A Call for Digital Mindfulness

Is social media ruining our lives? I guess ComPsych would say so — gone unchecked, that is.

That’s why the Chicago-based employee-assistance-program-services provider is offering a new training course to its more than 33,000 organizations covering more than 89 million people worldwide focused on tackling the problem.

The course is designed to enhance people’s “digital mindfulness,” which suggests — in the words of Dr. Richard A. Chaifetz, founder, chairman and CEO of ComPsych — that “people examine priorities and set limits around time spent on social media so they can be more effective at work, and also find more satisfaction in life overall.”

In a survey of more than 1,200 respondents, ComPsych asked employees how many times, per day on average, they checked social media while at work. The telling result: Almost 20 percent said they check it more than 10 times during their workday. Specifically, their answers were:

  • “0 times per day” — 12 percent
  • “1-5 times per day” — 60 percent
  • “6-10 times per day” — 10 percent
  • “10-plus times per day” — 18 percent

This, according to Chaifetz, is no light-hearted or laughing matter. As he puts it:

“Social media can be a significant distraction both at work and during personal time. This leads to lack of focus and a constant changing of gears that can negatively impact performance, relationships and the ability to be fully present.”

Those taking the course, he says, will come out able to understand the impacts of consumer and digital overload, identify priorities and ways to simplify their lives, and recognize how becoming digitally mindful can lower stress and improve their well-being.

Granted, many of us need to be using social media as part of our jobs. Here at HRE, we’re tweeting, sharing stories and posting on LinkedIn, and checking our Facebook site or others’ for pertinent news.

But the message of the survey and course is a good one and shouldn’t be ignored: Keep it under control lest it control you. In the words of the course description:

“In today’s digital age, people are exposed to a vast number of choices about what to read, watch, listen to or purchase. The result is that people often are more distracted, confused and stressed by the increasing complexity of consumer choices and online social-media activities.”

Whether I do anything with its course or not, I’m glad ComPsych is raising this red flag.

Farewell to OSHA Rule

Looks like another Obama-era rule is about to bite the dust any day now—this time involving the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

On Thursday, the Senate voted 50 to 48 (two Republican senators abstained) to eliminate an Obama-administration rule that required companies to retain their records of workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths for five years after an incident occurs. Roughly three weeks before, the House voted 231 to 191 to roll back the regulation. Now, the bill—passed under the Congressional Review Act, which gives Congress the ability to use a simple majority to roll back rules within a 60-legislative-day window—is just waiting for President Trump’s signature. (The president has indicated he would sign it.)

Under the Obama-administration rule, which went into effect in January, OSHA was given the ability to issue citations to employers that failed to track such incidences for five years after they took place. Previously, the statute of limitations was six months.

Senate Labor Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said the Obama legislation is the result of a policy that “makes no sense, does not help any workers, harms smaller employers most of all, and ultimately is rejected by Congress.”

Meanwhile, Congressman Bradley Byrne ( R-Al.), author of the legislation, issued a statement applauding the Senate’s vote: “We should be focused on practive policies that help improve workplace safety instead of punitive rules that do nothing to make America workers safer,” he said. “We took a major step in the right direction today by restricting OSHA from moving ahead with such a flawed regulation.”

Of course, the bill has its detractors, too.

Prior to the Senate vote, Jordan Barab, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary for OSHA (2009 to 2017) posted an article on the Economic Policy Institute site that was critical of Congress’ efforts to kill the rule. Barab points out in the piece that “without being able to enforce any violation within the five-year period, enforcement of recordkeeping accuracy would be almost impossible.”

Yesterday, I asked Edwin G. Foulke Jr., a former assistant secretary of labor for OSHA and a partner in the Atlanta and Washington offices of Fisher Phillips, to weigh in on the potential impact of the move. As he put it:

“When you look back to the ’80s and ’90s, when we used to get the real large penalties of six figures or [more], many times it involved cases with recordkeeping violations going back a number of years. So [the rollback] is going to limit the number of the large citations you’re going to see from a recordkeeping standpoint.”

