When Peers Speak, Employees Listen

Who has the most sway over the financial decisions your employees make?

The answer seems to be “everyone but their employers,” according to a recent International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans poll.

At a recent meeting for its board and committee members, the Brookfield, Wis.-based non-profit organization asked 150 benefit industry leaders to name the single-biggest influencer on their workers’ financial decisions. In response, 74 percent of those on hand said their employees’ money moves are most affected by the input of family members, friends, co-workers and peers.

While financial education has become a larger part of many companies’ broader employee wellness initiatives, IFEBP finds more employers expanding their efforts in an attempt to also reach those who have the ear of their workers when it comes to financial matters.

The foundation’s Financial Education for Today’s Workforce: 2016 Survey Results report, for example, saw two-thirds of employers offering financial education to their employees. The same report found 40 percent of employers saying they provide financial education to spouses and partners of employees, while 41 percent offer financial education opportunities outside of normal business hours and 20 percent make financial education available on the weekends, so spouses and partners can attend.

Meanwhile, another IFEBP report suggests that a majority of organizations are turning to employees’ peer groups to spread the word, with 63 percent of employers saying they are relying on word-of-mouth communication via workplace “champions” to increase employees’ awareness of benefits such as financial education.

Such employee advocates can play an invaluable role in the effort to increase financial education throughout the organization, said Julie Stich, research director at IFEBP, in a recent statement.

“In our focus groups, surveys and case study work, we’ve seen the importance of workplace champions,” said Stich. “Champions are passionate about the benefit in question—in this case, financial education.”

These “champions” often embrace the education they receive from their employer and pursue more information on their own, she added, noting that 75 percent of employers who indicated in the aforementioned report that their organizations use a “champion approach” report success with this strategy.

“They’ll adopt the benefit in their own life and eagerly talk with their co-workers about it as well,” said Stich. “Their enthusiasm, knowledge and ‘peer’ status grabs their co-workers’ attention and trust.”

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Merck Suit Certified as Collective Action

In case you missed it, last week the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey granted plaintiffs’ motion to conditionally certify a collective action under the Equal Pay Act in the $250-million gender-discrimination suit filed against pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. Inc.

The Court further ordered that thousands of female Merck sales representatives should be given notice and an opportunity to join the case. The lawsuit alleges that Merck systematically discriminates against female sales representatives, and pregnant women in particular, in pay, promotions and other terms and conditions of employment. The Court held that plaintiffs presented sufficient evidence of discrimination in pay to warrant notifying women across the country.

The Court’s decision also affirmed that an internal Merck policy purporting to govern contact between Merck employees and “third parties” does not bar Merck female sales representatives from communicating with Plaintiffs’ counsel and joining this lawsuit.

Some background on the case: In May 2013, Kelli Smith filed a class action lawsuit in New Jersey federal court alleging that pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., Inc. (“Merck”) discriminates against female employees in its sales force in pay and promotions. Ms. Smith also claims that Merck discriminates against pregnant women and women who take maternity leave.

Early in 2014, several other women from across the country who had experienced similar discrimination at Merck joined Ms. Smith’s lawsuit. They too alleged class wide discrimination against female employees in pay and promotion, and on the basis of pregnancy. Although Merck sought to have the plaintiffs’ claims dismissed, the court denied Merck’s request.

Just how big this collective action will get is ultimately anyone’s guess, but the case should act as a stark reminder that “equal pay” is still largely a concept — and not a reality — in today’s business world.

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Techniques for Weeding Out Psychopaths

We’ve all known one or two in our careers, right? That toxic personality, be it a colleague or supervisor, who seems out to get 487132238 -- psychopathyou or others? Some call them bullies. Others call them psychopaths.

Well this report from JD Supra Business Advisor that appeared recently on the HR Grapevine site not only puts a label on these miserable folks, what JD Supra refers to as the “Dark Triad,” but suggests there are ways of weeding them out of your workforce.

While many companies use psychometric testing during the recruitment process, few test for indicators of social malevolence. But malevolence tests are out there, as even a simple Google search reveals.

