Redefining Applicant Red Flags


By Stephanie Hammerwold

Early in my HR career, I was trained on recognizing a long list of so-called red flags on job applications. These are the kind of thing that could land someone in the reject pile and included things like gaps in employment, criminal record, spending only a year or two in each job (a.k.a. job hopping), certain reasons for leaving a past job and more. The list of red flags was long, and sometimes I could go through a pile of applications and find a reason to rule out everyone.

The reality is that no one’s employment history is perfect. Perhaps it is time that we reevaluate the traditional HR red flags and look more at who a person is now.

How Red Flags Can Become Barriers for Some Applicants

The reality is that there are many reasons someone may have had a bad experience at an employer or a gap in employment—reasons that may have little bearing on their likelihood of success at a new job. Yet so many HR decisions are based on scrutinizing someone’s past to the point where we are going on a fault-finding mission.

Some red flags can become huge barriers. Take criminal record, for example. There are many job seekers with criminal records who struggle to find work because that record follows them around even though they have paid their debt to society. The first HR director I worked for told me that anyone who checks the application box indicating a criminal record should be tossed in the reject pile without being given consideration. The reality of this blanket action was that we were tossing out plenty of good candidates. Since my early days in HR, I have volunteered in a women’s jail and have also started a nonprofit dedicated to working with formerly incarcerated people. In that time, California has become a state where employers cannot ask about criminal background until a conditional offer has been made. But employers can still make a decision to not hire at that point, so it still could be viewed as a red flag.

A recent episode of Invisibilia tackled the issue of whether we end up repeating patterns. The episode focuses on the story of a woman who had a rough childhood that included being in and out of jail. She ultimately ended up turning her life around, went to school and eventually earned a law degree. When she applied to take the Bar, she was denied based on her past. The panel was concerned that because of her past issues, she could relapse in the future even though she had demonstrated stability in the years since she went to school. What the episode found was that humans are complex, and our behavior often cannot be reliably predicted based on past behavior. Yet this idea that we need to scrutinize someone’s past to predict whether they will be a good employee persists in HR and hiring.

When a Red Flag Isn’t a Red Flag

Barriers can also include lengthy gaps in employment or the decision to leave a job because a person was miserable there. Think back on your own work history. Are there times you left a job because you had a horrible boss? Or maybe you decided to take an extended amount of time off work for personal reasons. Are those things that make you a bad employee in your current job? Probably not. So why do we use them as criteria to determine if a candidate would be a good fit?

As I have refined my interview style over the years, I have started to ask less about the traditional red flags (e.g. gaps in employment, reasons for leaving a job) and started focusing my questions more on how candidates worked in their previous jobs.

Let’s look at the example of someone with a gap in employment. There are all kinds of reasons someone may take time off work, and most of those have nothing to do with what kind of employee that person will be. Whether it was taking time off to raise a family, travel the world, care for a sick family member, serve time, sleep in, write a novel, look for a new job, go to school or simply to take a few months to relax between jobs, most reasons for a gap have little bearing on what an employee will do when working for you.

New Ways to Read a Job Application

As I mentioned, I have updated my interview style to focus more on culture fit. Of course I am checking to make sure someone has the required technical skills, but many of my questions ask candidates to provide an example from their work history.

For example, I have been interviewing a lot of senior software engineers lately. I work at an organization with a flat structure. Rather than having middle managers, we expect our seniors to take on an informal leadership roles. This means I want to look for candidates who are more interested in mentoring junior-level employees than they are in taking on a fancy manager title.  So I ask questions that require candidates to give examples of how they did this in the past. I also want to see if their goal is to take on a management role or if it is to contribute to an overall team effort. At my current company, we are looking for people who want the latter.

Rather than seeing work history as a place where we can find fault with a candidate, it is time that we see it  as a vast array of experiences. Whether experiences at a past employer were good or bad or if decisions made were good or bad, these are all things that contribute to who a person is now. What matters more is how a person grew and changed from that experience rather than a mistake made in the past.

Take Note: Addressing Bad Behavior in the Workplace


By Stephanie Hammerwold

After what has been one of the highest profile terminations of the year, former FBI Director James Comey recently testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. From an HR perspective, one of the key things to come out of Comey's story of the events leading up to his termination was the fact that Comey took notes on his interactions with the president. While it is currently unclear what the results of all the testimony from Comey and others will mean, there are lessons to be learned here about what to do when you suspect your boss or another authority at work are engaged in ongoing questionable or inappropriate behavior.

Why Documentation Matters

In my HR career, I have done a fair number of workplace investigations. Sometimes I was lucky and had compelling evidence such as security camera footage, text messages or emails that backed up the complainant's story. But more often than not, a workplace investigation comes down to one person's word against another. In these situations, the HR person investigating the complaint has to sort through interviews and statements to determine as best they can what actually happened. The situation between Comey and the president was like this, so we are left with what many have called a he said/he said situation.

We can learn a lot from Comey's actions prior to his termination. Comey chose to document conversations with the president in memos. He stated that he did so because he was worried the president would lie about the nature of their meetings. While notes about meetings are subject to bias and do not provide the solid proof that things like emails or security camera footage can, they do add credibility to someone's version of events. This points to the biggest piece of advice I give any friend telling me of problems with a particular person at work: document what is happening.

What to Document

When we try to recall events from the past, our memories can get fuzzy, and specific details can slip from our minds. Writing things down immediately after they happened means you have a clearer recollection of what happened. It also gives you a chance to write down facts before you have had a chance to talk it through with someone else, think about what happened or do anything else that can add layers of interpretation and meaning to the initial interaction.

Be as specific as possible. Include dates and times, names of any witnesses and details about what happened and what was said. Keeping careful records of what is happening strengthens your complaint and gives HR a clear sense of the problem. It can be challenging for HR when you come forward and simply say your boss is treating you horribly; however, if you present notes showing details of a meeting where the boss yelled at an employee and other moments of bad behavior, it gives HR specific issues to address with the bad boss. Documenting repeated incidents also helps establish a pattern of bad behavior, which is something your HR department should quickly address.

What to Do with Documentation

For most of us, taking the steps Comey did to get his memos to the New York Times are unnecessary. When you notice bad behavior is ongoing, it is time to take things to HR. With your documentation in hand, you have details that go beyond, "My boss is mean." Specific details give HR a firm place to start their investigation. Submitting your notes will also ensure that your version of events is clearly documented.

Even after HR has wrapped up an investigation and taken appropriate disciplinary action against the offending party, keep an eye on the situation. If things get bad again, document the incidents and report them to HR, so they can take further disciplinary action.

The advice in this post refers to ongoing issues, but keep in mind that it is good to document a single serious incident as well. If something is severe, always report it to HR right away. But even if you have told your story to HR, it is still a good idea to take a moment to write down your version of events shortly after it happened. Once again, it helps ensure that you get important details down on paper before your memory gets hazy.

Some Final Thoughs

While the types of incidents we investigate in the workplace are not quite at the level of the events unfolding in DC, we can take important lessons from the investigation. Most relevant to the average workplace is the value of good documentation. In HR we often remind managers to document performance problems and conversations with employees, and the same holds true for employees who notice ongoing problems with a coworker or boss. It strengthens your complaint and helps provide accurate and specific detail about what you experienced.

Mental Health & Well-Being in the Workplace

By Stephanie Hammerwold

I recently attended the National Human Resources Association’s panel on “The Impact of Mental Health in the Workplace.” We spend a large amount of our time in the workplace. If employees are struggling with mental illness, that comes to work with them. It affects their work and well being, so it is important that employers recognize the need to provide resources to support employee mental health.

The Reality of Mental Illness

Steve Pitman is the president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. During the panel, he pointed out that one in five people will have a diagnosis of mental illness this year. Of those diagnosed, 50% are not getting treatment. Given these numbers, it is clear that this is an area that employers must address.

The signs of mental illness are not outwardly visible, and Pitman said that the number one reason people do not seek treatment is the stigma. There is this thought that a person can just get over it. But the reality is that treating mental illness requires help and support—just as people get for physical illness. If workplaces are open and supportive of mental health, it helps break down that stigma, and this is good for everyone. As Pitman explained, “An environment that supports mental health supports all employees.”

How to Support Employees

Your employee assistance program (EAP) and coverage for mental health in your insurance plan are excellent places to start, but supporting mental health does not stop there. Find ways to incorporate mental health into your existing wellness program. You can also provide training on topics like suicide prevention, recognizing the signs of depression and supporting children with mental illness. Panelist Sheryl Correa of St. Joseph Health explained that your approach to mental health education should also include training people on positive well-being in the workplace. At St. Joseph, she said that they open meetings with a reflection to help people focus and feel grounded.

Correa offered five easy steps that employees can easily incorporate into their daily routine:

  • Gratitude—figure out something you are grateful for
  • Journal one positive thing you have done in the last 24 hours
  • Exercise
  • Meditate
  • Practice random acts of kindness

These changes can start small. For example, meditate for a minute and slowly increase that one minute each day until you get to your target length of time. HR professionals and managers can support employees by allowing them to slow down occasionally to take a few minutes to focus on these things or even encourage them to use break time to go for a relaxing walk away from their desk.

Panelist Noma Bruton offers more suggestions on her blog. Bruton is certified as a mental health first aid instructor and works with HR professionals to train them on recognizing and responding to the signs of mental illness in the workplace as well as ways to support mental health in the workplace. As she points out in her blog post, “In the past, HR contributed to issues of discrimination, sexual harassment, cracking the glass ceiling and providing employment to people with disabilities.  By bringing meaningful change to the workplace, HR is well placed to move the dial on mental health.”

Reshaping the Workplace

While it is important that we have resources to help employees focus on mental health, it is also necessary that we look at how our work environments affect mental health. Toxic work environments do nothing to support positive well-being. If you notice that morale is low and that employees are regularly struggling, take the time to look at your policies and practices. Are your managers creating an environment that encourages long days and impossible deadlines? Are they supervising by yelling and bullying?

Supporting mental health in the workplace also requires that we look to our own practices to make sure we are not causing unnecessary stress. Create an environment where employees can have a work-life balance and can have time off to spend with friends and families. Happier employees are more productive and are better ambassadors for your company and your brand.

What is Fair Chance Hiring?

