All posts by Mark McGraw

Who’s Afraid of Automation?

Despite all the hand-wringing over automation’s potential to displace scores of hard-working humans, it seems that a majority of employees are actually ready to welcome our new robot overlords.

In fact, just 14 percent of U.S. employees say they’re worried that automation will take their job away someday, according to new research from Atlanta-based Randstad North America.

The 2017 Randstad Employer Brand Research study polled more than 5,300 workers, with 76 percent of respondents saying they don’t fear automation. Nearly one-third of employees (30 percent) said they think artificial intelligence and automation will make their jobs better.

This optimism seems to be at odds with how some have described the prevailing employee sentiment toward robotics in the workplace.

In a May 2017 HRE feature, for example, Laura Maechtlen discussed the “Chicken Little-type thinking” she often encounters in discussions about automation’s impact on the future of work.

“There’s just so much fear about people being replaced,” said Maechtlen, a San Francisco-based partner at Seyfarth Shaw, and co-chair of the firm’s diversity and inclusion action team.

That fear isn’t well-founded, she told us, adding that automation should be seen as an opportunity to augment an organization’s talent, not to supplant its employees.

This recent Randstad poll certainly suggests that employees are getting more comfortable with the concept of artificial intelligence and automation, and many would be willing to take part in additional training to maintain their current job status. Overall, 51 percent said they would be happy to retrain in order to develop and update the skills needed to work alongside AI—provided that they were being paid the same or more than their current salary.

“It is evident from our research that not only are workers not afraid of losing their jobs to automation, they are more than willing to retrain to leverage the efficiencies and benefits of artificial intelligence and robotics in the workplace,” says Linda Galipeau, CEO of Randstad North America, in a statement.

“These sentiments should be welcome news for companies as they seek greater adoption of automation to drive productivity and innovation,” says Galipeau. “As we have known for quite some time, the success of organizations in the future will depend greatly on their ability to strike a balance between valuable human insight and interaction with technology.”

While AI is “becoming a reality” in the workplace, this influx of automation “doesn’t make human skills less valuable,” Jim Link, chief human resources officer at Randstad North America, tells HRE.

In the future, says Link, an organization’s success will depend on its ability to enable humans and AI to function collectively and collaborate effectively.

“Companies and HR leaders owe it to both their companies and their employees to play an active role in communicating and teaching the skills needed for the future, as automation moves into the workplace,” he says.

“This can encompass anything from training programs that focus on upskilling employees’ strategic, problem-solving skills—expertise that AI doesn’t necessarily possess—to providing employees with incentives to develop these skills on their own time.”

Taking a Mental Health Timeout

Madalyn Parker could have said she had the flu. She could have said that a family situation came up.

Parker, a web developer and engineer at San Francisco-based Olark Live Chat, could have offered any number of reasons for why she wouldn’t be at work that day, or the following day. In fact, she probably could have gone without saying a word to anyone, aside from letting her supervisor know.

The truth, though, was that she felt she needed some time away to concentrate on her mental well-being. And she felt obliged to tell her colleagues as much, which she did in a now-viral email.

The message—complete with the subject line “Where’s Madalyn?”—advised the Olark team that Parker would be “taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health,” adding that she hoped to be back the following week, feeling refreshed and ready to give 100 percent to her job and to her co-workers.

“Mental health day” has long been a figure of speech that employees use (away from the office) when they aren’t necessarily physically ill, but take a sick day to mentally regroup and recharge their batteries.

But many workers probably wouldn’t dare use that term when they inform their manager or colleagues of their absence, for fear that this explanation would be met with raised eyebrows or worse.

This is why Parker’s honesty is so surprising. Her chief executive officer’s response, however, might be even more startling.

“I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this,” Olark CEO Ben Congleton wrote to Parker the day after he received her initial note.

“Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health—I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organizations.”

HRE has written quite a bit about the stigma that still surrounds mental-health issues in the workplace. We’ve also discussed at length the progress that’s been made in terms of understanding and accepting those issues, and the strides employers have taken to help employees manage their mental-health needs.

