Commentary

We Have a Big Problem

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By Stephanie Hammerwold

The recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s long history of harassing and assaulting women and the many women sharing their own stories of assault and harassment have shown that such behavior in the workplace is an epidemic. It is not just a problem that can be attributed to Weinstein and a few other men in power. The sheer number of women telling their own stories is cause for alarm. The pervasiveness of harassment seems to be one of the most well-known secrets of the modern workplace.

Just How Common is the Problem?

In the last few days, the #metoo hashtag has been trending on social media. Countless women have shared their own stories. But many of us did not need social media to confirm what we already knew: harassment is a huge problem in the workplace, even in the 21st century. I do not know any woman who does not have a story of workplace harassment, and I think if you started asking around, you would realize the same thing about the women you know.

One example from my own life comes from a time I was reviewing resumes with a man in upper management. We were sitting close because we were both looking at my computer screen. We were scrolling through the resumes when I suddenly felt his hand resting on my thigh. Not wanting to make a scene, I did not say anything. I shifted in my seat to communicate silently that I was uncomfortable, and the man removed his hand. I was working in HR at the time, and I did not speak up. I let it go because I convinced myself that I did not want to cause trouble. I knew that complaining would have led to an investigation and a possible written warning for the man involved. This was someone I had to interact with regularly, and I feared that it would make future interactions awkward and uncomfortable. Even though in every new employee orientation I led I told new hires to speak up if they experience or witness harassment, I remained silent.

Why is it so Hard to Speak up?

So, why do people who experience harassment remain silent? Why did someone like me—someone who investigated harassment claims as part of her job—not speak up? It is the fear of not being believed. With so many situations like mine and the countless other stories women have been sharing recently, the only evidence is one person’s word against another. Rarely is there security video, a witness or some other proverbial smoking gun that corroborates someone’s version of events. No one wants to come forward with a story of harassment, only to face countless questions that challenge the validity of their claim.

In addition, there is also the sense of not wanting to cause conflict. We fear that we might upset our harasser. I know I did. But when it comes down to it, this is ridiculous. The victim of harassment is not to blame for what happened, so she should not face that burden. Unfortunately though, this is often what happens. It is bad enough that it keeps many silent. That is why it is so important that we all start sharing our stories now. It does not have to be on social media; it can be with one close friend. Even the small conversations are a reminder that we are not alone in having experienced this. There is a community of people ready to believe our stories and offer support. We also need to believe and support each other.

What Can HR Do?

Harassment investigations have always been one of the most challenging parts of my job as an HR professional. As I mentioned before, it often comes down to one person’s word against another. Management is putting on the pressure to find solid confirmation before signing off on major disciplinary action or termination. It becomes even more challenging when the accused is someone in upper management or a longtime or key employee. I have been in situations where I recommended termination in such cases, only to have upper management decide on a warning because they did not want to lose someone the deemed to betoo important to fire. Sadly, a warning does little to stem the behavior in such cases.

We need to start by taking claims of harassment seriously. I have seen some of my HR colleagues immediately jump to finding ways to say the behavior was not harassment. They try to explain it away as a misunderstanding. This is why employees do not come forward to talk about harassment. It takes tremendous bravery to walk into HR and tell the story of experiencing harassment. When the result of that is a dismissive HR person, it makes bringing forward such complaints feel pointless—especially when the employee still has to face the harasser on a regular basis.

We also need to take harassment prevention training seriously. It is common practice these days to do online training that employees can passively participate in. This is not enough. We need to redesign our harassment prevention training so that we can have real discussion about this problem. Someone like Weinstein should not have been allowed to continue for that many years when his bad behavior was well known. There are countless other Weinsteins out there in many other industries. This is not just a problem in the entertainment industry. It is everywhere.

As I have argued on this blog before, we need to start addressing consent and respect in schools. These are values that should be instilled in people in childhood. Any of my HR colleagues who have sat in a room full of adults and trained them on preventing workplace harassment knows that it can be impossible to try to change the minds of those who do not acknowledge that harassment is a workplace problem. These are the people who sit in a training and say things like, “Well, what if I was just being friendly, and the woman misunderstood it and cries harassment?” If the first time we are talking about harassment prevention is when people reach adulthood, it can be extremely difficult to do years of normalizing harassing behavior. Many of the stories I have heard, especially in the last few days, are very clearly inappropriate and go far beyond what any reasonable person would consider a misunderstanding. Putting your hand on a coworker's thigh, for example, is never appropriate in the workplace.

Those of us who work in HR also need to speak up. When we know there is someone in upper management with a well-known reputation for harassing employees, say something. When the powers that be try to dismiss such claims, fight back. Enlist others in power to join you in that fight. Yes, there is risk, but if we remain silent, we are complicit. It is going to take HR professionals and those in power to say, “Enough!” Change needs to happen from the top.

The Challenge Ahead

As more information on Weinstein comes out, we need to keep reminding ourselves that his story is not an anomaly. While his story may be unusual in that it is so high profile and involves a number of famous victims, it is common. We live in a country that elected a president who has a well-documented history of inappropriate behavior toward women. Not only was there the infamous Access Hollywood tape, but he is known for walking into the changing room at a pageant he owned where young women were in various states of dress as they prepared to take the stage. In a culture that is fine with such a man being president, it is clear we have a lot of work to do.

For anyone in a position of power at a company, it is imperative that we speak up. Those in leadership positions must call out bad behavior and take the appropriate disciplinary action, even if it means firing a longtime manager or someone who is seen as an asset to the company. If someone harasses employees, are they really an asset? For each complaint of harassment we dismiss or ignore, it means that there is the potential that more people will be harassed.

Is it Time to Ditch the Cover Letter?

By Stephanie Hammerwold

Whenever I have a friend who is in the middle of applying for jobs, I hear the inevitable grumbling about cover letters. I don’t blame them—whenever I have done a job search I find myself complaining about such things.  Studies show that the average time that a recruiter spends on a resume is a measly six seconds. With such a small amount of time spent on a resume, is the cover letter getting any attention? After over a decade in HR, many years of which included reviewing applications, I think it is time to bid farewell to the cover letter.

What Recruiters & Hiring Managers Look at in Applications

Filling out an application, creating a resume and writing a cover letter can be very time consuming. When a piece of paper or information on a screen must fill in for making a good first impression, the stakes are high, which can be a stressful situation for even the most seasoned professional. The questions I hear most often are, “What does a potential employer want to see?” and “What should I include on my resume?”

I must admit that I am not surprised by the six-second statistic. When I screened applications and resume, I always start with a quick scan. I was most interested in seeing what someone’s work history was and if it was relevant to the job. If there was enough there to pique my interest, I would spend much more time on the resume and read it in detail before making a decision on scheduling an interview. You may have noticed here that I am talking about the resume and not the cover letter. That’s because the cover letter was often the last thing I read.

The reason for this is simple: there is very little information in a cover letter that cannot be gleaned from a good resume. This is my biggest argument for ditching the cover letter. Conventional wisdom on cover letters was that the letter should point a recruiter or hiring manager toward the highlights of your resume. But if your resume is well organized, you should not need directions in your cover letter, right?

Changing the Application Process

Employers, it is time that we all agree to stop asking for cover letters. Let’s let resumes and job applications speak for themselves. While we are on the subject of unnecessary steps in the application process, many companies seem to ask candidates to jump through hoops to apply for a job. This is a good reminder for employees to review their process and to determine which steps are unnecessary.

Applying for employment can feel like a full-time job itself. Many applications ask for a cover letter and include pre-employment questions. Perhaps it is time to remove those things from the first stage of the application process. Consider starting off with a basic application that asks for just enough information to help decide if a candidate is worth pursuing. If they are, then ask them to provide additional information. This saves an applicant from wasting time completing unnecessary application materials and keeps employers from having to read through excessive text. When reviewing your application process, ask yourself if the information you are soliciting is necessary to make an initial decision on a candidate. If it is not, remove it from the application.

If there are additional questions you want to ask beyond work history and experience, consider moving them later in the process so that only candidates who are moving on to the phone screen or interview have to provide additional information. This helps to focus your screening on only the relevant information.

