Top Stories on HREOnline Last Week

These were the most-read stories on HREOnline™ last week, in case you missed any:

1. Technological Revolution: Sue Meisinger’s latest HR Leadership column:

The ease of using social-media tools, combined with recent indications that the Democratic-controlled National Labor Relations Board will be examining acceptable uses of technology by employees — and not just union employees — means that HR leaders should be taking a hard look at the issue as well.

2. Bridging the Credibility Gap: a contributed article by Sarita Bhakuni and Michelle Johnston, both with CPP.

To retain top talent, organizations need to start talking to their employees. When left in the dark, people draw conclusions which tend to be worse than reality. HR leaders should also be aware of uncharacteristic behavior by their managers, which often indicates high levels of stress.

3. Court Rules for Third-Party Retaliation Claims, by Tom Starner

A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to reactivate a lawsuit — based on a claim that a company retaliated against one employee by firing her fiancee — should result in more lawsuits being filed by spouses and significant others. But the unanimous decision did not define just how expansive the “zone of interests” is, leaving HR leaders in the dark about where to draw the line.

4. Marketing HR Messages, by Kristen B. Frasch

Should HR leaders turn over their internal communications and engagement efforts to marketing professionals? No, say HR experts, but their organizations sure could benefit by HR learning more about the marketing mind-set.

5. Temp Salaries Rising, By Michael O’Brien

Wages for skilled, temporary workers are beginning to inch up from their low points, according to new benchmarking information. And since demand for temps — which historically precedes the demand for permanent workers — is increasing, does this mean the job market is finally improving?

Numbers of Unemployed and Disabled On the Rise

I guess it should come as no real surprise, considering today’s economy and aging workforce, that the numbers of unemployed and disabled Americans is rising. According to this recent study by Allsup, a Social Security disability provider, unemployment for people with disabilities continued to significantly outpace the unemployment rate for other workers throughout 2010.

In fact, the study shows the number of people applying for SSDI benefits reached a record 2.9 million applicants in 2010, the highest on record since the SSDI program began. It appears the number of people who leave the workforce due to a disability and then come to realize they can’t return is climbing.

This recent piece we ran on our magazine’s website, by the managing editor of our sister magazine, Risk & Insurance®, confirms this trend through 2009 figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

All of which can and should serve as a reminder to all employers to make sure their disability hiring and return-to-work practices are as proactive as they can be and are making full use of all the resources at their disposal. For instance, this story came across my radar screen about the good work going on in Oklahoma, where that state’s department of rehabilitation services just got a hefty $2.3 million in reimbursement from the Social Security Administration for helping a total of 2,292 clients start new jobs in the 2010 fiscal year. They may not all be as aggressive as Oklahoma’s, but state and federal agencies everywhere are biting at the bit to help employers find good hires from the ranks of the disabled and unemployed. There are tons of resources, including, of course, the Americans with Disabilities Act home page.

Do your due diligence, of course. Know the rules of the ADA and the Family and Medial Leave Act as they apply to returning to work after a disability. Companies continually seem to be getting into trouble around this, the latest on my radar screen being a $3.2 million settlement between the Equal Employment Opportuity Commission and supermarket giant Supervalu.

Bottom line, though, companies can and should be doing more, within legal guidelines, to help put disabled Americans to work. As disability consultant Milt Wright told R&I‘s Managing Editor Cyril Tuohy, they’re “the most overeducated and underemployed people in the country.”

High-Impact HR

This morning, the good folks at Bersin & Associates released a new report based on surveys and interviews at more than 720 global organizations, which finds that overall spending levels, organization structure and team size have far less impact on business performance than the skills of the HR professionals themselves.

The report, entitled The High-Impact HR Organization: Top 10 Best Practices on the Road to Excellence, is based on a two-year global benchmarking study that looked at 14 talent management and HR effectiveness measures across global businesses, and included a company’s ability to source the best talent, hire and onboard top candidates, identify and develop leaders, build a culture of learning, allocate compensation effectively and drive high performance through coaching and feedback.

“This research clearly shows that the days of bloated HR organizations focused on administrative tasks are over,” said company CEO and president Josh Bersin in a press release announcing the findings. ”

Among the findings, the report states that companies that empower key HR professionals to take on a “strategic business partner” role create HR teams that outperform the average HR organization by 25 percent or more.

It also found that companies that focus on modern tools for empowerment, including knowledge sharing, collaboration and social networking, are delivering twice the business improvement of those that focus on traditional HR strategies such as pay-for-performance or new HR information management systems.

The report also will become a foundational piece of research for the firm’s new HR Research Practice, which offers benchmarks, tools, case studies, operational frameworks and proven service models that define best-practice human resources organizations.

