Archive for the 'Management' Category

How not to Contribute to the Talent Shortage or What the Heck are my Supervisors Doing?

I have been watching some of the Mackinac Policy Conference live stream on Detroit Public TV online this week. You can find it at http://www.dptv.org/blogs/mivote/detroit-public-tvs-coverage-of-the-mackinac-policy-conference-begins-wednesday-5272015/

One of the things I am hearing over and over again is that we have a talent shortage. Seems like it is a talent shortage everywhere in Michigan and it runs across occupations, from a shortage of engineers to a shortage of skilled tradespersons. It is a problem, a significant problem, and one that we are not going to be able to solve overnight. We will solve it, we will get people educated and motivated. But it is going to take time and we all know that. So what do we do in the meantime? I know, how about we spend a little time talking about keeping the talent we already have?

So let’s start with why people leave good jobs. If I asked you that question, what would you say? Would you say that people leave because they can get more money someplace else? You might, and a lot of people would agree with you. But you would be wrong.

In her article Strategies for Retaining Employees and Minimizing Turnover, Sarah K. Yazinski, an Admissions Counselor at the University of Scranton, cites strategic planning consultant Leigh Branham, SPHR, who claims:

“88% of employees leave their jobs for reasons other than pay: However, 70% of managers think employees leave mainly for pay-related reasons. Branham says there are seven main reasons why employees leave a company:

  1. Employees feel the job or workplace is not what they expected.
  2. There is a mismatch between the job and person.
  3. There is too little coaching and feedback.
  4. There are too few growth and advancement opportunities.
  5. Employees feel devalued and unrecognized.
  6. Employees feel stress from overwork and have a work/life imbalance.
  7. There is a loss of trust and confidence in senior leaders.”

http://hr.blr.com/whitepapers/Staffing-Training/Employee-Turnover/Strategies-for-Retaining-Employees-and-Minimizing-

Think about that. 88% of people leave a job for reasons other than pay. And then think about the disconnect. 70% of managers think it is all about pay. I wonder why that is? I could speculate, but it wouldn’t be flattering. So what do you do, how do you keep people?   Elena Bajic is the founder and CEO of IvyExec.com. She is also a contributing author to Forbes online. Ms. Bajic outlines 6 steps for retaining good employees:

  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
  2. Coach rather than manage.
  3. Establish clear performance metrics and make employees accountable for delivering.
  4. Leverage performance reviews to gain insights into employee’ goals and aspirations.
  5. Create growth opportunities.
  6. Underscore positive feedback with something tangible.

http://www.forbes.com/sites/elenabajic/2013/07/15/the-6-steps-for-retaining-good-employees/

You know what? I think that is a pretty good list. And when you take Ms. Bajic’s list and compare it to the reasons employees leave jobs, you see that there is a lot of overlap. I get too little coaching and feedback. No problem, we are going to coach rather than manage. I feel undervalued. No problem, we are going to provide something tangible (no, it does not have to be money) for positive performance. I can’t grow or advance. No problem, I will create growth opportunities.

And you know what else I find striking about Ms. Bajic’s suggestions? Every one of those 6 steps (except maybe number 5) is accomplished by frontline supervision. Sure, you need upper management buy-in. And yes, you need help from HR. But it is really about frontline management.

So ask yourself this, how equipped are your frontline supervisors to do this? Now be honest! And that gets us to what is the job of a supervisor. I’ve said this before and now I’m going to say it again, it is not making widgets, or breaks or bumpers. And if you think it is, then you are probably part of the disconnect. So, I’m a supervisor; what exactly do I do for a living?

The answer should be that I motivate and inspire people to do a better job. In short, I make sure I have happy people who are satisfied with their work so that they in turn can be more productive and make better widgets in a more cost-effective manner to contribute to the bottom line.

Is that what your supervisors do? Or better yet, are you hiring and promoting supervisors who have these talents? Do you screen for talents like communication skills and empathy? Or do you just promote the best widget maker? If you are doing the former, you are way ahead of the curve. If you are doing the latter, you have some work to do.

