A Rocky Road to Recovery

Here’s some sobering news going into Labor Day Weekend out of the Rutgers University’s John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development.

459982591Despite the S&P  500 hitting record highs earlier this week, seven in 10 Americans continue to believe the Great Recession’s impact has been permanent, up from half in 2009, when the recession officially ended. This finding, and other equally  gloomy stats, are featured CWD’s latest Work Trends report, released yesterday and appropriately titled Unhappy, Worried and Pessimistic: Americans in the Aftermath of the Great Recession. These latest stats are based on a survey, conducted between July 24 and Aug. 3, of 1,153 Americans.

Among the other findings in the report …

  • Most Americans do not think the economy has improved in the last year or that it will in the next.

  • Just one in six Americans believe that job opportunities for the next generation will be better than for theirs; five years ago, four in 10 held that view.

  • Roughly four in five Americans have little or no confidence that the federal government will make progress on the nation’s most important problems over the next year.”

Five years of recovery, sustained job growth and reductions in the number of unemployed workers still hasn’t convinced Americans that the economy is improving, points out Carl Van Horn, a Rutgers professor and co-author of the report.

Only one in three Americans questioned thinks the U.S. economy has gotten better in the last year, one-quarter thinks it will improve next year and just one in six believe that job opportunities will be better for the next generation of American workers, down from four in 10 five years ago, according to Van Horn.

Moreover, the study confirms that the Great Recession took a personal toll on many of the respondents.  Indeed, only one in three of the nation’s 240 million adults reported that they were completely “unscathed” by the recession. Asked to describe, using a list of a dozen words or phrases, today’s typical American worker, just 14 percent checked off happy at work and only 18 percent believe they are well paid. Two-thirds say that American workers are “not secure in their jobs” and “highly stressed.”

Not surprisingly, many of those questions were critical of Washington policymakers, with more disapproving of the job President Obama is doing (46 percent to 54 percent) and even fewer approving of the job Congress is doing (14 percent).

True, it doesn’t come as a huge surprise that most Americans aren’t terribly upbeat about the state of things today. Certainly, there has been no shortage of stories in the news these days detailing the plights of many who are struggling. What is surprising, though, is the extent of the level of pessimism cited in the Rutgers report, especially when you factor in the amount of time that has passed since the latest recession was declared officially over.

Taken as a whole, it would suggest that employers and their HR leaders, once back on the jobs next Tuesday, have some serious work ahead when it comes to ensuring that their workforces remain fully engaged and focused.

Twitter It!

Women and the ‘A’ Word

200401077-001A recent analysis of performance reviews by linguist Kieran Snyder has uncovered what seems to be a powerful bias against women who are seen as “too assertive” in the workplace — and the bias seems prevalent regardless of whether the review was conducted by a man or a woman.

Writing in the latest issue of Fortune, Snyder describes how she collected 248 performance reviews from 28 companies that ranged from large technology firms to small start-ups. The reviews came from 180 male and female managers.

Snyder was inspired to do this partly by a conversation she’d recently had with an engineer friend who was preparing performance reviews for two people on his team, a man and a woman. He wanted to promote both, but was concerned that his peers would endorse only one of them: “Jessica is really talented, but I wish she’d be less abrasive. She comes on too strong.” And the male? “Steve is an easy case, smart and great to work with. He needs to learn to be a little more patient, but who doesn’t?”

In examining the reviews, Snyder found that women received much more critical feedback than men did: About 59 percent of men’s reviews included critical feedback, while nearly 88 percent of women’s did. As for constructive feedback, the advice given to women tended to include personality criticisms, such as “stop being so judgmental” and “You can come across as abrasive sometimes. I know you don’t mean to, but you need to pay attention to your tone.”

Snyder also found that the word “abrasive” was used 17 times to describe 13 different women, but the word never appeared in men’s reviews.

Here at HRE, we’ve written about the double standard faced by women, including those in positions of authority. Here’s hoping that HR leaders of both genders take this omnipresent bias into account, and strive to help their organization’s leaders be as fair as they can.

Twitter It!

Say Hello to Your New Robot Boss

robot 1Earlier this month, HRE reported on the phenomenon of “de-skilling,” a term that’s really just code for “replacing employees with automation.” And while no one likes the idea of being usurped on the job by a robot, a new study suggests that some workers would be just fine with having one for a boss.

