Category Archives: corporate culture

Retailers: ‘No Thanks’ to Thanksgiving Hours

ClosedREI made news recently with its announcement that its stores will be closed on Black Friday this year. “Instead of reporting to work, we’re paying our employees to do what we love most — be outside,” said REI’s CEO, Jerry Stritzke. The outdoor-apparel retailer’s website won’t be processing customer orders that day, either — instead, the day will be a paid holiday for all of its 12,000 employees, it said.

Seems like a bold move — although retail analysts note that Black Friday isn’t quite the sales juggernaut it used to be, what with the rise of online shopping and deals that are spread throughout November and December. Still, REI’s announcement resonates with a significant portion of the public who’ve expressed outrage at the recent trend among retailers to open early on the evening of, or stay open throughout, Thanksgiving Day itself, requiring employees to work instead of spending time with their families.

Although REI appears to be the only national chain so far that will be closed on Black Friday, at least 24 national retailers have announced they will remain closed on Thanksgiving Day. These stores include GameStop, T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, Sam’s Club, Home Depot, Burlington Coat Factory, Jo-Ann Stores, BJ’s, Costco and Nordstrom.

Could REI be shooting itself in its (Teva hiking sandal-clad) foot? Black Friday is still very important for retailers, even for REI — spokeswoman Stephanie Hettick told The Oregonian that it’s one of the top sales days for the company. But REI is also making sure it’s getting massive publicity for its decision: It’s created a website,, as well as hashtags on Twitter to encourage shoppers to be outside on Black Friday (did I note that REI sells outdoor merchandise?) rather than clogging store aisles.

“Black Friday is the perfect time to remind ourselves of the essential truth that life is richer, more connected and complete when you choose to spend it outside,” said Stritzke in a press release. Hmmm, maybe he’s on to something.

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Das Deception: VW Probe Deepens

When a corporate scandal hits, it typically takes a while to identify all the key players.

So, it probably shouldn’t be shocking to learn that the ongoing investigation involving Volkswagen is now expanding to include managers who may have looked the other way as engineers installed software designed to manipulate emissions controls during laboratory tests in roughly 11 million Volkswagen diesel vehicles since 2009.

As the New York Times reports, “a person briefed on the inquiry” says the probe—being conducted by law firm Jones Day, at the behest of the Volkswagen supervisory board—could soon see as many as 10 Volkswagen employees being suspended.

While some of these individuals were engineers “directly involved in programming cars to cheat on emissions tests,” the Jones Day investigation is now taking a closer look at “managers [who] may have learned of the deception and failed to take appropriate action,” according to the Times.

So, it seems the seat could start to get pretty hot for some Volkswagen managers in the days and weeks to come. But the organization’s leadership is already under heavy fire for the part it played—or didn’t play, as it were—in gaming the emissions testing process for more than five years, and its top executive has already toppled from his perch.

On Sept. 3, Volkswagen opted to explain to federal regulators why many of its diesel automobiles were emitting more toxic emissions on the road than they did in the test lab. (The automaker’s alternative was losing Environmental Protection Agency certification for all of its 2016 diesel models.)

Michael Horn, CEO of Volkswagen’s U.S. business, appeared before Congress earlier this month. Horn testified that he was aware of potential issues as far back as spring 2014, but claimed he didn’t know for sure until this past September that the company had been using illegal software to deceive emissions testers.

At least three members of Volkswagen’s supervisory board “have said they learned of the illegal software from media reports on Sept. 18,” the Times reports. Now-former Volkswagen chairman Martin Winterkorn claims to have been in the dark all along, however. In a Sept. 23 statement announcing his resignation, Winterkorn said he was “ ‘shocked’ to learn of the deception and had committed no wrongdoing,” according to the Times, which notes that shareholder representatives have criticized Winterkorn’s failure to keep them informed as the controversy unfolded.

Former employees have joined the chorus as well, condemning “what they said was a culture inside Volkswagen that centralized decision making at company headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, and discouraged open discussion of problems, creating a climate in which people may have been fearful of speaking up,” the Times reports.