Of course, he added, employers are still going to be required to maintain those records. “It’s just that OSHA is not going to be able to go beyond the six-month time frame that’s in the act itself.”

As for what other OSHA rules might be in the sights of the Trump administration, Foulke pointed to electronic filing. For now, he said, OSHA is moving forward because no one has told it not to. But once a new Secretary of Labor is confirmed, he added, that could change.

The End of Telecommuting?

For many IBM employees, telecommuting will soon be a distant memory.

“Disrupt” is a catchy term in business these days, especially in the technology industry. Now one of the nation’s oldest and most prominent technology companies is disrupting what had become a common method of working for many of its employees: Thousands of IBM employees who telecommute are being called back to the office, and those who can’t or are unwilling to will be expected to find employment elsewhere.

Big Blue’s U.S. marketing department is the latest unit at IBM to announce that employees will now be “co-located” in central offices rather than working from home or in remote locations. The department, comprised of 2,600 employees, will now consist of teams working together at one of six offices located in Boston, New York, Raleigh, Atlanta, Austin and San Francisco.

Ironically enough, IBM was a pioneer in the telecommuting revolution, as noted in a story in Quartz. As recently as 2009, writes author Sarah Kessler, 40 percent of the company’s 386,000 global employees worked at home. When IBM acquired start-ups, the employees at those companies were allowed to continue working in their original locations rather than moving to central IBM offices.

Michelle Peluso, IBM’s chief marketing officer, tells Kessler that the benefits of employees working together in the same offices include “speed, agility, creativity and true learning experiences within your team.” “When you’re playing phone tag with someone is quite different than when you’re sitting next to someone and can pop up behind them and ask them a question,” she said.

Kessler cites studies showing a “water cooler effect” that arises from people working together in the same location — informal interactions that can lead to the sharing of ideas and more collaboration. CEOs such as Steve Jobs were big fans of co-location. Jobs, in fact, was so obsessed with the benefits that arise from unplanned meetings between coworkers that he wanted to place the bathrooms at Pixar’s headquarters in just one section of the building to increase the likelihood of those serendipitious interactions, Kessler writes.

IBM is struggling to reinvent itself, she writes, as the rise of cloud computing forces it and other large technology companies to rethink their business strategy. Its leaders believe having employees work together instead of remotely will better enable the sort of collaboration and increased productivity that’s desperately needed.

Of course, coworking has proven not to be a panacea for troubled companies in the past — just look at Yahoo, where CEO Marissa Mayer announced back in 2013 that telecommuting would no longer be allowed. Yahoo recently sold itself to Verizon for a tiny, tiny fraction of what it was once worth. Many IBM employees are distraught by the new arrangement: “Everyone I know is very upset,” one employee tells Kessler.

Other employees think co-location is an improvement over teleworking. “I think that getting everyone in a room, hashing it out, throwing it up on a whiteboard is my preference rather than doing share screens,” an employee tells Kessler. “People pay attention so much less when on the phone.”

That employee, however, is choosing to quit rather than make the move, Kessler writes.

Homing in on Behavioral Health

Just over two years ago, we posted a piece on this site highlighting findings from a Disability Management Employer Coalition study on behavioral health in the workplace.

The DMEC’s research painted what HRE described at the time as a “somewhat incongruous picture.” For example, more than 60 percent of the 314 employers polled said the stigma surrounding mental health issues at work had either stayed the same or gotten worse in the past two years. On the other hand, 37 percent of those same companies said that management had “become more open” about assessing behavioral health in that time. In 2012, 25 percent of respondents said the same, according to DMEC.

Here we are in 2017, and the findings of a new Willis Towers Watson survey suggest that the picture is starting to come into focus for employers, the overwhelming majority of which say they plan to keep upping their efforts to address mental health issues among the workforce.

The firm’s 2017 Behavioral Health Study, which polled 314 U.S. employers, finds 88 percent of respondents saying behavioral health is an important priority for their organizations over the next three years.

