Wellness Battle: AARP vs. EEOC

A federal lawsuit was just filed against the government agency that handles the rules on workplace wellness programs, according to the New York Times, which calls the suit “the first major legal challenge of the regulations, and will add fuel to one of the hottest debates in healthcare.”

The main point of contention in the suit is whether some programs that require an employee to fill out a health risk assessment or undergo biometric testing for conditions such as high blood pressure are forcing workers to hand over private medical or genetic information.

The suit was filed by AARP, the consumer advocacy group that represents older Americans, in Federal District Court in Washington. In the suit, the group argues that the programs violate anti-discrimination laws aimed at protecting workers’ medical information. It also questions whether the programs are truly voluntary when the price of not participating can be high.

The suit takes aim at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency responsible for issuing the rules governing what employers can do. When the agency issued new rules on the programs in May, it said employers could set the incentive as high as 30 percent of the annual cost of a worker’s health insurance coverage.

The cost of individual coverage averages $6,435 a year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, which means refusing to participate could cost workers nearly $2,000.

Claiming that the commission reversed its longstanding position to protect employees’ privacy, the AARP described its members as facing “imminent harm flowing directly from the rules.” Older people would have to either incur significant financial penalties or divulge medical information that “once revealed, will never be confidential again.”

The AARP is seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the new rules, which go into effect in 2017.

James Gelfand, senior vice president for health policy for the Erisa Industry Committee, a trade group representing employers on issues like health benefits, was critical of the AARP suit. Employers, which are never told which employees have certain conditions, are not using the information to discriminate, he said.

“There’s no evidence of these things happening,” he told the Times.

The EEOC so far has declined to comment on the new lawsuit.

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Women’s Disparity, Dearth in STEM

When I was 10 years old, my father put a microscope/chemistry set under our Christmas tree — not for either of my studious siblings, 538088903-women-in-sciencebut for me, the nutty little gymnastic tumbler who rarely stopped long enough to observe much of anything, let alone how the world worked.

Years later, when I asked him about it, he told me he put that there because he sensed in me the inquisitiveness and intuition of a future scientist, like he had become and his father before him.

I never lived up to his hunch, though I did love math, and I certainly chose an inquisitive career. But I’ve often wondered what stopped me. Was there something in me or my environment that never allowed that chemistry set to become more of a beacon than a toy?

A new study from the University of Washington, Why Are Some STEM Fields More Gender Balanced Than Others? suggests there well may have been, a force that persists to this day, and one that could account for the varied representation — as well as the under-representation — of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers.

According to the study’s report, the most powerful factor driving this disparity and dearth is a “masculine culture” that makes many women feel like they don’t belong.

Granted, the masculine force in my case was completely encouraging, but was it the rest of my world around me — the lack of female role models in scientific jobs, the other stuff I was given to play with, the general expectations of what drives women onward and our perceptions of the fields that seem so out of reach?

Lead researcher and author Sapna Cheryan, a UW associate professor of psychology, says maybe so — maybe all that and more:

“Students are basing their educational decisions in large part on their perceptions of a field. And not having early experience with what a field is really like makes it more likely that they will rely on their stereotypes about that field and who is good at it.”

She and her fellow researchers analyzed more than 1,200 papers about women’s under-representation in STEM fields and, from those, identified 10 factors that impact gender differences in students’ interest and participation in STEM. Then they winnowed the list down to the three factors most likely to explain gendered patterns in the STEM fields — a lack of pre-college experience, gender gaps in belief about one’s abilities and that most powerful one, that masculine culture that discourages women from participating.

Cheryan isn’t the only one taking the declining, diverging number of women in STEM careers seriously. On Thursday, Accenture and Girls Who Code released their joint research finding that the share of U.S. women in technology jobs will decline from 24 percent to 22 percent by 2025 — “a new low over the next 10 years, despite so much focus recently on closing the gender gap in tech,” says Accenture’s report. In the same token, it states:

“[I]nterventions to encourage girls to pursue a computer-science education could triple the number of women in computing to 3.9 million, growing their share of technology jobs from 24 percent today to 39 percent in the same time frame.”