Some Final Advice to Job Seekers

Job seekers reading this may be tempted to stop sending in cover letters, but do not abandon them so quickly. Make sure to read all the instructions an employer provides before applying. The application process is not a good place to stage a cover letter protest. If a potential employer requires a cover letter, draft something concise that highlights some of your accomplishments and explains in a few sentences why you are the ideal candidate for the job. If you do end up getting hired and, better yet, get hired into a supervisory position or something in HR, spend some time making the case for getting rid of the cover letter once you have put in some time at your new company.

Why We Need the Overtime Rule

By Stephanie Hammerwold

Just as employers were taking the final steps to make sure they were compliant with the new salary threshold for exempt employees that was set to go into effect December 1, Judge Amos Mazzant of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas granted a preliminary injunction on November 22 in a lawsuit that challenged the Department of Labor’s authority to raise the threshold. The new threshold would have raised the salary threshold for exempt employees from $23,660 to $47,476.

President Obama had pushed for the new threshold, which would have brought overtime pay to approximately 4 million Americans who were previously classified as exempt based on the old threshold. The change was celebrated by employees who had been working long hours for low pay and no overtime pay, but some businesses criticized the new rule saying the threshold was too high and would hurt small businesses. While I understand any change to the wage threshold can have an effect on the bottom line for businesses, especially small businesses, the overtime rule would have been a positive change for the American workplace.

Looking at the Math

I am in California, and the exempt threshold here is currently $41,600 and is set to rise to $43,680 on January 1, 2017. The new law would not have been a dramatic increase here, but other states relied on the old threshold of $23,660 and would have seen a huge jump. When an employee is exempt, they are paid a set amount per week regardless of the number of hours worked. They do not get overtime pay for hours worked beyond 40 per week. If someone making $23,660 per year works a straight 40 hours per week, they make about $11.38/hour. The problem is that many exempt employees work more than that. So, let’s look at an exempt employee at the current threshold who works 50 hours per week. Suddenly their hourly wage drops to $9.10/hour.

You can see how the current low threshold opens up the possibility for abuse. An employer can take advantage of the professional exemption to classify an employee as exempt and save money by not paying overtime. The problem is that the employee is most likely being paid much less than they should be making. Someone could be a manager with supervisory responsibilities and management duties but be making less than $10/hour when all the hours worked are considered, which essentially undervalues their work.

Why Have a Threshold?

A threshold limits the abuse that can happen when an employee is exempt. Aside from the salary threshold, exempt employees must meet a duties test. Exempt employees fall into several categories: executive, administrative, professional, computer employee and outside sales. Title alone does not determine if an employee should be exempt, and exempt status usually requires that the position has independent judgment, advanced knowledge and managerial responsibility. The idea here is that employers cannot get out of paying low-wage workers overtime pay by classifying them as exempt.

Being able to classify an employee as exempt can be useful for managerial positions and certain professional positions because it keeps those positions from being bound by the time clock. Of course exempt status opens up the possibility that an employer could work an employee 60 hours per week and pay them the same as if the employee only worked 40 hours. But, the duties tests are supposed to limit exempt status to position that carry more responsibility and are compensated as such. This is all the more reason to raise the threshold to ensure that lower wage workers are not classified as exempt in order to work them long hours without paying overtime.

By placing further limits on who can be exempt, it also helps to shift the workaholic culture we have by making an employer think carefully before making an employee work long hours. If they now must pay overtime, it may not be worth it.

The Future of the Overtime Rule

It is unclear what the future of the overtime rule will be as we prepare for the Trump Administration. Trump has chosen Andrew F. Puzder to be Secretary of Labor. Puzder has been critical of minimum wage increases and sick leave policies, and he also claims the overtime rule would diminish opportunities for workers. Under Trump and Puzder, it seems unlikely that we will see a push from the new administration to implement the overtime rule.

Some employers had already made the changes prior to the preliminary injunction on November 22. Inside Higher Ed points out that many colleges and universities will still move forward with the changes. Once an employer has communicated a salary or exempt-status change to employees, it can create problems to change things back—especially if the change had benefited the employee. Even in the absence of the new overtime rule, this is a good time for employers to review those employees classified as exempt to ensure that they meet the job duty requirements for that classification.

Ultimately the new rule sent a message that work-life balance is important and that workers deserve to be fairly compensated for their work. This has been a regular message from Obama, a president who continues to push for paid sick leave, paid family leave, raising the minimum wage and other pro-employee policies.

Obama’s push for policies that focus on taking care of employees should serve as a guideline for improving workplaces. In the absence of laws requiring things like paid leave and the overtime rule, employers can still make such changes to improve their workplaces in order to take good care of their employees. This leads to happier workers, and happier workers are more productive.

Consent and the Locker Room: Why Words Matter

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By Stephanie Hammerwold

Recently video surfaced of Donald Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women. You have probably seen the video by now, so there is no need to link to the clip of his vulgar language here. Countless hours have been spent analyzing, criticizing and in some cases defending what Trump said in the clip as well as similar comments he has made throughout the course of his campaign. Those that defend Trump, and Trump himself, explain it away as “locker-room talk.” As a feminist and someone who has spent a good part of my HR career leading training on preventing workplace harassment, this explanation makes me cringe.

When we talk about preventing sexual harassment in the workplace, we are trying to help foster workplaces free of these kinds of comments as well as many of the other comments we have heard Trump make about women and a wide variety of people who fall into protected classes. With the election only a few weeks away, and one of the top two contenders for president being a man who does things that could get him fired for harassment in an ordinary job, I think it is important that we take a moment and look at why it is necessary that we call out this kind of bad behavior both in the workplace and when it comes to the highest office in the U.S.

Consent & Respect

The most disturbing thing about the Trump’s comments is not his use of a vulgar word to describe a part of a woman’s body; it was his complete disregard for consent. In fact, he was boasting about sexually assaulting women. As I mentioned in my recent post on harassment training, it is important that harassment prevention education includes discussions about consent, and this should start with how we talk about appropriate behavior with kids in school.

Those who defend Trump ignore the fact that his original message spoke of lack of consent. This points to a big problem in how many people still do not grasp this concept. It is never OK to touch a woman (or anyone for that matter) without their consent. When business leaders and people running for president express ideas that disregard consent, it shows a profound lack of respect for women. This attitude is harmful to everyone.

In a speech Michelle Obama gave in New Hampshire on October 13, she explained what happens if we speak the way Trump did, “We're telling our sons that it's OK to humiliate women. We're telling our daughters that this is how they deserve to be treated. We're telling all our kids that bigotry and bullying are perfectly acceptable in the leader of their country.”

Trump’s words and the words of others who behave like him harm all of us. People like him set a bad example for how to treat women—the message is that women do not deserve to be respected. Now, more than ever, it is necessary that we denounce this type of behavior and demand that our leaders behave in a way that is respectful to all people.

Changing the Idea that “Boys Will be Boys”

Underlying much of the response from those that defend Trump’s comments or dismiss them as “locker-room talk” is this sense that boys will be boys. Most women have come across the consequences of this attitude at least once in their lives. It is the kind of attitude that dismisses sexist comments, catcalling or inappropriate touching. It is time we put an end to this.

In the days following the release of the Trump recording, I was moved by the number of my male friends who were appalled by what Trump said and who said they never spoke with their friends in that manner. Again, it was not about the vulgar word Trump used, but his complete disregard for consent. It gives me hope that there are plenty of men out there, including our current president, who never think it is acceptable to talk about and treat women in the way Trump has. In fact, Trump’s response to the recording was an insult to decent men who respect women.

It is time for all of us to speak up when we hear this kind of damaging talk and to call out those who treat women in this manner. Words matter—especially when they come from someone who is running for president.

Leading by Example

Back in August President Barack Obama wrote a piece for Glamour where he explained why he is a feminist, and a lot of that had to do with the kind of example he wants to set for his daughters. He explains, “Yes, it’s important that their dad is a feminist, because now that’s what they expect of all men.” Just take a moment and let that sink in. Then compare it to some of the things Trump has said about women. A Trump presidency would reinforce the idea that it is OK to speak disparagingly about women and to judge them solely based on appearance and body size. Even more disturbing is that Trump’s words about women often perpetuate a culture where claims of rape and sexual assault are not taken seriously.