More specifically, 63 percent count locating more timely and effective treatment of behavioral health issues as an area of primary concern in that same span. Sixty-one percent said the same about integrating behavioral health case management with medical and disability case management. In addition, 56 percent said their organizations are concentrating on providing better support for complex behavioral health conditions, and 52 percent of employers are looking to expand access to care for mental health issues between now and the year 2020.

Beyond increasing and improving the level of care received by those with behavioral health issues, the survey also found that organizations intend to address the root causes of these issues. More than one third of respondents (36 percent) say they have already addressed and taken steps to reduce stress and improve resiliency, while 47 percent are planning or considering action designed to do so over the next three years. Twenty-eight percent currently provide educational programs that touch on the warning signs of behavioral health issues or distress, and 41 percent are planning or considering such programs.

These employers are also showing more interest in mobile apps to help employees manage behavioral health needs, according to Willis Towers Watson. The survey finds the percentage of companies including mobile applications in their service offerings on the way up. For instance, 11 percent of those surveyed already offer stress reduction or resiliency apps; a number that is expected to increase to 38 percent within three years, the study finds. And, while just 7 percent provide apps designed to help curb anxiety, 31 percent of respondents said they plan to offer such applications between now and 2020.

However they plan to reach workers with mental health needs, “employers are concerned about behavioral health issues because of the impact on costs, employee health and productivity, and workplace safety,” says Julie Stone, a national healthcare practice leader at Willis Towers Watson, in a statement.

“The seriousness of the issues—both for employers and employees—has led to a deeper understanding of the problem and greater resolve to take action.”

Employers are now more committed than ever, says Stone, to “improving access to treatment, providing employees with better coordination of care across various health programs and reducing the stigma that could be associated with behavioral health through educational programs.”

Supreme Court Rules on NLRB

The  Supreme Court decided 6-2 today to uphold a lower court’s ruling that then-President Barack Obama exceeded his legal authority with his temporary appointment of a National Labor Relations Board general counsel in 2011, meaning former NLRB Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon improperly held that position for nearly three years while his nomination to assume the General Counsel role fulltime was pending.

The Court specifically found that Solomon’s service as the Acting General Counsel while his nomination was being considered violated the Federal Vacancies Reform Act.

“This ruling effectively invalidates Solomon’s three-year tenure as the Acting General Counsel from 2010 to 2013,” writes David J. Pryzbylski, a partner at Barnes and Thornburg in a post on the National Law Review.

The lawsuit arose when Southwest Ambulance challenged an unfair labor practice complaint that had been filed against it by Solomon when he was Acting General Counsel, Pryzbyiski says. The Court’s conclusion that Solomon was not appropriately in that role means that the complaint against Southwest Ambulance was invalid.

So what does this ruling mean for employers? According to a statement on Fisher Phillps’ web site, the only sure thing is that Southwest, the employer in this case, is off the hook for the unfair labor practice charge.

The Court’s opinion, the firm says, is a modest victory for employers “who are protected from overreaching presidential appointments, such as the long-term, temporary NLRB General Counsel designee in this case who served without the advice and consent of the Senate.”

Paying CEOs to Fail

Scott MacDonald thinks the contract language and hiring processes for chief executive officers need to change. As he sees it, some CEOs are great leaders who deserve their seemingly extravagant salaries, but others are highly paid despite their poor performance. And even when they’re fired, they don’t lose out because they’re given a golden parachute — millions of dollars for failing, he says.

In some back-and-forth with me recently about this, MacDonald — former CEO at the Australian company Investa, who wrote a book about his experience there, Saving Investa: How An Ex-Factory Worker Helped Save One of Australia’s Iconic Companies (here’s his website’s information about the book and here’s the Amazon link) — said this to me:

“Every year, we read stories of corporate boards of directors firing a senior executive for unsatisfactory performance and then paying the executive millions of dollars upon his or her departure.