So are bullies and other psychopathic souls, as this latest report from Slater and Gordon reveals. Specifically, it finds almost six in 10 people have witnessed or suffered bullying in the workplace, with more than two thirds of witnesses saying a colleague was subjected to a sustained period of harassment, and more than 37 percent saying they had been bullied themselves.

Assessment tools aimed specifically at identifying traits of both bullies and Dark Triad types are out there now, experts say, ranging from basic questionnaires to more sophisticated probes that necessitate administration by qualified clinicians under scientifically controlled conditions.

As the report states:

“The Dark Triad share a number of overlapping features including social malevolence, callousness, aggression, manipulative behavior, duplicity, a lack of empathy and a tendency toward self-promotion. Studies have shown a strong correlation between psychopathy and bullying behavior, and these studies have indicated that psychopaths are fairly well-represented in leadership positions.”

In fact, here’s a fairly well-circulated recent report about an HR manager who went “ballistic” on a female employee who called in sick and refused to reveal what her illness was.

Justine Turnbull, a Sydney, Australia-partner with employment law firm Seyfarth Shaw and one of the authors of the JD Supra report, didn’t have many specifics to offer about the assessment tools mentioned, but did share the following:

“Our main advice to HR professionals who want to detect this behavior early on is two-fold: Get independent professionals to do the psychometric testing rather than trying to assess yourself, link any requirements for testing to the inherent requirements of each role and ensure these requirements are spelled out in advance for all candidates.

“For example, an inherent requirement that links to the type of testing we’re talking about would be ‘ability to work in a team-based environment with colleagues at different levels.’ “

I reached out to Tish Squillaro and Timothy I. Thomas about this. They’re business consultants, leadership coaches and co-authors of a new book, HeadTrash 2, that looks at ways to deal with unruly people, both at work and at home.

They chose to share their words of wisdom together:

“… our focus is to give clients tools to identify and deal with ‘Dark Triad’ behaviors they may encounter [and to understand] that such behaviors in co-workers, bosses or subordinates are tied to the emotional baggage we call ‘HeadTrash.’ “

In their new book, they list seven types of such trash — anger, arrogance, control, fear, guilt, insecurity and paranoia. Coping tools they recommend include “using humor to diffuse anger, asking control freaks to delegate and drawing boundaries to stop guilt trips,” they say. Arrogance, they add, “is often tied to narcissistic tendencies, while anger is linked to frustration and is dangerous as it can manifest as intense fury, rage or even workplace violence.”

They go on:

“While human resource executives have many tools at their disposal to address these behaviors, it’s also important for employees to learn to identify and manage negative actions by others in the workplace. We believe by understanding the emotional triggers that may instigate this type of behavior, individuals can learn ways to navigate around them.”

I have no doubt these authors, and surely a host of other folks, would be willing to help you set up such a detection and navigation training program.

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Employee Handbooks Under Scrutiny

OK, pop quiz: What’s the difference between these two employee-handbook policies?

  1. “Be respectful to the company, other employees, customers, partners, and competitors.”
  2. “Each employee is expected to work in a cooperative manner with management/supervision, co-workers, customers and vendors.”

One, according to the National Labor Relations Board, is legal. The other is not. (I’ll tell you which was which in a minute.)

Don’t fret if you have trouble seeing the difference. That’s why we have lawyers. And that’s why there’s plenty of work for them as the ThinkstockPhotos-517631808NLRB cracks down on employee-handbook language — including provisions that once were standard — that it says is too broad.

In a series of rulings the agency has told companies to revise policies that infringe on rights of workers — unionized or not — to talk to each other about the company in person or through social media.

“Employers are really waking up to this,” says Lauri F. Rasnick, a member of the firm at Epstein Becker Green of New York. “For a long time, nonunionized employers didn’t give a lot of thought to NLRB decisions.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce contends the effort is part of an anti-employer crusade. In a highly critical December report titled “Theater of the Absurd: The NLRB Takes on the Employee Handbook,” the trade group argues that the agency “has undertaken a campaign to outlaw heretofore uncontroversial rules found in employee handbooks and in employers’ social media policies.”

Worse, according to the chamber: the NLRB’s guidance to employers often is contradictory, creating “a morass of confusion that leaves employers wondering just how they are to exercise effective control over their workplaces.”