And that is where we start. Yes, we have a talent shortage and, yes, it is going to take time to develop that talent. So shouldn’t we do everything we can to keep the talent we have? Sure we should, and we do that by making sure that our frontline supervisors are equipped to do the job they should be doing. Motivating and inspiring people to do their jobs better and ensuring that they feel valued when they do. And we reward them when they do it right. So here is your homework. Take a look at what your criteria is for hiring and promoting supervisors. Are you screening for the right skill set? If not, change the criteria. And once that is done, ask yourself this: Are we rewarding supervisors properly? Are they judged simply on production numbers? If so, why? Why don’t we reward supervisors for lower employee turnover numbers? Why don’t we reward supervisors for increased employee job satisfaction? We should, and if we do we will keep the good people we have. And that is how we start solving the talent shortage problem. It is not the whole solution, but it is a start. And it is something we can do right now.

“I QUIT!!!” There’s an app for that too!?!

Funny thing, technology. And by the way, this post is going to be proof positive that I am getting too old to be writing a blog post about technology.  But years ago, and I mean YEARS ago, when my local gas station went to automatic pumps I distinctly remember having a conversation with the cashier about never having to talk to another person again. Think about where we have landed in the last 20 years. You can bank from your desk at home in your jammies.  You can check yourself out at the grocery store without ever talking to a human. You can get gas in your car with no personal interaction whatsoever. You can even be “social” without ever leaving your house. No wonder they are making TV shows and movies about people who fall in love with their cell phone operating systems. There are probably days when that is the only voice some people hear.

So, what’s next? What new modern, wonderful tool will make sure that we never have to talk to another person again? How about an app that lets you quit your job by sending a text message for you?  It even gives you some reasons to pick from so you don’t have to be creative enough to come up with an explanation for why you are quitting.  Then according to BuzzFeed the app  “sends a well-constructed and thoughtful message.”  I think BuzzFeed and I might have a different definition of thoughtful.  When I resigned to myself, the text I got said “I’ve been feeling like there’s something missing in my life.  Specifically, a big pile of money in my bank account. . . . So I quit my job and am volunteering full time so I can get in as many hours between naps as possible.”  Then you get a link to a headhunter’s website.  Funny.

According to Reuters, the app is supposed to be “humorous.” But maybe not. “Although the new iPhone app is meant to be funny, its creators are hoping it will take off and people will use it to leave jobs.” Really?  Why would they hope that and just who are the creators? A company called TheLadders, which advertises itself as “the most comprehensive job-matching service for career-driven professionals.” The CEO of TheLadders, a guy named Alex Douzet, is quoted by Reuters as saying: “There’s a lot of anxiety around the resignation process, so we used technology to ease the pain in that moment and make it seamless to breakup with your boss.” Also according to Reuters, “Quit Your Job was inspired by another app called BreakupText. Its designers teamed up with the TheLadders to create the new app.” Give me a break.

So what is this really? Is it, despite what Mr. Douzet says, just a cute little gimmick to help TheLadders get press? After all, the App Store on iTunes lists it under the category “entertainment.” And if that is all it is, great, it’s working. Reuters wrote about it and so did the New York Daily News and BuzzFeed and a bunch of other places including me. But if this was meant to actually be used as the Reuter’s article suggests, well shame on them.

And what does all of this mean for employers and employees?

Let’s say you are the boss – what are you going to do when someone uses this thing? Do you accept the resignation? Even one that says the employee is quitting to marry rich?  Well you sure can. Why wouldn’t you?  Just because it is supposed to be a joke does not mean you can’t take it seriously. When you get a text message at 3 a.m. from that constantly disgruntled employee saying they are “sick of the corporate world,” (that is one of the choices the app offers as an excuse for quitting) you get to accept that resignation. And “it was only a joke” doesn’t get that employee off the hook. And that might just be the end of you having to deal with that problem employee.  Then the employee can explain to the ALJ at the unemployment agency that they didn’t really quit.  Not so bad for the employer now is it?

If you are an employee reading this and you want to quit your job, go ahead and do it. But It’s not a joke.  Have some guts and do it the right way. Type a letter of resignation and sign it. You are much less likely to do that at 3 a.m. after a night at the local pub. Or better yet, walk in and see your boss face to face. Tell him or her you are leaving and tell him why. And be polite. Nothing good ever comes from being a jerk in a situation like this. Believe it or not, you can do some things in life without your supposedly smart phone.  Then again, if you are the kind of person who has an app called “BreakupText” on your phone, go ahead and quit via text message. Your boss probably didn’t expect anything more from you anyway.

Time for Reruns . . . .

