All posts by Mark McGraw

A New Kind of Difficult Boss

Businessman has stress and sreams into mobile phoneJust when you think you’ve come across every kind of challenging employee …

In a new book, British psychologist, journalist, best-selling author and broadcaster Oliver James has identified three types of dysfunctional personalities commonly found in white-collar work environments: the psychopath, the Machiavellian and the narcissist. These personality types, he writes, often seem to possess an innate knack for climbing the corporate ladder, and many organizations seem to actually reward their ruthless behavior.

Here’s the even scarier part. In Office Politics: How to Thrive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks, James introduces a fourth dysfunctional type or “triadic person” that combines the traits of these three personality types to form some type of self-involved, psychopathic, scheming super-beast ready to run roughshod over the workplace.

James describes how these “triadics” have a “dangerous, yet effective mix of a lack of empathy, self-centeredness, deviousness and self-regard” that can propel them to the top of organizations. He offers up fictitious examples such as Sopranos skipper Tony Soprano and Gordon Gekko, the corporate raider, antagonist and symbol of unfettered greed in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. He also provides some real-life, albeit anonymous illustrations of calculating, cunning or just plain cruel behavior displayed by those in leadership positions. For instance, he writes of an advertising and film executive who once introduced a female colleague by saying, “The last time I saw Suzy she was stark naked,” and referred to a respected academic as having “little capacity for original thought,” but “a great talent for acquiring and taking credit for others’ ideas.”

James also recalls partners from what he describes as an “elite” law firm, who possessed social skills “akin to someone with Asperger’s syndrome, so unaware were they of the thoughts and feelings of others.”

Or, consider the investment banker who got his position by fooling an interview panel into believing he was an expert on a product he knew nothing about, and further duped his new boss into thinking he came from an exceedingly wealthy background.

Finally, and not surprisingly, James predicts this new breed of superslime in our midst will cause colossal headaches for their employees, and offers a word of caution for the companies employing them.

“This dark triad of characteristics is very likely to be present in that person in your office who causes you so much trouble … ” he writes.

The likelihood of your daily working life being sacrificed by a person who is some mixture of psychopathic, Machiavellian and narcissistic is high. If you do not develop the skills to deal with them, they will eat you for breakfast.”

Tough-to-Beat Employee Perks

corporate gymIt looks like Google has become a fixture at the top of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list.

The company cinched the No. 1 spot on the recently released 2013 Best Companies list, making it four first-place finishes in a row for the Mountain View, Calif.-based Internet giant.

Interesting subcategory: Top Perks, where a handful of Best Companies were highlighted for offering especially generous and/or unique benefits to their workers.

And, not surprisingly, Google was also recognized for some of the perquisites its employees so famously enjoy.

In addition to the free haircuts, gourmet food, fitness classes and myriad other perks Google is known for, the company was singled out for another, less-flashy benefit HRE noted in this space a few months back.

In 2011, the company began offering “death benefits” to spouses or domestic partners of U.S.-based Google employees who die while under the employ of the company. The surviving spouse or partner will receive a check for 50 percent of the deceased employee’s salary for 10 years, as well as acquiring vested stock benefits. Their children will also receive $1,000 a month until the age of 19; possibly longer if the child is still a full-time student.

That’s a substantial addition to an already impressive list of benefits, but Google only ranked 8th on the most recent Top Perks list. Check out the offerings from some of the companies that out-perked Google:

Coming in at No. 68 on the Best Companies list, Intel took this year’s Top Perks prize. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based electronics company really gives its people the star treatment, literally rolling out a red carpet for new employees to walk down—flanked by Intel Studios’ photographers and videographers—on their way to receiving welcome packages and a warm round of applause from their colleagues.

Qualcomm (No. 11 overall) hosts a farmer’s market at two of its locations on a weekly basis, offering items ranging from traditional produce to jams and jellies. Employees with “veggie box subscriptions” can pick up their produce packages at one of the cafes at Qualcomm’s San Diego headquarters.

Hitachi Data Systems (No. 63 overall) is a haven for its dog-loving employees, hosting a mid-summer “Dog Day,” where workers bring their pets to stroll through a vendor fair that often includes local groomers, store owners and pet trainers in addition to a dog talent show. Hitachi runs a raffle in the week leading up to Dog Day, with proceeds going to a local animal charity.

By now, every employer understands that offering “extras” beyond a nice pay package is part of attracting and holding on to their best people. And, as evidenced by the examples above, some companies go to greater, more lavish lengths than others in this department. But it’s hard to deny that these types of perks play a very real part in making these Best Companies desirable destinations for top talent.