Rasnick agrees. “I do think that’s part of the challenge for employers,” she says, noting that NLRB decisions aren’t always consistent. And they are continuing to evolve, with confidentiality provisions attracting more scrutiny in recent rulings, she says.

The latest headline came this month after an administrative law judge ruled that Quicken Loans and five related companies had illegal rules in its employee handbook, which it calls “The Big Book.” (Despite the Quicken name, the companies are not owned by software company Intuit; they’re led by Dan Gilbert, majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers.)

To the untutored eye, many of the rules seem pretty standard stuff. An example: “Think before you Tweet. Or post, comment or pin. What you share can live forever. If it doesn’t belong on the front page of The New York Times, don’t put it online.”

The problem with this rule, wrote judge David I. Goldman in his April 7 ruling:  Although the policy doesn’t tell workers they can’t bad-mouth the company online, “an employee considering this suggestion would reasonably feel chilled by this rule from expressing negative (but protected) information” about the employer.

The companies are appealing the decision to the full board. But there’s little indication that the NLRB is letting up on the effort.

Back to our pop quiz. Of those two employee-handbook policies, the first (“be respectful”) is illegal, according to the NLRB’s general counsel. The second (“work in a cooperative manner”) is OK.

The problem is in telling workers they must be “respectful” to management, as well as customers and others, wrote Richard F. Griffin Jr. in a memo last year. An employee might reasonably see that as a ban on complaining about the company, he wrote.

The second example is legal, Griffin wrote. “Employees would reasonably understand that it is stating the employer’s legitimate expectation that employees work together in an atmosphere of civility.”

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Opioids Continue to Be a Workplace Scourge

158362155We’ve all heard a lot during this presidential election season about the heroin epidemic that has seemingly left no corner of the United States untouched. Experts say an important factor that led to today’s skyrocketing rates of addiction has been the widespread abuse of opioid prescriptions for painkillers, including those prescribed by doctors for employees covered by workers comp claims. A new report from Castlight Health reveals that this prescription abuse continues today, accounting for a significant chunk of healthcare spending.

Castlight’s report, The Opioid Crisis in America’s Workforce, finds that nearly one third (32 percent) of opioid prescriptions subsidized by U.S. employers are being abused by a small number of employees — just 4.5 percent of the population, accounting for 40 percent of opioid prescription spending. Baby boomers are four times as likely to abuse opioids as millennials, the report finds, and workers with a mental health diagnosis are three times more likely to abuse opioids as those without.

The report is based on aggregated reporting from medical and pharmacy-based claims, including de-identified and anonymous health-data reporting covering nearly 1 million Americans who use Castlight’s health-benefits platform. The report defines “opioid abuse” as receiving more than a cumulative 90-day supply of opioids and receiving an opioid prescription from four or more providers over the five-year period between 2011 and 2015.

In addition to the cost (opioid abusers typically cost employers twice as much as non-abusers in medical expenses annually), opioid abuse lowers productivity and potentially puts other employees at risk, says Kristin Torres Mowat, Castlight’s senior vice president of health plan and strategic data operations. Opioid prescription abuse results in more than 16,000 deaths in the United States each year, the report notes.

The report finds that patients living in low-income areas are twice as likely as patients living in high-income areas to abuse prescription painkillers. The South is home to a significant chunk of opioid abusers, with 22 of the top 25 U.S. cities for opioid abuse located in Southern states.

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What Winning at Wellness Looks Like

Curious to see what makes for a top-notch wellness program?

I’ll assume you said yes, which means you might want to take a peek at the new U.S. Chamber of Commerce Winning with Wellness report.

Released earlier this month, the new publication is designed to “demystify” health promotion initiatives, looking at some of the “fundamentals of workplace wellness programs,” including evidence-based critical components such as developing a plan and applying behavior change methodologies, for example.

The report also lays out “10 Essential Steps in Designing a Workplace Wellness Program,” urging employers to “rely on evidence-based best practice strategies and tailor interventions to their populations” when plotting out wellness initiatives.