I’m not talking about reruns of Gilligan’s Island. (for those of you under 50,  find out what Gilligan’s Island is here).  I’m talking about reruns of blog posts.  “Why, Steve? Why are you posting reruns?” you ask?  Well, there are a couple of reasons:  First, it is the beginning of the holiday season and I just don’t feel like working that hard on a blog post;  Second,  it is important; and  Third, the rules have not changed.

So rather than trying to fool you into believing that I came up with some great new post, I’m going to be straight with you all and tell you up front that I posted this same set of rules last year at about this time.  You can find it here.

With all that being said, here are some things to consider when setting up your holiday party. (By the way, this is not only a rerun, it is a rerun of a rerun.  Greg Kilby  wrote an article on this very topic.  Find it here.)

  • Hire professional bartenders: Even if you have an open bar, it is better to have someone such as a bartender dispensing the alcoholic drinks. Instruct bartenders on when to limit alcoholic service. That way, gatekeepers limit the access to the alcohol and can prevent inebriated people from further imbibing.
  • Serve food: Make sure there are plenty of things to eat so that people are not drinking on empty stomachs; avoid having too many salty foods since these encourage people to drink more.
  • Have plenty of soft drinks: Provide sodas, sparkling juices, bottled water and lots of other appealing “soft” drink options.
  • Hand out drink tickets: Give all attendees a limited number of tickets for the open bar; once the tickets are gone, they can purchase their own drinks (reducing your liability) or drink the plentiful soft options.
  • Skip the alcohol altogether: Have an earlier holiday gathering, such as a lunch banquet, and do not serve alcohol.
  • Offer shuttles or distribute free taxi passes: This makes it easy for employees to get to and from the party without driving. This way, an employee can hitch a ride home that evening and maybe even back to work the next day in a cab.
  • Remind everyone of the policies: Before the party, circulate a memo reminding people of your sexual harassment policies; let them know that the policies apply to events outside of the 9-5 environment. Remind supervisors of the rules and what to do if they witness or hear of potential harassment.
  • Have a dress code: Suggest a dress code for the party that keeps things professional. Avoiding provocative dress can alleviate some forms of harassment.
  • Host a family event: Instead of limiting attendees to employees, invite their spouses or families. Consider inviting clients or business partners. The presence of other people may help keep the event appropriate.
  • Avoid certain traditions: While mistletoe may be your favorite decoration of the season, it really does not belong in the office. Avoid anything that could contribute to an environment of harassment.

Happy Holidays.

Organized Labor Still Has Friends in D.C.

A couple of years ago at this time of year every labor lawyer you know, including me, was running around like Chicken Little screaming about how the sky was falling. After all, we had a Democratic President, the House of Representatives had a significant Democratic majority and the Senate had a filibuster proof majority of Democrats. Top that off with a healthy dose of organized labor support for the new president and his party and we thought we were right to panic. At least I thought I was right when I said that with the changes in government we had the most labor friendly government in Washington since the New Deal. Of course, with health care and all taking up so much time very little in the way of new labor legislation was actually passed.  But you have to cut me a little slack. After all, the president made his support of unions a cornerstone of his campaign and the very first bill signed into law by the new administration was the employee friendly Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. So we spend a lot of time talking about things like the Employee Free Choice Act. In fact, my very first post on this blog was about the EFCA.

But none of it happened.

What have I learned from all this? Mostly to relax and see what happens before I start screaming the odds. As I’ve already told you I am not making predictions this year. I’m just going to give you the facts. And the facts are these: the administration has not given up on supporting unionization of the private sector. (Don’t believe me? Take a look at this.)

Friday the Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, issued a statement regarding the Bureau of Labor Statistics report on union membership for 2010. The report did not paint a rosy picture for organized labor. I was going to put a link into the statement, but since it is short, I’m going to include the whole thing:

Statement by Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis on Bureau of Labor Statistics report on union members in 2010

WASHINGTON –Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis issued the following statement regarding the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ annual “Union Members – 2010” report released today:

“Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that, in 2010, the unionization rate of employed wage and salary workers was 11.9 percent, down from 12.3 percent in 2009. Among private sector employees, the rate dropped to 6.9 percent from 7.2 percent in 2009.”

“The data also show the median usual weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary union members were $917 per week, compared to $717 for workers not represented by unions. For Latinos, the wage disparity is even greater with union members earning an average of $771 compared to $512 for workers not represented by unions, a difference of 33.6 percent.”

“When coupled with existing data showing that union members have access to better health care, retirement and leave benefits, today’s numbers make it clear that union jobs are not only good jobs, they are central to restoring our middle class.”