“Several years ago, for example, the Walt Disney Co. hired Michael Ovitz [as president] and then terminated him 14 months later. Ovitz reportedly received a severance package of $140 million. Recently, Wells Fargo admitted that thousands of their employees opened new accounts in customers’ names without consent to generate bigger fees and commissions. The scandal has damaged the bank and led to many investigations and potential fines. The person in charge of the retail division where the scandal occurred announced her retirement and reportedly received about $125 million upon her departure.”

MacDonald says the real problem stems from the narrow definition of “cause” in current CEO’s employment contracts; specifically, the clause that says the executive may be fired “for cause,” in which case nothing more is owed to him or her.

But the definition of cause is still limited to being found guilty of felony acts, committing fraud or stealing from the company. It almost never includes poor performance.

MacDonald’s had a successful career as a CEO turning around struggling companies, often by addressing performance issues. Through his years of experience, he says,

” … the benefits gained from changing personnel have always outweighed the short-term financial cost … . Once, I fired a talented chief financial officer because he was not a team player, typically promoting himself while disparaging other team members. The cost of his termination was significant because being a bad team member was not defined in his “for cause” contract definition, but the entire company performed much better after his departure.”

So how did “cause” become so narrowly defined and almost unenforceable? It’s unclear, MacDonald says, but he has a theory, based on the past 40 years of business as usual, and it even includes human resources. Here’s how he lays it out:

“Generally, a board retains an employment consultant to help negotiate the contract or provide an opinion that the contract is fair and competitive in the industry. The same consultant will often seek to see human resource-related consulting services to CEOs in the future. If a consultant recommends approval of a CEO’s favorable employment contract, the consultant is more likely to be favorably considered when that CEO approves hiring an HR consultant.

“After one board agrees to a narrow definition of ’cause,’ it quickly becomes cited by other executives and their attorneys as the standard. … When an executive is terminated for poor performance but not ‘for cause’ … he or she is typically entitled to all the compensation and benefits that he or she would have received if he or she had not been terminated. This usually includes salary not yet paid, bonuses not yet earned, stock options not yet vested and various other entitlements. If a terminated executive has three years left on a contract, the company often has to pay three years of full compensation as if the executive had been a stellar executive.”

So what can we do to turn this around? Simple. According to MacDonald, just broaden the definition of “cause.” Successive years underperforming [against] a pier group of companies should be cause for termination. And if a dispute occurs over the performance measures, submit it to an arbitration panel for resolution.

Other items we might consider cause for dismissal could include successive poor results on confidential employee surveys, failure to meet budget targets in successive years, failure to follow written directives from the board … his list goes on.

Companies that provide audit services to another company are generally not permitted to provide other consulting services to avoid influencing the impartiality of the audit. Similarly, says MacDonald, “companies that provide employment-contract services could be forbidden from providing other consulting services to the company involved.”

Finally, he says, when an employee is terminated without cause, he or she should not be paid full bonuses for all the remaining years of their contract. “Clearly,” he says, “the bonuses would not be earned.”

Downsizing the DOL

As many expected, the Department of Labor didn’t escape President Trump’s 62-page budget plan (released yesterday) unscathed. But the extent of the proposed cutbacks should certainly raise a few eyebrows.

On a percentage basis, the DOL tied the Agriculture Department for third place on the list of agencies being targeted for biggest cutbacks (with a 21-percent decrease), just behind the Environmental Protection Agency (31.4-percent decrease) and the State Department (28-percent decrease).

From a dollar standpoint, under the plan, the proposed DOL budget would be slashed by $2.5 billion—to $9.6 billion.

So how will the DOL find these savings?

The budget plan points to areas such as job-training grants, Bureau of International Labor Affairs’ grant funding, the closing of Job Corps centers, the elimination of less-critical technical-assistance grants from the Office of Disability Employment Policy, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s training grants. In many of the cases, the administration’s hope is to shift more of the burden onto the shoulders of the states.

