Category Archives: corporate culture

Back From Vacation — And Stressed

That week in the Bahamas was everything you’d hoped it would be. And now it’s Monday, your first day back at the office — and life stinks.

If this scenario rings true to you (regardless of whether said vacation was in the Bahamas, Disney World or your own backyard), then take heart in knowing you’re hardly alone: Nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of 1,000 full-time U.S. workers polled by training and communications firm Fierce Inc. say they’re either more stressed or have the same level of stress upon returning to work after taking paid time off. The reasons why aren’t that surprising, with most respondents citing having to catch up on missed work, followed by having to readjust to “a work mindset” and needing to resolve major issues that arose while they were away.

Not all employees feel equally stressed, however, with only 14 percent of respondents who said they were “very satisfied” with their job feeling more stressed returning from vacation. Meanwhile, 38 percent of those who reported being unsatisfied with their jobs said they felt more stressed returning to work.

“The fact that returning to work is a stressful situation speaks volumes to the lack of support many employees feel both leading up to, and returning from, vacation,” says Stacey Engle, Fierce’s executive vice president of marketing.

Interestingly, while more than half of employees believe their managers support and encourage them to take time off, only 40 percent say the same of their co-workers. Once again, there’s a correlation between this factor and job satisfaction, with 57 percent of those unsatisfied with their current job saying no one encourages or supports them in taking paid time off, while just 18 percent of those who are very satisfied say the same. Lower-paid employees also report a lack of support, with 45 percent of those with annual household incomes of $50,000 or less saying no one encourages them to take a vacation. Meanwhile, less than 30 percent of employees who make $100,000 a year or more say no one encourages them to take time off.

Then there’s the perennial issue of under-vacationed Americans: Although a third of the Fierce survey respondents say they receive 20 or more vacation days each year, one in every five say they receive less than 10. Not surprisingly, younger and lower-paid workers tend to receive the least PTO days. By way of comparison, countries within the European Union require a minimum of four weeks (20 days) of paid leave for all workers, while a number of them(such as Germany and Switzerland) are even more generous.

Given that there is no national law requiring paid time off in the U.S., employees and HR need to keep the lines of communication open regarding the issue of vacation. As Fierce’s Engle says, “employees need to feel empowered to ask for what they need, and managers must be open to hearing concerns of these employees.”

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.”

What’s Wrong with Workplace Culture

We’re all expected to be doing more with less these days (just like last year, and the year before that and … oh never mind). But a new survey of U.S. workers by American Express finds that today’s companies may not be doing enough to help their employees be more productive; in fact, their workplace cultures may actually be standing in the way.

Take jargon, for example (no really, please take it): 88 percent of U.S. workers admit to pretending to understand office jargon, even when they really have no idea what it means, according to Amex’s Get Business Done Survey. However, two-thirds (64 percent) say they use jargon words or phrases multiple times a week — as in, “Let’s table that and circle back when the deliverables have greater impactfulness.”

Then there are meetings: One third of the employees say they spend nearly 1,200 hours a year in meetings they would call “pointless.” As Sonny Corleone said in The Godfather, “No more meetings!” Or at least, no more meetings that run on for so long that attendees’ attention starts to flag — the survey finds that when this happens, employees’ “top distractions of choice” include thinking about running errands (43 percent), taking a vacation (32 percent), wondering “What were they thinking?” about coworkers’ wardrobes (29 percent) or inserting a witty joke to make the meeting more fun (27 percent).

Email is yet another factor, as employees in the survey admit to responding to work email at less-than-productive times of the day such as after 10 p.m. (36 percent), on vacations (36 percent), while out on dates (15 percent) and eve as late as 3 a.m. (19 percent). Nothing sad about that, right?

The survey also cites some non-culture-related distractions that impede productivity, such as social media (52 percent say it hinders their productivity) and current events (30 percent said they’re “glued to the news”).