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This post comes from the Pacific Reentry Career Services blog. Pacific Reentry Career Services is my nonprofit, which helps formerly incarcerated women find meaningful employment. We will be holding Fair Chance Hiring Summits this year to provide a forum for discussing the benefits and challenges of working with the formerly incarcerated, so please sign up for our newsletter to get more information about when the summits are scheduled.

Simply having a criminal record should not be enough to keep someone from being hired. Fair chance hiring refers to policies that help those with a criminal record find jobs they are qualified for. This can include removing the question about criminal convictions from job applications (also called “Ban the Box”), moving questions about criminal record to later in the hiring process and only asking about criminal record when it is relevant to the job.

Pacific Reentry Career is committed to educating employers on the benefits of hiring the reentry population. With that in mind, here are some of the most common questions about fair chance hiring. There are links to useful fair chance hiring resources throughout this article.

How does fair chance hiring benefit employers?
One in three Americans has a criminal record. If employers automatically reject these job seekers, they are missing out on a large number of qualified applicants. Many people with criminal records are qualified and ready to work.

How does fair chance hiring benefit formerly incarcerated job seekers?
Getting a good job with a steady income is a huge step in rebuilding a life following incarceration. It can help reduce recidivism, secure housing and help to reunite families. Often checking yes to the job application question about criminal record can automatically land someone in the reject pile. By moving the question about criminal background to later in the process (or not asking it at all if it is not relevant to the job), formerly incarcerated job seekers can be evaluated based on work history, education and other job qualifications, which gives them a fair shot at landing a good job. Their criminal record no longer becomes an automatic rejection.

Does fair chance hiring mean I should never ask about criminal background?
You can still ask about criminal background if you practice fair chance hiring, but you should evaluate when in the process you look at criminal background. The simplest thing is to remove the question about criminal background from your job application and to ask about it once a conditional offer has been made if it is relevant to the job. This gives job seekers a chance to be evaluated on qualifications without having a criminal record unfairly bias a hiring manager against them. For some jobs, you may want to do away with the question all together.

What is the EEOC guidance on the use of criminal background checks in hiring?
In 2012, the EEOC issued guidance on the use of criminal background checks in hiring. The EEOC’s guidance comes from the fact that certain racial and ethnic groups experience higher rates of incarceration and may therefore face barriers to employment. This may lead to discriminatory hiring practices. The EEOC’s guidance encourages employers to only look into an applicant’s criminal background if it is relevant to the job. This is not law, but it is a good place for employers to start when figuring out how to change their hiring process so it does not create unfair biases against people with records. Click on the link at the beginning of this answer or visit the EEOC’s information page for more information on the guidance.

What if I want to use a background company to review criminal records of potential hires?
There are federal and state laws that govern the use of background check companies. Root & Rebound’s “California Employers’ Fair Chance Hiring Toolkit” offers detailed information on the requirements for California employers. If you are thinking about employing a background check company, it is best to consult with an employment attorney to make sure your process fits within the legal requirements.

Are there ways I can protect my business if I do end up making a bad hire?
Many people with criminal records go on to live productive lives following release from jail or prison. The U.S. Department of Labor established the Federal Bonding program in 1966 to provide fidelity bonds to cover at-risk, hard-to-place job seekers. This includes formerly incarcerated individuals. This program is free for employers and employees and covers the first six months of employment. For more information, visitthe Federal Bonding Program website or contact your local EDD office in California. Keep in mind that only about 1% of these bonds are ever claimed, so those covered by bonds have had a high success rate with employers.

Are there any tax benefits for hiring formerly incarcerated people?
The Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) is a federal program that provides a tax incentive to employers who hire people from difficult-to-employ groups, which includes the formerly incarcerated. You can learn more about WOTC on the Department of Labor’s website. California offers additional incentives to employers in designated geographical areas. For more information on the California incentive, visit the Franchise Tax Board’s site.

What can I do to show that my business supports fair chance hiring?
Visit the Dave's Killer Bread website to take the Second Chance Pledge to show that you are committed to removing barriers to employment for the formerly incarcerated. Train hiring managers to make fair decisions regarding candidates with criminal records, support community programs that help the formerly incarcerated find employment and spread the word about the benefits of hiring the reentry population.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. It is always a good idea to check with an employment attorney before making changes to your hiring process and to ensure that your hiring practices are legal and fit within the requirements of the law for your location.

Calling it Quits with a Horrible Boss

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By Stephanie Hammerwold

I was recently talking to a friend who is working for a bad boss. After telling me about a particularly challenging day, he asked, “What do I do to try to make things better with my boss?” My answer was simple: “Leave.” This is advice that comes more from life experience more than it does from my HR background. I think most of us have fallen under the supervision of a bad boss at some point in our career, and we often find ourselves trying to figure out how to make things better. And I have learned that leaving is often the best option. But, it is not always that easy to make that leap.

Horrible Bosses: The HR Hammer Edition

My worst boss was early in my HR career. I ended up working for her for seven years before another HR employee and I were let go when the company decided to downsize a number of departments. While it was difficult to deal with in the moment, once I had moved on to a good job a few months later, I realized that the layoff was actually a blessing. It got me out of a horrible situation that I clearly was not able to quit on my own. Sometimes life needs to force you to quit.

My boss at that job had a reputation for being a bully, and she seemed to enjoy that people saw her that way. We would often go into meetings with her not knowing what version of her was going to show up and whether or not we could expect to laugh a lot or if we would end up wanting to cower under the table in tears. She was the kind of person who would send an email with instructions, I would follow those instructions to the letter, and then she would yell at me for not following instructions. Even when confronted with the original email, her response would be, “I’ve worked in HR for over 30 years, and I would never ask for something like that!” Anyone who worked for her fluctuated between being her favorite one day and being somebody she wanted to fire the next.

It was a toxic environment, and my coworkers and I would share stories of the way the stress of working for this boss was taking a toll on our health. We all had a list of issues that included lack of sleep, upset stomachs, headaches, nausea and all the ways it affected the way we interacted with those closest to us. No matter what countless employees said to the owner and upper management, nothing changed. One person high up in the company even confessed to me that he and the owner were struggling because they did not know what to do to address this boss’s bad behavior. That’s when I realized that they were probably too scared of her to fire her.

Some made the decision to leave after only a short time, but I was among those who stuck it out. After all, there were a lot of people that I liked at that job and who I remain friends with to this day. But ultimately it took a major toll on me, and I did not realize how bad it had been until I was pushed out and began the slow process of healing from working for such an emotionally abusive person for seven years.

Quitting Can be Good

I think quitting gets a bad rap. As Stephen J. Dubner put it on an episode from the first season of the Freakanomics podcast, “Sometimes quitting is strategic, and sometimes it can be your best possible plan.” Quitting is not always a matter of giving up. In the case of quitting a job with a horrible boss, it is really more like moving forward. Sometimes I think this never-quit mentality can keep us in unhealthy situations. I know that I got it stuck in my head that quitting that job was “giving up” or “letting my bully of a boss win.” As a result, I stayed in a place that was dragging me down to the point where most of my free time was spent holed up at home and not having the energy to go out and have fun. I was miserable and should have quit early on. But I did not. And I think in some ways I needed to learn that lesson because it helped me to see that quitting is not always a bad thing.

If you are reading this article and nodding your head as you think about how horrible your current boss is, maybe it is time to consider quitting. When I was laid off from that job, it led me down a path that got me to where I am today in my professional life. It was a major turning point where things ended up much better as a result. It is easy to be fooled into thinking staying is the best option. Maybe your coworkers are fun people to work with or you like the type of work you do. But, the misery of working for my horrible boss made it hard to enjoy those things. If your boss is as big a bully as mine was, and the company is not taking steps to get rid of that person, then your best option is to leave. I missed seeing some of my coworkers from that job on a daily basis, but I ended up with some friendships that have continued for years after I left. And the best part is I can enjoy those people more now that I am not as depressed and anxious as I was in the days I worked for that bad boss.

Develop an Exit Plan

I am not saying that you should march into your boss’s office tomorrow and dramatically declare, “Take this job and shove it!” Quitting a job is a big decision, and I feel it is important to mention that everyone should take a moment to make sure they are ready to take that leap. It can be scary to think of giving up a paycheck and searching for a job, so think through some next steps before you turn in your two weeks’ notice.

If you are worried about going without a paycheck while looking for a new job, consider starting to look for new work while still employed with your bad boss. Bosses who are bullies can make us feel worthless, which can be a hard state of mind to do a job search in. Enlist the help of a friend who can encourage and motivate you to search through job postings in the evening after work. The key is to make a plan to find something else and to stick to it. Good friends can help keep us on track when it comes to sticking to a plan.

Do not forget to take care of yourself. Do things that you enjoy, go for a hike or spend time with good friends. If the consequences of working for a bad boss have left you emotionally scarred, you may want to seek help from a therapist to take care of your mental health. Remember that we cannot change the behavior of others, but we can take care of ourselves. Sometimes that means leaving a job with a horrible boss.

How have you dealt with a bad boss? Share your horrible boss stories in the comments below.

How to Overcome Interviewer Bias

By Stephanie Hammerwold

As much as we try to make the interview process fair by sticking to work-related questions and avoiding discussion of protected classes, our own biases sometimes sneak into our hiring decisions. Maybe you tend to lean toward single parents because it resonates with your own experience being raised by a single mom, or perhaps you had a bad experience hiring someone with a criminal conviction, so now you automatically throw such candidates in the reject pile. Unfortunately, making such assumptions may mean that you miss out on great candidates, and it could also mean that your hiring process is unfair and possibly discriminatory. It is, therefore, important to understand our own biases and to actively work to adjust the hiring process to overcome such biases.

What is Interviewer Bias?

One of the most common forms of bias comes in the form of stereotyping. Take, for example, a job like firefighter, which is physically demanding. If you assume a candidate is not strong enough to be a firefighter because she is a woman, you are relying on stereotypes rather than assessing if the candidate meets the physical requirements for the job. Stereotyping during the interview process can cause big problems, especially when stereotypes about protected classes result in negative hiring decisions. Such practices are discriminatory and could cause legal trouble for an employer.