“As workers across the country continue to face lower wages and difficulty finding work due to the recent recession, these numbers demonstrate the pressing need to provide workers with a voice in the workplace and protect their right to organize and bargain collectively.”

See http://www.dol.gov/opa/media/press/opa/OPA20110096.htm

I think that about says it all doesn’t it?  Unionization is down, and the administration blames the damage to the middle class, at least in part on the low level of unionization. It is pretty clear that the administration, from the Department of Labor to the NLRB, to the President himself,  is going to do whatever it can to make it easier for unions to organize your workforce. So, if you are trying to decide where your HR priorities should be, at least for the start of 2011, might I suggest some supervisor training. You need to make certain that your supervisors know how to deal with questions about unionization and what it means when they come up. You might think you know, but there are already some pretty sever restrictions on what your supervisors can and cannot say when faced with a potential organizing drive. And the answers are not always intuitive. So, if you have questions, give me a call. I can help.

Party Time – Is the Holiday Office Party Really Dead?

…or is it just so darn boring it seems that way?

I keep reading articles that say the time-worn tradition of the office holiday party, is dead. Dead, you say? Yes, dead. One article I read (really a very good one in Business Week—you can see it at http://www.businessweek.com/lifestyle/content/nov2010/bw20101117_106457.htm ) is even entitled “The End of the Office Holiday Party.”  As proof positive that the traditional office party is dead, the author, Joel Stein, reports that the Queen of England has decided to cancel “Buckingham Palace’s biannual Christmas party.”  Mr. Stein then cites a bunch of statistics from a bunch of studies showing how companies from BNA to, well, the Queen of England, are either not having a party at all or are cutting way back on how much they spend. 

Here is what is weird though. Mr. Stein then goes on to describe many companies that are having what you can conservatively describe as all-out bashes. One Internet company, he reports, is renting a football stadium, hiring bands and flying in celebrity endorsers of its service. Another company (a personal injury law firm, according to the article) is reported to have hired Sting to play its company holiday party. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, I might be on the wrong side of the v.

So is the office party dead or not? I don’t know. I DO know our office is having one, and Sting will not be performing, but it would be nice. Here is what I do know: I’m an employment lawyer, and while my job may not be to kill the office holiday party, it is my job to make it so darn boring that it seems like it is dead (just in case you didn’t get it, that was a joke).  With that in mind, here are some things to consider when setting up your holiday party. And instead of giving you my own thoughts on the matter I am going to borrow some thoughts from our esteemed associate Greg Kilby.  Greg wrote an article on this topic last year. If you want to read the full article you can find it athttp://www.wnj.com/office_holiday_parties–a_legal_minefield-12-4-2009_labor_law/. In short, here is what Greg suggested: 

  • Hire professional bartenders: Even if you have an open bar, it is better to have someone such as a bartender dispensing the alcoholic drinks. Instruct bartenders on when to limit alcoholic service. That way, gatekeepers limit the access to the alcohol and can prevent inebriated people from further imbibing.
  • Serve food: Make sure there are plenty of things to eat so that people are not drinking on empty stomachs; avoid having too many salty foods since these encourage people to drink more.
  • Have plenty of soft drinks: Provide sodas, sparkling juices, bottled water and lots of other appealing “soft” drink options.
  • Hand out drink tickets: Give all attendees a limited number of tickets for the open bar; once the tickets are gone, they can purchase their own drinks (reducing your liability) or drink the plentiful soft options.
  • Skip the alcohol altogether: Have an earlier holiday gathering, such as a lunch banquet, and do not serve alcohol.
  • Offer shuttles or taxis: Distribute free taxi passes, making it easy for employees to get to and from the party without driving. This way, employee can ride home that evening and back to work the next day in a cab.
  • Remind everyone of the policies: Before the party, circulate a memo reminding people of your sexual harassment policies; let them know that the policies apply to events outside of the 9-5 environment. Remind supervisors of the rules and what to do if they witness or hear of potential harassment.
  • Have a dress code: Suggest a dress code for the party that keeps things professional. Avoiding provocative dress can alleviate some forms of harassment.
  • Host a family event: Instead of limiting attendees to employees, invite their spouses or families. Consider inviting clients or business partners. The presence of other people may help keep the event appropriate.
  • Avoid certain traditions: While mistletoe may be your favorite decoration of the season, it really doesn’t belong in the office. Avoid anything that could contribute to an environment of harassment.