While HR may not be able to do much about the last two items other than block access via the company network (possibly a futile move in this age of BYOD), it can certainly provide managers with some tips on structuring shorter meetings and communicating effectively in a  jargon-free manner. These moves may certainly “positively impact the organization’s ability to achieve maximum deliverables in a shortened timespan.”

This Just In: Change is Awful

The saying goes that “change is inevitable.” But when it comes to the workplace, Americans would rather have none of it, according to the results of a brand-new survey from the American Psychological Association.

Employees in the U.S. who’ve been affected by change at work are more likely to report chronic work stress, less likely to trust their employer and more likely to say they plan to leave the organization within the next year compared to those who haven’t been affected by organizational change, according to the APA’s 2017 Work and Well-Being Survey, which is based on responses from 1,500 U.S. adults and was conducted on behalf of the APA by Harris Poll in March.

Half of American workers report having been affected by organizational change within the last year, are currently being affected by such change or expect to be affected by it within the next year, the survey finds. Workers experiencing recent or current change were more than twice as likely to report chronic work stress compared with employees who reported no recent, current or anticipated change (55 percent vs. 22 percent), and more than four times as likely to report experiencing physical health symptoms at work (34 percent vs. 8 percent).

Workers reporting recent or current change also were much more likely than other respondents to say they experienced work/life conflict and felt cynical and negative toward others during the workday (35 percent vs. 11 percent) and ate or smoked more during the workday than they did outside of work (29 percent vs. 8 percent).

There’s plenty more in the survey results, much of it dispiriting and depressing. The upshot seems to be that too many U.S. workplaces appear to be afflicted with leaders who’ve adopted a “do as I say, not as I do” mentality. However, this article that ran in McKinsey Quarterly a number of years ago (published by the consulting powerhouse McKinsey) offers some interesting food for thought that holds true today. One of its important points, as you may already know, is that people need to understand the point of change–why something is being changed, their role in helping the change succeed and how all of it will lead to better conditions for both themselves and the larger organization. The theme is that while change may be inevitable, the negative side effects shouldn’t be and don’t have to be.

 

Of Job Interviews and Stress

Do you remember your last job interview? Was the experience a pleasant one? If you’re like most people, the answers are A: yes, and B: No. After all, regardless of how nicely you’re treated during the interview — a receptionist who greets you warmly by name, interviewers who appear to have fully read your resume, etc. — the fact is that this is a process that may determine not only your livelihood but also who you’ll be spending the majority of your waking hours with (and yes that sounds sad, but it is what it is). So considering all that, it may not be surprising if even the memory of the experience makes your heart beat a little faster and your palms get a bit sweaty.

All of this can be a good thing, said psychologist Kelly McGonigal during her keynote presentation earlier this week at Indeed Interactive in Austin, Tex. The conventional wisdom about stress is that too much of it leads to overeating, high blood pressure and a host of other maladies and behaviors that will ultimately result in a shortened lifespan, said McGonigal, a Stanford University researcher whose 2014 TED Talk titled “How to Make Stress Your Friend” garnered nearly 5 million views. However, stress is and always has been a part of life, she said — it’s how we choose to respond to it that determines its effect on our health.

“The advice we typically give to each other during a really stressed-out moment, like before a job interview, is ‘Take a deep breath,’ ” she said to attendees packing the ballroom at the Austin J.W. Marriott. “Yes, most people say that — and they’re wrong. A better piece of advice is, what if instead of trying to suppress the stress, we view it as energy that we can harness?”

McGonigal cited research conducted at the University of Wisconsin that tracked 30,000 Americans over the course of eight years. The researchers found that subjects with a lot of stress had a 43-percent increased risk of dying — but only if they believed stress was harmful.

“The people who perform best under pressure aren’t actually calm, but they view that stress as energy that can actually help them,” she said. “Your body and brain have a whole repertoire of stress responses, many of which are helpful and healthy. If you choose to embrace that anxiety, it actually transforms the biology of fear into the biology of courage.”

People tend to perform better when they’re told prior to a major event that feeling anxious is natural and that it can actually help them — not just in job interviews, said McGonigal, but in a wide range of activities such as athletic competitions, during tests and even in karaoke contests (something to keep in mind for your next happy hour).