That’s what researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab found when they studied groups of two humans and one robot working together in a manufacturing environment. In fact, the authors found that human workers participating in their study actually preferred taking orders from an automaton, and that handing over the reins to a robot was the most efficient means of accomplishing the task at hand.

In this case, the task at hand was assembling Legos, in an experiment that replicated a factory setting. Only the human workers could put together the Legos, which had to be brought from a “fetch” station to a “build” station. While only humans could assemble the Legos, either a human or robot could fetch them.

“In our research we were seeking to find that sweet spot for ensuring that the human workforce is both satisfied and productive,” said Matthew Gombolay, a PhD student at CSAIL, and lead author of the study, in a statement.

“We discovered that the answer is to actually give machines more autonomy, if it helps people to work together more fluently with robot teammates.”

Gombolay and his team reached this conclusion by assigning groups of two humans and one robot working in one of three conditions. In the manual scenario, all tasks were allocated by a human. In another, fully autonomous environment, all duties were assigned by the robot. In the third, semi-autonomous setting, one human consigned jobs to him or herself, while a robot gave tasks to the other human.

The fully autonomous condition proved to be the most effective in terms of getting the job done, and the method most preferred by the human workers, who were more likely to say the bots “better understood them” and “improved the efficiency of the team,” according to the authors.

If this all seems a bit strange, and maybe even a tad scary, fear not. This MIT experiment isn’t the first step toward a workplace run by cold, lifeless cyborgs, said Gombolay.

Putting a robot in charge, as the MIT team did, simply means that tasks are delegated, scheduled and coordinated via a human-generated algorithm, he said.

“Instead of coming up with a plan by hand, it’s about developing tools to help create plans automatically.”

This algorithm, he said, can also conduct on-the-fly re-planning, enabling the instant development of an alternate schedule for a task if a new part arrives or a machine malfunctions, for example.

Down the road, similar algorithms may have utility for human/human collaborative efforts such as scheduling hospital resources; search-and-rescue drones; and even situations involving human and robot cooperation, in which the robot could aid with discrete building and construction tasks, Gombolay added.

Hmm. Such applications could very well be useful in some industries, and may still leave some work for humans to do in the future as well. Maybe we don’t have to cede total control to our new robotic overlords just yet.

Twitter It!

Lowe’s Nailed for $9.5M over HR Managers’ Suit

Lowe’s Home Centers Inc. agreed to pay $9.5 million to end human resources managers’ class action allegations that they were not actually managers and that Lowe’s misclassified them as exempt from overtime pay requirements, according to documents filed in Florida federal court, according to multiple sources.

Lead plaintiff Lizeth Lytle’s suit, initially lodged in August 2012, asserted that the company classified its human resources managers as exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s overtime requirements, but that their duties were not as sophisticated as their title suggested and they should not be classified as exempt.

Although given the title of manager, Lowe’s human resources managers, who number as many as 1,745, lack discretion to make meaningful decisions and do not supervise employees, the plaintiffs alleged.

In their motion seeking preliminary approval of the settlement, the plaintiffs said they expected Lowe’s to argue they were properly classified because the HR managers interviewed potential hires, along with 20 other job roles.

“The jury would have been presented with a very complex case where some employees apparently worked contrary to standard procedures, and will claim to have spent substantial amount of their work hours involved with many routine and repetitive, typical nonexempt job duties, while spending unknown percentages of time engaged in the alleged primary job duties,” the motion said.

The settlement fund includes up to $3.2 million in legal fees, with class members dividing the remaining fund amount between them. The method for the proportional allocation has not yet been determined, according to the settlement.

A trial had been scheduled for June 2015, but the settlement now renders that date moot.

Twitter It!

‘The Death of Customer Service’

Came across an interesting blog post with the same title as my header here,  written by Rick Conlow, leadership expert and CEO/co-founder of Minneapolis-based WCW Partners. He believes telephone operatorcustomer service has been ailing for some time now and employers need to put the function on “life support” and “invest heavily in bringing it back to health” before it fells you at your knees.

Customer service, he writes, “passed away quietly [and] the wake is at the next quarterly meeting, and the funeral will follow shortly.” Each year, he writes, “companies worldwide struggle for sales growth and profit, yet a conservative estimate of their loss from poor customer service comes in at a staggering $338.5 billion a year.”