 

Happy Holidays.

UNDERCOVER BOSS, REALLY?

So, according to CNN “U.S. job satisfaction hits 22-year low.” CNN says “Fewer than half of U.S. workers are satisfied with their jobs, the lowest level since record-keeping began 22 years ago, said a report released Tuesday. The Conference Board’s survey polled 5,000 households, and found that only 45% were satisfied in their jobs. That’s down from 61.1% in 1987, the first year the survey was conducted.”  CNN goes on to say “Even though one in 10 Americans is out of a job, those who are employed are increasingly dissatisfied.”  See http://money.cnn.com/2010/01/05/news/economy/job_satisfaction_report/

Why is this, I wonder? Well, TV might just have the answer. TV you say? Yes, TV. I was watching some television last night and saw a commercial for a new show that is going to premier on CBS after the Super Bowl. It’s called “Undercover Boss.” Like most “reality” shows these days it looks like this one started in England and has now made its way to the U.S. I was intrigued by the 30 second spot, so I did some searching on the web to see what this thing is all about. According to the “The Wrap”, which bills itself as “Covering Hollywood” . . . “CBS executives believe they’ve got a winner in ‘Undercover Boss,’ a documentary-style show that moved some advertisers and other audience members to tears when it was previewed last May at the network’s upfront presentation.” The Wrap goes on to describe the show as following “CEOs from major companies as they go undercover to see how their companies really work.” Yes, I added the bold.  I’m stunned.  Tears?  Really? A show about executives doing the “dirty work” moved people to tears? Really?  Undercover?  They are kidding right? You can see The Wrap post at http://www.thewrap.com/ind-column/super-surprise-cbs-slots-undercover-boss-after-big-game-12049

To say the least, I was intrigued. So I searched some more. The CBS website has some previews of this new show.  http://www.cbs.com/primetime/undercover_boss/ The extended preview, which is about 5 minutes long, shows a CEO of well known company taking off his $2,000 suit, getting into some jeans and a tee shirt, letting his beard grow for a couple of days and then learning how to sort cardboard, clean portable toilets and ride a garbage truck with his employees. In the short preview it seems he is not very good at it. It also seems he does not really know what is going on in his company. One employee rushes to the time clock to keep from getting docked “2 minutes for every minute she is late” and another seems to be doing at least three jobs while being paid for one. By the end of the clip, when the boss reveals his “true identity” to his employees he is handing out promotions and bonuses to these deserving employees.

Other than my normal gag reflex when it comes to reality TV I have nothing against this TV show.  I haven’t even seen a whole episode yet. At least the executives gave it a try. Good for them. And no, I don’t expect the CEO to know what is going on every day with all of his or her employees. But it is a real shame it took a TV show to get these CEOs out to see the operations they are in charge of. No wonder people were crying.

And no matter what else you might thinks of the show, it sure points out a glaring problem with at least some companies in this country.  I mean come on, really, if you are a CEO or any other kind of boss, and I don’t care how big your company is or how many people you employ, and you can walk into one of your plants, stores or hospitals and not have at least one of your employees recognize you immediately, YOU ARE NOT DOING YOUR JOB! Now, I don’t care if you haven’t shaved in a couple of days, or if you are wearing jeans and a tee shirt instead of a suit or if you are dressed like BOZO THE CLOWN. Every employee who works for you should at least know your face. I mean really, how does a CEO go “undercover” in his own company. And we wonder why employee job satisfaction is at a 22 year low?

 I know you are busy. So are the people who work for you. Get out of your chair and go see them. They can’t come see you. You can hire someone else to do your paperwork for you. You can’t hire someone else to be you and say hello and acknowledge the people who make your company work.

My last job was for a family-owned company. It was founded by two local guys in a garage. It grew to be a multi-billion dollar company with thousands of employees in the span of a generation. When I worked there people told stories about how they would be sitting in their office working and look up and see one of the founders of the company standing at the door asking them what they were doing. It would be impossible to this day for these men to go “undercover” in their own company and it is equally impossible for their sons, who have now taken over to do so today.  It just couldn’t happen, everyone who works for the company knows who they are and most of the employees have met and talked to them.  And it seemed to me, at least when I was there that most employees liked their jobs.