“This whole new practice takes an overarching approach in order to give a much bigger picture for our clients,” says Stacey Harris, director of strategic HR research at Bersin & Associates.

“The challenge for HR professionals today is living up to the high expectations that come with a seat at the table — expectations to drive business results through people and culture,” she says. “Our new HR Practice and this particular body of research reveal the keys to driving impact. We are also addressing long-standing requests by our members to help them prioritize and align their HR strategies with the business to deliver the greatest return.”

The link to an upcoming webinar featuring Stacey Harris introducing the new practice can be seen here:

The Down Side of Wellness

You know those cautionary asides you see in stories — especially now that the web and newspapers are filled with articles on diet and excercise — about how individuals should check with their physicians before increasing physical activity?

Most people probably skim right over that warning. But, unfortunately, those things are written for a reason — as one HR executive in Singapore recently found out.

According to this New Zealand news site, 54-year-old Ong Joo Aun, an HR leader who was appearing on a reality show, Lose to Win, lost consciousness after the daily brisk walk of two kilometers (1.2 miles).

“Lose To Win” encourages participants to lose weight, up to 5Kg (about 11 pounds) per month through numerous nutrition workshops, physical exercises and fitness assessments. The cash prize for the winner is reportedly $5,000.

This is probably something HR leaders should keep in mind as their organizations roll out their wellness initiatives and incentives.

Your Attendance Policies Could Buy You a Lawsuit

A few (let’s call them troublesome) details about intermittent leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act came across my desk in an e-mail today that I decided to pass on because some of those details were news to me.

More importantly, the e-mail contained a link to an article by Anne E. Larson, chair of the labor and employment practice group at Chicago-based Much Shelist, that made it pretty clear some of those details would be news to HR practitioners as well, since they aren’t spelled out real clearly in the FMLA.

The note referred to a Jan. 6, 2010 federal court decision in the case of Jackson vs. Jernberg Industries Inc. that sided with the plaintiff, Matthew L. Jackson, who was discharged after numerous unscheduled absenses and late arrivals that he told his employer were related to a wrist condition without providing a written note from his doctor.

The company thought the combination of it’s doctor’s-note requirement and no-call/no-show attendance policy would support the firing. The court judge, in the Northern District of Illinois, said otherwise — that, in fact, Chicago-based Jernberg Industries’  doctor’s-note policy “interfered” with the plaintiff’s exercise of FMLA by requiring him to produce a doctor’s note after each absence when his physician had already provided a single certification supporting the need for intermittent FMLA leave for one year.

While conceding that FMLA regulations do not address the legality of doctor’s-note policies, the judge determined that recertification is the preferred method of verifying that an employee’s time off is FMLA-related. (The law specifies when an employer can request a doctor’s recertification. So does Larson, in her article.) There’s also a sticky wicket around going through the allowed ropes to verify a doctor’s recertification, which doesn’t do much to enhance the employer-employee relationship, Larson says.

The judge also cited other cases supporting an employee’s own “word” for verification of FMLA-related intermittent leave, but as Larson notes, “asking an employee to provide the reason for his or her absence … is not the same as ‘verifying’ the articulated reason.”

It’s worth a look. Larson goes on to discuss what this employer could and should have done — and what all employers can do in this situation — like simply discharing the plaintiff under its no-call/no-show policy alone, which would have been allowed under the FMLA.

Not only is it worth a look; it’s probably worth a conversation with your labor and employment counsel. You might want to update your employee handbook, too.

Spare a Dime for a Co-Worker?

In keeping with the spirit of my last post, about corporate social responsibility, I thought I’d give a nod to Northwestern University’s new employee-to-employee assistance fund, called NU Cares, which is intended to help out Northwestern staff and faculty who find themselves in a financial bind due to an unexpected illness or emergency.

Launched in December, the fund had received more than 85 donations in the past month, according to Lori Anne Henderson, the Evanston, Ill.-based university’s director of work/life resources. She told a reporter from The Daily Northwestern, the university’s student newspaper, that a committee made up of faculty and staff members will review applications and award grants based on need. The money does not have to be repaid.

Northwestern is hardly alone. A number of other companies have employee-assistance funds, including Alaska Airlines, which launched its fund back in 1992. The airline encourages its employees to donate $1 per paycheck to the fund; last year, 30 percent donated and the fund raised a total of $286,000, according to the company. Donations to the fund, which is registered as a 501(c)(3) charity, are tax deductible. Other organizations with similar funds in place include US Bank, Regency Healthcare, Wellesley College and the Commonwealth of Virginia.