We might be a long way from mental health days becoming “standard practice” at all organizations. But Parker’s email—and Congleton’s reply—offer compelling signs that that stigma might truly be dissipating, and that more employers are giving real thought to the role that mental well-being plays in overall employee health.

“We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance,” Congleton recently wrote for Medium. “When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

Keeping a Distance Between Genders

If you believe the findings of a recent survey, conference rooms at the average company look like the gym at a typical middle school dance: boys on one side and girls on the other.

All jokes aside though, the results of a new poll conducted for the New York Times paint a picture of modern workplace dynamics that should be a bit unsettling.

For example, the survey of 5,282 adults asked respondents whether it was proper to take part in a variety of activities—enjoying a drink or a meal, driving in a car—alone with someone of the opposite sex who was not their spouse.

With respect to the workplace, 25 percent of women said having a one-on-one work meeting with a man would be inappropriate. Twenty-two percent of men said the same about private meetings with female colleagues. Overall, close to two-thirds of respondents said employees “should take extra caution around members of the opposite sex at work,” according to the Times.

In interviews conducted with survey respondents, some depicted the workplace as a “fraught atmosphere in which they feared harassment, or being accused of it,” the Times reports.

At first blush, it might be startling to think that roughly one quarter of employees feel this way. But consider recent developments at companies such as Uber and Fox News, for example. One can certainly hope that organizations like these are outliers; exceptions rather than the rule. But the headlines are inescapable, and the specter of sexual harassment looms a bit larger than usual at the moment. And some employees are apparently nervous about how their private interactions with colleagues of the opposite sex—however harmless they might be—could be perceived.

Count construction worker Christopher Mauldin among the apprehensive.

“When a man and woman are left alone, outside parties can insinuate about what’s really going on,” Mauldin told the Times. “Sometimes false accusations create irreversible damages to reputations.”

Without a doubt, those on the wrong end of unfounded harassment allegations can pay a steep price. As do victims of actual sexual harassment.

Just ask Kathleen Raven, a science writer in the office of communications at Yale School of Medicine.

While telling the Times that she “considers herself to be progressive in many ways,” Raven says she no longer conducts closed-door or offsite meetings alone with men, because she has been sexually harassed in the past. Raven also says that she “tries to avoid being too friendly, to ensure she doesn’t give the wrong impression.”

Hannah Stackawitz, on the other hand, can’t imagine a professional life that doesn’t include taking solo meetings with men.

“I do it every day, honestly,” the Langhorne, Pa.-based healthcare consultant told the paper, adding that her husband has frequent one-on-one meetings with women as part of his job.

Employers and HR have a duty to ensure that male and female colleagues feel this comfortable working with each other.

However, not a lot of companies have been able to do so, according to Kim Elsesser, author of Sex and the Office: Women, Men and the Sex Partition That’s Dividing the Workplace.

“Organizations are so concerned with their legal liabilities, but nobody’s really focused on how to reduce harassment and at the same time teach men and women to have working relationships with the opposite sex,” Elsesser told the Times.

This recent New York Times poll suggests that the problem Elsesser describes is a very real one. Stackawitz makes a very simple case for why fixing it is important.

“There’s no way that women or men can become their full and best selves,” she said in the Times piece, “by closing themselves off.”

The Battle for Work/Life Balance

Maybe there’s room to have a flourishing career and a fulfilling personal life after all?

It’s easy for many employees to feel like they’re forever losing ground in the work/life balance battle. But if a new survey from Menlo Park, Calif.-based Robert Half Management Resources is any indication, workers are finding ways to reconcile workplace demands with their responsibilities outside the office.

The poll of more than 1,000 U.S. adults who currently work in office environments found more than half (52 percent) of these professionals saying they feel their work/life balance has improved from three years ago.

This number should come with a bit of a disclaimer, though, as younger employees seem to have been much more successful at finding professional and personal stability in that time. For example, respondents between the ages of 18 and 34 were more than twice as likely as those 55 or older to say their work/life balance has gotten better in the last three years.

These numbers make sense when you consider that familial duties—raising kids and caring for elderly parents, for example—generally take up more of our time as we get older, making it harder to juggle work and home life.