I’ll never forget my interview a few years back with Colleen Blake, one of our 2013 HR’s Rising Stars.  At the time, she was the senior director of global people operations for San Jose, Calif.-based Brocade Communication Systems Inc.

A busy mom, but with a rich past in information technology and science, she was also passionate about encouraging women in STEM careers. Her company, in fact, realizing its own deficits in that area, asked her to be its liaison and mentor for women pursuing those fields.

As she recalls, Brocade leaders “had approached me when I returned to work [after her daughter’s birth] and said, ‘Colleen, we have this problem encouraging women in this field.’ To be tapped on the shoulder like that felt like a real sign for me, that I was meant to do this — not just for me, but for my daughter as well.”

It does kind of baffle the mind that, with so much attention to the problem and with crusaders like Blake, we’re getting worse, not better. What this means for you, I can’t pretend to know, though creating better support systems for women in tech does come to mind. Perhaps it’s best to leave you with two cogent quotes from the Accenture release. The first, from Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code:

“Despite unprecedented attention and momentum behind the push for universal computer-science education, the gender gap in computing is getting worse. The message is clear: A one-size-fits-all model won’t work. This report is a rallying cry to invest in programs and curricula designed specifically for girls. We need a new mind-set and willingness to prioritize and focus on our nation’s girls, and we need it now.”

And this, from Julie Sweet, Accenture’s group chief executive for North America:

“Dramatically increasing the number of women in computing is critical to closing the computer-science skills gap facing every business in today’s digital economy. Without action, we risk leaving a large portion of our country’s talent on the sidelines of the high-value computing jobs that are key to U.S. innovation and competitiveness.”

Couldn’t agree more.

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Walking the Talk on Time Off

thinkstockphotos-163664798Bad bosses discourage workers from taking time off. Good bosses encourage it. The best bosses also get out of the office and use their own vacation days.

That’s the takeaway from the latest report by Project Time Off, a feisty little offshoot of the U.S. Travel Association that likes to remind us of how bad Americans are at taking vacation.

As we’ve noted here before, Project Time Off has chronicled the startling decline of vacation usage in the U.S.  In 2015, the estimated average for an American worker was 16.2 days a year, down from a long-term average of 20.3 days from 1976 to 2000.

The group’s latest report — produced with analysis by Oxford Economics of government data and survey results from marketing firm GfK  —  looks at the evident hypocrisy of managers who pay only lip service to the idea of taking time off.

The good news is that 93 percent of managers surveyed say they believe employees benefit from vacations. Almost as many say they actively encourage workers to take time off. But only 41 percent used all their own time in the previous year.

Why that matters: Research makes a compelling case that how managers treat their own vacation time has a powerful effect on workers, says Ron Friedman, a psychologist, author and consultant who studies the subject.

Writing last year in the Harvard Business Review, Friedman summed it up like this: “When managers forgo vacation time, it not only places them squarely on the road to burnout, it also generates unspoken pressures for everyone on their team to do the same.”

And that not only deprives workers of a break that helps them perform, but also deprives the organization of “fresh perspectives and creative solutions” they bring back, he writes. “Simply put, you’re far more likely to have a breakthrough idea while lounging on a beach in St. Martin than you are while typing away in your office cubicle.”

There’s also a financial cost, in the form of accrued vacation time as a balance-sheet liability. The Project Time Off study looked at 10-K filings by public companies to conclude they collectively have $272 billion in vacation liabilities on their books.

Why are so many managers unwilling to use all their time? Of course some people really do have crushing loads of work that no one else can do. And sometimes — if you’re launching a company, say — it really does make sense to power through a tough year with few days off.

But those cases are rare. If Reed Hastings of Netflix, Jim Moffatt of Deloitte and Barack Obama of — well, you know — can take vacations, c’mon — what’s so special about the rest of us?