Those in charge must lead by example. This includes those who lead from boardrooms, the White House, classrooms and really any leadership position. Words matter, and the way we talk about others can have a profound effect on our society. Remember that when you head to the polls on November 8.

Why Equal Pay for U.S. Women Soccer Players is Important

By Tim Pershing

The fight for recognition and higher pay is nothing new for American soccer players, both men and women. That’s why it is so sad for those who have supported the sport over the last three decades to see what is happening now. Just as American soccer was earning respect as a viable, money-making endeavor, all the progress has become overshadowed by wage disputes, allegations of inferior playing conditions and outright sexism by some of the highest ranking FIFA officials.

It should go without saying that women and men should get equal pay for equal work. It is a concept so fundamentally fair and just that it defies logic how it is even an issue in 2016. Yet, with five key members of the United States Women’s National Team filing an EEOC complaint alleging wage discrimination against the United States Soccer Federation, it is an all too real blight on gender issues in the 21st century.  The suit brought by FIFA Women’s Player of the Year Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, Hope Solo, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe highlights the sad state of not only the pay gap in women’s sports but in many other professions as well.

I think that we’ve proven our worth over the years. Just coming off of a World Cup win, the pay disparity between the men and women is just too large. And we want to continue to fight.
— Carli Lloyd, speaking on NBC’s Today show

It’s laughable to suggest that women don’t give as much as men, on and off the field. The fields are the same (except when turf is substituted for grass), the duration is the same, the schedules are the same. Equal. The one thing that isn’t equal is the success rate of the teams in international play. There is no question that the women are the far more successful team but that doesn’t seem to matter to the U.S. Soccer Federation.

When considering how much the Women’s National Team means to the American fans, especially girls who look up to them as role models, it would seem obvious that the women and men should be supported equally. One of the greatest sports moments in the last century occurred when Brandi Chastain ripped a left-footed penalty kick past Chinese goalkeeper Gao Hong at the Rose Bowl to win the 1999 World Cup in front of a sold-out crowd of over 90,000 screaming soccer fans. That moment in American sports history cannot be underestimated.

Equal pay for equal work should be a fundamental principle of our economy. It’s the idea that whether you’re a high school teacher, a business executive or a professional soccer player or tennis player, your work should be equally valued and rewarded, whether you are a man or a woman.
— President Barack Obama

The U.S. women’s team has been consistently the most dominant team in the world for the past 25 years. No small feat in global sports, and yet they are still relegated to the back of the line when it comes to cashing in on that performance.

I would rather watch the U.S. women play at this point than the men. Who is subsidizing whom? And why should it matter? It’s U.S. soccer. It’s one body. One nation. One team. Or at least that’s what the U.S. Federation wants us to believe. We should be united in our goal of lifting up all athletes, regardless of gender, into the equal pay range we know they deserve. Doing so lifts up the sport as a whole.

Women’s professional sports are still relatively new compared to men’s sports. Of course it takes time to build up team loyalties and professional programs, but it is also important to provide athletes and teams with the funding necessary for success. In a recent National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) game between the Western New York Flash and the Seattle Reign, the game was played on a makeshift pitch placed in the outfield of a baseball field. The playing space ended up being undersized and was not only an insult to the players but also to the sport. NWSL players have also complained about substandard hotel accommodations that included bed bugs and mold. This is no way to treat professional athletes, some of whom helped secure a World Cup win in 2015. When forced to play on undersized field or on artificial turf or when provided with unacceptable accommodations, how can professional women athletes be expected to help grow the sport?

And what is this saying to all the girls who want to grow up strong, happy and equal in all aspects of the law? When we do not pay and treat professional women athletes the same as their male counterparts, the message is that women’s sports are just not as important. This benefits no one.

There are many arguments to both sides of the issue and while the specifics of the money involved may never be truly known, it shouldn’t matter. The U.S. Soccer Federation should have worked with the team instead of brushing them aside. When the women’s team members ask for equal pay, they aren’t looking for a fight, they aren’t looking to grandstand and they aren’t trying to be greedy. They are just asking for what they deserve. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Tim Pershing is the co-founder and director of Pacific Reentry Career Services, a new nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated women find meaningful employment.

Is Harassment Prevention Training Effective in the Workplace?

Harassment prevention training has become commonplace at most businesses. In fact, there is a big industry devoted to online training, in-person training, educational videos and other resources to help employers train employees and managers on preventing, recognizing and addressing harassment. Some states, like California, have mandatory training requirements for supervisory employees. So, with all this training, harassment complaints have virtually disappeared from the American workplace, right?

The truth is that harassment claims are still common. Look no further than headlines about Roger Ailes and Fox News for a high profile example. In addition, according to a report issued recently by an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) task force, training is ineffective when it alone is a company’s approach to preventing harassment. But we cannot just toss our training materials out the nearest window and give up on finding a way to rid our workplaces of harassment. It is time to open up a wider conversation about why harassment is still a big problem and what we can do to change our culture to one of respect.

Why Traditional Training is Often Ineffective

During my HR career, I have spent quite a few hours leading harassment training. At the first company I did training, we used curriculum we ordered from a training company. The majority of the training involved participants watching harassment scenarios mixed with commentary by two attorneys. It was a very passive approach to training because there was little real-life discussion other than what was generated in the questions I was asked as a trainer.  Eventually I added to the training, cut down on the video portion and added in discussion, which created a far more engaging session. Some companies use online training, which can also be passive and result in participants who spend the time when the video is playing checking their phones or zoning out. Such an approach to harassment training sends the message that a company is doing the training because they are legally required to and not because they have a vested interest in improving the workplace culture.

The EEOC task force found that, “…training is an essential component of an anti-harassment effort. However, to be effective in stopping harassment, such training cannot stand alone but rather must be part of a holistic effort undertaken by the employer to prevent harassment that includes…elements of leadership and accountability… the training must have specific goals and must contain certain components to achieve those goals.”

So, we do not necessarily need to ditch our training programs, but it is time to take a look at how training can be improved to fulfill its intended goals and how companies can improve at the leadership level in a way that creates a culture of respect. Training alone is simply not enough—especially when that training is no more than an employee clicking through videos and quiz questions every two years.

The EEOC report points to multiple studies that show the limited effects of training and even looked at one study that found that those with more of a tendency to harass were more likely to have a negative reaction to harassment training. In my own experience as a trainer, I found this to be true. Such participants were often the ones who would make jokes about harassment being acceptable if the harasser was a young, attractive woman, or they might bring up how they believed women often lied about harassment complaints to get attention or to get back at a man. Training did nothing to change their beliefs.

Leading by Example and a Culture of Respect

As the EEOC points out, training can be beneficial if done correctly. Training should be for all employees with extra training for those in supervisory roles. They recommend avoiding “canned” training and instead developing a program that draws from examples relevant to the specific workplace. They also emphasize the importance of live, interactive training. This allows participants to actively engage with the material and to ask questions.

In addition to training, upper management needs to support anti-harassment policies and initiatives. If top-level executives do not take harassment complaints seriously or are harassers themselves, training is going to do little to change the culture.

The task force also recommends workplace civility training to go over positive behaviors rather than just focusing on what employees should not do. This once again points to the larger issue: building a culture of respect. A culture of harassment has a huge effect on morale and productivity. It can cause all manner of suffering and mental anguish for victims and even for those who witness such behavior.

Harassment itself points to a larger issue of a culture that seems to think it is acceptable to demean people based on sex or other protected classes. As we have watched the presidential race unfold, we have the candidate of one major party who regularly degrades women he does not like by commenting on their bodies or looks. It’s no wonder that harassment is still a problem in the modern workplace when political leaders engage in such behavior.

Training Needs to Start in School

Harassment prevention training needs to start sooner. We need to start talking about things like consent and respecting others with kids. It is too late to start training when people are adults and in the workplace. Workplace training should not be someone's first exposure to understanding the importance of respect and not harassing others. While training for children need not include examples of sexual harassment, it should include thorough discussions of what it means when someone says no and respecting personal boundaries. Such education helps develop adults who enter the workforce already understanding that harassment is wrong.

It is important that we work to develop effective harassment prevention training and that we regularly evaluate that training to ensure that it continues to be a positive influence on behavior in the workplace. It is equally important for business leaders to lead by example and to call out other leaders who engage in harassing behavior. We need to avoid the practice of ignoring someone’s bad behavior because they produce good work. But simply making changes in the workplace alone is not enough.