What’s a little more surprising, however, is the finding that it’s actually managers—who tend to be north of 30 and are typically expected to work long hours and assume more responsibilities—who are leading the way toward better work/life balance.

For instance, 54 percent of workers told Robert Half that their manager was “very supportive” of their efforts to achieve work/life balance. (This number spikes to 62 percent among employees between the ages of 18 and 34.) And, overall, 74 percent of respondents said their manager sets an “excellent” or “good” example in the work/life balance department.

“Employers and employees alike are emphasizing work/life balance,” says Tim Hird, executive director at Robert Half Management Resources, in a statement. “Managers can help by giving their teams more freedom over where and when they work, if possible, and providing greater autonomy. These efforts go a long way to improve job satisfaction and retention rates.”

Managers and HR leaders should also rely on the input of employees—all employees—to determine how to help workers achieve equilibrium in their lives, he says.

“Many companies view work/life balance as being particularly relevant to millennials, but employees of all generations are under pressure to meet both work and personal obligations,” says Hird. “Businesses should promote work/life balance initiatives broadly and make sure all staff have the opportunity to weigh in on the perks that will best help them meet their goals.”

How Does Bullying Affect Bystanders?

In case you needed further evidence of workplace bullying’s toxic and far-reaching effects …

In a new study, a University of North Texas professor finds that an office bully’s boorishness not only distresses the employee on the receiving end of such behavior, but is harmful to those who witness it as well.

Michele Medina, an adjunct professor in the department of management at UNT’s College of Business, studied how exposure to an in-office bully influences interpersonal attitudes, including employees’ expectations for how colleagues should treat one another. Medina also analyzed how individuals react internally to seeing a co-worker targeted by an office tormenter, and how witnesses’ empathy affects these factors.

“When people react to events emotionally, it has a direct influence on their attitude or how they behave,” says Medina, in a UNT statement. “And that can spill over into work.”

For the study, Medina enlisted 300 participants to serve as bystanders to office bullying. These observers watched a faux employee training video that showed either an actor berating a co-worker or a benign exchange between colleagues.

Their reactions “say a lot,” notes Medina.

For example, witnesses who observed peer-on-peer bullying report believing that they might become a target for bad treatment at work. Study participants also said they would often be inclined to disassociate from the bully, while those with higher levels of empathy would be more likely to relate to co-workers who had been bullied. In addition, witnesses of the same gender as victims of bullying behavior said they are less likely to identify with the perpetrator.

These conclusions do say a lot. And little of it bodes well for workplaces where bullies are present—and going unchecked.

“There’s a price to pay,” says Medina. “Kids who are bullies tend to grow up to be adults who are bullies. It doesn’t necessarily go away. Understanding how bullying affects everyone at work, and which employees are most likely to be affected, allows companies and organizations to address all aspects of workplace bullying properly.”

Risk on the Moral High Road

If, as an HR leader, you’re going to take a stand on ethical grounds, you had better be ready for the backlash if you change your mind later on.

That seems to be a key lesson to emerge from the findings of research recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

For their study, Tamar Kreps, an assistant professor in the department of management at the University of Utah, and Kristin Laurin, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of British Columbia, conducted a series of 15 online experiments that involved more than 5,500 participants between the ages of 18 and 77.

In each experiment, these individuals were provided information about political or corporate leaders who had changed their opinions on a particular subject. Some participants were told that the leaders staked out their original positions on moral grounds, while others were informed that these initial stances were based on a more pragmatic view, such as “it was good for the economy.”

Across the multiple studies Kreps and Laurin conducted, they found that participants saw leaders who changed their minds after taking a moral stand as being hypocritical. In most cases, these individuals also perceived these leaders as “less effective and worthy of their support than leaders whose initial stance was pragmatic,” according to a statement.

“Leaders may choose to take moral stances, believing that this will improve audiences’ perceptions. And it does, initially,” says Kreps.

“But all people, even leaders, have to change their minds sometimes. Our research shows that leaders who change their moral minds are seen as more hypocritical, and not as courageous or flexible, compared with those whose initial view was based on a pragmatic argument.”