Here are some of the real reasons, I suspect, that some managers routinely skip vacation. And none of them, I’ll warn you, are flattering:

  • They’re inefficient and unproductive. They tend to run around in circles and waste everyone’s time. They don’t get much done. So they feel a need to catch up by skipping their vacation.
  • Obsessive tendencies. They spend every day pushing their folks to compete. They can’t take time off or their numbers will tank. So they don’t.
  • Free-floating anxiety. The world is changing. Who knows? Their job might disappear overnight, or a rising star might replace them. Or someone might notice they are dispensable.
  • They really don’t have anything else to do. It’s sad, but I’ve known managers who gave everything up for work. They really don’t have much of a family or a life outside the office. For them, vacation is no vacation.

None of those apply to you, right? So do yourself — and your people — a favor. Take that time.

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Recruiting for the Cloud

Millions of people around the world use Amazon to find everything from light bulbs to rare works of art. Now, thanks to a new service offered by the Seattle-based behemoth, companies will soon be going to Amazon to find and recruit cloud engineers.  The Seattle-based company’s AWS Educate division will be offering free, self-paced  online courses and learning modules through its new Cloud Career Pathways program. Students who successfully complete the offerings will be matched with relevant internships and job openings via the AWS Educate Job Board, which in addition to Amazon itself features employers such as Cloudnexa, Splunk, Instructure and Udacity.

“We built AWS Educate with a vision of helping to cultivate a cloud-enabled workforce,” said Teresa Carlson, AWS vice president for worldwide public sector, in a statement. “We’ve designed Cloud Career Pathways that will help students get targeted experience and skills, and placed those side by side with relevant jobs from some of the most in-demand technology employers today.”

TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden notes in a post that Amazon’s move could make it a potential competitor to LinkedIn, which is using its Lynda.com acquisition to offer training in areas such as coding to professionals looking to acquire more skills. Amazon’s decision to offer the courses for free fits with its overall business model, Lunden writes, in which it “prices competitively — or not at all — to bring in more users, who either represent a sizeable revenue opportunity in aggregate, or (in free cases) lead to the potential of paying for other goods and services down the line.”

The Cloud Career Pathways are aligned with four over-arching “job families”: cloud architect, software developer, operations-support engineer, and analytics and big-data specialist, says Amazon. Each pathway includes a minimum of 30 hours of content designed to build core skill sets across the four job families. Once they’ve successfully completed the coursework (delivered via instructional videos, lab exercises, online courses, whitepapers and podcasts), the students will receive badges and certificates that appear on their AWS Educate profile, which they can use in their job applications. They can also apply directly to jobs and internships posted on the AWS Educate Job Board, says Amazon.

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Overtime Rules and Flexible Work

The U.S. Department of Labor’s proposed overtime rules may or may not go into effect on Dec. 1 of this year.

But if the new regulations do become reality, large employers could face unintended and unanticipated consequences, according to new WorldatWork research.

The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based non-profit HR association’s recent Quick Survey on Implementation of New FLSA Rules survey polled 948 WorldatWork members with compensation and HR generalist in their titles.

When asked how they are addressing or plan to address employees that were exempt under the old overtime rules who fall below the new standard salary level threshold, 73 percent of employers said they did or will raise some to the new minimum threshold, while reclassifying others to non-exempt. (Fifteen percent indicated that they did or will raise all to the new minimum salary threshold and maintain exemption, while 9 percent intend to reclassify all to non-exempt, and 4 percent said they were unsure of their plans.)

Among those who plan to reclassify employees to non-exempt, 49 percent said their workplace flexibility options will decrease. The number of large organizations planning to go this route is “of particular concern,” according to a WorldatWork statement summarizing the findings.

For example, 62 percent of responding companies with 10,000 to 39,999 employers said they intend to reduce the flexibility options they offer workers.

“The fact that larger employers are more likely to decrease flexibility will obviously affect more employees,” says Kerry Chou, senior practice leader at WorldatWork. “That being said, this result could be a byproduct of the fact that larger organizations are more likely to have formalized flex programs as opposed to ad hoc programs.”

Naturally, the new rules figure to have a significant financial impact on employers, with 69 percent of respondents telling WorldatWork that their overall costs have already increased or will increase as a result of the new standard salary-level threshold. Just 13 percent said that net costs have stayed or will stay the same, and they won’t require taking separate actions such as reclassifying employees as non-exempt to contain costs.