He sums up the problem pretty convincingly:

“Excellent customer service is seriously lacking in most places we spend our money. Think about it – can you recall a recent experience where the customer service was really bad? Sure you can. Think of other places you have spent your hard earned paycheck: grocery store, bank, restaurant, a fast-food chain, a department store, a gas station, a hotel, an airline, an online merchant and the list could go on. How many of these had poor to average service? Probably most of them. How many really stood out and had outstanding service? Very likely, it was only a few.”

Here are the top four reasons why Conlow thinks customer service is essentially dead, as itemized in this release about his blog post:

1.    A Lack of Civility – People have accepted poor manners and have become used to rude behavior. “The general perception by most adults is that people are less civil than in days past,” Conlow says.
2.    Employees Treated as Commodities — “Many companies treat employees as commodities,” he contends, “not as valuable partners. Most employees don’t get the training and support they need to deliver superior customer service. Company leaders have little loyalty to their employees, and, in return, employees have little loyalty to them and their customers.”
3.    Public Accustomed to Poor Service – The public’s expectations have become lower as mediocre service has become rampant. Conlow points out that many big companies with poor customer-service ratings still thrive.
4.    An Increase in Technology – The increase in technology today means a decrease in personal interaction. “Service technology loses the human touch – the empathy and compassion that is vital to creating loyal customer relationships,” he says.

Conlow warns that “consumer discontent is a sleeping giant. It will only take so much, and its wrath can go viral today in minutes.” He also says customer service is becoming more important than ever, and companies need to put more effort into improving it.

Such as? Well … a leadership mind change, for one. As he describes:

“Maybe the real issue is that too many business leaders don’t value delivering better service and don’t buy into the bottom-line benefits. So most organizations do just enough to get by. The American Customer Satisfaction Institute at the Ross Business School at the University of Michigan rates some 240 companies across 34 industries on a monthly basis. The airline industry has a 67 average, which is awful. The average rating for all companies is 76.8, which is a C average. This means only two of 10 companies have a significant level of highly satisfied customers. Those few companies with excellent ratings have discovered that excellent service is really their leading product that drives everything else.”

Conlow cites a Customers 2020 report saying the customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator in the future. Those organizations that adapt will survive and thrive, he says. Then he issues this warning:

“As more companies begin to ail painfully, customer service must be resurrected as it becomes more important than ever.”

So … better customer-service training, perhaps? More money in the customer-service-training pot? Conlow’s take: By all means.

Maybe this news analysis we posted in June gets to a better solution for today’s workforce (which now includes many younger workers, and they’re only going to increase). Invest in the things these workers believe in, including corporate-social-responsibility initiatives, and watch your customer-service ratings climb.

Share your CSR visions and values with them, make sure they reflect some of what these younger workers are passionate about, encourage them to connect with like-minded customers on the same issues … and, that story indicates, you really can right this customer-service ship.

Twitter It!

Really, the Form is in the Mail

mailA federal court decision may have added to the list of things that old-fashioned snail mail won’t be used for anymore, and should give employers pause to consider their methods for delivering important notices to employees.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently remanded the case of Lupyan v. Corinthian Colleges Inc. for further proceedings, leaving a jury to settle a dispute over whether an employee received FMLA disclosures her employer sent via first-class U.S. mail.

In the court’s words:

“In this age of computerized communications and handheld devices, it is certainly not expecting too much to require businesses that wish to avoid a material dispute about the receipt of a letter to use some form of mailing that includes verifiable receipt when mailing something as important as a legally mandated notice.”

Here’s what led up to that judgment:

In December 2007, plaintiff Lisa Lupyan—an instructor at CCI since 2004—completed a request-for-leave form, specifying that she was taking “personal leave” for the remainder of the calendar year.

Court documents indicate that her supervisor, James Thomas, recommended Lupyan instead apply for short-term disability coverage. Nevertheless, Lupyan began her leave as scheduled, with her physician completing a Department of Labor “Certification of Health Provider” form. Based on the information provided in that document, however, CCI’s human resource department determined that Lupyan’s absence qualified for FMLA leave.

According to the suit, HR subsequently met with Lupyan and directed her to initial the box labeled “Family Medical Leave” on her request form. Lupyan contends that her FMLA rights—including the requirement that she return to work within 12 weeks—were not discussed in this meeting, a claim that CCI does not dispute.

CCI maintains that an HR representative mailed Lupyan an FMLA Designation Notice after the aforementioned meeting, classifying her absence as FMLA leave and advising her of her rights under the Act. Lupyan denies ever receiving said notice, and claims she was not told she was required to come back to work within 12 weeks.