Harassment is not just a workplace problem. It extends to how we treat each other in all areas of life. But until we recognize that and act accordingly, harassment training alone will have little effect on our workplace and everyday lives.

In Praise of Night Owls

By Stephanie Hammerwold

As I was driving to a seminar that started at 7 a.m. this morning and grumbling about the early hour, I got to thinking about how the workplace is set up in a way that favors morning people. If it was not obvious from my opening sentence, I am a night owl. I always have been. I find that I am most productive during the later hours, and I have always had a hard time working a standard 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule. No amount of coffee makes interacting with people at 8:30 a.m. tolerable for me. Yet, for most of my working life and even going back to my school days, my schedule involved early mornings. I think night owls are sometimes misunderstood because we don’t always fit well in the morning person world.

Being a Night Owl Doesn’t Mean You’re Lazy

Years of having to be at work by 8:30 or earlier have ruined my ability to sleep in. I would much rather stay up until 1 or 2 a.m. and then get up around 9 or 10 a.m., but that’s just not the way the world is set up. Attending meetings and seminars, talking to clients and running errands often requires morning availability. Over the years I have received grief from others when I talk about sleeping in—there seems to be this assumption that I enjoy sleeping in because I am lazy. I think I speak for a lot of night owls when I say, we are not lazy. We just happen to be more productive when all the morning people are already retiring for the day.

Despite the fact that not all of us are on friendly terms with the morning hours, workplaces (particularly office jobs) rely on a schedule that best suits morning people. Granted, we have established that business hours are roughly 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., so this makes sense. But working for myself has taught me a lot about when work can be done. I typically have calls and emails that need to be done during daylight hours, but quite a bit of my work involves writing, researching and drafting policies and other similar projects. Being able to plan these projects so that I do not have to complete them during the early morning hours has made me much more productive. I am no longer dragging my feet the way I would in the corporate environment when I was working traditional business hours.

Working without Distractions

One thing I enjoy about getting things done later in the day is that there are fewer distractions. The phone rings less, and people are less likely to email. By 10 p.m., the world is peaceful, and even the traffic noise in my neighborhood has dropped to almost nothing. In the calm of the night, I find that I am at my most creative. When all the hustle and bustle of the daytime has disappeared, it is a world of possibilities.

I recently participated in (and won!) National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). My favorite time to write was at night. I have produced some of my best writing when it is dark out. By contrast, trying to craft coherent sentences in the early morning hours is a fruitless endeavor.

How to Work in a Morning Person’s World

So, how do night owls adapt to a morning person’s world? For me, I have been lucky enough to leave the corporate world and focus on building my own business endeavors. I am less tired than I used to be and happier because I can often set a sleep schedule that is more in line with what my body craves. But not everyone is in a position where they can work for themselves.

For business owners, I think offering flexible work schedules, when possible, is a good start. If you have an office where most people work a schedule that requires an early morning start, ask yourself if it is necessary to have everyone there at an early hour. Staggering start times has its advantages beyond accommodating night owls. You can keep your office open longer hours because not everyone will be gone by 5 p.m. Also, to the seminar planners out there, I would not mind having a few seminars in the afternoon rather than all these early morning times.

Night owls, how do you cope with being in a morning person’s world?

Customer Service in the Age of the Scripted Upsell

By Stephanie Hammerwold

I am taking a bit of a break from HR this week to talk about customer service. This is not really much of a stretch because a big part of HR is providing customer service to employees, managers, company owners and prospective employees. In addition, some of us in HR (especially in the retail sector) have been responsible for giving new hires basic customer service training. With all the shopping I did during the holiday season, I noticed that sales and customer service is getting more pushy, forced and scripted. Is this approach good for business, or does it just drive customers away in frustration?

The Upgrade Culture

I recently went to the movies and decided to brave the concession stand lines to get some popcorn to munch on while enjoying the latest installment in the Star Wars franchise. No sooner had I ordered a small popcorn than the person behind the counter tried to upsell me by saying, “For twenty-five cents more you can upgrade to a medium.” I said no, which was followed by, “Are you sure?” Again, I replied no. We repeated this same routine when I ordered a small iced tea. This is a theatre small, so it is already the size of a bucket—there is no way I needed more than that.

I have experienced this type of thing at other places that sell food. There is this attempt to push more food on us even after saying no multiple times. Usually I opt for the smaller size because I know I will consume all of it if I upgrade to the large. Do I want the giant bucket of popcorn? Yes. Do I need it? No!

Stick to the Script

Back when I worked in HR at a small grocery chain, I had someone in my new employee orientation who had previously worked at a large, well known chain. When we got to the customer service training part of orientation, she asked me, “So, do we have to ask every customer if they want stamps or ice?” I told her the company did not require specific questions at checkout. She told me that at her old job, they were required to ask this with every order, even if a customer was only in there buying one item. She said it pretty much became a joke and most cashiers felt silly asking the question every time.

Some stores, particularly those that are part of a large chain, seem to employ this scripted type of customer service where they give employees specific things they are supposed to say in each transaction. It could be asking every customer if they want to upgrade or requiring that employees try to sell each customer on more services. I have run into this with my cell phone provider. I went in the store several months ago to enquire about how to file an insurance claim for a damaged phone and ended up having to fight off a salesperson trying to awkwardly convince me to get a home security system—it was awkward in that I could tell that the salesperson’s heart was not really in trying to push this extra service on me. I got the sense that he would get in trouble if he did not try to sign me up for a service I repeatedly said no to.

I know that many times the frontline employees are merely trying to follow the requirements set forth by the corporate office, so I cannot really blame them. The problem here is corporate policies that attempt to dictate exactly how a salesperson should interact with a customer. It seems to me that the problem is with a lack of trust in salespeople to do their job. The focus should be on hiring people who have the skills to interact with the public and forge natural methods of communication rather than relying on a script to tell them what to say. Give employees training in how to deal with various customer situations, but allow them to use their critical thinking skills to deal with each situation on a case-by-case basis. Life does not usually follow a script.

Trust Employees to Know How to Make Customers Happy

Those who have customer service personalities have the ability to build a loyal customer base without the need of a specific script or required offering of upgrades. For me, I am more likely to return to a store where I do not feel like I am being sold goods and services I do not need just so the salesperson can fulfill some kind of sales quota. Over time, I will probably end up spending more money at that establishment than I would in a single frustrating transaction where more and more is being pushed on me.

As I mentioned, it is important to hire people we can trust to put on a good face when it comes to customer service. When those people work for us, we need to trust them to give good customer service. This means empowering employees to make decisions when it comes to assisting customers, so they do not need to track down a manager for approval on everything. It is also important to eliminate required questions and statements. Such things start to sound forced and insincere when it comes to repeat customers.

Remember to treat customer service employees well. It is not an easy job, and the pay is often low. Improve compensation, increase benefits and recognize the value a good cashier adds to your organization. Doing so will help build loyalty, which will create an environment where employees want to give good customer service.

What are your thoughts on the current state of customer service? Is it time to move back to a more natural approach, or is the scripted upgrade culture a good thing?

Photo by Tim Pershing

Does Kindness Have a Place at Work?

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By Stephanie Hammerwold

Is bad behavior at work excusable when it results in innovation and high levels of productivity? Is it acceptable for a manager to yell and be tough on employees if it results in good work? For me, the answer is no. Over the summer, Amazon made headlines when their high-stress culture was the focus of a piece in The New York Times. Defenders of Amazon claimed that all that stress was worth it because of the technology and processes Amazon employees were creating. Despite what those who defend such a business model might say, I still think there is room for kindness in the way we work. Innovation does not necessarily have to come at the hands of abusive leaders who drive employees to a state of extreme exhaustion.

Break Them Down to Build Them Up

I have my own experience working in environments where management that could easily be called abusive is passed off as the type of leadership that is pushing someone to do their best. Such an approach is often stressful for team members, and high levels of stress have been shown to have all kinds of negative effects on health. Yet, despite the fact that many of us do not like working for the kind of boss who leads by yelling and pushing employees to the breaking point, our culture still tends to celebrate this type of approach.