It may be months before this web is untangled, and we have a better sense of who knew what and when they knew it. But it’s probably safe to go ahead and classify the Volkswagen emissions saga as yet another reminder of just how wrong things can go in organizations that don’t effectively communicate with their people, and in cultures where employees are afraid to blow the whistle on unethical behavior.

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Can Abusive Bosses Be Stopped?

In recent years, a lot of oxygen and ink has been used up trying to find a successful way to deal with the damage done by abusive supervisors.

Will giving boorish bosses a taste of their own medicine help them see the error of their ways, or just exacerbate an already tense situation? Is combating bad behavior with kindness the way to go, or does taking that tack only lead to compassionate co-workers being seen as easy marks?

Well, a study that’s set to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that neither strategy is all that effective, and we might need to start looking for a new approach altogether.

Over a six-month period, a team that included researchers from the University of Notre Dame surveyed 244 employees from several organizations about their bosses’ behavior as well as their own.

Not surprisingly, the authors found that simply trying to avoid a superior who engages in offensive behavior—or, conversely, attempting to fight aggression with aggression—did little to discourage an obnoxious supervisor from acting obnoxiously.

Another result, however, seems to “clash with common sense,” Charlice Hurst, assistant professor at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business and co-author of the study, recently told the Washington Post.

The investigators undertook this research with the hypothesis that showing ill-mannered managers empathy and generosity could help curtail their unruly behavior in the future.

But, the survey found abusive bosses “didn’t respond to followers being positive and compassionate, and doing things to be supportive and helpful,” according to Hurst.

In the paper, Hurst and colleagues suggest that a churlish manager may simply look at a subordinate’s extra effort—an unsolicited offer to help share the supervisor’s workload, for example—as part of the employee’s job, and thus feels no obligation to treat him or her any differently.

So, offering a helping hand is met with apathy. The passive-aggressive route leads nowhere. Responding in kind only stokes the hostile manager’s fire. What’s an employee (and an employer) to do?

This paper hasn’t exactly answered that question, but Hurst does give some advice on how not to handle such a scenario.

“I think companies have to create cultures where abusive supervisors are not acceptable, and they have to implement policies for employees to report being bullied,” she told the Post. “For individuals, you’re only going to make your situation worse if you try to retaliate or try to withdraw or hunker down.”

Naturally. Companies should already be working hard to create and maintain such an environment, and should be encouraging employees to step forward when they’ve been subjected to poor treatment at the hands of a supervisor. And, while this research may not provide a definitive solution to the problem, it certainly offers more evidence of the type of havoc that a belligerent boss can wreak on your organization.

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“The Work Day’s Over — We Mean It!”

clockFor some salaried professionals, the 40-hour work week may seem like one of those purple unicorns — widely talked about but never seen. Forget 40 hours — their work weeks often entail 50, 60 or even more hours, especially when you’re counting time spent on the phone or the laptop at home.

United Shore Financial Services is having none of that. At the Michigan-based wholesale mortgage firm, the policy is “firm 40″ — when 6 p.m. rolls around, everyone leaves the office to go home, and there’s to be no working from home or on the weekend, either. Of course, this also means that work hours are strictly for work, and not for perusing Facebook.

“You give us 40, everything else is yours,” Laura Lawson, United Shore’s chief people officer, tells the Wall Street Journal.

United Shore is one of several companies profiled by the Journal that have firm 40 policies in place. They include a couple of HR vendors — Bamboo HR and myHR Partner Inc. — as well. The companies believe that working longer than 40 hours does not lead to greater productivity, that in fact it is probably counterproductive in the long term.

Stanford University Professor John Pencavel agrees. His research shows that workers who routinely put in more than 40 hours per week become less productive over time, reports the Journal.

Allentown, Pa.-based myHRPartner Inc. says its firm 40 policy helps it attract talent — three open positions at the company recently attracted 663 applicants, the company tells the Journal.

As mentioned previously, however, strictly limiting work to no more than 40 hours hardly means slacking off: At software developer Never Settle, employees can be penalized for working less than 40 hours a week by losing vacation time (employees who work too many hours can also be punished thusly). At BambooHR, the COO will tell some employees “It feels like you’re not putting in the full 40.”