To begin planning, for instance, the report suggests that employers assess the organization’s readiness to adopt a workplace wellness strategy, asking “crucial questions” such as: Are there business plans in place that support or impede behavior change? Is there a history of workplace wellness programs? If so, what are some lessons learned? Can the organization specify how health changes can improve the work environment?

In addition, the report cites case studies demonstrating “employee satisfaction and social or financial ROI” from wellness programs at companies such as PepsiCo Inc. and Johnson & Johnson.

An evaluation of PepsiCo’s Healthy Living wellness program, for example, studied the initiative over the course of seven years in an effort to determine the cost impact of its lifestyle and disease management programs.

As the Chamber report notes, the study revealed that Pepsi saw an average reduction of $30 in healthcare costs per member per month, after seven years of continuous participation in either the lifestyle or disease management program.

A 2011 evaluation of Johnson & Johnson, meanwhile, compared a matched cohort sample of its 31,823 employees to similar organizations with a comparable number of employees. According to the U.S. Chamber, the findings demonstrated that, from the years 2002 to 2008, “Johnson & Johnson experienced a 3.7 percent lower average annual growth in medical costs compared to the comparison group,” and J & J wellness programs produced an ROI of $3.92 for every dollar spent.

Finally, the Chamber points to a 2013 RAND Inc. report that determined “there is solid evidence to be optimistic” that healthier employee behavior will correlate directly to lower healthcare costs. More than 60 percent of respondents in that survey indicated that workplace wellness programs reduced their organizations’ healthcare costs, while also reporting an overall decrease in healthcare service utilization, which, in turn, reduced the healthcare cost burden.

While pointing out that each of these studies had limitations, “the majority show that well-designed wellness programs lead to an ROI ranging from $1.50 [for each dollar spent] to more than $3 invested over a timeframe of two to nine years,” the report notes.

Cost savings aside, the report’s authors tout the non-financial advantages of developing a winning wellness program.

“Even if one assumes for the sake of argument that any limitation of each particular study leads to an ROI of less than $1.50 to $3,” they write, “there are other benefits to these programs, such as increased job performance, overall well-being, and happy and thriving employees who contribute to business and community success.”

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Safe and Secure, or Not So Sure?

The good news coming out of a recent CareerBuilder survey is that the overwhelming majority of employees (93 percent) feel their office is a safe, secure place to work.

A few other findings from the Chicago-headquartered employment website and HR software provider’s poll of 3,031 full-time, United States-based workers are less encouraging.

Some of these same employees, it seems, are less confident that their employers are adequately equipped to address specific threats in the workplace.

For example, 17 percent of those surveyed by CareerBuilder said they do not feel their workplaces are well-protected in case of a fire, flood or other disaster, and 26 percent don’t think their companies have an emergency plan in place should such events occur. Nineteen percent indicated their workplaces are poorly safeguarded from weather-related threats, and 26 percent don’t believe their organization has an emergency plan for responding to extremely severe weather.

In addition, 31 percent of respondents said they don’t feel their workplaces are well-protected from a physical threat posed by another person, and 41 percent said their company has made no provisions for handling such an attack.

This past February, I spoke with Michelle Colosimo, director of Black Swan Solutions, a Waukesha, Wis.-based provider of crisis management technology and services, about what employers can do to prepare workers for threats to their physical safety while on the job. More specifically, we talked about the importance of putting plans in place for an active shooter event in the workplace.

I sought Colosimo’s insight for an hreonline.com piece focusing on some of the tools and resources available to help employers equip employees to react should such an unthinkable scenario ever unfold in their office. (Incidentally, an expanded, more in-depth feature on this topic is set to run in our May print issue.)

HR leaders are faced with “a huge undertaking” in the event an active shooter descends on the workplace, said Colosimo at the time.

“Accounting for everyone is a big challenge. So, [HR] has to coordinate all of these things beforehand—What do you need to prepare for? And, what will you need to do when and if this does happen?”

Earlier this week, I reached out to Michelle for her take on the results of this CareerBuilder survey. She reiterated the need to have processes in place to potentially prevent an active shooter incident, and to provide employees with ways to anonymously report concerning behaviors or comments from another individual.

“If a report is made, the organization needs to have a threat assessment team in place to review each threat, and determine appropriate action needed to address the potential concern,” she says.