Publicizing Promotions

stk149211rkeIt’s nice to think that your highest-achieving, hardest-working employees are driven to excel in the name of meeting team goals, advancing the company’s mission, increasing market share and all of that good stuff.

And many of them are. That should be part of what pushes them, anyway.

We all know there needs to be something in it for them as well. The prospect of receiving a promotion is one obvious motivator, and employees want to know what’s required to reach the next rung on the company ladder. And from an employer standpoint, making sure workers understand how they can continue climbing is also a wonderful recruitment and retention tool.

Nevertheless, a recent survey from Scottsdale, Ariz.-based WorldatWork finds very few companies making serious efforts to convey promotional guidelines and policies to their workforces.

The survey of 873 HR, compensation and benefits managers found just 16 percent of respondents saying their organizations widely communicate such information to employees.

Companies neglecting to share parameters for employee promotions do so at their own peril, says Kerry Chou, practice leader with WorldatWork, in a statement announcing the findings.

Employers may be missing out on an opportunity to enhance [their] ability to attract, motivate and retain employees by not sharing general information about the guidelines or processes associated with promotions.”

While employers may be mostly hush-hush on promotional guidelines, the study finds organizations still finding room in the budget for programs supporting employee advancement, and respondents report promoting about 8 percent of employees in a typical year.

The survey also found the average promotional increase award to salaried employees in 2012 was 8.7 percent, compared to 8.3 percent in 2010. Officers and executives received an average promotional pay increase of 10.2 percent, versus a median jump of 9.5 percent two years ago.

Most responding companies (81 percent) defined a promotion by an increase in pay, band, grade or level, and/or the addition of higher-level responsibilities (76 percent).

Make special note of how most respondents defined a promotion: While nearly one in five organizations reported awarding promotions without salary increases, the importance of providing a bump in compensation shouldn’t be overlooked, says Chou. In other words, pay up when you promote.

While a bigger title and recognition from peers are nice, employees will usually not feel completely satisfied with a promotion unless there is a meaningful increase in base pay.”

Safety or Employee Rights First?

Healthcare facilities can be a virtual breeding ground for influenza, especially during this time of year. With that in mind, Indiana University Health Goshen Hospital recently mandated that all of its employees receive flu shots, for the well-being of patients and staff alike.

And they take the requirement seriously: A refusal to comply with the new directive is apparently a fireable offense, at least for some.

According to the hospital, 1,300 employees declined the vaccine. Eight of them, including at least three experienced nurses, were let go as a result.  

One of the nurses, Ethel Hoover, cited her religious beliefs as grounds for refusing the shot. She filed a religious exemption, two medical exemptions and two appeals in an attempt to forego the mandatory flu shot. Each request was denied, and Hoover’s employment with the hospital ended on Dec. 21, six days after the IU-imposed Dec. 15 flu shot deadline had passed.

IU Health is certainly not the first healthcare organization to mandate flu shots for its employees, and Hoover isn’t the first employee to challenge the legality of such a requirement.

Consider the recent case involving a vegan healthcare worker at a Cincinnati children’s hospital, who was fired after refusing a flu shot on the basis that chicken eggs are used in the preparation of flu vaccines. A federal court judge refused to dismiss the claim, determining it possible that the plaintiff’s veganism could be a moral or ethical principle she abides by with the same conviction as a religious belief.

Such cases should remind employers with a duty to accommodate for religious beliefs that performing individualized assessments may be wiser than imposing blanket policies “that apply across the board,” says Frank Chernak, partner and labor and employment attorney in the Philadelphia office of Ballard Spahr.

For instance, oblige employees to fill out a form stating the reasons why they seek an exemption, says Chernak. “Then you’re engaged in a dialogue with the employee. And maybe [you find] there’s another way to handle the situation, and to make an accommodation.”

For example, the Cincinnati hospital’s HR team could have explained to the vegan employee—who worked in customer service and didn’t have frequent, direct contact with patients—that a vaccination without animal products was also available. Or, in the case of Hoover, the organization could have considered putting her in a role with less or no patient contact during flu season, assuming such a move could be made without undue hardship.

 “A lot of employers will simply ask the employee, ‘Is there any reason you can’t do it?’ And have a form to document the employee’s reasons, whether it’s a medical exemption or a religious exemption,” says Chernak. “That’s a good way to do it.”

Too Sexy For This Job?

According to Dr. James Knight, Melissa Nelson was the best dental assistant he ever had.