That perception can be tough to shake, too. According to the authors, they “tried to test various factors we thought might weaken the effect” across several studies. For example, the authors asked participants how they would feel if the leader “did not rely on popular support and therefore would have no reason to pander” or “used the same moral value in the later view as in the earlier view.”

Still, no dice.

“None of those things made a difference,” says Kreps. “Initially moral mind-changers consistently seemed more hypocritical” to those taking part in the study.

While opining that moral beliefs tend to stay constant over time, Kreps cautions that leaders should take the ethical high road on a given issue only if they genuinely feel that way.

“Taking an inauthentic moral view to try to pander to a moralizing audience could backfire,” she says, “if a leader needs to change that view later on.”

The ‘Why’ Behind Wellness Programs

It isn’t always about the money.

Or, at least it’s not when it comes to why many companies offer wellness programs, according to a new survey from the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans.

For its new Workplace Wellness 2017 Survey Report, the Brookfield, Wisc.-based nonprofit organization polled 530 members of the IFEBP as well as the International Society of Certified Employee Benefit Specialists and the National Wellness Institute.

Overall, more than 90 percent of these organizations offer at least one wellness initiative. Among them, 75 percent report that improving overall worker health and well-being is their company’s No. 1 reason for doing so, with just one in four saying that controlling or reducing health-related costs is their primary motivation for implementing wellness programs.

As for what these wellness initiatives consist of, “traditional” offerings such as free or discounted flu shots “continue to gain steam,” according to an IFEBP statement.

But the aforementioned report also highlights some “popular emerging wellness benefits” that employers are weaving into their wellness initiatives, such as chiropractic services coverage, currently offered by 62 percent of respondents. In addition, 59 percent said they provide employees with opportunities to participate in community charity drives and events, attend onsite wellness-related events and celebrations (58 percent), and take part in wellness competitions such as walking/fitness challenges (51 percent).

Whatever form a wellness program takes, the effort seems to be paying off for many organizations. More than half of the responding companies that measure their wellness offerings, for example, say they’ve seen a decrease in absenteeism since putting a wellness program in place. An even larger number (63 percent) indicate that they are experiencing financial sustainability and growth in the organization, while 67 percent say their employees are more satisfied and 66 percent report increased productivity.

“Employers are realizing that wellness is not just about cutting healthcare costs, because wellness is not only about physical health,” says Julie Stich, associate vice president of content at IFEBP, in a statement.

“Embracing the broad definition of wellness has led to a tremendous impact on organizational health and worker productivity and happiness.”

It would stand to reason that a happier, more productive workforce translates to a bigger, better bottom line, of course. And, for those HR and benefits leaders who haven’t yet made the business case for developing workplace wellness programs, the numbers to emerge from this report could certainly provide them with some strong ammunition.

Biometrics and New Privacy Concerns

A recently filed class action suit in Illinois could be the signpost for “a new employment law frontier,” according to at least one law firm.

As recently reported by Holland & Knight, a class action suit pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois centers around the state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act, which was passed in 2008 to prohibit the gathering and keeping of individuals’ biometric information without his or her prior notification and written permission.

In Baron v. Roundy’s Supermarkets Inc., et al., the plaintiff alleges that the supermarket chain violated BIPA by failing to meet the legal requirements to obtain and retain employee fingerprints the company used for timekeeping purposes.

Holland & Knight attorneys called biometrics an “emerging area” of employment law, as more employers begin to use the technology to log employees’ hours. Damages available under laws such as BIPA make this fertile ground for class actions as well. For each violation of BIPA, a prevailing party may recover the greater of actual damages or $1,000 for negligent violations of the Act, the attorneys note, adding that plaintiffs may recover the greater of actual damages or $5,000 for “reckless or intentional violations.”

With legislation comparable to BIPA already on the books in Texas, and states including Alaska, Montana, New Hampshire and Washington considering similar bills, employers would be wise to tread carefully when and if they introduce biometrics to their places of business.

“Laws like BIPA will become more relevant to employers and of increasing interest to the plaintiffs’ bar as the use of biometric data, such as the use of fingerprints or thumbprints for timekeeping purposes, becomes more prevalent in the workplace,” according to Holland & Knight.