But, even the best, most comprehensive plan may not thwart an attacker, unfortunately.

“So, it’s critical that the organization train employees ahead of time on steps they need to take, as an individual, to protect themselves if an incident were to [take place],” she says.

Conducting realistic drills and active-shooter simulations and providing workers with practical tools and steps to follow also helps create “better muscle memory” in employees, she says, “so they take proper action when a crisis occurs.”

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More Sexual-Harassment-Policy Rethinking

Came across this recent research from the University of Missouri that adds credence to a Q&A I did late last year with the author of a Sexual harassment at work in the officebook titled Sex and the Office: Women, Men and the Sex Partition That’s Dividing the Workplace.

Both the MU researchers and the author of the book, Kim Elsesser, seem to be getting at the same point about today’s sexual-harassment policies in the workplace. For the most part, they’re not effective because they incite more fear of possible infractions than encourage healthy banter between men and women.

The more recent findings, from MU, studied how employees’ interpretations of sexual-harassment policies can invalidate the purpose of the policies. Researchers found that employee perceptions of how exactly “sexual harassment” is defined by a company’s policy can, in effect, eliminate or reshape the meaning of the policies and contradict the norms and values of the companies that try to enforce them.

As one of report’s co-authors, Debbie Dougherty, associate dean of research and professor of organizational communication in the MU College of Arts and Science, puts it:

“Although the policy statement [might specify] the importance of building a culture of dignity and respect, the participants in the study reinterpreted the policy in such a way that they believed it actually created a culture of fear. This inhibits the camaraderie participants believed was produced by normalized sexual banter, behavior and jokes.

“Our findings suggest that the ways in which employees construct meaning around the policy can preclude the usage and effectiveness of the policy; therefore, sexual-harassment-policy research should focus on the complex ways that our understandings shape policy meanings in order to find more effective ways to address sexual harassment in the workplace.”

Which is kind of what Elsesser gets at in her book. It’s her premise that senior male executives and male managers, who can and want to help women under their supervision advance, are reluctant to reach out or get into any personal discussions with them for fear they’ll be breaking company rules and policies governing sexual harassment and discrimination.

As her book’s description on Amazon puts it, “many male executives stick with other men, especially when it comes to dinners, drinks, late-night meetings or business trips, [and] when it’s time for promotions or pay raises, these same executives are more likely to show preference to the employees with whom they feel most comfortable — other men.”

So the vicious cycle continues.

Just as the MU researchers suggest, Elsesser thinks HR executives need to be aware that focusing on sexual-harassment prevention may have secondary consequences. As she says,

“Right now, our efforts to eliminate sexual harassment may be creating this barrier between the sexes. Obviously, we need to continue on the path of reducing sexual harassment — but we must figure out a way to do this without creating this barrier. Instead, we should be thinking of ways to bring the sexes together.”

Dougherty would add that organizations need to discuss their sexual-harassment policies in a clear, concise manner “to ensure each employee has the same understanding of what is meant by sexual harassment.”

“Organizations,” she adds, “also would benefit from sexual-harassment training that acknowledges the gender dynamics of harassment.”

Not to mention the gender dynamics of trying, at all costs, to avoid committing such harassment.

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Reflecting on Uber’s Classification Settlement

Worker classification can be a major headache for companies of all shapes and sizes, but for employers embracing the shared-economy business model, it can be one of migraine proportions.

Uber_ride_Bogota_(10277864666)No one knows this better than Uber, which has been facing an onslaught of lawsuits from drivers seeking employee status. Were the drivers to win that battle in the courts, the implications for the firm’s business would be huge.

Well, as you may have heard, Uber avoided that potential outcome in California and Massachusetts when it settled two class-action lawsuits: O’Connor vs. Uber and Yucesoy vs. Uber, respectively.

In the settlement, the parties agreed that …

  • Drivers will remain independent contractors, not employees;
  • Uber will pay $84 million to the plaintiffs (and there would be a second payment of $16 million if Uber goes public and its valuation increases one-and-a-half times from its December 2015 financing valuation within the first year of an IPO);
  • The firm will provide drivers with more information about their individual rating and how it compares with their peers. (It would also introduce a policy explaining the circumstances under which it deactivates drivers in these states from using the app); and
  • The parties would work together to create a driver’s association in both states, with Uber helping to fund these two associations.