I’m sure there are a lot of reasons why employees are not satisfied with their jobs. Some of the reasons, let’s face it, in these hard economic times you won’t be able to fix. There is no money for raises or bonuses or benefit plans. So let’s fix what we can. If you are a leader, be a visible one. Talk to your employees, give them a voice, and make the members of your management team do the same. After all, isn’t that a big part of your job if you are an executive? 

You don’t have to wait for a TV show to introduce you to your employees. Go out and do it yourself.

Despite the Slump The Best Keep Getting Better.

The U.S. Hotel Industry is having some hard times. “The U.S. lodging industry finds itself in uncharted waters due to a global economic and financial crisis that has taken a severe toll on the net operating income (NOI) of hotel owners, setting the stage for a wave of loan defaults and foreclosures. Why such a dire prediction? PKF Hospitality Research forecasts a 39.1% decline in NOI for the typical U.S. hotel this year, the biggest drop on record since it began tracking hotel data in the 1930s.”  See http://nreionline.com/property/hotel/0901-hotel-slump-coming/

And it’s not just U.S. Hotels that are suffering. Hotels from Berlin to Bangkok are expecting a rough couple of years.

Despite this slump, the very best hotels can be an example of surviving the economic downturn.

You see, the very best Hotels are holding on to coveted 5 Star and 5 Diamond ratings. According to USA Today: “A year of sagging hotel staffing and rates has translated — surprisingly — into more top-ranked lodgings. Fifty-four lodgings in the USA, Canada and China just attained coveted five-star status from the former Mobil Travel Guide (renamed Forbes Travel Guide under a new licensing agreement). The number of five-stars, announced Monday night, is up five from last year. More top-ranked properties also sparkled in AAA’s diamond awards, which were unveiled Friday. Its 113 five-diamond hotels and resorts in the USA, Canada, Caribbean and Mexico number 10 more than last year.” 

How can this be? It seems like these top end properties are doing more with less. But why? Everybody understands that times are hard and it’s ok for client service to slip a bit right? Wrong. When your brand is quality, you understand that you have to protect your brand no matter what. It’s all about client service and frankly, good client service is free. In the same USA Today article, Steve Winn, the billionaire hotelier famous for one of the very best Las Vegas Hotels says:  “It’s hard to do, and it shows that in hard times you have to protect your assets — which is your staff and service levels, . . . . So when things do get better, you haven’t damaged your brand.” 

Interesting what Mr. Winn referred to as “assets”, isn’t it? Not the buildings, not the name, but the staff and service levels. True, you may need to have less staff when times are hard, but if so, you need to make sure that the staff you do have is well trained and fully understands the stakes. And frankly, client service is free. A smile, a cordial greeting, treating people who use your services or buy your goods like they are the most important people in the world is always important. And when times are tough that attitude is essential for survival. So how do you as a supervisor make sure that your staff understands this? Well, who are your clients? That very same staff that’s who. And success is in the details. Treat your staff like VIPs and they will treat your clients like VIPs. Train them, work with them, set an example for them. Now is not the time to be downhearted or let your guard down. Now is the time to be the very best you can be. And your staff will follow your example.

THINK PEOPLE, THINK . . . .

In the short life of this blog I have taken time on two other occasions to write about zero tolerance policies. You can read those posts here and here.  I wonder if three times is a charm?  Hope so, because I am going to try again.

Let me start by saying this: It is not the policies that I have a problem with so much as the incredible, no, ridiculous results that come from applying them without thinking.  

Again we go to the wonderful world of academia to get what turns out to be a really silly result.  According to a USA Today, article: “Schools’ zero-tolerance policies tested.”  The article deals mostly with 6 year old Zachary Christie who was suspended when he brought a Swiss army knife to school.  It seems he brought it to school to use to eat his lunch.  He was proud of the “knife” because he won it for something he did as a Cub Scout as I recall.  Originally, Zachary was suspended and told he could not return to school until he completed at least 45 days in an alternative school. Let me repeat that because it needs repeating:  HE COULD NOT RETURN TO SCHOOL UNTIL HE COMPLETED AT LEAST 45 DAYS IN AN ALTERNATIVE SCHOOL!” 

Remember, this is a 6 year old Cub Scout. He had no history of misbehaving (that I am aware of) and is I suppose as good a student as a 6 year old can be.