We may also be tricked by our first impressions into thinking a candidate is exceptionally good or exceptionally bad. This is called the halo/horns effect. This might show up in a bias toward attractive candidates. The candidate’s charm and good looks may get in the way of an interviewer seeing potential problems. Conversely, a candidate who checked yes to the application question about criminal conviction may automatically be viewed as untrustworthy even if the rest of their application and interview are glowing. Such biases get in the way of making good hiring decisions.

We are often drawn to those similar to us, and this can be another bias pitfall. Maybe your estimation of a candidate improves once you find out they are the same religion as you or they share similar political views. Just as with stereotypes, such criteria may be discriminatory and get in the way of really understanding if someone is qualified for the job.

Recognizing Your Own Biases

Overcoming bias starts with recognizing your own prejudices and biases. Once you acknowledge such things, you can be aware of how they may influence your hiring decisions. When I first started interviewing candidates early in my HR career, I noticed that I could easily be swayed by a hard luck story. While some of these candidates were truly ready to move beyond the problems of their pasts and could end up being star employees, sometimes my bias got in the way of recognizing red flags, and I ended up with a few bad hires. Since my early days in HR, I learned to recognize when my desire to root for the underdog was clouding my judgment.

None of us is completely free of bias and prejudice. The important thing is to understand how these things may influence the employment decisions we make. Doing the work before interviewing candidates will ultimately lead to a process that is fairer and free of potentially discriminatory practices.

Structured Criteria & Selection Process

After understanding your own biases, take some time to create a structured hiring process. Start with a job description that clearly lists the qualifications. This is the foundation for establishing criteria against which you can evaluate all candidates. When you determine a reason for rejecting someone, you should be able to point to specific qualifications on the job description that they do not meet.

Have a set of interview questions that are the same for all candidates. This is a good way to ensure interviews stay on track and do not veer into areas that might allude to protected classes. It also helps to limit interview conversations to areas that are relevant to making a good hiring decision and encourages uniformity in the type of information gathered from each candidate.

Make Selection a Group Effort

It is also useful to have several people involved in the hiring process. Pay attention to what others in the hiring process are using to make their decisions, and address any bias you see in how they evaluate candidates. It can also be useful to run selection criteria by others to ensure that criteria are free of bias and are focused on qualifications, skills and experience relevant to the job.

Working with others in the hiring process can be especially beneficial for those new to interviewing who may not yet be aware of their own biases. It is a good opportunity to openly discuss how certain biases may influence decisions and for veteran interviewers to also check in with themselves in an effort to keep the interview process bias-free.

How to Address Blemishes in Your Work History

By Stephanie Hammerwold

Most of us have some kind of blemish in our work history. Maybe you were let go from a job, you have a long gap in employment or you check yes to the question about having a criminal conviction. Those things can be stressful when filling out job applications. If you are called for an interview, it can be an added challenge to figure out how to explain them while still making yourself look like the ideal candidate. In these situations, it is important to remember that things like criminal convictions, gaps and terminations are not the full story of your experience and qualifications. By preparing in advance and thinking through standard responses to these questions, you can turn a blemish into a positive and use it as a way to show you are the best candidate for the job.

Be Honest

It may be tempting to lie about areas of concern in your work history, but be careful. Potential employers may do reference and background checks, and lying could be grounds for automatic rejection. If you are hired based on false information, and an employer later finds out, they could terminate your employment for falsifying the application.

Instead of coming up with an elaborate excuse or outright lying, use the interview as an opportunity to take control of the story of your blemishes and put a positive spin on what happened by showing how you have learned from the experience, grown or changed your life for the better.

Criminal Convictions

As an HR professional who has interviewed countless applicants in the course of my career, I have received this question many times: how do I address my past criminal convictions in a job interview? This is one of the biggest hurdles for anyone with a conviction looking for a job.

Addressing convictions starts with the job application. If this question comes up on the application, keep your answer brief. State the year of the conviction and a few words to describe it with a note that you will discuss it in more detail during an interview. You can also learn about various tax credits and federal bonding available to an employer when they hire an ex-offender. Programs include the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) and the Federal Bonding Program. The National HIRE Network has a list of programs offered at the state level. Sharing information on these programs can help encourage an employer to give you a chance, and it also shows you did your research prior to applying for jobs.

When it comes to the interview, keep your explanation brief. Once again, remember to be honest and take responsibility. Use the interview as an opportunity to show how you have improved and made changes in your life.

For example, if you have a drug conviction, explain that you made some bad choices in the past and have since gone through treatment and have successfully maintained your sobriety. This helps show an interviewer that you are able to move past blemishes in your past. If you participated in any education or vocational training while incarcerated, mention those things during the interview. This will help turn your conviction into an inspiring story about how you overcame a major challenge in your life rather than just being about the conviction.

Gaps in Employment

When the recession hit in 2008, many employees were laid off from jobs and had a hard time finding work. As a result, it is not uncommon to see gaps in employment on resumes and applications. Even if you have gaps in employment for reasons other than being laid off, it does not mean you have a strike against you in the job search. Just as with any other blemish in your work history, use the gap to show something positive.

For example, many parents take a few years off when raising young children. When reentering the workforce after a long gap used to care for children, do not hesitate to mention the other ways you used your time. Volunteering in your child’s school, organizing a fundraiser or managing carpool are all activities that use skills relevant to a job. And let’s not forget that the effort to manage children’s schedule is a job in and of itself. The same is true for any gap involving caring for a family member.

Gaps in employment may also be caused by searching for work in a bad economy, and most interviewers will see this as a viable reason for for an employment gap. Even time off to travel or to focus on an activity can be a plus in an interview and give you an interesting story to tell.

If your gap in employment was for health reasons, remember that you do not need to disclose details about your diagnosis or treatment. Simply stating that you took time off for health reasons is sufficient.


Another tricky thing in an interview is addressing a termination. Just as with the other blemishes we spoke of, take the opportunity to show how you have learned and grown from the experience. Explain what you are doing differently now so that you can ensure an employer that whatever the reason is for termination was before will not be an issue in a new job. For example, if you were fired for attendance issues, explain how you have addressed what was causing the problem. You might say, “I had a hard time getting to that job because my car broke down regularly, which interfered with my ability to arrive on time. I have since bought a new car, so I no longer have issues with reliable transportation.”

Avoid using this question as a chance to badmouth a former employer or a horrible boss. Doing so in an interview may leave the interviewer wondering if the issue was really with the employer or if it was with you. While it is true your boss may have been a horrible person, it is not necessary to go into that in an interview.

This is another area where honesty is important. It would be better to take control of how the story of your termination is told rather than lying and having a potential employer find out by checking references.

Focus on Your Accomplishments

Remember that the story you tell about your work experience should focus on your accomplishments. Convictions, gaps and terminations are only a small piece of the story. Be confident in drawing an interviewer's attention to the good things on your application because that will ultimately be the impression you leave them with. Your accomplishments can include a variety of things like work achievements, school, volunteering and anything that demonstrates your readiness for the job.

Finally, remember to make a good impression. This includes dressing for the job you want and not just throwing on jeans and a T-shirt. Even if you are interviewing for a retail or warehouse job, dress up and look professional. Speak professionally and confidentially, and do not be distracted by your cell phone. All of these things help counter any negative impression the blemishes in your work history might make.

Is it Time to Change the Tipping System in U.S. Restaurants?


By Stephanie Hammerwold

In 2013, the Freakanomics podcast had an episode about the practice of tipping. Whether it is deciding how much of a tip to leave at a restaurant or whether to drop some spare change in the tip jar at your favorite coffee place, tipping is very present in our daily lives. The Freakanomics podcast got me to thinking about doing away with tipping in the U.S. The discussion has heated up in the past few months with several prominent restaurant owners doing away with tipping in their own establishments. The practice seems to have met with mixed results, and people have very strong opinions about it.

The further into the topic I delved, the more I realized that this question does not have an easy answer. I started off liking the idea of eliminating tipping, but after speaking with those who work in the restaurant industry, I am not so sure that this would be in the best interest of everyone.

The Connection Between Tipping and Service

In the episode of the Freakanomics podcast that covers tipping, host Stephen J. Dubner talks to Michael Lynn, a professor at the Cornell Hotel School. Lynn has done extensive research on the practice of tipping. His research has found that the level of service only has a tiny effect on the tip the customer gives. This, of course, raises the question of whether or not tipping is an effective means of motivating servers and increasing their wages. Lynn explains, “Even though the actual relationship between tips and service is low, servers think there’s a relationship, and that’s enough to motivate them to deliver good service.”

The people I spoke with in the restaurant industry seem to confirm that tipping is still a good motivator. Chris Rickabaugh, a Los Angeles area server, explains, “It seems to me that the main reason to work as a server is the promise of the tip. It's a culture we've built here in the U.S. In a way, the tip is part of a contract. Good service equals a good tip. Bad service almost guarantees a bad tip if any tip at all. Why would this be better than a wage bump?”

I do not agree with the argument that servers would do a worse job if there were no tips. Plenty of us work in jobs where we do not receive tips, and we still manage to give good customer service or interact with clients in a courteous and efficient manner. I do not think servers are any different; most would still manage to give good service. That being said, there is clearly value in tips being a motivator in that tips give servers some control over their own wages.

Summer Stearns, Managing Partner at Diablo Taco says, “Overall I think tipping and service charge equal accountability. They drive passion in the industry.” This backs up what Rickabaugh says about the promise of a tip being the main reason to work as a server. It is firmly part of the restaurant culture in the U.S., and it adds value to the relationship between customer and server. Stearns adds, “Tipping is a way for restaurant owners to have our customers hold employees accountable for the their performance. The better you are as a server, the more money you make.”

Tipping & Wages

One of the arguments restaurant owners have made in favor of changing the current system is a more equal distribution of wages between servers and kitchen staff. Line cook positions can be hard to fill. The pay is often low, and there are often more openings than there are qualified candidates. A quick search of job openings in many major cities will reveal an abundance of line cook positions, and when I was hiring for such jobs, managers would often complain, “Why can’t you send me any qualified cooks?”

One possible solution to this problem is doing away with tipping and either adding a service charge to the bill or building the cost into menu prices and using that money to increase wages for everyone in the restaurant. Legally, management cannot take any of a server’s tips, so eliminating tipping and instead having customers pay what they normally would as a tip under a service charge or increased menu prices would allow management to have control over that money. In effect, restaurant employees who are not servers could see an increase in wages as management is able to redistribute the money.