For companies that don’t have such funds in place: Yes, there are many worthy charities that benefit society, but it’d also be nice to give folks the opportunity to help out, anonymously, a co-worker a few cubicles down whom they know is really struggling. Wouldn’t that be a boost to employee morale and engagement?

Supreme Court Upholds Background Screening

In a unanimous decision issued today, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (something they seem to do a lot) and rejected an attempt to set a stricter standard for employee background screening.

The court’s opinion (PDF) in NASA vs. Nelson is here.

“The Court rejects the argument that the Government has a constitutional burden to demonstrate that its employment background questions are “necessary” or the least restrictive means of furthering its interests. So exacting a standard runs directly contrary to [previous case law], writes Justice Samuel Alito, in the opinion joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, and  Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the case.

Here’s HREOnline’s round-up of the cases the High Court agreed to hear this year, including this one.

Here’s some analysis from Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA, who blogs at The Volokh Conspiracy.

Mining Fatalities

I see from Jared’s post yesterday that the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in Montcoal, W.Va., which left 29 workers dead, was one of the deadliest workplace tragedies last year.

Sad to say, those 29 workers equaled only 40 percent of the 71 miners killed in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Twenty-three workers were killed in surface mining accidents, while 48 died underground. The leading cause of coal mining deaths was ignition or explosion, followed by powered haulage (such as conveyors or rail cars) and roof falls. For workers mining metals and nonmetals, the leading cause was powered haulage, followed by falling or sliding material, and machinery.

According to OSHA, nearly 13 percent of all fatal workplace injuries in 2009 were in the mining industry, ranking second on the list with half of the No. 1 most-hazardous industry: agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting. That occupation accounted for 26 percent of workplace fatalities. See the full list here (PDF).

The mining administration has initiated a number of outreach and enforcement initiatives inlcuding education on health and safety standards, identifying and aggressively inspecting mines with histories of safety issues, and programs to reduce the backlog of contested citations.

One effort — at the legislative level — that so far has gone nowhere is a bill that could hold HR executives criminally liable for safety violations.

The bill, which was introduced in the last Congressional session, began as a response to the Upper Big Branch disaster, but morphed into what some experts called the most sweeping changes to the Occupational Safety and Health Act in its 40-year history.

With Republicans in charge of the House, it’s likely that the bill, even if re-introduced, will remain a no-go for the foreseeable future. But effective efforts to make this deadly occupation safer would be warranted.

Get Socially Responsible, HR!

Elaine Cohen, who spent 20 years in leadership positions at Procter & Gamble and Unilever, says the time is past due for HR leaders everywhere to start showing some leadership on corporate social responsibility. Rather than trying to make their companies better corporate citizens, she writes, HR has spent the past two years focused instead on carrying out layoffs and restructurings to cope with the downturn.

What does CSR actually mean when it comes to HR? According to Cohen, it can mean creating a sustainable workplace by getting employees actively engaged in efforts to reduce the organization’s carbon footprint. Too often, Cohen writes, HR is either a bystander or an impediment to such efforts. Sustainability is rarely, if ever, part of the management-development curriculum at most companies, and far too few companies emphasize the topic in their recruiting materials.

Companies that want to be winners, not losers, in the arena of employee development, retention and engagement will want to focus on sustainability, equal rights in the workplace and employee well-being in 2011, Cohen writes. Sustainability is definitely a draw for Gen Y employees, as this HRE cover story noted.

CSR in the workplace will go nowhere if the person at the top isn’t convinced, of course. But that doesn’t mean HR can’t at least try.

File Under: Too Much Information

And a happy Monday morning to you all!

Thanks to the good folks over at The Associated Press, which brings us news this morning that Swiss bank UBS is changing its way-too-specific dress-code guidelines after it was recently mocked in business circles.

From the AP:

The bank said Monday it is whittling down its 44-page style guide to a more modest booklet that will concentrate on how to impress customers with a polished presence and sense of Swiss precision and decorum.

“We’re reviewing what is important to us,” UBS spokesman Andreas Kern told The Associated Press.

The existing code tells female employees how to apply makeup, what kind of perfume to wear and what color stockings and lingerie are acceptable. It advises them not to show roots if they color their hair and to avoid black nail polish.

“You can extend the life of your knee socks and stockings by keeping your toenails trimmed and filed,” UBS tells its female staff. “Always have a spare pair: stockings can be provisionally repaired with transparent nail polish and a bit of luck.”

While the old version of the dress code may be excessively granular about how its employees should present themselves, The Leader Board found at least one UBS rule that it hopes is retained for the new edition:

Both sexes were advised to avoid garlic or onion breath.