School officials defended this result by saying “strict and consistent policies are needed to create a safe environment for students, . . . . “  OK, I’m with you on that:  we need safe schools. An administrator was also quoted as saying “we’re starting to see gangs of young men that are more violent than they were many years ago, . . . . We have to make sure that kind of behavior doesn’t have weapons involved in our schools.”  OK, I’m with you on that too: No gangs with weapons in school.

But here is the problem with this and many other zero tolerance policies:  Managers get it in their heads that they don’t have to think anymore. The punishment didn’t really fit the crime in this case, did it? 45 days for a Swiss army knife by a 6 year old kid?!  How does that make the school safer or keep weapons out of the hands of gang members? But that is what the policy said so that is what the school did. Easy. No thought, no consideration of circumstances. Nothing. Violate the policy, implement the punishment. Only this time, parents did not sit still. After stating their son’s case and calling for reasoned thinking, the school changed the policy and altered the “sentence” from  the original 45 days in an alternate school to a 3 to 5 day suspension. 

That is better, but it still does not solve the problem does it?  We can still simply apply the policy and not have to think, or in our case manage. 

Here is what really irritates me when I read stories like this. It isn’t the policy or the punishment itself. It is the people who use these policies as an excuse to avoid thinking or to avoid taking a stand or to avoid recognizing the shortcomings of a procedure like this before they apply it. 

David Resler is the vice president of the Board of Education for Zachary’s school district. Mr. Resler is quoted in the article as saying: “I’m sure we’ve got many other devious kids in the district who are trying to figure out how to duct tape a spoon and fork to their switchblades right now.” 

Now, I have done many interviews and have from time to time been misquoted or had statements taken out of context so I am willing to give Mr. Resler a break. But come on, really?!  This is a perfect example of exactly what I am talking about. Yes, a Swiss army knife and a switchblade are the same kinds of tools, but does anyone really think they are the same thing? And does Mr. Resler really think that some kid taping a spoon and fork to his switchblade is the equivalent to bringing a Swiss army knife to school to use to eat lunch?  If so, it does not seem to me that this school district needs a new policy. It seems to me they need a new vice president of the school board.

In a perfect world companies would have one policy and it would read, “Don’t do anything stupid.”  That’s it.  No more, no less. Of course we don’t live in a perfect world. We need policies and sometimes we need zero tolerance policies. Workplace violence comes to mind. Drug use is another area where they have value. But zero tolerance should never mean “Violate this policy and get fired—period.”  It should mean, “Violate this policy, get punished and we will decide what the punishment is.”  No matter what, your managers still have to manage and they still need to think before they act.  Your employees (or your students) deserve at least that much.

ARE YOU TREATING YOUR EMPLOYEES LIKE FISH?

I read a great article in the New York Times today.  It is called For Fish in Coral Reefs, It’s Useful to Be Smart.  See http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/20/science/20creature.html?hpw

It seems that fish can be taught!  No kidding. According to the Times:

“To test the ability of fish to learn to discriminate shapes, a research team led by Ulrike E. Siebeck at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, trained damselfish to feed from a feeding tube to which they attached a variety of visual stimuli. The latter included a three-dimensional latex disc, a two-dimensional blue disc painted on a plastic board, or black circles or propeller patterns on white boards. The fish were rewarded with food when they repeatedly tapped the stimulus — not the tube — with their snout or mouth.

The fish rapidly learned this task. The researchers then presented the fish with the original stimulus and one alternative distracting shape — bars versus discs, squares versus discs, or circles versus propellers, and the fish had to nose the shape they had been trained to tap in order to receive a reward. The fish tapped the correct shape about 70 percent of the time in the first trial; this improved to 80 percent and to 90 percent in subsequent trials.

Remarkably, the fish also learned when the food reward was delayed and delivered far from the stimulus. The damselfish exhibited what is called anticipatory behavior, in that they would tap the image and then swim quickly to the other end of their tank in anticipation of their food reward. This response is much like Pavlov’s dogs who learned to anticipate food at the sound of a bell.”

I found this incredible for a couple of reasons.  First, it means I may still be able to actually put additional fish in the aquarium I have on my desk.  See, I have a fish named Fred and Fred is . . . well, he is a cannibal.  He eats everything – snails, crawfish, other fish – I put in the tank with him.  He is not a damselfish, but maybe I can teach him anyway.