This may sound great in theory, but such an approach is not without its problems. For one thing, margins are already so small in the restaurant industry that shifting the money around may mean that servers take home less pay at the end of the day. Also, there may be an effect on the relationship between customer and server.

“Currently the process of tipping is a transaction between guest and server. If tips are to be eliminated and converted into a service fee that is factored into the cost of a meal, we now have a transaction between guest, restaurant owner/management and server. In my mind this is a slippery slope,” explains Los Angeles area server Bryan Graham.

This raises an interesting point about tipping: there is a direct exchange that happens between the server and customer. In a way, it gives servers some control over their wages. If the revenue from tipping shifts over to a service charge or increased food prices, the server is at the mercy of what wage management wants to pay. If they work for a generous restaurant owner, they might notice no changes in their take-home pay; however, an owner with an eye toward shrinking margins may lower pay.

Graham also said, “Money that once went straight into a server’s pocket is now funneled through a business that has its own agenda and bottom line. Servers have lost control of their primary revenue stream. Servers would be allowing someone to collect their money and redistribute it however they saw fit.”

Service Charge as a Replacement for Tipping

Legally, management cannot touch tips, but adding a service charge to the bill takes control of that money out of the hands of servers. The problem is that it is ingrained in us as customers that the tip, as Graham points out, is a transaction between us and the server.

“Adding a service charge to the menu in theory sounds good. Most of these models have added the 18-20% to the final bill, but the server rarely sees all of this, whereas in the current model he/she does, not counting ‘tip out’ at the end of the night,” explains Richard Briggs, a Los Angeles area server and bartender who has worked in a variety of restaurants.

The bigger issue here is that simply doing away with tips and tacking on a service charge does not always work. If the result of the system is a reduction in wages for a big part of the staff, the effect on morale may not make such a switch worth it.

As the minimum wage is increasing throughout the country, restaurant owners may have to rethink how they pay their employees. Businesses in Los Angeles will see a series of hikes over the next few years that will lead to a minimum wage of $15/hour in 2020. In order to cover wages for everyone from kitchen staff to service staff, the answer may be in redistributing wages through replacing the current tipping model with a service charge. The challenge is finding a way to do that without negatively affecting wages.

“Having experience with a restaurant that tried this to help them with the minimum wage raise in the late 90s I've seen it go horribly wrong. They added 18% to the bill with 15% going to servers and 3% was a ‘house charge.’ We servers still had to tip out the bus staff and bar staff with their 15%, so take home tips were closer to 9% some evenings. This restaurant lost a lot of good help ‘experimenting’ with this,” Briggs says.

Minimum wage increases are important. As the economy has picked up and unemployment has dropped, many of the jobs that are coming back are in the service industry—an area where wages can often be low. Tips become important in that they help supplement someone’s income, so they can afford to live in the area where they work. It would be great if margins in restaurants were big enough that pay could be increased for those who do not benefit from tips (e.g. kitchen staff) without affecting the take-home pay of front-of-the-house staff, but that may be a challenge.

Some Final Thoughts on Tipping

In the end, the decision to do away with tipping in the U.S. is not that clear cut. It largely depends on the type of restaurant and determining how it will affect servers and the restaurant as a whole. While I see advantages to a service charge and giving managers the control to redistribute wages to non-tipped staff in order to meet the demands of an increasing minimum wage, such a system could fail if it means lowered wages for some. Taking away wages from some employees to give them to others only works to build tension and animosity between different employees.

When I started doing the work to write this article, I leaned toward the idea of doing away with tipping and simply having the amount usually reserved for tipping go toward a service charge or increased menu prices, but, after hearing from those in the industry, I now see the value of our current system. I like the idea of tipping being a transaction between customer and server. This is especially important as more and more people rely on wages from tips at service jobs to make ends meet. Given how big the restaurant industry is and how many American workers rely on wages from service jobs, it is important that we remember this type of work in conversations about tipping, pay and a living wage.

Special thanks to Richard Briggs for interviewing the servers quoted in this article.

Workplace Resolutions for 2016

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By Stephanie Hammerwold

Last week I wrote about my workplace Christmas list, so it seems fitting that I tackled some resolutions for the new year this week. January 1 is always a good time to look forward and figure out how to make things better, and this year’s list includes some things you can implement in your own workplace.

Review & Update the Employee Handbook

I have been helping several clients with handbooks recently, so perhaps that is why this is at the top of my list. Take a moment right now and dust off your employee handbook. What is the date on it? If you answered anything prior to 2015, your handbook is overdue for an update. If you answered, “What handbook?” then make a resolution to create an employee handbook.

The best practice is to review your handbook each year. Many laws go into effect at the beginning of the year, so reviewing your handbook around the new year is a good idea. Make changes and add policies in accordance with legal requirements. When reading policies, also pay particular attention to current practice in your workplace. Do your policies match how you do business?

This is a good reminder that businesses of all sizes should have a handbook. A handbook is an excellent way to communicate expectations and requirements to employees, and it also gives you written proof that policies were communicated to employees. Even for a company with only a few employees, having a handbook builds a good foundation as your business grows and adds people.

Provide Paid Sick Leave to All Employees

In 2015, California’s paid sick leave law went into effect, which brought paid sick leave to many employees who did not previously receive it. The law is a huge boon for those in the food service industry and other jobs that have not historically received such a benefit. Paid sick leave benefits all of us in that it reduces the chance that someone will show up to work sick and spread their illness. Who wants a server to be coughing as they bring meals to a table because they could not afford to take a day off of work unpaid in order to rest?

In his State of the Union address in early 2015, President Barack Obama called on Congress to pass a bill that would require paid sick leave for employees, so this benefit is getting a lot of attention. Even if you are not in a state or area that requires paid sick leave, make a resolution to add paid sick leave to your benefits for all employees. No one enjoys being at work when ill, so make it easy for employees to take the time off to rest and recuperate.

Improve Employee Benefits

Sticking with the theme of benefits, make a resolution to update your benefits package. Talk to employees and find out what benefits they want. Benefits are more than just insurance and can include things like discounts, incentive programs caregiver assistance, education assistance, a wellness program, paying employees to volunteer and more. As unemployment decreases, attracting top candidates becomes more important. Having a good benefits package will make it more likely that a candidate will accept your job offer over another company’s offer.

There is no denying that treating employees well helps with retention, productivity and morale. Benefits are a good way to show employees that you appreciate and value their work. Having generous paid time off policies and other perks help to ensure employees are enjoying life outside of work, which will help reduce burnout and stress.

Remember that there is more to Life than Work

Finally, remember that there is more to life than work. Many people work insane schedules. We get so wrapped up in our work identities that it seems to be all we are, and it can infringe on time with friends and family and time doing the things we love. Take some time in the new year to remember that you are more than your job. Even if you have to block it off on your calendar, make time for the things you enjoy, whether that is spending time with your favorite people or even just curling up with a good book.

Happy New Year!

Easy Ways to Improve the Hiring Process


By Stephanie Hammerwold

The new year will be upon us in a few weeks, so it is time to start thinking about resolutions. With job openings increasing and unemployment dropping, it is a good time to start thinking about your hiring process and resolving to improve it in 2016. Here are a few easy ways to take the HR Hammer to your hiring process and setting up a system that helps find the best candidates to fill your openings in the upcoming year.

Job Descriptions & Ads

While it is not a legal requirement to have a job description, it is an HR best practice to do so. A good job description clearly communicates expectations to an employee, but even before someone becomes an employee, it is a tool to ensure that a candidate understands the requirements of the position. Creating or updating a job description also ensures that everyone at the company is on the same page about what the position will do.

Prior to posting an ad, review the existing job description for accuracy. Jobs evolve and change with each new person who takes on a position, so make necessary adjustments to the old description. If you are starting from scratch, get input from people already doing the job so that what you have on paper accurately reflects the day-to-day work of the position.

&&&Use your job description to create your job posting ad. Gone are the days of having to string together cryptic abbreviations to minimize the cost of a classified ad in a newspaper. Most job posting sites give you plenty of space to describe the position; however, this does not mean that you have to create the War and Peace of job postings. Remember that job seekers will be scanning many job sites, so keep your posting brief. Focus on the key responsibilities and qualifications for the position, and include something about your company culture and benefits. You can include a link to the job description on your own site for interested job seekers who want more information, but the goal of the ad is to spark someone’s attention enough to learn more about your company and to visit your career site.

Winging It

Sometimes we get so busy that preparation for an interview is little more than a quick scan of a resume while a candidate waits in the lobby several minutes before the interview starts. Unfortunately, such an approach is little more effective than trying to read and memorize a semester’s worth of material in the hours before a final exam. There is a strong possibility that you will miss out on important details and will forget to ask good questions.

To help avoid having to wing it for interviews, take some time to develop interview questions while you are creating or updating the job description. If the candidate is going through multiple interviews, this is a good way to prevent making the candidate answer the same questions over and over. It also gives you a chance to review questions for suitability and to get rid of any questions that might be inappropriate or touch on protected classes. Focus on asking about work experience, relevant training and education and questions that require the candidate to demonstrate their knowledge.

Do not forget to schedule some time to review the candidate’s resume and application prior to the interview. Get to know their experience and history so that you do not have to waste interview time on questions that the candidate already answered on paper.

Too Many Cooks in the Interview Kitchen

Now that you have a polished job description, beautifully written ad and flawless questions, it is time to take a look at who will be a part of the interview process and just how many interviews a candidate has to go through. Keep things simple, and avoid unnecessary interviews.

In all my years of interviewing job candidates, I have come to realize that you can usually get a pretty good idea if someone is a top contender within the first few minutes of the interview. That does not mean you should stop the interview after only a couple minutes, but it does mean that having the candidate come back for multiple interviews or having a large team of people conducting interviews is probably a bit excessive.

With the exception of high-level positions, you probably do not need too many people involved in the interview process. It is often good to have a second opinion, and the hiring manager and someone from HR should be sufficient. If you feel the need to include others, consider conducting panel interviews to cut down on the number of interviews. Trust your managers to make good hiring decisions. Train them on interview skills so that they do not need a bunch of people involved in the interview process for openings on their team. If you find that a number of people would like to be involved, consider quick, informal introductions following an interview, so others have the chance to briefly meet a candidate before a final decision is made.

Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You

Finally, put a process in place to make sure there is adequate follow up with candidates. At the conclusion of the interview, let the candidate know how long you expect the decision process to take. If it takes more time than planned, follow up with the candidate by making a call or sending an email. Once you have made a decision, get in touch with all candidates to let them know whether or not they got the job. Waiting for a call about a job is stressful, and a quick call or email can help ease the frustration many feel during the waiting game of the hiring process.

Workplace Holiday Party Prep Guide

By Stephanie Hammerwold

When I walked into the grocery store a couple days ago and was bombarded by the smell of cinnamon scented pinecones and lavish displays of candy canes and reindeer, I knew that the Christmas season had already arrived despite the fact that no one has even started thawing turkeys for Thanksgiving yet. While you may not be quite ready to put up a Christmas tree and hang some festive lights, if you are saddled with the task of overseeing your company’s holiday party, it is a good time to start thinking of how to plan a party that does not result in drama for HR to sort out the following day.

Creating an Inclusive Party

We all know not everyone celebrates Christmas, and we also know that even those who celebrate Christmas can do so in different ways that vary from completely secular to religious. The main purpose of holiday parties is to focus on friendship and camaraderie and to celebrate the year’s successes. Make these things the focus of your party and avoid any religious references. As for what to call it, I like the generic “Holiday Party." I also worked at one company who called it “Winter Celebration.” In general, be sensitive to how different employees approach the holiday season and plan your party accordingly.

Avoiding Harassment

In my HR career, I have had the challenging experience of trying to resolve bad behavior at the holiday party in the days immediately following the celebration. Employees at holiday parties are not always on their best behavior (especially if alcohol is involved as I will discuss in the next section). It is useful to remind employees that the harassment policy is in effect during the party.

Cheers! Keeping Alcohol from Turning into a Problem

As I mentioned in the last section, alcohol can cause a number of holiday party headaches for HR. I have attended holiday parties with co-workers who normally conducted themselves professionally in the workplace but were falling down drunk and making fools of themselves at the holiday party. It makes for an awkward Monday morning.

If you plan to serve alcohol, consider hosting the party off site. Avoid having an open bar and limit the amount of alcohol through the use of drink tickets. You may also close the bar an hour or two before the end of the party to help reduce the amount of alcohol consumed.

It can be useful to have a professional bartender serving drinks, so they can keep an eye on people who are intoxicated and ensure that they get a cab or ride home. Contact a local cab or rideshare company to provide transportation, and consider paying the bill for transportation from the party to home for employees. It is a benefit that ensures your employees get home safely and avoids the risk of drunk driving by providing an easy solution for employees. Remember that employers may be held liable for accidents caused by drunk employees leaving holiday parties.

Some Final Reminders

Think about the timing of your holiday party as well. Parties that happen after work hours are best and make it easy for people who do not want to go to opt out. Remind employees that attendance at the party is not mandatory. Required attendance usually means you would need to pay people to attend.

If you plan to do any kind of work gift exchange, make it optional. Remember that some people do not celebrate during the holidays for religious or personal reasons, so make it easy for them to not participate in things like gift exchanges and parties.

Finally, do not let policies run amok with your party. Take a few steps to mitigate the risk from things like harassment and alcohol and be inclusive. Other than that, focus your energy on celebrating the season and your employees’ hard work throughout the year.

Job Seeker Advice: What HR Wants to See in a Resume


By Stephanie Hammerwold

One of the most common HR-related requests I get from friends is to review their resume. Even in the age of LinkedIn and online portfolios, there are still countless articles about how a great resume can be your ticket to success. There are no magic tricks that can guarantee your resume will land you your dream job, but there are things you can do to keep your resume from automatically being tossed in the reject pile. After years of reviewing thousands of resumes, here are my tips for creating a clean, easy-to-read resume that showcases your experience and qualifications.

What (Not) to Include

I am once and for all taking the HR Hammer to the objective section. If you have an objective section lingering at the top of your resume, I’ll give you a moment to go delete it right now. Most resume objectives are the same, and it is some variation on “To find a job that challenges me and where I can be a positive member of a dynamic team.” A company already knows you are trying to find a good job, so there is no reason to waste valuable resume real estate space with an objective. You want to showcase your skills and experience rather than write a generic statement that is similar to what many other job seekers have at the top of their resume.

Now that we have the objective out of the way, let’s tackle the question of length. It used to be that one page was the generally accepted length of the resume. This was in the days before online applications and emailing in a resume. These days, it is not very common to mail in a resume. Length becomes less important when a recruiter or hiring manager is scrolling through resumes on a screen rather than flipping pages. This does not mean you should send pages and pages to a prospective employer, but it is perfectly acceptable to fill two pages. Unless you are applying for an academic job or a highly specialized position, I would not recommend going much longer than that.

It is important that your resume is easy to read because your resume usually only gets a minute or so to make a strong enough impression to warrant a closer read by a recruiter or hiring manager. Have clearly labeled sections (e.g. work experience, education) and create bullet points rather than lengthy paragraphs.

The star of your resume should be your work experience. I prefer to see work experience listed chronologically by job rather than sectioned out by skill. If you want to showcase some skills relevant to the job, include a short section at the top with a few sentences summarizing your experience. For those who are new to the workforce, include any volunteer experience or school activities as part of your work experience if you have not worked before or have only had one job.

Do not forget to include education and any relevant training at the bottom. Avoid listing every single training you have attended, but instead focus on including things relevant to the job.

Show, Don’t Tell

Some job seekers fall into the trap of simply listing skills without showing that they have used those skills on the job. For example, take this statement:

Experienced in using Microsoft Excel

Consider rewriting this statement to show that you know how to use Excel:

Used Microsoft Excel to manage the budget and expenses for the annual company picnic

When I see this on a resume, I know that a job seeker has experience using the software.

Focus on ways that you used a skill in a previous job that is relevant to how the skill will be used in the job you are applying for. This is especially useful if you are jumping careers and want to show how your skills from other jobs will be applicable to a new career.

Good Writing Matters

Write your resume in clear language that is easy to understand. Do not get bogged down in buzzwords and inflated language. Say exactly what you did. A prospective employer does not need to read phrases like this:

Collaborated with team members to build capacity in an impactful manner that increased optics, learnings and upward velocity.

Instead, be clear in what you did and accomplished:

Managed recruitment and training of 100 new employees for a new store location; implemented new hire training programs that reduced turnover by 10% from the previous store opening.

Do not send out your resume without having at least one other person proofread it. I have been in situations where I was deciding between two high-level candidates with similar experience. There have been times where it has come down to spelling and grammar mistakes. If a candidate does not make the effort to make sure they are sending me a clean resume, why should I hire them to be a manager?

Remember that your resume is often the first impression you make with a potential employer. Be honest about your experience. Take the time to put your best effort forward. Write cleanly and clearly, demonstrate your skills and qualifications through your experience, and make sure it is free from errors.

Still not sure your resume is in good shape? Use the contact form on the about page to get in touch with the HR Hammer for a resume review.

Is it Time to Ditch the Traditional Performance Review?

Photo by jntvisual/iStock / Getty Images

By Stephanie Hammerwold

Performance reviews are a hot topic in HR right now. An overwhelming majority of HR professionals, managers and employees seem to be unhappy with them and would be happy to move on to another system, and some companies are finally responding by taking the drastic step of ditching the traditional annual review. October’s meeting of the South Orange County chapter of the Professionals in Human Resources Association (PIHRA) featured Noma Bruton, the Chief HR Officer at Pacific Mercantile Bank. Bruton spoke about how her company eliminated traditional performance appraisals and how they created a system that better supports employees and the company.

Bruton was joined by Lonnie Giamela, an attorney with Fisher & Phillips. Giamela started off the presentation by talking about the ways in which the traditional system of ranking with no narrative is under scrutiny. With an annual review, the emphasis is on once-a-year feedback rather than on real time feedback, which is much more relevant to how we work. Giamela gave the example of how his young kids will tell him how they feel about his performance as a dad immediately, and the feedback does not come in the form of a number. It is a narrative such as “You are the best daddy in the world” or “You are very frustrating today.” If our tendency is to give feedback as a narrative, why do we still rely on a system based on numerical ranking? Anyone who has written a review knows that it can be a challenge to assign a single number to a year’s worth of work. Criteria for ranking can vary greatly from manager to manager, which creates an unfair system.

When a company follows a forced ranking system, Bruton explained that it pits employees against each other. Rather than focusing on competition external to the company, employees are more focused on competing with each other. Bruton admitted that she had advocated for traditional reviews for 20 years before realizing that it was time to do away with a system that relied on numerical ranking. She cited statistics that revealed that 92% of managers do not think reviews have value, and 95% of HR professionals believe ratings are not accurate. Clearly it is time to make some big changes.

One of the first steps that Bruton tackled was delinking compensation and performance. Many companies tie pay increases to the employee’s score on their annual review. Bruton did away with this practice by basing increases on market research for the jobs in her company. Employees were evaluated based on years of service and skill level to determine where they fell in the range. They picked a common date and adjusted employee salaries on that day to put their jobs in alignment with the market price for each job. In short, the company did away with merit increases and based raises on a market adjustment.

Bruton said the most common question from employees was about not being paid based on performance. She explained that the market-based increases do reflect performance in that when the company does better, they are able to give more money for raises and placing people above the market average. The company’s success is a direct reflection of the employees’ performance.

The company replaced the annual review with a system that managed performance without the use of ratings. Managers have conversations with employees to review things like job responsibility, competencies and goals, and Bruton pointed out that the focus could then be more on development. Currently her company required that managers meet with employees for performance conversations twice per year. They use their HR technology system to record goals and what was discussed in the meetings. Employing technology can help give employees real time access to how they are progressing on goals.

Bruton ended by reviewing some of the lessons she learned from implementing the new system. She said the process has been a lot of work, but she has been receiving positive feedback from employees and managers. She advised those considering a big change like this to be prepared to support the case for a new system with plenty of market data because upper management may be resistant to undoing an annual review system that has been in place for decades. She also said it is important to train managers, and her company even brought in an outside trainer to go through supervisory basics.