“Not everyone does this naturally, although everyone has the capability to do this,” she said. “You can access the biology of resilience in stressful situations.”

Researchers at Columbia Business School conducted an experiment in which participants were put through a mock job interview by interviewers who’d been coached to be very cold, give no positive feedback whatsoever to the interviewees  and interrupt them regularly, said McGonigal. One group of interviewees was shown a video prior to the interview that explained the damaging effects that stress can have on health. The other group was shown  a video about how stress can be performance-enhancing and can help people emerge from a difficult situation stronger and better-equipped to handle adversity. The participants who saw the positive video experienced higher levels of hormones (oxytocin, in particular) that help us react positively to stressful experiences, she said.

In another experiment focused on job applicants, this one at the University of Michigan, researchers counseled one group of participants to think about how — if they got the job — it would allow them to help others or express their values in a way that would contribute to the greater good. Members of this group were much more likely to be rated by people who watched the interviews as  confident and competent and as someone they would like to work with than those who hadn’t received the pre-interview counseling.

So, what’s the lesson here for recruiters and talent-acquisition leaders?

“Every step of the hiring process can be viewed as contributing to the community, values and mission of the organization,” said McGonigal. “One could view your own role as part of that, of helping to connect people with the organization and the community that it’s part of. And every moment that you choose to view as the next step in bringing this about also helps create a psychologically healthy state for you.”

Avoid Hiring the ‘Takers’

Are you a giver, a matcher or a taker? I came across a fascinating TED Talk the other day by Adam Grant, a management professor at Penn’s Wharton School and the author of two bestselling books, Originals and Give and Take. The latter book was about how helping others can fuel our own success, and was the focus of Grant’s talk, “Are You a Giver or a Taker?” which he delivered late last year at IBM.  There are three basic types of people in every workplace, he said: givers, takers and matchers.

Grant surveyed more than 30,000 people across industries and throughout the world, and found that most fall somewhere in the middle between givers and takers — he calls them “matchers.”

“If you’re a matcher, you try and keep an even balance of give and take: quid pro quo — ‘I’ll do something for you if you do something for me,'” he said. “And that seems like a safe way to live your life. But is it the most effective and productive way to live your life?”

The answer, said Grant, is ” a very definitive … maybe.”

Interestingly enough, although he found that givers display attributes that would seem to make them ideal employees, in the course of his research Grant found that they actually tended to be the worst performers in the various jobs that he studied. Givers tended to get the least work done, sell the least amount of products and, in medical schools, the students with the lowest grades tended to be the ones who most agreed with statements like “I love helping others.”

The givers are so giving, said Grant, that they tend to neglect their own work.

So, should you avoid hiring givers? Absolutely not, he said. In fact, givers tend to bring tremendous advantages to the organization as a whole, and HR and recruiting leaders should be screening out the takers instead.

“Givers make their organizations better,” said Grant. A huge body of evidence demonstrates that the more often people help others, share their knowledge and serve as mentors, the better organizations do on every success metric, from customer satisfaction to higher profits, he said. Givers spend a lot of time helping others but often end up suffering along the way, from a career perspective, said Grant. Interestingly enough, while many givers are bottom-dwellers in terms of job performance, they’re also disproportionately represented among top performers in terms of productivity, sales results and grades. Organizations should build cultures where givers actually get to succeed, he said.

Takers, by contrast, often rise rapidly within organizations — but they tend to fall rapidly, too, said Grant. Because takers tend to be “kiss-up, kick-down” types — currying favor with the higher-ups while dissing the people below them — they inevitably inspire revenge from the matchers, who make up the majority of most organizations, he said.

Matchers are positively influenced by the behavior of givers, however, and by building a culture in which asking for help from others is encouraged, organizations will not only inspire matchers to emulate givers but also make it easier for the givers themselves to thrive, said Grant. Fostering such an environment will encourage the givers themselves to seek assistance rather than risk burnout by helping everyone else to the detriment of their own well-being, he said.