Take celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, for example. Ramsay’s outbursts and shouting at those who run afoul of him on one of his reality shows is often seen as acceptable. In fact, viewers are entertained by this approach. When we see an amazing finished product after the cowering and tears, we may be tempted to say that it was worth it. We see the same thing from other leaders in the public eye, and someone like Steve Jobs had a reputation for being harsh. One of the frontrunners for the GOP presidential nomination is well known for “telling it like it is,” which, for him, means belittling others and saying nasty things. This is something his supporters commend him for.

I once had a boss whose behavior was erratic. We never knew what would set her off, so many of us in the department would drive ourselves to the point of exhaustion to ensure everything was perfect—even then it was no guarantee that she would not snap. Sure, she got good work out of us, but at what cost? Those of us who worked for her often lost sleep, had upset stomachs or were driven to tears. Was it worth it? Years later, I say no. I learned quite a bit about HR at that job; however, it took me years to recover from the constant workplace abuse.

The Culture of Negativity

Earlier this year, I addressed the topic of kindness over at my book blog. As I pointed out then, a glance at any Internet comments section shows how unkind we can be. Even the comments sections on the most innocuous articles can turn into commenters attacking others who do not share their political views. Cable talk shows and news programs are full of people making their points by shouting and name calling. When the world is full of this type of speech, it is even more important that we make a concerted effort to be kind at work.

I may be a bit optimistic in saying this, but I do not believe we are what we see in those comments sections and TV shows. But it is hard to avoid feeling weighed down and pessimistic about humanity when we see the worst of it put forth by the culture of negativity that exists in such places. The best way to combat the negativity is by avoiding it. Do not waste time watching the shows that encourage that type of behavior, and avoid the places on the Internet that attract those voices. Instead, focus on moments of kindness and how you can espouse that in your own life and the workplace.

Leading with Kindness

Celebrating those who lead through shouting and belittling assumes that being nice to employees does not lead to innovation. I think the opposite is true. Being nice can lead to excellent results. Employees will work hard when they are valued and trusted. Fear and intimidation are not the only ways to get results.

If you are a business owner or in a supervisory position, make kindness a part of your management approach. Those at the top help set the tone for company culture. I once worked at a company where the owner was extremely paranoid and did not trust his employees. This attitude trickled down to the executive team and managers and created a culture of paranoia. Morale was low. The opposite happened in another company I worked for where the owners had a high level of trust in their employees and maintained a friendly attitude on a regular basis.

Even when an employee makes a mistake or is not quite getting something, it is not necessary to yell and put them down. Take the time to work with someone and set up a plan for improvement rather than taking the harsh punishment approach like Gordon Ramsay would.

Kindness extends to those not in leadership positions as well. In the workplace, there are many moments that come up where we get frustrated with a coworker or have a different idea about how a project should be completed. Being kind does not mean we cannot disagree with others, but it does mean we should make an effort to remain civil when we have a dispute. This is especially important in the work world because we are not always going to be in alignment with our coworkers. Help support a culture of kindness in your approach to handling conflict.

Why HR Should Support Ban the Box

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By Stephanie Hammerwold

The key to success for many people leaving prison and jail is getting back to a normal life. A big piece of this is having reliable housing and the income to pay for it as well as other life expenses. The formerly incarcerated have served their time, yet many face challenges in securing employment because of their conviction history. The Ban-the-Box movement has been gaining momentum, and even President Barack Obama and several democratic presidential candidates have drawn attention to the need for employment support for the formerly incarcerated.

The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world, and it continues to grow. On the employment front, this means a large pool of job seekers facing the challenges of finding work with a criminal record. For employers and HR professionals, supporting the formerly incarcerated in securing gainful employment starts with not making criminal history an automatic barrier to employment.

The Problem with Using Criminal Background as a Job Qualification

When someone serves time for a crime, and then is released, we should be able to say they have paid their debt to society and can move on. Unfortunately, many of the formerly incarcerated face barriers to employment, public assistance, housing, support services and other things that can help them build a post-incarceration life. These barriers increase the risk of recidivism. Throwing up unnecessary barriers, in effect, continues to punish someone for a crime for which they already served their time.

On the employment front, the commonplace question on job applications that asks about prior convictions can keep someone from getting a job. I have worked with HR professionals and hiring managers who see a yes answer and automatically put an application in the reject pile. One person I worked with said that people should build up a stable work history post-incarceration and then come back to us for a job in the future when they have proven that they can hold a job. But if all employers take this approach, we are barring the formerly incarcerated from building a stable work history.

Because stability in things like employment and housing are among the keys to keeping people from returning to prison, it is imperative that we set up practices that remove some of the barriers to those things. When reviewing your application process, ask yourself if finding out about criminal history at the beginning of the process is relevant to the job. There are many jobs where it is not, and removing the question from your application can be a huge step in helping the formerly incarcerated secure employment.

Ban the Box & Criminal Background Checks

In 2012, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued its “Enforcement Guidance on the Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Decisions Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” The guidance from the EEOC is not law, but it is used in investigating claims of discrimination that may arise relating to criminal conviction. Although there are still questions regarding how employers should proceed when considering criminal background checks, the EEOC’s guidance provides some insight into how use of criminal history in selection of candidates for a job may create barriers to employment, especially for groups of people who experience higher rates of incarceration.

One of the key items in the EEOC’s guidance is that employers who exclude candidates based on criminal history must show that, “such an exclusion is ‘job related and consistent with business necessity’ for the position in question.” Again, this comes down to determining if criminal background is necessary for a particular job. As someone who has done quite a bit of hiring in the course of my HR career, I can only point to a small handful of jobs that I could make a case for knowing someone’s criminal history. Even then, a conviction would not necessarily exclude someone. It would come down to the nature of the offense and how long ago it happened.

Removing the question about conviction from job applications is a good way to avoid the biases that may happen when an applicant responds yes. If a criminal background check is required for a job, consider holding off until later in the process and then giving a candidate a chance to explain their conviction before making a decision to hire or exclude them. In any event, avoid a blanket policy that covers all criminal convictions, and instead handle each applicant with a conviction on a case-by-case basis.

Some cities, counties and states already have laws in place regarding criminal background checks, so familiarize yourself with the requirements in your area. The National Employment Law Project has a useful publication that details specific requirements throughout the U.S.

Benefits of Hiring the Formerly Incarcerated

Removing barriers to employment for the formerly incarcerated benefits everyone. As a society, we should be focused on providing the tools, training and support services to keep people from doing things that land them in prison. And, for those who have been previously incarcerated, our focus should be on helping them to not go back. Doing so helps build a healthy society.

For employers and HR professionals, taking small steps to change the employment process can do wonders for helping the formerly incarcerated build a solid foundation where they have the means to support themselves, provide for their families and contribute to society in a meaningful way. Rather than continuing with a system where we are constantly forcing people to rehash bad choices in their past, we should instead focus on building a system where people are given a second chance to improve their lives.

Employers can also benefit from a federal tax credit for hiring those with significant barriers to employment, which includes ex-felons. Some states offer additional tax credits. The National HIRE Network has an excellent list of what different states offer. In addition, the Federal Bonding Program is an initiative of the U.S. Department of Labor and offers bonds that cover the first six months of employment for at-risk and hard-to-place job seekers.

Remember that it is important to carefully consider changes to your hiring practices when it comes to determining how you will use criminal background checks. Consult with an attorney if you have questions about your hiring practices and the use of background checks.

If you are formerly incarcerated and struggling with employment and figuring out how to answer application and interview questions, Kathleen Murray’s Out and Employed blog offers excellent advice, and you can also find some useful tips on the Denver Public Library’s website.

Netflix & the Problem with Excluding Some Workers from Awesome Benefits

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By Stephanie Hammerwold

Large companies have been making headlines lately for how they treat their workers. Whether it is the benefits they do or don’t provide, long hours or company culture, these large companies are representative of our cultural attitudes toward work in the U.S. Netflix is known for fostering a culture where long days are not the norm and benefits like leaves of absences go far beyond what is required by law. Netflix sounds like a great place to work, right? That is until you realize that benefits are not the same for the employees who work in their DVD distribution centers.