With all the conversation around doing away with the annual review, it was nice to hear a case study from someone who is putting talk into action. As HR professionals, it is important that we recognize the areas where restrictive policies and processes may be getting in the way of progress at our companies. In a time where we are growing more and more accustomed to instantaneous feedback, our performance management system should reflect that.

Bruton’s system does two things really well on this front. First, it bases increases on market research rather than merit, which means that discussions around performance are about what an employee is doing rather than the number on their paycheck. To me, this seems more fair. With the traditional system where a score determined an annual raise, increases were left to the managers—some of whom would engage in questionable practices to inflate scores to get an employee a good raise. If an employee is having performance issues, coach them on the problem through conversation and not through affecting their pay at annual review time.

Second, Bruton’s system encourages conversations with employees and setting goals based on competencies. This sets the stage for ongoing conversations between managers and employees about meeting goals and work performance. Performance management should not be an annual thing. It should be an ongoing process that involves real time feedback if we expect employees to improve and grow.

Photo by jntvisual/iStock / Getty Images

Protected Classes and Avoiding Discrimination

By Stephanie Hammerwold

Earlier this month I turned 40, which means I joined a new protected class. In the U.S., discriminating against someone based on age is prohibited. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sets the bar at age at 40 or older. This is a way to protect older workers from companies who may give preferential treatment to younger workers. To celebrate my new membership in this protected class, I thought it was a good time to look at protected classes and some steps to avoid discrimination in the workplace.

What is a Protected Class?

Quite simply, a protected class is a characteristic that cannot be targeted for discrimination. Under federal law, protected classes include sex, age, race, color, national origin, citizenship, religion, pregnancy, familial status, disability status, veteran status and genetic information. Some states include other protected classes such as sexual orientation and gender identity. Even if your state does not include extra protected classes like sexual orientation, it is a good idea to include them in your policy against discrimination and to train managers to make decisions based on work performance and experience rather than identity categories.

Discrimination occurs when an employment decision is made based on a person’s protected class. For example, suppose a man and a woman are up for a promotion. They have similar backgrounds and work performance, but the hiring manager decides to hire the man because the woman is in her 30s and recently married, and he is worried that she will soon get pregnant and need to take time off for that. This is a pretty straightforward case of discrimination because the decision was based on sex and the thought that the female employee may get pregnant. The hiring manager also made a decision based on marital status, so there are multiple types of discrimination here.

Make Decisions Based on Performance, Experience & Skills

While the example above may seem to be so obviously discrimination, such a scenario is still a reality in the workplace. In my own HR career, I have heard managers trying to make a decision using similar criteria. In these situations, I worked with managers to further analyze candidates’ skills and work experience in order to make a decision based on criteria relevant to the job and not on a protected class.

Make a conscious effort to review work performance, experience, skills education and other job-related factors in order to make any kind of employment decision. When rejecting a candidate, you should be able to come up with reasons not related to a protected class. A good job description is an excellent tool in ensuring that your hiring decisions are not discriminatory. Use the minimum qualifications section as a way to measure whether a candidate is qualified for a job. If one of your requirements is expert level knowledge of Excel, and the candidate states that they do not know how to use Excel, this would be an acceptable reason to reject someone.

Sometimes in the hiring process, you have two equally qualified candidates. When it comes down to figuring out which candidate is your top choice, focus on skills and experience and how those things fit in with your company rather than looking at traits that may be protected.

Acknowledge Your Own Biases

None of us is without some kind of prejudice or bias. We are influenced by culture, where we grew up and our own identities. Sometimes that means we may favor people who are more like us, or we may hold certain views about a particular group of people. It is important to be up front with yourself, understand your own biases and acknowledge how they may affect hiring and employment decisions. This is especially important in the hiring process to ensure that we are picking the top candidate for the job based on qualifications and not on certain protected traits.

When making any major employment decision, review your reasons for taking action. Can you offer reasons for taking action that are job based? Ask yourself, “Would I treat other similarly situated employees this way?” If you have any doubt about answering yes, look at what is really motivating your decision. Being aware of what motivates our actions and making changes when bias creeps in can go a long way to avoiding discriminatory practices.

Domestic Violence and the Workplace #SeeDV


By Stephanie Hammerwold

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Some of the most heartbreaking situations I have dealt with in HR have involved helping employees struggling to leave an abusive relationship. Domestic violence can manifest itself at work through attendance issues due to an abusive partner forcing an employee to stay home, the emotional scars someone carries to work or even the abuser showing up and being disruptive in the workplace. It is important that employers have a plan to support employees trying to leave abusive relationships.

Staying Safe at Work

Domestic violence can be both physical and emotional and can affect attendance and work performance. There are not always clear signs from the outside that someone is in an abusive relationship. Emotional scars are invisible and physical injuries such as bruises may be hidden under clothing or passed off as an accident. As an employer, you may not know an employee is struggling with an abusive relationship until the employee speaks up and asks for help.

When an employee speaks up about abuse, the first step is to be a good listener. Offer a space free from judgement so that the employee feels safe and comfortable at work. For some people in abusive relationships, work can be a sort of safe haven away from the abuse. As HR professionals and managers, it is important that we support that type of environment. For some, the decision to stay in an abusive relationship may be financial. Perhaps the abuse victim is afraid of losing their job if they speak up and ask for help or time off. Showing the employee that you are supportive is a big step in helping an employee to realize that they have the resources to get out of an abusive relationship.

Some abusers show up at their victim’s workplace. A victim can get a restraining order against an abusive partner. If an employee gets a restraining order, work with the employee to educate their manager and others in the department on calling the police if the abusive partner shows up at work.

How Employers Can Help

Be prepared with a list of community resources that you can refer an employee to. Include shelters, legal support and counseling. Social service agencies often keep a directory of community resources, and I have found that many will provide a copy to employers upon request. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) is also an excellent resource for victims of domestic violence. They can connect people with services in their area. Your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) may also be a great resource. Know what type of help your company can provide as well. This may come in the form of paid time off or flexibility in work schedule while the employee seeks help outside of work.

There is no federal law that addresses leaves of absence for victims of domestic violence, but some states like California have laws in place that include leave for those seeking shelter, legal, counseling or other services related to domestic violence. California’s new paid sick leave law states that domestic violence victims can use sick time to seek services. For some people in an abusive relationship, knowing that they have the option to take job-protected leave may be enough to get them to leave an abusive relationship. Research leave requirements in your state, and include domestic violence leave in your leave policy. Even if your state has no requirement, consider offering it at your company.

Be a Supportive Employer

When I was in grad school, I worked at a domestic violence shelter and learned firsthand the challenges of rebuilding a life after leaving an abusive relationship. Once I moved into a career in HR, I brought that knowledge into the workplace to help employees who came to me seeking help. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 44% of full-time employed adults have personally experienced the effects of domestic violence in the workplace, and 21% of people surveyed self-identified as victims of intimate partner violence. As such, it is important that employers have a strategy in place to address domestic violence in the workplace.

When I worked in the shelter, I was surprised at how many of the women had stories of being fired or forced to quit due to issues related to being in or trying to leave an abusive relationship. Take the time to establish leave guidelines and draft a policy on domestic violence and the workplace. Train managers on what to do if an employee comes forward asking for help. Taking these steps may be the help someone needs to get out of an abusive relationship.

Understanding the Basic Definitions of Gender, Sex and Sexual Orientation

By Stephanie Hammerwold

People in the U.S. have been talking about gender and sexual orientation quite a bit in the last few years. There have been huge strides made with the recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, and people like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner have brought visibility to transgender identities. As such, there is quite a bit of terminology floating around regarding gender, sex and sexual orientation. The more we understand what these things mean, the better equipped we are to be accepting of others.

Keep in mind that there are variations on how people define these terms and what identities mean to individuals, so I encourage you to read more on this subject after you finish this post.

Gender, Sex & Sexual Orientation—What’s the Difference?

The terms gender and sex are often used interchangeably even though they have different meanings. Sex is based on biological characteristics, such as anatomy and X and Y chromosomes. We typically think of sex as male or female, but it is not that simple. Intersex people, for example, are born with characteristics that do not easily fit our typical definitions of male and female.

Gender is how we express ourselves and represent our identity. Gender identity is specifically who we internally feel ourselves to be. This could be a man, woman or anything in between. Gender expression is how we demonstrate that identity. Words like femininity and masculinity represent gender expression. This could be everything from how we dress, speak and externally show our gender. It is helpful to think of gender on a continuum that represents the many ways we express ourselves. Most people are not 100% feminine or masculine but instead draw from traits that are associated with both those identities.

Traditionally gender has been thought of in a binary way—either a person was a man or a woman. There was no room for anything in between. As I said, the reality is that most people do not fit neatly into either category of the gender binary, which is why it is useful to think of a continuum. Keep in mind that our place on the continuum is not fixed, and throughout life, we may shift in where we fall in terms of both gender identity and expression.

The term cisgender describes someone whose sex, gender identity and gender expression are all in alignment. Transgender is a broad term that refers to people whose gender identity and/or expression does not match the cultural expectations of the sex they were assigned at birth. A common question about transgender individuals is what pronouns should be used. This is a personal choice and varies from person to person, so be respectful of what pronouns a person wants used. GLAAD has an excellent article on this topic.

Sexual Orientation refers to who someone is romantically and physically attracted to. This includes things like gay, lesbian, bisexual and straight. As with gender, sexual orientation is not fixed and may change throughout life. Being a specific gender does not imply a set sexual orientation. For example, if a transgender individual transitions from male to female, it does not mean they will automatically switch their sexual orientation as well.

Intersectionality & Complex Identities

One of the big advantages of all the media attention transgender individuals are receiving is that it is showing us examples of how complex identity can be. There is not just one way to be a man or a woman or transgender, and things become even more dynamic when you start including race, ethnicity, nationality, religion and more in the mix. Intersectionality is a way to think of how all these parts of identity interact on multiple levels. This concept helps move us away from thinking of identity categories as monolithic. Instead, it is a reminder of just how diverse the experience of being a woman, a man or transgender is depending on other parts of identity.