But as Washington-based Seyfarth Shaw Senior Counsel Larry Lorber pointed out yesterday in a phone interview, the cited cuts (some with dollar figures attached to them, others without) won’t get the DOL close to its $2.5 billion goal.

“There’s a big gap between the cutbacks announced and $2.5 billion,” Lorber said. “So the big question is, where are you going to make up the difference?”

Lorber said it’s ultimately going to have to come from salaries and expenses. He specifically pointed to the Wage and Hour Division and OSHA as possible candidates, since salaries and expenses make up a substantial part of their overall budgets.

So what does this all mean for employers?

Well, for starters, Lorber said, staff and travel cutbacks at entities such as WHD and OSHA are inevitably going to translate into less enforcement. Many employers, he suggested, may very well welcome the fact that if travel is reduced, enforcement isn’t going to happen.

But, he added, some employers aren’t going to be pleased to see many of the training programs and grants go away, as is being proposed. (The plan specifically proposes the elimination of the Senior Community Service Employment Program, which transitions low-income unemployed seniors into unsubsidized jobs—calling the program “ineffective.”) Lorber said it’s not likely that states are going to pick up the slack here.

Things, of course, can certainly change between now and when a more detailed budget makes its way through Congress. But it’s probably safe to expect that R. Alexander Acosta — assuming he is confirmed as Secretary of Labor — is going to have a fairly downsized department to work with as performs his duties. (Acosta’s confirmation hearings are now scheduled to begin on March 22.)

Psychopaths in Silicon Valley

As we’ve written previously in HRE, psychopaths are more likely to be found in the C-suite than in the general population (according to research by psychologists Robert Hare and Paul Babiak, who found that while psychopaths make up 1 percent of the population at large, their numbers in the executive ranks could be as high as 4 percent). This week, a panel at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, examined the phenomenon of psychopathic CEOs in Silicon Valley — and why HR may be to blame for not holding them in check.

He’s charming and gregarious … but quite possibly a psychopath.

As reported in yesterday’s Guardian, a panel of psychologists, social scientists and venture capitalists discussed what they consider to be Silicon Valley’s high proportion of psychopathic CEOs. “Psychopath” doesn’t necessarily describe someone like Norman Bates — in fact, most are non-violent. However, their combination of remorselessness, callousness and lack of empathy — along with an uncanny ability to mask these traits with a veneer of charm and gregariousness — allows them to cause serious (non-physical) damage all the same, the experts said.

In fact, many of society’s most-successful people have traits that resemble psychopathy — including many successful presidents, said panelist Michael Woodworth, a forensic and clinical psychologist who’s studied psychopathic murderers in high-security prisons.

Psychopaths are often successful in start-up environments, said venture capitalist Bryan Stolle. “You have to have a tremendous amount of ego [and] self-deception to embark on a journey … you have to make sacrifices and give up things, including sometimes a marriage, family and friends. And you have to convince other people. So they are mostly very charismatic, charming and make you suspend the disbelief that something can’t be done.”

Psychopathic executives are classic manipulators of people, said social scientist Jeff Hancock. But when they don’t get their own way or things suddenly go wrong, their “mask of sanity falls off,” he said.

Often, HR tends to protect a psychopathic CEO, said Stolle, which only furthers the damage. “Because they are the founders and leaders, they tend to get protected by HR … this reinforces the behavior,” he said.

Company investors are also often at fault, because they’re willing to overlook bad behavior in order to protect their stake in the organization, said Stolle.

Having a psychopath in charge can hurt employee retention, said Hancock, citing FBI research which found that departments managed by psychopaths have lower productivity and morale (go figure!).

Hancock has developed software that’s designed to analyze written language for cues associated with psychopathy. Psychopaths tend to write in a way that’s “disfluent” and hard to understand, he said, and — because they’re more interested in themselves than others — tend to refer to other people a lot less than non-psychopaths.

Text-based communications are a good way to detect psychopaths, said Hancock. “Text-based communications improve your chances of not being manipulated, as they are verbally not very skilled. You can smoke them out in an online context.”

