress results from worry and frustration associated with being unsure of how to give care, what kind of care to give, not being able to keep up with everything both at home and at work, and from watching loved one deteriorate.  There can also be disagreement between generations as to the need for Assisted Living vs. remaining at home.

Both burden and stress can be relieved by the professional development of a Care Plan. These are often done by Geriatric Care Managers and Geriatric Social Workers.   While often employed by assisted living communities and organizations, a quick search on the Internet can provide a list of local resources that can be hired privately.  These professionals can assess your loved ones needs, make recommendations as to home-health vs. community and/or clinical settings, and even broker discussions to relieve conflicts in the family over the care needed.

By seeking professional help in assessing your loved ones needs, caregivers can feel confident in their decisions. Such care plans can and should include back-up caregivers such as home health professionals to give the family caregiver a break.  Reducing your overall stress and fatigue helps work performance, which in turn reduces work stress.

The job of care giving is too large to try and figure out on your own.  Seek professional advice and achieve the maximum peace of mind and time away from care that your situation will allow.   

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Employee Benefits and Same-Sex Couples

The Supreme Court is currently hearing arguments over California's Proposition 8 banning Same-Sex Marriage, and then will immediately turn its attention to a challenge to the Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  That law prohibits same-sex couples from receiving the same federal tax and other benefit considerations as traditionally married couples.

For benefits administrators this is severely needed.  I have in my region states where same-sex marriage is legal.  In those states those employees with same-sex partners must be allowed to elect benefits for them under a group health plan.  However DOMA, prohibiting any favorable tax consideration to such couples, denies the employee the pre-tax benefits status of the heterosexual married couples. 

The result of this inconsistency between state and federal law is that the benefits administrators and payroll processors must process deductions and remit payments under the same plan two different ways.

Regardless of how you feel on the marriage issue, the Court needs to align state and federal law so that all similarly situated employees are treated the same under the employer's pre-tax plan.  I know that may make too much sense for our legislators both state and federal, but hey, I can dream.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Just What is Obamacare?

Twice in my career I have worked for someone whom almost everyone at work was scared to death. In both experiences the same dynamic was present in the workplace: there was an inner circle around the boss who did as they pleased and blamed him for it.  If they wanted to see something happen, they just told their staff "he said so" and nobody dared ask him.  The unpopular boss, while maybe justifiably challenging, had no idea about half of what was done in his name.

Such is the case with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also commonly referred to as Healthcare Reform (HCR) and "Obamacare." 

During the election I heard tales of small businesses that were going to have to discontinue benefits or fire staff because of the onerous tenants of this legislation. When I would dig deeper 90% of the time that business had less than 50 employees and was exempt from the law. Obamacare has become that unpopular boss on which you can blame everything because the bill is so complex that few employees can or will read and understand it.

So what is it exactly?  What businesses are affected?  Here is a really high level overview of the major provisions of a really complex bill.

  • First of all, as I said above, the bill impacts "large employers" defined as those having 50 or more employees. When I use the term "employers" below it means those who must comply.
  • Effective March 1, 2012 it required employers to notify new hires of the presence insurance exchanges as well as the tax implications if they elect coverage through exchanges.
  • Effective September 23, 2012 it required employers to make Summary Plan Descriptions in plain language so laymen can understand them. Note: I have pushed for this with every health plan I've administered since the 90's and this is long overdue. People should understand their coverage.
  • Upon the next renewal period after September 23, 2012 it requires that employers give their employees 60 days notice before making significant changes to their health benefits.
  • Effective with the signing of the bill, it bars employers or insurers from retroactively cancelling insurance coverage unless the employee has engaged in fraud or intentional misrepresentation.
  • Effective with the signing of the bill insurance plans that require the employee to designate a primary provider (think HMO here) must allow the employee, not the plan or employer, to choose the provider.
  • For health plans renewing after August 1, 2012 it required that women's preventative health services be covered by the plan with no employee cost-sharing.
  • Effective January 1, 2013 it limited contributions to your FSA (not including any employer contribution) to $2,500. 
  • Effective January 1, 2014 it eliminates annual limits on medical benefits.  No longer will seriously ill patients go into bankruptcy because their insurance capped below their expenses.
  • Effective January 1, 2014 no health plan may impose a waiting period of longer than 90 days for those electing coverage.
  • Effective January 1, 2014 pre-existing condition exclusions will be banned regardless of age (they are already outlawed for children under 19).
These are the major provisions that affect most employees. There are additional provisions designed to make sure that health plans don't favor highly compensated employees, that impose limits on awards in wellness programs that grant awards to employees, and that impose fees on insurance companies to help finance research into treatment effectiveness.