We’re a Great Place to Work, but not for You

A recent article in The Guardian drew attention to the disparity between those who work in Netflix DVD distribution centers and those who work in higher paid jobs in office environments. As the article points out, Netflix received praise for offering generous leave benefits to new parents, but several organizations have stepped forward to challenge Netflix over the fact that they do not extend those benefits to their distribution center employees. Netflix points out that they provide the leave required by law and tend to pay their distribution employees more than the industry standard. This is a step in the right direction, but it does little to support employees who want to have and raise children.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), approximately 43% of families in the U.S. had children who are under 18 in 2014. In addition, the BLS found that in 60.2% of married-couple households with children, both parents worked. This is a big segment of the workforce that must balance raising a family with the demands of the workplace, and one way employers can support employees is by providing leave that extends beyond what is required by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and state leave laws.

This all raises the question: in a workplace culture that favors higher paid workers when it comes to benefits such as leaves of absence, who is entitled to have a child? While companies may argue that it becomes increasingly important to attract top candidates to certain jobs by offering generous benefits at that level, it ultimately sends the message that those higher on the ladder are far more valuable than their low-wage counterparts.

In These Times recently reported that one in four new moms in the U.S. returns to work within two weeks of giving birth. While those that meet the eligibility requirements of the FMLA are entitled to up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave, this time off is unpaid. Unless a new mom is lucky enough to work for an employer with paid leave or to live in a state that provides some kind of state program such as California’s State Disability Insurance (SDI) or Paid Family Leave (PFL), she may have to make the decision to head back to work early for financial reasons.

So, it is nice that companies like Netflix provide this benefit for some employees, but it should not stop there. We need to foster an environment where all employees are supported in their desire to raise a family. The reality is that we live in a society where we need workers at all levels, and the fact that someone works in a distribution center or factory should not mean they count for less as part of the workforce.

Lack of Flexibility Adds an Extra Burden

I got my start in HR working at a manufacturing and distribution company. At its height, the company grew to 650 employees—many of whom worked in low-wage jobs in the warehouse or in production. I was talking to my boss, the HR director, about a warehouse worker who was struggling to balance raising her children and her work schedule, and it was often causing her to arrive late to her shift. Rather than finding a way to adjust the employee’s schedule, the HR director's response was, “Well, I managed to raise three kids and show up to work, so this employee should be able to figure it out.”

Retail, food service, warehouse and production line work are all examples of jobs that require employees to work specific hours. The nature of the work is such that the business needs to maintain coverage to ensure smooth operations. If retail employees picked their own hours, it would be a challenge to ensure someone was always there to run the register. Office workers often have more flexibility when it comes to scheduling, and it may be easier to adjust the schedule of an accounts payable clerk than it would be to change the hours of a warehouse employee. In my example above, the HR director had some control over her schedule. If she needed to come in late due to a sick child or a school meeting, there were no consequences. In effect, her statement denied the extra burden faced by working parents who do shift work.

I am not calling for automatically changing employees’ shifts whenever they have problems getting to work on time, but we need to recognize the added burden of not having schedule flexibility for parents who do shift work. We can do this by including them in the generous leave benefits we offer to office employees.

Benefits for All

The sad truth is that the U.S. lags far behind other countries in providing leave options to employees. Plenty of countries offer paid leave and companies still manage to survive. When companies offer generous leaves of absence and benefits, it is an acknowledgement that an employee's life does not stop when they clock out at the end of the workday. When a company makes the choice to support an employee during major life events, it is an investment in their workforce.

The debate over raising minimum wage has been a regular topic in the media lately. Those against raising it often say that people in low-wage jobs should just work harder to make more money. The reality is that we need people in those jobs to ensure that our packages arrive on time and our food is made to order. We keep hearing about unemployment dropping and more jobs being added, but many of these jobs are in the low-wage retail and service sectors. People are getting back to work, but it is in jobs that traditionally do not carry good benefits; therefore, it is imperative that employers include these employees in benefits such as generous leave and to not have such perks be the exclusive domain of a select few at the top.

Do you have a story about unequal benefits that you want to share with the HR Hammer? Use the contact form on the About page to get in touch. Your story may appear in a future post.

Amazon and the Problem with Overworked Employees

By Stephanie Hammerwold

Amazon recently made headlines when The New York Times published a piece about the company’s high stress culture in which employees are pushed beyond their limit in the name of innovation and company success. Many were quick to point the finger at Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos for encouraging a culture where the company’s white-collar workers are expected to be available at all hours and where it is frowned upon to take time off even for health issues. While all of this certainly points to problems with Amazon, it is really a larger symptom of the culture we live in. Let’s face it: the U.S. has a big problem with overworked employees.

Does Technology Make Life Easier?

In July, Planet Money did an episode on economist John Maynard Keynes’s prediction that by the early 21st century, we would be able to work only 15 hours per week and meet all of our basic needs. Keynes said we would become more productive, thus reducing the amount of time we needed to work. This would free up time for more leisure activities. As the hosts of Planet Money pointed out, Keynes was right about productivity. We are able to produce far more goods than people did 100 years ago; however, we are nowhere close to that 15-hour workweek.

Many of us our tethered to our jobs by technology that allows us to call, email and text from just about anywhere. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, 50% of Americans said on average they worked more than 40 hours per week and that the average workweek is 47 hours per week. As for salaried employees, 25% claimed that they average at least 60 hours per week. Clearly technology has not increased productivity to the point where we can work less. In fact, it seems that technology has made it possible for us to do more work and stretch our to-do lists by miles.

I have been a part of teams implementing new workplace technology. With each new piece of software comes the promise that it will free up all kinds of time by automating and streamlining processes. Sure, most tech delivers on this promise, but the end result is really that it frees up time to take on more work. In this sense, technology has failed to deliver us Keynes’s vision of the 15-hour workweek.

The Workplace & the Culture of Instant Gratification

I remember placing my first order from Amazon in the ‘90s, shortly after the company launched. Back then, Amazon was just an online bookstore. At that point, deliveries by drones were not even a twinkle in the collective eye of the American consumer. Amazon has since grown to be a huge operation with everything from household products to groceries to clothing, sports equipment and even streaming video. And, of course, they still have books. I have friends who cannot stop talking about all the benefits of Amazon Prime membership. Amazon is fulfilling a strong need in a busy time. When a few clicks gets you an order of toilet paper and other household goods delivered to your door within a few days, what’s not to love about such convenience?

But, as the article in The New York Times shows, convenience comes at a price. Behind the easy ordering process and the quick deliveries are huge distribution centers and corporate employees scrambling at all hours to develop the processes and technology to meet the ever-increasing demand of an instant-gratification culture. When we order something, we want it now, not two weeks from now. Technology has also made it such that we do not see all the people laboring behind the scenes to get our products to us quickly.

In a way, our desire for instant gratification is doing us in by creating a culture where feeling overworked is the norm. Sure, we have access to all kinds of products and services at the push of a button, but is it worth our mental health when we put in 60-hour weeks and have little time to enjoy the fruits of our labor?

How Do We Make a Change?

I have experienced similar situations to the ones told by Amazon employees. While mine were not always as extreme, there was a certain familiarity in the long hours and being pushed to the point of exhaustion. So, are we doomed to work at companies like Amazon where long hours are the norm and employees seem miserable?

I do not think it has to be this way. Change starts at the top and with owners who believe our personal needs are just as, if not more, important as work. Those at the top should lead by example and not put in long hours. If employees see the boss at work late and responding to email at midnight, they are likely to engage in the same style of working. In the culture of overwork, we have forgotten that time off is actually a good thing. It allows us to refresh and recharge. If we expect employees to work long hours without taking time off where they are relieved of all work responsibilities, they will become exhausted and therefore less productive.

This all sounds great in theory, but it will require a huge shift in how we think about work. At the end of my life, I know I do not want to say, “Wow, I’m sure glad I spent most of my vacations with my phone in my hand so I could stay in touch with the office.” Life is about much more than work. It is about the time we spend with the people we care about, the adventures we go on and even the days spent curled up under a blanket and lost in a good book. While the 15-hour workweek may never come to fruition, I think it is possible for us to shift our thinking about work and to remember that not everything has to be done yesterday.