Unfortunately for her, she was also physically “irresistible” to Knight, who relieved Nelson of her duties at his Fort Dodge, Iowa-based dental practice in January 2010. Her firing came on the heels of Knight’s complaints that Nelson, an employee of 10-plus years, wore tight-fitting, “distracting” clothes at work, and his growing concerns that she posed a threat to his marriage.

In her subsequent lawsuit, Nelson claimed she was fired for her gender. The all-male Iowa Supreme Court, however, recently affirmed a lower court’s decision that her termination broke no discrimination law.

Nelson, a 32-year-old married mother of two, has denied that she dressed inappropriately at work, telling CNN she wore scrubs while on the job. Whatever she wore, Nelson’s appearance seems to have made an impression on her boss. For example, Knight reportedly once told Nelson that “if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing,” according to court documents.

And court records indicate that Knight’s allusions to Nelson’s physical attractiveness didn’t stop there. In another alleged exchange, Knight supposedly responded to a comment she made about her lackluster love life by saying, “[t]hat’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.”

Still, the relationship between the two—which both acknowledge never became sexual—seemed to remain cordial. Knight and Nelson swapped friendly text messages outside of work, and she didn’t allege sexual harassment in her lawsuit.

Nevertheless, she was terminated not long after Knight’s wife, who was employed at the same dental office, found out about the text message exchanges, and reportedly demanded that Knight fire Nelson. Knight did just that, telling Nelson that she had become a “detriment” to his family, and suggesting their professional relationship should end for the sake of both their families.

“The issue before us is not whether a jury could find that Dr. Knight treated Nelson badly,” wrote Justice Edward M. Mansfield. “We are asked to decide only if a genuine fact issue exists as to whether Dr. Knight engaged in unlawful gender discrimination when he fired Nelson at the request of his wife. For the reasons previously discussed, we believe this conduct did not amount to unlawful discrimination, and therefore we affirm the judgment of the district court.”

Yes, the Iowa Supreme Court came down on Knight’s side in this case. But he hasn’t exactly seen a groundswell of support elsewhere. The public backlash is well underway on Twitter, at Knight’s Yelp page and various other online forums, where countless users have disparaged the dentist, questioned his moral fiber and encouraged Iowans to boycott Knight’s dental practice.

So, while Knight’s day in court may have turned out in his favor, this particular staffing decision may wind up costing him more than some legal fees in the long run.

Wanted: One Intern With No Personal Life

It’s not uncommon for an employee to feel that a job isn’t living up to the lofty expectations he or she had upon being hired. But here’s guessing that isn’t much of an issue at Dalkey Archive Press.

The publisher of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, with offices in London, Dublin and Champaign, Ill., is apparently in search of an intern. To be more specific, the company seeks an intern for whom work/life balance isn’t important. At all.

According to Dalkey Archive’s recent job post advertising an open position in its London office, applicants must “not have any other commitments (personal or professional) that will interfere with work at the Press,” such as “family obligations, writing, involvement with other organizations, degrees to be finished, holidays to be taken, weddings to attend in Rio” and so on. Oh, and the post also offers this not-so-subtle advice for would-be candidates that may not be taking these requirements seriously: DO NOT APPLY if all of the above does not describe you.

Need more proof—besides threatening capital letters—that Dalkey Archive means business? Take a look at some of the offenses the organization deems “grounds for immediate dismissal” during the intern’s probationary period:

Coming in late or leaving early without prior permission.

Being unavailable at night or on the weekends.

Failing to meet any goals.

Giving unsolicited advice about how to run things.

Surfing the Internet while at work.

Failing to respond to emails in a timely way.

Making repeated mistakes.

Yikes. The post was taken down within a few days of its first appearance, but not before making the rounds online, where opinions were divided as to whether the job description was to be taken at face value or with tongue at least somewhat-in-cheek.

Either way, you’d be right, according to Dalkey Archive founder John O’Brien. “The advertisement was a modest proposal,” he told The Irish Times. “Serious and not serious at the same time.” In what he called his “official reaction to the hornet’s nest,” O’Brien noted he “take[s] internships very seriously, and take[s] on only people I think might be a future employee.”

O’Brien also lamented his “very mixed” experience with interns, with “the most common problem being that they aren’t prepared, don’t know what to expect, hope that a job might be at the end of the rainbow, and yet don’t have a clue as to what an employer is looking for. Employers wind up frustrated that they put in so much time, and the interns wonder why a job wasn’t forthcoming.”