Meanwhile, avoid the damage that even one taker on a team can wreak by filtering them out during the hiring process, said Grant.

“My favorite way to catch these people in the interview process is to ask them the question, ‘Can you give me the name of four people whose careers you have fundamentally improved?'” he said. “The takers will give you four names, and they will all be more influential than them, because takers are great at kissing up and then kicking down. Givers are more likely to name people who are below them in a hierarchy, who don’t have as much power, who can do them no good. And let’s face it, you all know you can learn a lot about character by watching how someone treats their restaurant server or their Uber driver.”

Sad State of Parental Leave

Tuned into a pretty interesting, if not depressing, Facebook Live session on Wednesday. Seems the at-least-slow progress in paid parental leave we’ve been writing about here on HRE Daily and on our HREOnline website isn’t as promising as some think.

At least that’s according to the Society for Human Resource Management, which released during the session its National Study of Employers — a self-described “comprehensive look at employer practices, policies, programs and benefits that address the personal and family needs of employees.” (Here’s the press release for those of you who don’t have the time for an entire study right now.)

Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute, talked during the session about the study’s key findings — namely that, despite reports from well-known companies (such as Netflix, Amazon, Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson and Ernst & Young — see our own posts linked above) announcing their expansions of paid-parental-leave benefits, the average amount of caregiving and parental leave provided by U.S. employers has not changed significantly since 2012.

Specifically, over the past 11 years, the number of organizations offering at least some replacement pay for women on maternity leave has increased from 46 percent to 58 percent. But the study also found that, among employers offering any replacement pay, the percentage offering full pay has continued to decline, from 17 percent in 2005 to 10 percent in 2016.

In fact, of all employers with 50 or more employees, only 6 percent offer full pay. In addition, daily flexibility, the kind needed for emergencies, has gone down actually, from 87 percent in 2012 to 81 percent in 2016, a statistic Galinsky called “critical.” She added:

“The fact that that kind of flexibility has gone down is a critical [and alarming] finding.”

According to Galinsky, HR has a major role in turning this around. As she put it during the session:

“Flexibility is now the norm. HR should be thinking this way. It used to be, ‘Should or shouldn’t we provide flexibility?’ Now it’s a given that we should.”

Unfortunately, she said, HR needs to do a better job of telling workers what is offered at their organizations. The study found only 23 percent of companies making a real effort to communicate the programs they have.

Here are some other key findings:

  • Small employers (50 to 99 employees) were more likely than large employers (1,000 or more employees) to offer all or most employees 1) traditional flextime, the ability to periodically change start and stop times (36 percent versus 17 percent), 2) control over when to take breaks (63 percent versus 47 percent) and 3) time off during the workday to attend to important family or personal needs without loss of pay (51 percent versus 33 percent).

  • Growth of workplace flexibility has been stable over the past four years. Out of 18 forms of flexibility studied, there were only four changes:

  1. An increase in employers that offer telework, allowing employees to work at least some of their paid hours at home on a regular basis (40 percent in 2016 versus 33 percent in 2012).
  2. An increase in employers that allow employees to return to work gradually after childbirth or adoption (81 percent in 2016 versus 73 percent in 2012).
  3. An increase in organizations that allow employees to receive special consideration after a career break for personal/family responsibilities (28 percent in 2016 versus 21 percent in 2012).
  4. A decrease in organizations that allow employees to take time off during the workday to attend to important family or personal needs without loss of pay (81 percent in 2016 versus 87 percent in 2012).

In Galinsky’s words:

“Whether high-profile companies offering paid [parental] leave are out of step with the majority of employers or leading the way remains to be seen. Given our findings that 78 percent of employers reported difficulty in recruiting employees for highly skilled jobs and 38 percent reported difficulty in recruiting for entry-level, hourly jobs, these high-profile companies could be leading the way in the strategic use of leave benefits.”

And, apparently, that’s not happening. Not yet anyway.