Interestingly, many of us may not actually be putting in the “insane” amount of hours we think we are: The Journal cites research showing that the actual number of hours worked by salaried professionals has stayed fairly constant over the years, hovering at around just over 43 hours per week. Still, that’s three extra hours that could probably be better spent.

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Amazon Really, Really Wants Employee Input

You may have seen that is back in the news.

Roughly two months ago, a stinging New York Times report characterized the work environment at the Seattle-based online retail giant as one where employees were often held to unreasonable standards, occasionally reduced to tears and essentially rewarded for undermining their peers.

More recently, though, Amazon has made headlines for its attempt to connect in a meaningful way with these same workers, and solicit more frequent input with regard to their job satisfaction, leadership opportunities within the organization and more.

In expanding its Amazon Connections program, the company is now posing daily—that’s right, daily—questions on these and other job-related topics to white-collar employees. (Amazon started the program with blue-collar workers in its fulfillment centers in 2014, and has been introducing Connections to other departments throughout the past year, according to Bloomberg Business.)

The responses that Amazon collects will be evaluated by teams in Seattle and Prague, who will compile daily reports to share with the company, according to the Bloomberg piece, which notes that individual employees’ answers and comments “aren’t anonymous, but are shared only with members of the Connections team, and the reports will contain only aggregated data.”

Amazon is clearly making a concerted effort to improve its employee experience, regardless of how much its workplace does or doesn’t resemble the soul-crushing corporate hellscape some envisioned after reading the aforementioned Times piece. But is asking employees to complete these quasi-surveys every day overcompensating? Will workers welcome the chance to share their two cents so often, or will they begin to look at providing constant feedback as a chore?

I put these questions to Katalin Takacs-Haynes, an assistant professor of strategic management at the A. Lerner College of Business and Economics at the University of Delaware.

As is the case with any other new initiative, there are pros and cons, she says.

“On the plus side, it’s great that Amazon realizes it needs to address the issues raised in the [Times article], and is trying to address the issue by initiating internal communication with the employees,” says Haynes. “Also on the plus side, the fact that special teams in Seattle and Prague are going to compile an anonymous report might encourage employees to provide feedback openly.”

While said reports are anonymous, employee responses are not, however.

That, she says, could be a problem.

“This can raise concerns in some employees who might be afraid that sharing their opinions openly will lead to retaliation,” says Haynes. “Job security might be a concern for some who feel that being too open … appears as being critical and leads to termination or lack of promotion.”

Ultimately, the biggest concern for Amazon is that “[despite] its best intentions, it might not get the honest and open answers it’s looking for.”

The expansion of Amazon Connections may well be a reaction to the Times report, “particularly since Jeff Bezos seems to have taken that very personally,” adds Rita Gunther McGrath, associate professor of management at the Columbia Business School in New York.

But, regardless of why Amazon implemented it, the program could wind up being an effective communication tool, especially among millennial employees “who thrive on little bits of quick interaction and feedback, rather than a ponderous annual review process,” says McGrath.

“It also functions as an accelerator of information flows and a way of assessing how significant an issue is,” she says. “If one person says it, it may well be a fluke. If 1,000 people say it, it’s a meaningful issue.”

So, with all that said, and the potential plusses and minuses tallied, should we expect to see similar programs popping up in other organizations?

“A few companies might jump on the bandwagon,” says Haynes. “However, unless a company is in the spotlight like Amazon was, it lacks a legitimate reason to institute such a high-profile feedback system. Such a system can be irritating to employees and reflect a misuse of resources such as employee time and human capital in exchange for information of questionable quality.”

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Welcoming Back the Boomerang Employee

Top-notch talent is hard to find. With an improving economy and a more job seeker-friendly labor market adding degrees of difficulties to the search, employers may be wise to seek out familiar faces on the recruiting trail.

So suggests new research released this week, the first study in the Employee Engagement Series, commissioned by The Workforce Institute at Kronos Inc. and

In the poll, nearly half of 601 HR professionals claimed their organizations previously had a policy against rehiring former employees, even those who left in good standing. Seventy-six percent, however, reported they are now more receptive to the idea of bringing back such workers, with nearly two-thirds of 604 people managers saying the same.

In total, 1,807 respondents completed the survey, with 602 full-time, non-managing employees participating as well. Among these workers, just 15 percent said they had gone back to a former employer, but close to 40 percent indicated they would consider it.