On April 9—eight days after Lupyan notified CCI that she had been cleared to return to her job with certain restrictions—the school terminated Lupyan from her position, citing low student enrollment as well as the fact that she hadn’t returned within the 12 weeks allotted for FMLA leave. Lupyan subsequently sued, alleging the college interfered with her FMLA rights by failing to give notice that her leave fell under the Act.

In this case, CCI “complied with the letter of the law, to no avail,” says Ellen Storch, a Woodbury, N.Y.-based partner at Kaufman Dolowich & Voluck.

Her advice to employers in similar situations?

“Do more than the law requires when providing employees with FMLA notices.”

For example, she recommends sending notices in a way that creates evidence of receipt—say, by certified mail or an overnight carrier, which requires a recipient’s signature in order to be delivered. She also advises requiring the employee to sign an acknowledgement of receipt, to maintain communication with the employee throughout his or her leave, and to send notices in more than one way.

“If an employer can demonstrate that it attempted to deliver notices and communicate with employees about the notices in multiple ways,” says Storch, “employees will have difficulty disputing receipt of the information.”

Twitter It!

CIOs Value Experience Over College

collegeIf you’re in the tech field and still struggling to pay off those hefty loan payments for your Ivy League degree, the following will not make you feel better: A new survey from Robert Half Technology finds that 71 percent of chief information officers prioritize skills and experience over college degrees when making hiring decisions, while only 5 percent say they’re heavily influenced by a job candidate’s impressive alma mater.

The survey is based on more than 2,400 telephone interviews with CIOs from a random sample of U.S. companies. The CIOs were asked “When evaluating a candidate for an IT position, what value do you place on the prestige of their college or university?” Seventy one percent chose the response “I place more weight on the skills and experience than on whether or not a candidate attended college/university.”

Technology is not the only field that appears to value experience over a sheepskin: A recent Glassdoor survey of 2,059 adults finds that 72 of them believe specialized training to acquire specific skills is more valuable than a degree in the workplace, as my colleague Mark McGraw noted.

“We see [organizations] placing less emphasis on the academic credentials, and working harder to better identify the skills and experience that are needed within the company,” Glassdoor’s Rusty Rueff told McGraw.

Organizations have viewed college degrees as a way to identify candidates whom they believe have the drive and willpower necessary for success, to the point of requiring degrees for positions that previously didn’t require them. But now, perhaps, the pendulum is beginning to swing in the  other direction.

Twitter It!

HR Gets an Upgrade at Apple

HR has long been something of a mystery at Apple. In our effort to compile our Top 100, a list of chief HR officers at the nation’s 100 largest employers, we often struggle to get a response at Apple. Eventually, we do manage to get the information we’re after, but it often takes more than a few follow-up calls and emails to get it.

apple-logoDuring his tenure as chief executive officer at Apple, Steve Jobs was known as someone who didn’t give a whole lot of credence to HR. In fact, it’s said that Jobs, in interviewing an applicant for the position of vice president of HR, once said, “I’ve never met one of you [HR people] who didn’t suck. I’ve never known an HR person who had anything but a mediocre mentality.”

Perhaps these words are merely an urban legend, but if he did indeed say them, they’re a pretty harsh assessment.

Well, as you know, Jobs selected Tim Cook, then Apple’s chief operating officer, to replace him soon before his passing in 2011. And since then, there’s been no shortage of stories that attempt to address how Cook’s leadership style differs from Jobs. Search the web and I’m sure you’ll find quite a few. But for those of us in HR, an appropriate follow-up question might also be: Is HR viewed any differently today under Cook?

I recently ran across at least a partial answer to that in a post titled “These VPs report directly to Apple CEO Tim Cook” on Business Insider. The story reports that Apple recently expanded the group of executives featured on its executive profiles page—from nine to 14 (there are actually 15 there)—and now includes the company’s heads of special projects, environmental initiatives and, yes, even HR. All report to CEO Tim Cook BTW.

In case you’re wondering, HR today is led by Denise Young Smith, who previously headed HR for Apple’s retail division. Smith officially took over the top HR post earlier this year from John Podolny, who now heads Apple University and is also one of the 15 on the executive profiles page. We learned of Smith’s appointment just in time for us to include her on this year’s Top 100 list, though, despite our efforts, we weren’t able to determine who she reported to.