Finally you may note that I have left out discussions on the individual mandate. That is because, like my friends with the businesses of less than 50 employees, if you are covered by a health plan you are not affected by the individual mandate, i.e. you already have insurance. 

I have been administering the health plans of my employers for about 20 years.  I have seen sickening abuses by insurance carriers and concluded that except for an active and professional HR department, which many companies don't have, employees are on their own and often helpless in matters of insurance.  The reforms above have been needed for decades.

HCR is an imperfect bill reflecting Congressional Democrats obsession with highly compensated employees getting a better deal than others.  It also falls short of the most needed remaining reform: abolish FSA accounts and their use-it-or-lose-it provisions and allow HSA accounts for everyone regardless of plan.  Still, it is a major step forward in protecting employees and their dependents for insurance company abuses.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Hiring Your Friends: The Biggest Mistake You Are Likely to Make

This may sound obvious, but the subtleties around this topic are hugely important.  When you hear of someone "hiring a buddy" the first thing that is likely to come to mind is the hiring of an incompetent crony.  While that is certainly a dumb thing to do, that is not the pitfall into which smart managers fall.  Hiring the completely competent friend with whom you have worked before, and know well, is where smart managers often fail.

Why?  Because such a person often does not compliment your own strengths and weaknesses. 

The problem is simple: with whom do we bond as friends?  Usually people who are very much like ourselves.  Conversely, who do you need as a trusted team member? Someone who is enough different from you that they fill in your own skill or attention gaps.  Regarding their own development, what do they need in a supervisor?  Someone who can show them what they don't know or help them develop where they are weak.

Not only is this not good for you as a manager, nor is it good for the friend you hire, it is bad for your current team. You and your newly hired friend have a history that your current team does not. They more often than not see the two of you as allies or worse yet a clique. 

For your own sake, and that of your friends, hire for what you need and help your friends find good opportunities through referrals.  Form your new team with its own dynamic.  This approach is best for everyone.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Stages of a Union Campaign

For years I have had to endure the eye rolls of managers when I would talk to them about policies and procedures to keep unions at bay. The "that will never happen here" argument never quite went away over the decades when union membership was in decline. While it is not making a huge comeback, the Obama administration's friendliness with big labor and rule changes at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have made organizing easier than it has been in years. Big labor, to its credit, is also getting smarter in its recruitment of young ideologues as organizers and its use of social media.

So it comes as little surprise to me that I find myself fighting my first union organizing campaign in years.  A client in the upper Midwest has been petitioned and now I find myself enjoying the Great Lakes snow in February helping to defend them and prepare for a mid-March vote. 

Working with the management here I see how much understanding of unions and union organizing attempts has diminished during the years when the threat was so remote.  So for the sake of a new generation of managers here is a quick overview of what happens in a campaign.

Stage 1: Card Signing
Usually someone from the workforce who is disgruntled over some issue, large or small, calls the union and asks for their help.  Typically the unions, being businesses, won't commit their staff time or resources until then know if the local employees are serious.  They will supply the complainant, who at that point becomes an in-house organizer, with cards declaring that the undersigned wishes to be represented by the union for negotiating all terms and conditions of employment. The in-house organizer then goes around trying to convince co-workers to sign cards.