It is important to talk about this topic on a workplace blog because we spend a large amount of time at work. If we are going to value our employees, we need to foster environments where employees are comfortable regardless of how they identify. Most companies have some kind of policy against discrimination and harassment, and it is vital that such policies underlie everything we do not only in the workplace but also in our daily lives.

Job Seeker Advice: How to Conduct a Targeted Job Search

By Stephanie Hammerwold

Looking for a job can be a big undertaking. Major job posting sites are overwhelming and often job seekers find themselves wading through endless ads promising ways to get rich working from home. While some people may have luck with casting a huge net online in their quest for the perfect job, the average job seeker may find that resumes sent in response to ads on major job sites go into some kind of application blackhole. The way around this is to take a targeted approach in your job search.

Search for Companies, not Jobs

The key to a targeted job search is to look for companies that provide the type of work you want. While companies may not pay to post all their openings on a big job search site, they will probably put all their openings on their own website. Check the company’s site regularly for new openings. I worked for one company that was popular in the community. Many applicants were people who had walked into one of our stores asking about job openings or were persistent job seekers who made a habit of regularly checking the company’s website. This meant we rarely had to rely on paying to post our openings on other sites.

Research companies in your area, and do not limit yourself. Last year I spoke to graduate students at my alma mater. Many of them were planning for careers in academia or the nonprofit sector. I reminded those eyeing nonprofit jobs that there are for-profit companies out there who have a socially-minded philosophy that is similar to what can be found at a nonprofit. Before starting my consulting business, I worked at a small grocery chain that had a goal of giving at least 10% back to the community. They also offered a volunteer benefit for employees and other programs that were focused on giving back. In doing your research on companies, look for such opportunities to expand the pool of places you can see yourself working.

Connect with your target companies on social media. Some companies have even set up specific profiles for job seekers. This is a good way to find out about new openings that may not be posted on major job search sites.

Use Your Network

Here’s an inside tip about reaching out to the companies you want to work at: do not call their HR department in the hopes that it will make your application stand out. As an HR person, I can tell you that it’s not that we do not want to talk to every applicant, but HR is often inundated with calls to the point that it is impossible to get back to everyone. For job seekers, it can be discouraging to send in an application or resume and then hear nothing. Even though HR may not be the right place to go to make a personal connection when you first submit an application, there are ways to reach out effectively.

Focus on your network. Do you already know someone at the company? If so, they may be a good resource to put in a good word for you or to introduce you to someone who has power over hiring decisions. LinkedIn can be an excellent tool for seeing who you may already know at a company or if one of your connections may be able to introduce you to someone who works there. As I mentioned earlier, some companies connect with job seekers through social media, so this can be another way to network with people in a way that could bring positive attention to your application.

Finally, get involved in your community. This is an excellent way to connect with people who may turn out to be powerful connections when it comes to finding a job. In my own experience, the best networking happens at events where the main objective is not marketing yourself. This may be volunteering for a beach clean up, working on a political campaign or getting involved with your favorite nonprofit.

The Problem with Job Sites

What you have heard about job posting sites is true: companies do not post all their jobs in such places. Posting on some of the bigger sites can run several hundred dollars each. For many businesses, this means they may be choosy about which jobs they pay to post. When I used to work on hiring, I would only post harder to fill jobs on the big sites. Job sites can also take a lot of time to wade through. Even when employing filters and narrowing search criteria, it can be a challenge to find jobs that are a good fit. This is especially true if you live in a major metropolitan area, where the list of open jobs may be really long.

While it is good to keep an eye on the major sites and give them a weekly scan, a better strategy is to figure out what kind of job you want and to then find the places offering positions that are a good match.

Stop Making Candidates Jump Through Hoops

By Stephanie Hammerwold

Applying for a job can start to feel like a full-time job itself. Searching online is time consuming, and once a job seeker finds something they are interested in, there is often a long application process. While it is important to get enough information from a candidate to ensure that a good hiring decision can be made, often companies ask for unnecessary information, which results in tedious application processes that can scare good candidates away.

Long & Detailed Application Process

Several years ago, a friend and former coworker of mine was looking to relocate out of state and was applying for jobs prior to her move. After spending a couple hours on the application, she heard back from a company that sounded like a good fit, but they sent her several links to a long online personality profile as well as some skills tests. Once my friend was confronted with the several hours it would take to complete all the tests, she decided to give up on that company and to look for jobs elsewhere. As a result, the company lost out on someone who would have been a great employee.

A common best practice in HR is to have a job seeker fill out an application even if submitting a resume. The job seeker then signs the application stating that all the information is true. The application serves two purposes: it is a signed statement from the applicant about the veracity of their work history and it also gives the recruiter and hiring manager all relevant information in an easy-to-read format. The problem with this approach is that we often ask far more than we need to know in the initial application.

Prior to embarking on my HR consulting career, I did quite a bit of hiring in both grocery and warehouse/manufacturing industries, both of which constantly had job openings. As such, I developed expert screening skills to sort through a large volume of applications. What I started to realize over time was that the application asked for far more information than I needed to do my initial screening. If this sounds like you, do a review of your job application.

In an initial screening, I am most interested in work history and if the person’s experience shows that they have the skills required to do the job, which means that the first thing I scan is the job history section. Many applications include a variety of screening questions that require paragraph-long responses. I often breezed right past those and did not bother to read them unless the applicant’s work history piqued my interest. Instead of asking for detailed information from all applicants, consider a shorter pre-application that gives you just the information you need to determine if someone would be worth pursing. If they are, send them a more detailed application where you can ask screening questions and for more information about their experience.

When it comes to pre-employment tests, evaluate whether the information from the test really helps in determining if someone would be a good hire. As in my earlier example, hours of tests coupled with a long application could scare good candidates away.

Endless Interviews

I remember interviewing at one company where I went back four separate times for interviews, only to not get the job in the end. The process involved a mix of a group interview, panel interviews and one-on-one interviews. It was tedious and required me to have a flexible schedule to fit in all those return trips to the company. On top of that, I found myself answering the same questions over and over again.

Making the decision to hire someone is hard, so often companies go to great lengths to have plenty of people meet the candidate. In reality, a lengthy interview process could result in losing candidates who end up taking a job elsewhere while they wait for yet another interview with your company.

To edit your interview process, start by looking at the list of people involved in interviews. I was once hiring for for an entry-level produce staff position in a grocery store. Interviews included the hiring manager, produce director, store manager, director of operations and me representing HR. When I looked at the candidate who was visibly shaking due to nerves as he stared at the five people across the table from him, it was clear to me that we had too many people in the interview room. For higher level positions, it is important to include more people in the process, but entry-level positions rarely warrant that kind of interviewing. When it comes to such hiring decisions, trust your managers to make good choices for their team. In the case of the produce position, it would have been sufficient to simply have the hiring manager and HR involved.

When you are hiring for a position that requires a number of interviewers, set up panel interviews whenever possible. This reduces the chance that the candidate will keep answering the same set of questions over and over again. It also cuts down on the amount of time a candidate must spend in the interview process.

While we are on the topic of interviews, take the time to review the questions you ask. While it may give you insight into a candidate’s critical thinking skills to ask why manhole covers are round, such questions can become unnecessary when asked of a retail worker. Do your questions give you the information you need to see if the candidate is a good fit for the particular job? If not, cross the questions off your list. Avoid questions that are not relevant to the job.

Failing to Follow Up

So, imagine that you have put someone through a long and tedious interview process and at the end of it, they hear nothing from you for weeks. Aside from the risk of losing a good candidate to another company, this also shows a lack of respect for the time the candidate has already put into the hiring process.

Let a candidate know during the interviews how long you expect the whole process to take. Even if remaining interviews, reference checks and such are delaying the process, take the time to write an email or make a phone call to keep the candidate updated. If a candidate really wants to work for you, they will be more inclined to wait and push away other offers if they know there is still a possibility they will be hired at your company.

Disability Accommodations in the Workplace


By Stephanie Hammerwold

According to the 2010 census, 19% of adults in the U.S. have a disability. This means that most employers will at some point deal with a request for accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Not only is providing a reasonable accommodation the right thing to do, it is also the law. Disabled workers have the potential to be just as productive and valuable as the rest of the workforce, so it is important that employers have a plan in place to help these employees have the tools they need to succeed and do their jobs.

What is a Disability?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says someone may be disabled “if he or she has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity (such as walking, talking, seeing, hearing or learning).” The EEOC further adds that someone may be disabled if they have a history of a disability or if they are believed to have a disability that is not minor or transitory.

Employers may not discriminate against someone on the basis of disability. This includes both employees and job applicants. Employers have an obligation to provide reasonable accommodations in the workplace unless doing so would cause undue hardship.

Reasonable Accommodation & the Interactive Process

According to the EEOC, “A reasonable accommodation is any change in the work environment (or in the way things are usually done) to help a person with a disability apply for a job, perform the duties of a job, or enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment.” While employers may fear that they will have to make difficult or expensive changes to accommodate disabled workers, the reality is that many accommodations are easy fixes.

When an employee approaches you with a request for accommodation, begin the interactive process. This involves working with the employee to figure out how to meet their needs. Provide forms that an employee can complete with their doctor that detail their specific request. View the interactive process as a conversation, so if the first request the employee makes is not something you can easily accommodate, make alternate suggestions until you land upon something that will work. Remember that not every disability is the same, so even if, for example, you have two employees requesting accommodation for depression, their needs may be different.

The Job Accommodation Network is a service provided by the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). JAN’s site gives employers tips and information on various disabilities and possible accommodations. They provide a number of examples of easy accommodations. Take for example an employee who struggles with getting to work on time due to Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). An easy accommodation would be to give the employee a flexible start time.

Training Managers & Getting Extra Help

Train your managers on how to handle accommodation requests. Many local social service agencies who help disabled people can offer resources to use in training and may even be able to send someone to speak to your managers about disability in the workplace. Training will give your managers a chance to ask questions to understand that the accommodation process is not necessarily difficult.

While many accommodation requests are easy, you may sometimes run across one that presents challenges. JAN offers a number that employers can call for assistance, and you may also want to consider contacting an employment attorney for guidance if you are struggling with meeting an employee’s request.