Off-putting job descriptions aside, you have to give O’Brien some points for honesty. His eventual intern may not have much of a life outside the office, but he or she won’t have any unrealistic expectations about the job, either.

Curbing Bad Behavior: What’s Out of Bounds?

How far can a company go in an attempt to curtail unsafe or unsavory conduct among its employees? The NFL’s Dallas Cowboys are contemplating a move that may test the limits.

In the early morning hours of Dec. 8, Cowboys defensive tackle Josh Brent and Jerry Brown, a Cowboys practice squad linebacker and passenger in Brent’s Mercedes-Benz at the time, were involved in a one-car accident. Brown was killed in the crash, and Brent—who has reportedly admitted to drinking in the hours before his car hit a curb and caught fire—now faces intoxication manslaughter charges.

Less than 48 hours later, former Dallas running back and current Cowboys consultant Calvin Hill told USA Today the Cowboys organization is “considering” a mandate obliging Cowboys players to have electronic devices installed in their cars that would prevent the vehicle from starting if the driver is impaired.

The device, called SafeKey, “includes a small fob that is attached to the key ring, which sends electronic signals to a complementary device that can prevent a vehicle from starting if a driver doesn’t pass a test based on color-coded light emissions.”

When I first saw the USA Today piece, I thought, there’s no way this concept could come to fruition. For starters, it’s tough to imagine the NFL Players Association allowing the Cowboys or any other franchise to impose this type of mandate on its players, and my guess is the NFLPA would do its level best to stop this idea in its tracks.

From a legal standpoint, I also wondered if an organization—be it “America’s Team” or XYZ Corp.—could really go through with this if so inclined.

So, I asked Mark Askanas, an employment law litigator, partner and litigation manager in the San Francisco office of Jackson Lewis.

“It’s an interesting issue” with many questions that employers interested in implementing such a measure must first answer, he says. For instance:

Does the company provide the cars to employees, or does it provide a car allowance such that the car is company property, and the employee should have no expectation of privacy?

“This is easy,” says Askanas, “if it’s a company-provided car versus a car the employee owns but receives an allowance for.”

Would there be a way to turn the device off and on such that the employer could activate it when the employee is driving the car for company business, and then deactivate it when the employee is off from work?

“An accident coming to or from work may still create liability for the employer,” he notes.

Is the person on the company’s vehicular insurance policy, such that the company has an interest in ensuring the employee never drives while intoxicated?

Is this something organizations can offer to employees that they could accept on a voluntary basis?

So, it seems employers may have some legal ground to stand on here, depending on the circumstances and rationale for mandating the installation of such devices. While it remains to be seen if the Cowboys’ idea will ever get past the talking stage, or if other, more everyday organizations will have similar notions, the concept raises some interesting questions about employers’ place in influencing employees’ behavior away from the workplace.

More Whistleblowers in the Woodwork?

According to a recent report from the Securities and Exchange Commission, the agency has made just one payout from its whistleblower award program since the Dodd-Frank Act was enacted in 2010.

Other, larger numbers from that report, however, should be of greater concern to employers, according to one attorney.

The SEC also reports having received more than 3,000 whistleblower tips since the program was established, and indicates there are 143 notices of action for whistleblower complaints currently in the pipeline. Those figures portend a potential—if not likely—spike in the number of awards to be paid out in 2013, says Steven Pearlman, a Chicago-based partner in Proskauer’s labor and employment law department.

“Employers shouldn’t walk away from this data with any sense that we’ll see the same result next year,” says Pearlman, who is also co-chair of the firm’s whistleblower and retaliation group.

The onus is always on public companies and HR to encourage employees to bring whistleblower complaints through internal compliance programs, rather than going to the SEC or—in the case of a private company—to the Environmental Protection Agency or a licensing board, he says.

We find across the board that employees are more apt to go outside the company to, say, a plaintiff’s attorney, the SEC, the Department of Justice or another government agency, where they believe their complaint will be taken seriously and will get a response within a reasonable period of time.”

One method for encouraging employees to first bring complaints to the organization’s attention is the creation of a whistleblower liaison, says Pearlman.

“That’s something I don’t see companies doing enough of; in a formal way where the liaison is trained and understands how to interact with whistleblowers, and understands how to serve as a liaison to compliance and legal as well.”

Some companies create a dedicated position just to handle whistleblower-related activity, but “it’s certainly reasonable to take someone who’s currently a high-level HR person and add this on to their responsibilities,” he says. “Employers need to do what’s within their budgets, and they have to look at present personnel.”

Whatever the approach, employers “need to act now,” concludes Pearlman.