Some employers may look at cutting flexible work options as one way to offset additional expenses connected to new overtime rules, says Chou, adding that workplace flexibility can be a big factor in recruiting and retaining talent.

As such, companies that choose to offer fewer flexible work options may ultimately see higher turnover and greater difficulty in attracting replacements for departing employees, he says.

“The increased cost of overtime compliance, coupled with high turnover—or at least lower job satisfaction of current workers—are consequences that will need to be addressed.”

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Benchmarking and Executive Comp

Executive-pay packages often don’t include a comparison of company performance and its competitors are regularly approved by boards of directors, and many have wondered why.

New research by University of Michigan professor Martin Schmalz and co-authors Miguel Anton and Mireia Gine of the IESE Business School and Florian Ederer of the Yale School of Management helps explain why—and why benchmarking happens more in some industries than in others.

They found that when companies in an industry are owned by the same shareholders, the executives tend to be rewarded relatively more for industry performance and less for their own company’s performance.

“Many people have been puzzled why shareholders approve pay packages that lead to high pay without much benchmarking,” said Schmalz, the NBD Bancorp Assistant Professor of Business Administration and an assistant professor of finance. “But it’s actually not that puzzling once you analyze these shareholders’ economic incentives.”

Schmalz, Anton, Ederer and Gine examined 20 years’ worth of data from ExecuComp, which measures the compensation of top executives of the largest 2,000 U.S. companies.

The more a company’s institutional shareholders own big stakes in rival companies, the less pay managers receive for company performance and the more pay they receive in response to rivals’ performance.

The logic is easy to understand, the author contends:

If you benchmark performance against rival companies, that gives managers an incentive to compete aggressively. If you own a number of companies in the same industry, you don’t want that to happen,” Schmalz said. “If anything, you want them to cooperate more, because you want to improve the value of your entire portfolio, not just one company. Our findings suggest managerial contracts give managers economic reasons to act in their shareholders’ interests—it’s as simple as that.

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Just How Bad Are We at Engagement?

dv2171020Engagement was certainly on the minds of speakers and attendees at the recent HR Tech Conference in Chicago. (Here’s a link to the conference site, FYI, which already has information about next year’s event.)

From this session covered by Mark McGraw, Engaging the Talent of Tomorrow, to this one covered by David Shadovitz, What’s Driving Engagement, there seemed to be a lot of buzz about what’s working at some companies (especially in McGraw’s post), what needs to be happening in terms of technology, training and the treatment of employees (particularly in Shadovitz’s post), and a whole lot more.

One study released at the conference but not mentioned yet came from Saba, showing just how bad companies still are at simply carrying out the basics — not only in terms of engagement, but overall management tactics too. That survey, completed in August, shows most businesses are “not in tune with their employees’ perceptions of engagement, training and career development,” according to Saba’s release.

With so much attention being paid to the need for keeping employees engaged, retained and productive, you’d think most companies are at least asking for more feedback, or figuring out better ways to ask for more feedback. Saba says no, that is not happening much at all.

For the most part, the report says, companies do not have continuous channels for engagement and feedback because the majority of employees are rarely asked for their feedback — less than a few times a year. Other highlights of the August survey of 1,200 U.S. HR managers and employees include these two points, suggesting some troubling gender issues wrapped up in all this:

  • Sixty-eight percent of baby boomers and 61 percent of female employees indicated they were rarely asked for feedback, versus 56 percent of male employees.
  • At the same time, women were also less comfortable giving their input. The survey showed only 56 percent of women are comfortable giving feedback, compared to 63 percent of men. “This implies a statistical disconnect that needs to be immediately addressed by HR and learning teams,” the report says.

Another gem from the release:

“Based on these statistics and anomalies in engagement, it’s understandable why more than half of HR leaders (51 percent) and employees (52 percent) believe their organizations do not have a good employee-feedback process.”

In terms of initiating better training programs to keep employees producing and staying put, companies aren’t doing so good there, either. Only 22 percent of employees believe their organizations are very effective in providing easy access to training and development.