“With the increasing awareness of such laws by the plaintiffs’ bar, it is important that employers using or considering the use of biometric data in the workplace ensure compliance with any state or local laws governing the use, retention and destruction of that data.”

No Break for the Burned Out

With the long Memorial Day weekend less than 24 hours away, where will you be staying as the unofficial start of summer gets underway?

For at least one-third of your employees, the answer is likely “at home.”

That’s according to a recent CareerBuilder survey of 3,215 employed U.S. adults, 33 percent of whom said they haven’t taken or don’t plan to take a vacation this year.

Not surprisingly, many workers say they could use a break, with 61 percent reporting that they are burned out in their current job, and 31 percent describing their work-related stress levels as “high” or “extremely high.”

The better news is that some of these overextended employees will still be able to find some time to get away this year. Sort of.

Among the remaining respondents who will be taking vacation sometime this year, three in 10 say they will still stay connected with work while on holiday. More specifically, 31 percent said they check work email while away, and 18 percent indicated that they would “check in” with work at least once during that time.

Workers feeling stressed out is far from a new phenomenon. And we’ve seen at least a handful of studies in recent years that have suggested many employees are leaving vacation days on the table each year, for a variety of reasons. The CareerBuilder survey, for instance, finds 36 percent of respondents saying they’ve come back from vacation with so much work to do that they wished they never left at all. Another 18 percent say taking vacation actually leaves them feeling more anguish over work.

The number of workers afraid of taking time off to recharge their batteries should be troubling.

Leaders within the organization—incidentally, the CareerBuilder poll sees senior management and vice presidents reporting the lowest stress levels of all workers—can set the tone for their teams, according to Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer at CareerBuilder.

“If you’re a boss, it’s important that you role model how to take a vacation,” said Haefner, in a statement.

“If you’re prone to answering every email and phone call that comes through on your own vacation time, consider the example you’re setting for your team members. You need to set up an automated response email, and only respond to absolutely urgent emails while you’re away,” she continues.

“Direct all calls to an assistant or colleague at the office. Show your employees that vacation time matters to you and to your company and its culture.”

Wearables and Wellness Programs

If you’ve been wondering how to seamlessly integrate wearable devices into your wellness programs, the Health Enhancement Research Organization has some success stories to share.

In a new report, HERO includes findings from three case studies of organizations that, combined, employ more than 60,000 people, “and whose incorporation of wearables into their wellness program reflects a comprehensive, results-oriented approach,” according to a statement from the Waconia, Minn.-based organization.

Each of the employers that participated—BP, Emory University and Ochsner Health System—took a different path to achieve positive results, but also showed some “clear commonalities” in the way they implemented wearables as part of their wellness plans, such as sound communication strategies, encouraging long-term use of wearables and making them financially feasible for employees, for example.

The report identified a handful of promising practices for organizations that have added wearables to their wellness initiatives, or are planning to do so, including giving or subsidizing devices for employees rather than requiring them to buy their own; involving spouses and domestic partners to increase participation and create a support system outside the workplace; and using a pilot program before expanding the use of wearables to include the entire workforce.

Emory relied on the latter approach when it rolled out its wearables program in 2014, with a pilot program at five sites. According to HERO, Emory made modifications and offered wearables to all Emory University and Emory Healthcare employees the following year, based on the results of the initial pilot program.

When Emory expanded the program, 6,300 Emory employees participated in the university’s Move More Challenge, with 82 percent of them remaining active for its eight-week duration. In a post-program survey, 67 percent of participants said it was the first time they used a wearable device, with 82 percent reporting that they used one every day of the challenge.

Such results only hint at the potential in using wearables as a component of comprehensive workplace wellness programs, says Jessica Grossmeier, vice president of research at HERO, stressing the need to “continue our focus on research that uncovers what works and what doesn’t.

“Early research supports that a device, on its own, will not change health behaviors over the long-term,” continues Grossmeier. “That’s why we’re focused on identifying those leading-edge strategies that employers can use to ensure an effective, safe and engaging approach for employers and individual participants.”