What’s in the pipeline is most concerning to me. When these bigger awards come out, it’s going to generate more tips and encourage more employees to go to the SEC. We know more individuals are going to be blowing the whistle.”

Keeping Focus on Performance

A recent ruling in the case of A.D.P. v. ExxonMobil not only illustrates courts’ expanding definition of disability, but should remind employers of their limits in dealing with employees’ substance abuse problems.

In August 2007, an ExxonMobil employee—consistently ranked as a top performer throughout nearly 30 years with the company—informed her supervisors that she was an alcoholic, and would be taking leave to check into a rehabilitation program to address her alcohol dependency and depression.

At the time, there was no pending or threatened disciplinary action against her, and two representatives from the company’s HR department later testified they had only learned of the employee’s alcoholism after she had disclosed it voluntarily.

Upon her return to the job later that year, she was required to sign an agreement obligating her to abstain from alcohol and submit to random breathalyzer tests as a condition of her continued employment. Although she passed nine random tests over the next several months, a subsequent test showed a blood alcohol level between 0.04 percent and 0.05 percent. She was fired four days later.

She subsequently sued, claiming disability discrimination. The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey ruled the testing requirement was indeed discriminatory on its face, as only self-identified alcoholics were subjected to the random breathalyzer tests.

A judge refused ExxonMobil’s motion to dismiss the case, finding the company had no safety consideration or business necessity that dictated requiring the test. The court also pointed out there were no signs the woman was suffering from the effects of her alcohol use, nor had her job performance been called into question since her return to work.

The court’s decision is “not surprising,” but holds a pair of important lessons for companies and their HR leaders, says Mark Spring, a Sacramento, Calif.-based partner in the employment law firm of Carothers DiSante & Freudenberger.

Employers and HR professionals need to make sure they are focusing on job performance [in such cases]. In this case, the employer’s focus on alcohol use—as opposed to job performance—is what got it in trouble. Had they simply implemented a reasonable suspicion testing program, allowing them to test after evidence of reasonable suspicion of on-the-job use or intoxication, this could have been avoided.”

The case also underscores the importance of treating conditions such as alcoholism and drug addiction like any other disability, says Spring.

As long as the disability is not impacting work, then the employer is going to be very limited in its ability to address any disability, including alcohol or drug addiction. I think some employers still have a hard time equating these conditions with more ‘traditional’ disabilities, and this can lead to violations such as what happened with this employer.”

Keeping Benefits Costs in Check

With the 2012 election season behind us and President Barack Obama returning to the Oval Office, the fate of the Affordable Care Act seems secure.

For many employers, this means exploring ways to contain benefits costs they project to increase once ACA provisions take hold in 2014.  

Now would be a good time to start, and if a recent survey from New York-based consultancy Mercer is any indication, many companies are already well on their way.

Mercer’s National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans finds employers held 2012 health benefits cost growth to the lowest average annual increase since 1997. The poll of 2,809 employers found growth in the average total health benefits cost per employee slowing from 6.1 percent in 2011 to 4.1 percent this year.

The cost averaged $10,558 per employee in 2012. Large employers—those with 500 or more employees—experienced a higher increase (5.4 percent) and higher average cost ($11,003). According to the survey, employers expect another fairly low increase of 5 percent in 2013. This bump, however, reflects changes companies plan to make to reduce cost, according to Mercer. Cost would rise by an average of 7.4 percent for companies making no changes.

Employers are “very aware that, in 2014, when the health reform law’s provisions kick in, they will be asked to cover more employees and face added cost pressure,” said Julio A. Portalatin, Mercer president and CEO, in a statement. “They’ve taken bold steps to soften the impact, and it’s paying off already.”

One step some employers have already taken to “reset” plan value in 2012 included offering a lower-cost consumer-directed health plan, according to the study. Others have raised the deductible of an existing PPO plan, for example.

Companies are also looking at new ways to purchase health insurance as well as influence the quality of care employees receive, according to Mercer. Among participating companies with 5,000 or more employees, the use of high-performance provider networks rose from 14 percent to 23 percent in 2012, with the use of surgical centers of excellence increasing from 18 percent to 35 percent.

Still, while organizations “deserve a lot of credit” for containing cost growth this year, “no one silver bullet will end cost escalation forever,” and companies must make containing benefits costs a priority in the year ahead and beyond, noted Tracy Watts, a partner in Mercer’s Washington, D.C. office.

Health reform has presented us with a new set of challenges, and we have to keep thinking one step ahead.”