What’s more, 86 percent of millennials, often the highest flight risk in the organization, indicated they would be more inclined to stay at their current company if they were given access to quality training and development. So what’s the holdup here? As Theresa Damato, vice president of global marketing at Saba, sees it:

“While most organizations will agree that talent is their most important asset, [this] survey highlights the struggle many have in effectively engaging, assessing and developing their people.

“Organizations need to focus on the critical role continuous development plays in employee engagement and retention. They also need to find new ways to improve effectiveness of talent programs through more frequent and consistent feedback channels.”

And for the most part, she and others at Saba indicate, that is hardly happening at all.

Except, it would seem, in the handful of success stories — or at least stories of successful starting points and strategic approaches — shared at HR Tech.

My guess is, if we’re doing this bad at the feedback basics, then this engagement conundrum/roadblock is  going to be on the minds of attendees and the agendas of many conferences to come.

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Millennials: Not So Entrepreneurial

Earlier this month I wrote about some surprising research that suggests many millennial workers defy the slacker stereotypes and are apt to be workaholics.

ThinkstockPhotos-485914233Here’s another surprise: It turns out that millennials are shaping up to be less entrepreneurial than previous generations, too. That defies not only the general preconception about this generation, but the millennial self-image as well.

Add these findings together and we may be getting a glimpse of the future: Millennial workers, if treated right, may turn out to be more industrious and loyal to their employers than anyone imagined.

The entrepreneurship data came early this year in a study by the Small Business Administration that didn’t get as much attention as it deserved. Credit goes to the Economic Innovation Group and EY for highlighting the data in September along with results of their own survey of millennial workers. (Hat tip also to the Washington Post’s Wonkblog for reporting this first.)

millennial-entrepreneursSBA economist Daniel Wilmoth’s study, published in February, used Census data to look at self-employment rates by age for three generations: millennials (born after 1981), Gen-Xers (1963-1981) and baby boomers (1944-1962). In short, he found that self-employment rates declined for each succeeding generation (see graphic above) .

“At age 30, less than 4 percent of millennials reported self-employment in their primary job in the previous year, compared with 5.4 percent for Generation X and 6.7 percent for baby boomers,” Wilmoth writes.

Of course, self-employment isn’t quite the same as entrepreneurship. And each generation grew up in different economies, with different technology. And we don’t know what may happen as that generation ages. But I think this research provides persuasive — and surprising — insight into millennial workers.

Those of us who  — ahem — happen to be in an older generation may not be the only ones surprised. Millennials might be as well. The Economic Innovation Group survey found that 55 percent of millennials surveyed believe their generation is more entrepreneurial than those that came before.

And 62 percent said they’ve considered starting their own business. But 42 percent said they can’t afford to take that step.

Little wonder: It’s well known that millennials have higher student-debt loads that previous generations did at comparable ages, and that their entry into the job market often was hampered by the Great Recession.

So it’s not unreasonable for employers to be optimistic about millennial workers. They may not turn out to be the job-hopping, disengaged, self-centered population some have imagined. If nothing else, this number from the Economic Innovation Group survey should be encouraging: 88 percent of millennials agreed that “hard work is an important factor to get ahead in life.”






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Zenefits: Unicorn Comeback?

Remember Zenefits — the cloud-based benefits-administration startup that was going to revolutionize the industry by providing a benefits platform to small and mid-sized businesses and which was valued at $4 billion just two years after it was founded? The high-flying unicorn plummeted back to earth amid revelations that Zenefits’ co-founder and CEO, Parker Conrad, led an effort to help the company’s sales reps skip over state insurance-licensing requirements so they could start selling as soon as possible. More fuel was added to the bonfire when details started emerging about Zenefits’ rowdy office culture, in which managers had to send out a memo specifically banning employees from having sex in the building’s stairwells. The company parted ways with Conrad, laid off hundreds of employees, and cut its valuation in half in order to avoid a lawsuit by investors.