What not to Wear: Dress Codes & the Workplace

By Stephanie Hammerwold

Last month, retailer JC Penney's dress code made headlines when an employee posted pictures of herself in an outfit that her manager said was against the dress code. At issue were the young woman’s shorts, which she says she purchased in the career section of the store. The manager told her to go home and change, and the employee responded by quitting. News outlets picked up on the story, and it opened up a debate about whether or not JC Penney’s dress code was fair and if it was sexist to deem the woman’s outfit inappropriate for work. Regardless on your opinion on this matter (or if it was even worthy of making national news), this situation is a good reminder to review your company’s dress code in order to avoid possible problems in the future.

What to Include in the Dress Code

Many workplaces have adopted a casual style. It is not uncommon to walk into a workplace and see executives in jeans and T-shirts. When I used to work in Santa Cruz, the rare candidate who showed up for an interview in a suit looked out of place in the casual office environments I worked in. Even if you want to keep things casual, it is important to have a clear policy that spells out what is not allowed.

Decide where you want to draw the line. Are shorts acceptable? What about footwear? Are flip flops OK? What if an employee has tattoos and piercings? Do tattoos need to be covered up and piercings removed? Remember to also include something in your policy about employees not wearing clothing with offensive images or language. Wearing such clothing may be a violation of your company’s harassment policy. Provide examples of inappropriate clothing (e.g. no tank tops, shorts flip flops or bare midriff shirts). Your policy should spell out any specific uniform requirements, such as color of pants, type of shirt and name tag placement. Include a statement that employees may be sent home to change if they show up to work dressed in violation of the dress code.

Avoiding an Unfair Policy

In the case of the young woman who worked for JC Penney, one claim thrown around in the media was that the policy was sexist. This is a good reminder to review your policy to ensure that it is not more harsh on women. According to an article in Business Insider, a JC Penney spokesperson claimed that their policy prohibited shorts for all employees, not just women. In this case, it would be hard to call the JC Penney policy sexist because it applied the same standard to shorts for men and women. If the JC Penney policy had only barred shorts for women, it would be easy to see how the policy could be sexist. Apply similar standards to all employees.

When a policy relies too heavily on cultural norms for what constitutes femininity or masculinity, it may exclude people who do not express their gender within those norms. Not all women feel comfortable in a skirt, so even if you want your employees to dress business formal, avoid a restrictive policy that says women may only wear suits with skirts. Some states have laws that protect gender identity and expression, and employers are required to allow employees to dress in a way consistent with their gender identity or expression. Avoid a policy that may violate this law.

Remember that you must make accommodations for an employee’s religious beliefs. Even if your policy states that employees may not wear headscarves, you will need to accommodate an employee who does so for religious reasons. When drafting your policy, consider mentioning that employees may ask for religious accommodation and train managers on what this means.

Clearly Communicate the Policy to Employees

The JC Penney case illustrates why it is important to communicate your dress code policy to employees from day one. The young woman claimed she did not know about the policy that prohibited shorts. Not only should you have a written policy in your employee handbook that details the dress code, but you should also spend time explaining the dress code to new hires.

As with the written version, give examples of what is and is not acceptable. You can have  pictures included in your orientation presentation to show examples of employees who are dressed appropriately. Allow new hires to ask questions to ensure that they understand the policy.

How to Handle Dress Code Violations

Even after you educate your employees on the dress code, you may still have employees who violate it. I once worked in HR at a manufacturing and distribution company. The dress code for warehouse employees was pretty casual. Shorts and T-shirts were acceptable, provided that the clothing was free of offensive words, images or logos. A warehouse employee walked into HR with a T-shirt that said, F— the Yankees.” The F word was spelled out, so this was obviously not appropriate at work even though the warehouse was a casual environment. We asked the employee to turn the shirt inside out or go home to change. He was unhappy about it, but he eventually went back to work in an inside out shirt.

If you have to send an employee home to change, you can require them to clock out. This is a burden for both the employer and employee. The employer is short staffed while the employee is gone, and the employee loses out on wages they could have earned if they did not have to go home to change. This is another reason why it is important to educate employees on the company’s dress code.

If you notice many employees are dressing too casual and are not quite meeting the dress code, hold a group meeting to review the policy. Give employees a copy of the dress code, and have them sign something saying they received it. If there still continue to be problems after the meeting, discuss the policy with employees on an individual basis.

How do you address dress code violations in your workplace? Have you run into any problems with employees who try to push the boundaries of what is acceptable? Leave your stories in the comments.

Stop Letting Restrictive Policies Get in the Way of Work

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By Stephanie Hammerwold

For almost two years now I have been building my own business with my partner. Being away from the corporate life has given me time to reflect on all the structures we impose on the workplace and whether or not such things are effective tools to maintaining an ordered and fair environment. As a human resources professional, much of my work life has been devoted to establishing policies and processes for this reason. Things such as harassment training and anti-discrimination policies are in place to create a fair, equitable and healthy environment and can make the workplace better. But what about some of the other processes we put in place? Are things like open office plans and performance reviews getting in the way of productivity and creativity in the workplace?

Restrictive Policies

I got my start in HR at a company that was a policy heavy environment. As a result, I learned quite a bit about HR, labor law and how to draft a thorough policy. Unfortunately, this approach aggravated employees. With so many rules, it was hard to keep every process straight. Written policies help communicate the rules and guidelines of a workplace, but if your policies are extremely detailed and restrictive, it can be hard for even the best employee to never mess up. Restrictive policies also put the emphasis on the rules rather than the work. Find a happy medium between satisfying legal requirements and meeting the needs of employees.

At one point I was given the task of writing a payroll procedures policy. My first draft was one page, by the time it went through many rounds of revisions, it ended up being six pages long and included instructions that would make building Ikea furniture look easy. The written policy did little to help managers follow the correct payroll procedures because it was too long, detailed and complex.

One step many companies avoid in drafting policies is to get input from employees. When writing or updating a policy, try to get a few employees to read it and give feedback. Ask what parts are confusing and if there is anything that interferes with the way employees work. A good policy should take into account how people work at your business. Otherwise the policy takes over and gets in the way of people doing their jobs.

Open Office Plans

I am not a fan of open office plans. Every time I read something talking about how open office plans foster community and encourage creativity, I want to build a blanket fort and go hide in there with my laptop while I work. The beauty of working from a home office is that I do not have to worry about some manager deciding to throw me in a big room with a bunch of coworkers.

Open office plans can be noisy and full of distractions. In an article for The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova points to work done by organizational psychologist Matthew Davis in 2011. She writes, “He found that, though open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission,…they were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking and satisfaction.”

Every time I read something talking about how open office plans foster community and encourage creativity, I want to build a blanket fort and go hide in there with my laptop while I work.

I recently wrote a piece on open office plans for Blogging4Jobs in which I expressed my dislike of the open office plan. When I shared the post on various social media sites, I did not have one person who spoke up in favor of the open office plan. In all my years in HR, I have also worked to solve noisy work environment problems for countless office workers. While I am sure there are those out there who thrive in a noisy, busy environment, I know many of us like a calm environment in order to focus. What makes me cringe whenever I hear someone touting open office plans is that it seems to be a solution thrown on a whole office without much thought toward the needs of individual workers.

When considering the implementation of major changes to foster creativity and communication, ask employees what would help them do their jobs better rather than assuming the latest trend will improve the workplace.

Performance Reviews

How can I not bring up the dreaded performance review in a discussion of restrictive policies and processes? Someone in the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) LinkedIn group started a discussion on performance reviews recently. An overwhelming number of HR professionals weighed in to say that the traditional annual review needs to go. Despite many of us in the profession disliking annual reviews, they persist.

Annual reviews attempt to summarize a whole year’s worth of work in a few pages. Goals are set on an annual basis as though work happens in 12-month periods. Feedback given in this format is stressful. I have worked with very few managers who get excited about reviews. Most of them grumble and worry about what to say. Employees get anxiety about what their managers will say and often only focus on whether the review will include a pay increase without hearing any feedback that their manager is giving them.

Performance management should be ongoing. Managers should meet with their employees on a regular basis to check in on projects, ask where the employee needs help, suggest areas for improvement and to give positive feedback. If a manager documents these interactions, the need for the annual performance review disappears. Also, making performance management and feedback a regular part of the work flow takes the stress off of formalizing such conversations.