In a post about the settlements, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick wrote that Uber is “pleased that this settlement recognizes that drivers should remain as independent contractors, not employees,” noting that drivers value their independence—the freedom to push a button rather than punch a clock.

Kalanick admitted that, as Uber has grown, “… we haven’t always done a good job working with drivers.”

As a story in the Los Angeles Times points out, the settlement still needs to be approved by a judge in the District Court of Northern California, which could take months.

“If approved,” the paper reports, “the payment will be distributed among drivers in California and Massachusetts who performed at least one trip up until the date of the preliminary settlement approval. Distribution will be based on miles driven while a passenger was in the car.”

The plantiffs’ attorney, Shannon Liss-Riordan, released a statement to various press outlets saying the settlement was the right move, considering the risk of having a jury rule against the plaintiffs.

Earlier today, I spoke to Thomas Lewis, a shareholder in the Princeton, N.J., office of Stevens & Lee, who told me it was probably a smart move for Uber, too.

“What’s interesting about the Uber case is that the class-action settlement came just short of effectively giving certain rights to these independent contractors that should belong to employees,” he said. “So this is telling me that Uber is clearly aware that there could be a push to classifying independent contractors as employees were it to go through the court system and there was an adjudication.”

And it’s no secret, of course, that, were Uber to come up on the losing end of a court battle, it would be costly, considering the company’s business model.

Of course, there’s no way to know if this will put an end to the worker-classification issue at Uber. Lewis noted if a new class action is filed, it would be need to be filed with a different set of facts or issues that were brought forth.

But at least for the time being, you would think Uber executives should be able to rest a little easier.

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Meet the 25 Highest Paying Companies

In case you missed it yesterday, Glassdoor released its list of America’s 25 highest paying companies, and the results show consulting and tech companies are writing the biggest paychecks to workers.

The top five are:

1. A.T. Kearney

  • Median Total Compensation: $167,534
  • Median Base Salary: $143,620
  • Industry: Consulting

2. Strategy&

  • Median Total Compensation: $160,000
  • Median Base Salary: $147,000
  • Industry: Consulting

3. Juniper Networks

  • Median Total Compensation: $157,000
  • Median Base Salary: $135,000
  • Industry: Technology

4. McKinsey & Company

  • Median Total Compensation: $155,000
  • Median Base Salary: $135,000
  • Industry: Consulting

5. Google

  • Median Total Compensation: $153,750
  • Median Base Salary: $123,331
  • Industry: Technology

According to Glassdoor’s latest report revealing the 25 Highest Paying Companies in America for 2016, several companies are offering employees six figure paychecks. This report is based on each company’s median total compensation, compiled by looking at salary reports at companies in which employees have anonymously and voluntarily shared both their base pay and other forms of compensation (i.e. commissions, tips, bonuses, etc.) over the past year.

“This report reinforces that high pay continues to be tied to in-demand skills and higher education, which in part, is why we see several companies on this list among the consulting and technology industries,” said Dr. Andrew Chamberlain, Glassdoor Chief Economist.

Salaries are sky-high at consulting companies, he says, due to “barriers of entry” in this field, which refers to employers wanting top consultants to have personal contacts, reputations and specialized skills and knowledge. In the tech sector, he adds, “we continue to see unprecedented salaries as the war for talent is still very active, largely due to the ongoing shortage of highly skilled workers needed.”

Interestingly enough, the press release announcing the findings mentions that high compensation levels may not actually lead to high employee-engagement numbers:

While the companies on this list pay handsomely and a Glassdoor survey shows salary and compensation are among peoples’ top considerations before accepting a job, Glassdoor research also shows that salary is not among the leading factors tied to long-term employee satisfaction. In contrast, culture and values, career opportunities, and trust in senior leadership are the biggest drivers of long-term employee satisfaction.

Something to ponder: Would you rather have your company attain a spot on this list next year, or would you prefer higher employee-satisfaction numbers?

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