Adapting in the Digital Age

A recent Deloitte survey finds nearly 90 percent of business leaders saying that building the organization of the future is their top priority.

That’s good.

Less encouraging is the number of companies—11 percent—reporting they are ready for this undertaking, which will require them to “completely reconsider their organizational structure, talent and HR strategies to keep pace with digital disruption,” according to Deloitte.

In its 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report, the New York-based provider of audit, consulting, tax and advisory services polled more than 10,000 HR and other business leaders. Many of them feel that the human resource function is indeed struggling to keep up with technological progress, with just 38 percent of HR professionals rating their department’s digital capabilities as “good” or “excellent.”

I recently asked Josh Bersin, principal and founder of Bersin by Deloitte, how HR might have fallen behind in this department.

“What I think happened is that, especially over the last three to five years, the way people get work done has radically changed,” says Bersin. “Yet the way we write job descriptions, the way we functionally set up the organization and so on is a throwback to the 1950s or ’60s.”

HR functions that hope to keep pace in 2017 and beyond must “operate in a digital way, and be more innovative and creative,” says Bersin. “[HR must] deliver solutions that are focused on productivity, not just programs.”

There are signs within the Deloitte report, however, that suggest a growing number of companies—and their HR functions—are adapting to the digital age.

For example, the survey finds that 56 percent of firms are redesigning their HR programs to rely more on digital and mobile tools, with 33 percent saying they already use some form of artificial intelligence applications to help create a more technologically advanced work environment.

“HR and other business leaders tell us that they are being asked to create a digital workplace in order to become an ‘organization of the future,’ ” says Erica Volini, principal at Deloitte Consulting and national managing director of the firm’s U.S. human capital practice, in a statement.

“To rewrite the rules on a broad scale, HR should play a leading role in helping the company redesign the organization,” says Volini, “by bringing digital technologies to both the workforce and to the HR organization itself.”

One way CHROs can achieve this goal is to “start redefining HR as a ‘productivity enhancement department,’ ” adds Bersin.

“Culture is important, and it’s important to have a solid employment brand, and it’s important to recruit the best talent. But the bigger problem most CEOs and CHROS have is getting their organizations to function and operate in a more networked world. And when HR rolls out programs that [employees] don’t feel enhance their productivity, workers don’t use them.

“There are certain things—regulatory training, compliance, for instance—that HR has to do,” continues Bersin. “But outside of those things, if an HR program or initiative isn’t something that helps employees add value to their jobs, you have to rethink whether it’s the right thing to do.”

Headscarf Ban OK’d By Euro Court

With most of the East Coast layered under a thick coat of snow and sleet today, we bring you news from across the pond: the BBC is reporting Europe’s high court has ruled that bans on wearing religious headscarves in the workplace are not necessarily a form of discrimination.

According to the report, workplace bans on the wearing of “any political, philosophical or religious sign” such as the Muslim practice of hijab need not constitute direct discrimination, European Court of Justice has ruled.

But the ban must be based on internal company rules requiring all employees to “dress neutrally” and cannot be based on the wishes of a customer, the court ruled.

This is the court’s first ruling on the wearing of headscarves at work, and it was prompted by the case of a receptionist fired for wearing a headscarf to work at a Belgium-based security firm.

Rights group Amnesty International said Tuesday’s ECJ rulings were “disappointing” and “opened a backdoor to . . . prejudice.”

Meanwhile, the Conference of Rabbis expressed worry about the ruling: “With the rise of racially motivated incidents and today’s decision, Europe is sending a clear message; its faith communities are no longer welcome.”

While the court’s ruling likely comes as a blow to religious freedom advocates as well as working Muslim women in Europe, it is unlikely to alter any American policy, which largely aligns with the ECJ ruling regarding “neutral” rules in the workplace.

This fact sheet from the American Civil Liberties Union, meanwhile, highlights some of the challenges hijab-practicing Muslim women face in the modern American workplace.