Stage 2: Petition
The NLRB will petition the employer to hold a union election if the union can present signed representation cards for at least 30% of the workforce.  That can be the whole workforce (a "wall to wall bargaining unit") or some subset like maintenance workers or nurses.  To win the union must have a simple majority (50% + 1 vote) so they will want to have 60% or more cards signed before they will commit their resources and petition the NLRB for a vote.

By the time you see a petition you have had activity for a long time.  This will usually involve home visits after hours and on weekends by in-house and paid union organizers.  They will have developed a list of your employees and their addresses and phone numbers developed by the in-house organizers or someone sympathetic to their cause in an office position such as payroll.

Stage 3: Campaign
Once the petition has been filed a date is set for the vote.  During this time the employer cannot make any promises of fix any problems or change any of the terms and conditions of employment.  It cannot threaten, intimidate, promise or spy on union activity, knows in HR circles as the TIPS rule. During this time it can interview employees as to their concerns so long as they don't cross the line into interrogation, put on presentations to its employees explaining their case against unionization, and individual supervisors can give their own opinions. 24 hours before the vote all campaigning has to stop.

The Vote
On election day an NLRB representative monitors a secret paper ballot where employees mark "yes" or "no" and place their votes in a ballot box.  If it has become more automated than that over the years I haven't heard about it but it is possible. The votes are counted and the side who has 50% +1 vote wins.

If the company wins the campaign is over.  If the union wins then contract negotiations start. That is a topic for another post.  Frankly I've never gotten that far; the three campaigns on which I've worked have all been wins for the company.  We'll see by mid-March if I am 4-0 or 3-1. As for the "it can't happen here" eyeroll, come up here and trudge through the snow with me and tell me that.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Get Out There In Person

From where does your reality come?

I mean, really, where do you get the information necessary to form your opinion of the world around you?

If you are like an alarming number of people you get it digitally from your laptop or TV in the form of media, main stream or social.  The problem is that so much of that is tainted: not part of a sinister plot like is often claimed, but filtered and edited for to serve a purpose. Where ever you get your information in too many cases you are not getting it from the real, physical world around you and that is a problem.

If you have read this blog before you know I get snarky and impatient with my fellow southerners about how they react to winter weather.  I have a recent weather example that illustrates my point about your reality.

A couple of weekends ago my wife was on her way from Nashville to Indianapolis during what was supposed to have been our most recent "Snowmageddon".  The local weather from Indianapolis to Nashville talked about how bad things were south of Louisville and best to stay off the roads.  I called my wife as she was driving and it was 44 and sunny between Bowling Green and Elizabethtown and the road was dry.  After my call two separate friends from Bowling Green called her to make sure she was okay: they are both single and live alone and were afraid to get out of the house "because things are so bad".  A few miles later a friend FROM LONG ISLAND called her to make sure that, surely, she wasn't on the road because New York weather talked about the black ice south of Louisville closing I-65.

Through all the calls, still sunny, 44 degrees with a dry road.  It was that way all the way to Indy except the temps were much colder.

That night we are watching the local Indianapolis weather and get another set of dire warnings.  It was 17 degrees and rain would move in tomorrow with the temps above freezing, but the kid behind the weather desk said, "When the rain hits this really cold ground and pavement we'll have instant black ice."  Of course the next day it was 36 and raining and absolutely no ice.  That was still worth two more calls from Kentucky to see if we were iced-in in Indiana and if she was going to make it back to Nashville.

Several of our friends and family did not get out of the house that weekend "because it was dangerous" and meanwhile we picked up furniture for the apartment, saw a movie, and explored the city.

News media sells advertising and the best way to get you to watch is to scare you.  Social media communicators so often have something to sell and need to grab your attention. Also, sometimes social media re tweets are just a big world-wide electronic form of the old "gossip" game you played in school, where bad information gets repeated and deteriorates in quality with each retelling.

Now forget the weather.  What about your life?  What about your perceptions of people who are different from you? What about places that you haven't been?  Books you haven't read or belief systems you haven't explored?  The best weather update and the best place to experience the world both start the same way; by turning off the laptop and the TV, putting your iPhone on silent, and walking out your own front door.