The key here is to make the process a little less formal. With proper training, managers should be able to develop a system of ongoing feedback and documentation that can be used to justify employment decisions without using the annual review. Such an approach puts the focus on the work and takes it away from unnecessary paperwork.

What types of policies and processes get in the way of doing your job? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Reference:
Konnikova, Maria. “The Open-Office Trap.” The New Yorker 7 January 2014. Online.

O Generation X, Where Art Thou?

By Stephanie Hammerwold

Print magazines and online publications are filled with articles about millennials in the workplace. If it’s not them, then there are pages and pages dedicated to the struggles of baby boomers as they reach retirement age and continue to work. I recently read an article that had long descriptions of both generations and the silent generation (those who preceded the boomers). When it came to generation X, there was one, simple sentence that mentions how gen Xers don’t like to work collaboratively. Really? That’s how to sum up my whole generation?

All the generation talk that permeates the media has made me think about my own generation as well as how we discuss generations in life and in the workplace. Where is generation X in all this conversation? And is it useful to put so much energy into publishing article after article about millennials and baby boomers while generation X is relegated to middle-child status? Should talking about generations even be a thing?

A Reflection on Gen X

I am part of generation X, which is the age group born roughly from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. Many of us were latchkey kids who grew up in single-parent households or in a family where both parents worked. We still had freedom to wander the neighborhood without parental supervision, and we saw the advent of video games. By the time I was in college, generation X was branded as being cynical, disenfranchised and feeling adrift. Music by bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and those that were part of the Riot Grrrl movement came to represent the way we felt.

I remember graduating college with a sense of idealism—I would rather do something meaningful with my life than have a big paycheck. When the reality of struggling to find a job and to make enough to pay off student loans became a reality, my sense of idealism started to change. After some time in the nonprofit world where I made paychecks barely big enough to cover my basic expenses and two years in grad school, I ended up in the for-profit corporate world. When I look around at my fellow gen Xers, I see similar paths; however, unlike me, many of my cohort have also taken on spouses and children and have settled into a balance between corporate life and suburban family life.

Somewhere along the way we seem to have lost that idealism that was born out of our childhood independence and teenage angst. We became more worried about paying for our kids’ college educations and our own retirements than saving the world. And with this, we have found ourselves sandwiched between two generations clamoring for all the attention while we just try to make it through the day, so we can go home to complain about how no one ever talks about us.

In a 2010 Pew Research study, researchers asked adults if they thought their generation was unique. According to the study, “about six-in-ten Boomers and Millennials said yes. But only about half of Gen Xers said the same. Among those who did, there was very little consensus about why they are distinctive” (Taylor & Gau).

Perhaps this is why we are often left out of the conversation. We do not want to be easily distilled down to a few traits, and we see our evolution as part of a bigger lifecycle rather than as simply a generation thing. I think what gets under my skin the most about all the generational talk is that it makes me want to shout, “You aren’t special! These were, are and will be my struggles too!”

Why Generation Talk Misses the Point

I wonder how much value there is in understanding differences between the generations. I share the view that 50% of my generation holds that there is nothing unique about generation X. Perhaps that is what makes us unique…or maybe not. While I think there are certain ways we work that differ depending on our age, I think those differences are more a product of our present age than our specific generation.

For example, it seems to be a common refrain to hear how millennials struggle to find jobs and how they are trying to bring a change-the-world approach to their work. Sound familiar? And just as baby boomers realize they will probably need to keep working because they do not have the money to retire, gen Xers will most likely be facing the same struggle when we get to retirement age.

There is something to take away from understanding generational differences, especially when we look at how different age groups were influenced by technology and various parenting styles and how these things affect them in the workplace. But in the bigger picture, much of what we talk about in terms of traits specific to generations may instead be attributed to various phases of life in general as outlined in my example above.

As another example, I remember entering the workforce in my early twenties and hearing boomers complain about how young people acted entitled and did not understand the value of working hard to get ahead. Again, sound familiar? These are the same things we hear about millennials today. In a few decades, will we be talking about millennials and their “unique” struggle to have the finances to retire in their 60s?

In a way, this is the American lifecycle that took its roots in the 20th century. We have left behind a time where people worked at the same company for their entire life, were able to afford a nice home and retired with comfortable pensions. These are not struggles unique to any of the generations.

Maybe talking about generations is for people who believe that these categories are worthwhile in understanding our experience of the world. As someone who does not see my “generational” struggles as unique, it is easy to see why I would shy away from generation talk.

The Answer is, I Don’t Know”

Perhaps some of you may be reading this and thinking, “Oh, she is so gen X!” My rambling thoughts and lack of adherence to labels may be no more than a representation of the characteristics of generation X. Maybe I really am just a product of my generation, and I once again feel as though I am adrift, but this time it is in a sea of social media sites and new tech as I listen to the endless droning on about millennials. Maybe I am just like the gen Xers we were in the 90s. We just wanted to be heard and to have someone recognize our struggle. Now, leave me alone so I can drink cheap wine, listen to Pearl Jam and reflect on my dwindling 401(k). Where’s my flannel?

Reference:

Taylor, Paul and George Gao. “Generation X: America’s neglected ‘middle child.’” Pew Research Center, 5 June 2014. Web. 14 July 2014.

Shhh! I’m Trying to Work: Thoughts on Managing Noise in the Workplace

By Stephanie Hammerwold

As I sit down to write this, gardeners are using leaf blowers across the street, and there is a fairly constant presence of drivers gunning their engines as though my street is a racetrack. Even though I work mostly from my home office and have some control over my space, the constant soundtrack is frustrating because I have realized I am sensitive to noise—especially when I am writing. I can handle a little bit of music if I am in control of the music, but most other noise makes me tense, and I lose focus.

I am the kind of person who avoids certain restaurants because the music is too loud. I cannot walk into a Best Buy without feeling assaulted by loud music and blaring TVs. These types of environments are the norm, and in some ways I think that we have accepted noise as a given in our lives. What does this mean for the workplace? Do we need to just accept it as a part of modern life, or are there ways to create a quiet workplace?

My Experience with Noisy Workplaces

We live in a noisy world. We are bombarded by loud music, the rush of traffic, the whir of blenders in a favorite coffee spot or whatever provides the noise that populates our world. Quiet is elusive, and the way to find it is to either carve out our own space or to escape to a distant retreat for a few days. When excessive noise infiltrates our workplace, it can affect our ability to concentrate, and it adds additional stress to our jobs.

I often have not realized how much noise affects me until I am out of a noisy situation. I used to work in HR at a manufacturing and distribution company. For my last couple years there, I was HR manager at the distribution center, so my office was located in a noisy warehouse. A typical workday included the constant sound of beeping forklifts, tape guns and the blare of the PA system. By the end of a workweek, I would often choose to spend the whole weekend by myself at home so that I could avoid noisy environments.

Working for myself has meant that much of what I do takes place in my home office. While I still contend with noisy cars and leaf blowers outside, I have a lot more control over my immediate space. It has made a big difference in my ability to focus and get things done.

Controlling the Noise

Working in a traditional office could be a challenge for me. There always seemed to be the distraction of conversations, the copy machine or all the other background noise present in such an environment. I have friends who wear earplugs at work to shut out some of the office noise, and I like to use headphones with classical music. The headphones and music give me some control over the sound, which has worked well for me.

Many offices are set up with cubicles, and open office plans have received attention lately. For those of us sensitive to noise, these options are not ideal work situations. While open plans may help some collaborate more, they can be frustrating for those who are most productive when they are in control of the noise.

Technology has opened up many possibilities for changing how we work, and I do not think employers have fully embraced the ways they can use it to improve the workplace when it comes to noise. It is not always possible to give everyone their own office, but employers can allow for more work-from-home options. While in-person collaboration is sometimes necessary, there are many tasks that can be performed from home. Giving employees a day or two per week to work from home may be a good balance between collaboration and quiet, alone time to get work done.

Some Final Thoughts on Quiet

I do not think it is enough to accept that we live in a noisy world. While we can make small adjustments to our workspace, minimizing exposure to noise is challenging. Does noise get in the way of working for you? How do you deal with a noisy work environment? Share your thoughts in the comments.