When I asked Jason Hanold, managing partner of Hanold Associates, an Evanston, Ill.-based executive search firm specializing in senior HR positions, whether things have changed under Cook as far as HR is concerned, his response was an unequivocal yes. He noted that a few folks he knows well recently joined Apple, and there’s little question the firm is elevating its people capability and emphasis.

Today, Hanold says, “they get that they will compete best and most sustainably with the best talent driving the most compelling innovation and products.” He adds that Apple is showing no signs of complacency, given the talent they are bringing on board today.

Personally, I would put that under the category of good news for the firm, though who can question Steve Jobs’ truly amazing track record. Who knows, perhaps this could even be a sign that going forward, HR at Apple won’t be nearly the enigma that it’s been in the past.

Twitter It!

Paving Co. to Pay for Steamrolling Whistleblowers

A Michigan paving company has been found in violation of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration for wrongfully terminating a foreman and two truck drivers after they had raised safety concerns after being directed to violate U.S. Department of Transportation mandated hours of service for commercial truck drivers.

According to a release from OSHA, the Pontiac, Mich.-based asphalt paving company was ordered to reinstate the three employees to their former positions with all pay, benefits and rights. The company was ordered to pay a total of $953,916 in damages: $243,916 in back wages to the drivers, $110,000 in compensatory damages and $600,000 in punitive damages.

“It is illegal for an employer to retaliate against employees who report work-related safety concerns or violations of federal transportation regulations, which require drivers to have a minimum 10-hour rest period between shifts,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA Dr. David Michaels. “OSHA is committed to protecting workers from retaliation for exercising basic worker rights.”

The Surface Transportation Assistance Act covers private-sector drivers and other employees of commercial motor carriers. Companies covered by the STAA may not discharge their employees or retaliate against them for refusing to operate a vehicle because doing so would either violate a federal commercial motor vehicle rule related to safety, health or security, or because the employee had a reasonable apprehension of serious injury to themselves or the public because of a vehicle’s safety or security condition.

Any of the parties in this case can file an appeal with the department’s Office of Administrative Law Judges.

OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions of the STAA and 21 other statutes protecting employees who report violations of various airline, commercial motor carrier, consumer product, environmental, financial reform, food safety, health care reform, nuclear, pipeline, worker safety, public transportation agency, railroad, maritime and securities laws.

Employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who raise various protected concerns or provide protected information to the employer or to the government. Employees who believe that they have been retaliated against for engaging in protected conduct may file a complaint with the secretary of labor to request an investigation by OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program. Detailed information on employee whistleblower rights, including fact sheets, is available at http://www.whistleblowers.gov.

Twitter It!

Increasing Pay, Increasing Challenges

Not sure how you’ll read this, whether you’re the full-glass or half-glass sort, but this latest survey from Mercer shows pay raises are growing steadily … albeit in .1-percent increments.

180274674 -- pay raiseAccording to the New York-based global consulting firm’s 2014/2015 U.S. Compensation Planning Survey, the average raise in base pay is expected to be 3 percent in 2015, up slightly from 2.9 percent in 2014, 2.8 percent in 2013 and 2.7 percent in 2012.

No leaps and bounds, certainly, but indicative — we’d all have to agree — of a steadily improving economy and job market, no?

Granted, .1-percent increments may not give your employees the wow factors they’re looking for as they mull whether to stick around or try out greener-looking pastures. And this can be especially worrisome when you consider what it will take to keep your highest-performing workers on board and happy.

Which leads me to another survey finding: that the range between increases to high-performing employees and those given to lower-performing employees continues to widen. Specifically, the survey shows, the former received average base-pay increases of 4.8 percent in 2014, compared to 2.6 percent for average performers and 0.1 percent for the lower performers.

“Differentiating salary increases based on performance has become the norm,” says Rebecca Adractas, principal in Mercer’s rewards consulting business. “Investing in those employees [who] are driving organizational performance has become a necessity.”

So has making sure the good ones have more than one reason — pay — to stay.

Mary Ann Sardone, partner in the firm’s talent practice and regional leader of its rewards segment, says employers are also “continuing to provide rewards beyond compensation, in the form of training and career development.”

“Employee engagement and retention continue to be a top priority,” she says.

So, on the glass-half-empty end, if you’re not doing everything you can to figure out who your top performers are, what they want and how you can provide it, you will inevitably be caught with your proverbial pants down.

On the glass-half-full side, at least things are looking up … ever-so slowly but surely.

Twitter It!