You Work Like a Girl: Changing Perceptions of Women in the Workplace

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By Stephanie Hammerwold

Whether it is leaning in or standing up for ourselves, there has recently been much discussion about women in the workplace. Women have been speaking out about sexism in the Silicon Valley, and there have been several recent high profile lawsuits involving harassment, pregnancy discrimination and other issues. Yet despite this attention, we still have big problems with how women are perceived. A woman can have an amazing resume, work really hard and move up to a top position, but her perceived shortcomings may be distilled down to, “Well, it’s because she’s a woman.” Changing the way women are viewed will involve a big cultural shift in how we perceive gender and work.

How Women are Perceived
Women often struggle with likability in the workplace. Be too nice, and you are seen as the office mom. Be too mean, and you will get labeled as the office bitch. It is a fine line. Success for women is often equated with likability. Steve Jobs and other top male executives and leaders are often lauded for their assertiveness. Would we feel the same way if Steve Jobs had been Stephanie Jobs?

When we focus on a woman’s likability in the workplace, we are once again denying that her skills, expertise and experience are the things that really determine if she will be a good worker.

Media stories on women promoted to top positions at companies are a strong indicator of how women at the top are perceived. For example, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made headlines in 2013 when she banned telecommuting at Yahoo. As Los Angeles Times reporter Jessica Guynn points out, “…working moms are in an uproar because they believe that Mayer is setting them back by taking away their flexible working arrangements.” Mayer’s decision was seen as anti-working mom even though she also increased paid leave for both mothers and fathers (Carlson).

Steve Jobs and other top male executives and leaders are often lauded for their assertiveness. Would we feel the same way if Steve Jobs had been Stephanie Jobs?

What bothered me most about the portrayal of Mayer in the media was that it felt like people were quick to find ways to criticize Mayer’s policy change without seeing what else the company offers. Telecommuting can be a good option for some companies, but it does not always work well everywhere. Rather than criticize Mayer for the telecommuting ban, why wasn’t there more attention on the ways Mayer and Yahoo provide other benefits for working parents? And why did the headlines seem to avoid pointing out how Mayer’s decision could improve a failing business? As Guynn’s points out, Mayer’s decision to ban telecommuting was part of her efforts to help turn Yahoo around. Guynn notes that Mayer was hoping to improve the company by bringing employees together in the same space rather than remotely. Given that Yahoo offers some generous benefits, was it fair to paint Mayer as a woman who did not support other working moms?

Why is Work Still Gendered?
Women have made major inroads in the workplace in the last few decades. We see women in a lot of positions, yet the age-old arguments about why women cannot do certain jobs still exist. Whether it is hormones, mood swings or lack of physical strength, there seem to be those out there who present these things as reasons why women cannot do certain jobs.

With Hillary Clinton’s recent announcement that she is officially running for president, her detractors wasted no time in leveling criticism at her that focused on her femaleness rather than her abilities as a leader. Cheryl Rios recently posted on Facebook about why she thought a woman should not be president. Rios stated, “If this happens—I am moving to Canada. There is NO need for her as she is not the right person to run our country—but more importantly a female shouldn’t be president. Let the haters begin…but with the hormones we have there is no way we should be able to start a war. Yes, I run my own business and I love it and I am great at it BUT that is not the same as being the President, that should be left to a man, a good, strong, honorable man.”

Rios is the CEO of Go Ape Marketing, so one would think she would be supportive of a woman in a prominent leadership position. What is interesting is that Rios is relying on this outdated notion that a woman’s hormones may cause her to hit the proverbial red button and cause a nuclear apocalypse. Why is it that people are still hung up on thinking a woman is less capable than a man because of her hormones—something which both men and women have in their bodies? I would have more respect for Rios’s opinion if she focused on what she did not like about Clinton’s politics or experience as a politician.

This line of thinking also comes up in regards to physical strength. Women are often perceived as physically weaker and thus not fit for some jobs. Certain jobs are especially physically demanding (e.g. fire fighter, construction worker, oil rig worker), and women in these positions should be expected to meet the rigorous physical requirements. While it is true that some women will not meet the requirements, the same is true of men. Being a man does not necessarily physically qualify someone to be a fire fighter.

In addition, there are many jobs where the physical requirements are no more rigorous than sitting at a desk for long hours. Technology has made it possible for workers to perform many jobs with limited physical strain; however, lack of physical strength is still seen as something that may prohibit women from getting ahead.

In the 1960s, my mom worked as a computer programmer for NASA. One day she showed us a company picture of everyone she worked with. In a large group of well over 50 people, there were only two women, so it was not hard to pick her out. Back then, it was not common to see women in such professions, but this has changed quite a bit in the last 50 years. During my lifetime women have become heads of state and CEOs of companies, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space and women scientists are changing the world. Yet people like Rios still use the tired, old argument that women’s bodies somehow limit their abilities to work.

Navigating Hostile Waters
Women who make it into leadership positions or male-dominated fields must find a way to navigate the hostile waters created by negative perceptions based on gender. Sociologists Deborah Harris and Patti Giuffre conducted a study, which involved interviewing 32 female chefs about their experience in the culinary industry. Harris and Giuffre pointed out that, “Women described themselves as ‘invaders’ of men chefs’ turf, and their male supervisors often had preconceived ideas that women were not physically and emotionally strong enough to work in kitchens and would give them fewer high-status jobs.” Harris and Giuffre ultimately conclude that men and women chefs are not much different when it comes to their skills and abilities; it is perceptions of men and women that differ. These perceptions shape both how we all think about women as well as how women think about themselves.

Women can work hard to navigate the hostile waters and silence the internal gender critic, but until we all shift our thinking about women in the workplace, we can never really have an equal workplace.

Women deal with external forces that can make the workplace hostile. Such things come in the form of comments like Rios made about Hillary Clinton not being suited to the job of president because of her femaleness. But women also must fight against internalized oppression. These are the things women begin to believe about themselves because of all those comments they hear about women being less qualified and able. If you are a woman, have you ever believed you cannot do something because of your gender? In a way, women fight the battle on two fronts: in the outside world and in their own minds. Women can work hard to navigate the hostile waters and silence the internal gender critic, but until we all shift our thinking about women in the workplace, we can never really have an equal workplace. If we focus only on the individual as being the site of change, then we are not really fixing the problem that is making the woman worker believe she isn’t capable.

Am I Leaning In Enough?
When it comes to women in the workplace, change needs to happen everywhere and not just with the individual. After Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead in 2013, she created an organization to take the Lean In philosophy out into the world. I commend Sandberg for her efforts to draw attention to unequal treatment in the workplace. It is important for women in power to draw attention to the continuing inequalities. But I also question an approach that asks women to lean into a system that still operates based on outdated gender norms.

Sandberg’s approach places the burden on individuals to change, and she acknowledges her critics: “I know some believe that by focusing on what women can change themselves—pressing them to lean in—it seems I am letting our institutions off the hook. Or even worse, they accuse me of blaming the victim. Far from blaming the victim, I believe that female leaders are key to the solution” (10-11). As I said, I like that Sandberg uses her position as COO of a major company to draw attention to women’s issues; however, I think change is going to require more than female leaders like Sandberg. There needs to be an institutional shift.

Sandberg’s approach aims to give women confidence to speak up, and she encourages women to support each other. These are good things, but at what point do we end up with a bunch of women asking, “Am I leaning in enough?” Women have been “leaning in” at work for a long time, and while there are more women in professions that tend to be male-dominated, women still face the negative perceptions I spoke about above. As Harris and Giuffre’s study on women chefs points out, “…it’s likely that men and women chefs (on the whole) are not radically different in terms of skills, leadership qualities and professional drive. What are different are the perceptions and experiences of men and women chefs.” It's true that having women in more positions of power and in traditionally non-female jobs will help turn the tides, but women entering into those positions still have to work really hard to battle sexism and essentially prove they deserve to be there. If the problem is with perception, will leaning in really change the way women are perceived?

The Lean In philosophy falls short in that it asks women to work within the existing framework instead of ripping it apart and creating something new. In effect, it asks women to be responsible for creating the change that will end unequal treatment. Women are going to space, running major companies, saving lives and leaning in all over the place, yet there is still this perception that women are not capable because of their gender. At what point do we stop asking women to lean into a broken system and instead ask the system itself to change?

Why these Perceptions Hurt Everyone
When work is perceived as gendered, everyone gets hurt. Think of the men working in typically female professions such as nurses, nannies and teachers. How often are these men seen as somehow lesser because they work in a feminine profession? Their work is seen as less valuable. Look no further than the male nurse jokes made in Meet the Parents, and TV shows and movies still rely on making jokes about a male nanny.

When work is viewed through a gendered lens, we miss out on all the things people are capable of. I am not making a call to erase gender. Instead, I am arguing that workplace success needs to stop being tied to gender. Some women are good at being firefighters, and some men are good at being nurses. Even though these jobs have been historically perceived as gendered, it does not mean they need to continue being seen as such.

Is a Sexism-Free Workplace Possible?
So, what does a workplace free of sexism look like? How do we create the cultural shift necessary to make a big change in the workplace? For one, we all need to stop creating and paying attention to messages that reinforce gender stereotypes. Every time Hillary Clinton’s fashion choices are offered up  as proof of her inability to be president, whenever a woman is criticized for working and raising a family and each time someone says a woman is too emotional to handle the pressures of a restaurant kitchen, the gendered perceptions that underpin our current system are upheld.

It starts with asking ourselves if we are judging a worker based on performance and skill or on gender? Yes, more women should be in leadership positions and jobs in male-dominated fields, but there also needs to be emphasis on destroying the age-old tool of evaluating workers based on gender. Until then, women may find themselves leaning in until they fall over.

Carlson, Nicholas. “Marissa Mayer Doubles Yahoo’s Paid Maternity Leave Gives Dads Eigh Weeks Off.” Business Insider, 30 April 2013. Web. 18 May 2015.

Guynn, Jessica. “Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer causes uproar with telecommuting ban.” LA Times, 26 February 2013. Web. 16 May 2015.

Harris, Deborah and Patti Giuffre. “A Sociological Study of Why So Few Women Chefs in Restaurant Kitchens.” The Feminist Kitchen, 18 July 2011. Web. 12 March 2015.

Sandberg, Sheryl. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Print.