The other reason I found this article so interesting is it made me wonder why many employers are treating their employees like fish.  “What?” you say?  How so?  Let me ask you this; do you have a bonus plan?  Does your bonus plan depend on meeting some set of criteria or objectives? You know, do this and get the bonus, don’t and you don’t.  Oh, you can see it now can’t you. It’s all becoming clear.  It’s the end of the year and you sit down with your employees and write objectives.  Then they spend the rest of the year “knocking their noses against a plastic disc” in the hope that they will get the bonus at the end of the year. 

Well, what about all their other job duties.  If they don’t contribute to the bonus, they don’t get knocked with the nose.  We all know this is true and yet we still all continue to use these kinds of plans.  How come?  Because some management theorist 20 years ago told us to?  We need a better reason than that, especially in these trying economic times where every dollar counts.  Here’s what’s even worse:  Almost all the experts that have looked at this sort of reward system agree that it doesn’t really work anyway.  You see, we really are different from the fish.  The fish will live a perfectly content fish life rapping his nose against a plastic dish and getting a fishy treat in return.  Ask your employees to rap their nose long enough, and no bonus will keep them happy.  So why maintain the status quo? 

Let’s try something different.  Let’s get people into their work so they derive some satisfaction from it.  Alina Tegend in the New York Times calls it passion.  Ms. Tegend’s article is written to employees, not employers, but we can take something from it.  She quotes Professor Emeritus Peter Warr of the Institute of Work Psychology at the University of Sheffield in England who says to be happy in work (or anything) your employees need to have “some sense of empowerment, using and expanding [their] skills, enjoying some variety, having a clear sense of [their] situation and what is required, and doing something [they] believe in, . . .” See http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/26/your-money/26shortcuts.html

I get it, no one works for nothing, and money is an important part of every job.  But are we letting all the other important part fade into the background.  Seems to me to be profitable today you had better have motivated and involved employees.  Also seems to me you are not going to get them with the same old tired systems.  We have to try something new.  We need involved employees who are committed to our company.  I understand that a lot of people are looking for work and that focus on employee satisfaction has lost some of its luster.  It shouldn’t have. 

So what do you do?  Let’s start here:  Next time you sit down with an employee to talk about the job, or goals or pay or a promotion or almost anything else start with this little phrase.  “What do you think?”  Then listen.

Ok I get it, it’s much easier to put up the plastic disc and forget about it until the end of the year.  But if you’re an HR professional, that’s not what you want to do either is it? 

RACIST OR NOT, IT’S JUST RUDE . . . .

There are some interesting things going on over in Detroit.  According to the Detroit Free Press, former Detroit Corporation Counsel Kathleen Leavey is suing the City of Detroit claiming “she was demoted when she described the court as “ghetto court,” during a conversation in January. Leavey says she was forced to resign her post as interim corporation counsel after [Chief Judge Marylin] Atkins contended in a letter that the ghetto remarks were racist.”  The lawsuit claims reverse race discrimination among other things.  Ms. Leavey is white.  During discovery in the case, Deputy Mayor Saul Green was asked by Ms. Leavey’s lawyer if the use of the “N” word was more offensive when it was used by a white person than when it was used by a black person.  Mr. Green was instructed by a city lawyer not to answer the question and he did not.  Now Ms. Leavey’s lawyer wants to take Mr. Green’s deposition again and get an answer to his question.  You can see the Free Press article here:  http://www.freep.com/article/20090923/NEWS01/90923032/1322/Race-flares-up-during-deposition-on-judge-s–ghetto-court–lawsuit

So, while the City claims this question has nothing to do with Leavey’s suit, this is an interesting question right?  After all, that particular word is hate filled and inappropriate, and yet we hear it come out of the mouths of rap singers and comedians all the time.

Now I have what some of you may consider a radical thought, it’s a bit off point and probably has nothing to do with the Leavey case, but then again this is an employment law blog not a news blog and I’m trying to make a point here.  Here it is: the work place is not a rap song or a comedy stage and the “N” word, along with a bunch of other words that have nothing at all to do with race are just not appropriate for the workplace.  And I frankly don’t care who says them, whether it is someone who happens to be white, or black or a little green person from Mars.  If you are a polite adult you do not use words that you know may offend someone else, especially someone you have to work with all day.  What happened to manners?  Anybody with any common sense at all should know that some words just might offend some people.  Don’t say them at work.  Don’t say them to your coworkers when you are not at work.  Get some manners and don’t say them at all.  But if you just can’t stop yourself from saying things that probably will offend a coworker, then don’t be surprised when you get disciplined for it.

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