Now the company is struggling to regain its once-lofty perch, but its got robust new rivals to contend with. In today’s New York Timestechnology columnist Farhad Manjoo interviews Zenefits’ current CEO, David Sacks, about its soon-to-be-released software redesign, the internal reforms he undertook to fix the company’s culture and its new branding campaign, which include billboards throughout Silicon Valley that ask: “What is Z2?” In the wake of Conrad’s resignation, Manjoo writes, Sacks worked hard to rebuild Zenefits’ reputation by being open and honest about previous wrongdoings, describing his strategy as “admit, fix, settle and repeat.”

But Zenefits’ path to redemption faces roadblocks in the form of  new, well-funded competitors such as Gusto, which has 40,000 paying customers and was recently valued at $1 billion, Manjoo writes. Gusto has a much different corporate culture than did the earlier incarnation of Zenefits, where the philosophy had been “ready, fire, aim”: Gusto is taking a slower, more deliberate approach to building its business under the leadership of its CEO, Joshua Reeves. Its offices “has the air of a meditative retreat,” Manjoo writes, with plants, couches and a ban on wearing shoes “to make it feel more like home than work.”

Yet regardless of whether Zenefits or Gusto ultimately prevails, this heated competition for the SMB market probably means the ultimate winners will be the small to mid-sized companies that had previously been unable to afford the sort of benefits-administration software that large companies have long enjoyed. Despite the sordid behavior that marked its rise, Zenefits’ early founders at least deserve props for being one of the first to use the cloud to help this long-underserved market.


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What HR Wants in Entry-Level Workers

If new SHRM research is any indication, HR professionals have a pretty good idea of the attributes they’re looking for in entry-level job candidates.

HR leaders aren’t quite so sure, however, of their organization’s ability to spot the skills they’re searching for.

Produced in collaboration with Mercer, SHRM’s just-released Entry-Level Applicant Job Skills Survey polled 521 HR professionals. Overall, 97 percent of respondents said dependability was very or extremely important in determining whether an applicant possessed the necessary qualifications to be hired into an entry-level position, according to SHRM. Eighty-seven percent said the same about integrity, with 84 percent and 83 percent saying that respect and teamwork, respectively, were very or extremely important.

In addition, 78 percent indicated that dependability was one of the three most important traits an entry-level candidate can possess. Forty-nine percent placed integrity in their top three, with 36 percent considering teamwork a top-three quality.

Looking ahead at what skills and traits would best serve entry-level job seekers in the coming three to five years, 62 percent pointed to adaptability, while 49 percent singled out initiative and 49 percent said critical thinking skills would be most desirable.

Respondents were also asked to gauge their faith in the methods their firms use to assess the aforementioned qualities (and a handful of others, such as professionalism and customer focus). Their confidence levels aren’t exactly off the charts.

With regard to evaluating the integrity of an entry-level candidate, for instance, a mere 15 percent said they thought the phone interviews they conduct with these applicants were effective. Just 13 percent of HR professionals reported confidence in their company’s ability to accurately assess integrity through telephone screens.

A simple phone conversation will only tell you so much about a candidate, of course. Respondents did feel that they could get a good sense of an applicant’s character in person, with 96 percent saying they were very or extremely confident or moderately confident or confident in on-site interviews as a way to assess integrity. Ninety-five percent expressed similar belief in panel interviews, with 97 percent saying the same about situational judgment tests.

Still, just 20 percent of those surveyed described themselves as being very or extremely confident in their organization’s ability to effectively assess the overall skills of entry-level applicants, while 11 percent said they were not at all confident or only slightly confident.

Such findings “may be due to an over-reliance on applications and resumes, even though most HR professionals believe them to be ineffective in assessing entry-level candidates, simply because they are ingrained in our culture,” says Evren Esen, director of workforce analytics at SHRM.

“This is a clear indication for a need for new, more effective approaches,” says Esen, noting that improvements in the use of predictive data modeling and assessment technologies could begin to influence the methods HR professionals use to evaluate entry-level candidates.

“Although few HR professionals indicated that their organizations currently used data-based assessment methods such as personality and cognitive tests or simulations,” adds Esen, “the use of these tools may grow in the future.”


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