In addition, 85 percent of the HR professionals polled said they have received job applications from former employees in the past five years, and 40 percent reported their organizations hired about half of those applicants seeking a second tour of duty. Fifty-six percent of HR professionals and 51 percent of managers indicated they give “high” or “very high” priority to job applicants who were ex-employees that departed on good terms. (Just 6 percent and 9 percent, respectively, reported giving zero priority to former colleagues.)

This isn’t a new phenomenon, of course. Two years ago, for instance, CareerXRoads found boomerang hires ranking sixth in terms of hiring volume, just behind college recruits.

Julie Cook Ramirez pointed out as much in a 2014 HRE feature. In “Coming Home,” she noted that attitudes toward rehiring former employees began to shift as long ago as the late 1990s, when the dot-com boom sent scores of workers scattering in pursuit of entrepreneurial opportunities and made recruiting a challenge for more established companies.

While there’s always the concern that boomerang employees are a perpetual flight risk, the theoretical value of bringing back proven entities—knowledge of the business and company culture, for example—seems evident. As does the sense in expanding the candidate pool at a time when talent figures to become more scarce.

As for how to create a work environment that would make them want to return? The answer is simple and unsurprising: treat them right the first time.

“The best boomerang strategy for forward-thinking organizations is to ensure that employees are engaged and feel appreciated while at work,” says David Almeda, chief people officer at Kronos, in a statement.

“That way, if employees decide to leave to explore other career options, the organization will be on the short list of employer options if their career situation changes and they are looking for a more positive opportunity.”

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The High Cost of Warm Fuzzies

I admit the following with a recently delivered dash of remorse: I am an avowed Amazon Prime customer and I always get a “warm fuzzy” when a product I ordered in the morning arrives on my front porch before I even get home from work.

With that said, reading the New York Timesrecent in-depth look at Amazon’s corporate culture definitely left me with a “cold prickly,” or what the company calls the feeling customers get when they are informed their packages will not arrive as scheduled.

In case you haven’t read the piece yet — and I highly recommend you do — the Times “interviewed more than 100 current and former Amazon employees, including many who spoke on the record and some who requested anonymity because they had signed agreements saying they would not speak to the press.”

One of the few employees Amazon allowed to speak on the record (via email) for the piece was its vice president of HR, who defended the company’s attitude toward open confrontation in the workplace:

“We always want to arrive at the right answer,” said Tony Galbato, vice president for human resources, in an email statement. “It would certainly be much easier and socially cohesive to just compromise and not debate, but that may lead to the wrong decision.”

The story about the company that has just been valued at $250 billion has generated enough controversy that founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who declined to be interviewed for the original story, nonetheless felt compelled to push back against some of the more damaging claims made in it, according to a follow-up piece by the Times:

In a letter to employees, Mr. Bezos said Amazon would not tolerate the “shockingly callous management practices” described in the article. He urged any employees who knew of “stories like those reported” to contact him directly.

“Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero,” Mr. Bezos said.

The NYT piece quotes Jason Merkoski, a 42-year-old engineer, who worked on the team developing the first Kindle e-reader and served as a technology evangelist for Amazon, who left the company in 2010 and then returned briefly in 2014.

Among the many disheartening stories of uncaring — or even malicious — co-workers, Merkoski’s quote perhaps best sums up the queasy essence of how work gets done there:

“The sheer number of innovations means things go wrong, you need to rectify, and then explain, and heaven help you if you got an email from Jeff,” he said. “It’s as if you’ve got the CEO of the company in bed with you at 3 a.m. breathing down your neck.”

Jason Averbook, CEO of The Marcus Buckingham Co., and one of the top thought leaders in the space of HR, workforce and enterprise technology — as well as being named as one of the 10 Most Powerful HR Technology experts by HRE — says the Amazon story offers a few powerful lessons for HR leaders everywhere.

“We need to be able to understand the pulse of employees much better than we do today,” he says. “It should never get to the point where employees see news media or social media as the only resort.

“And for a metrics-driven organization such as Amazon, it’s a shame and a shock that neither Bezos nor team leaders across the organization have quality people data that shows what’s at work in their teams. Because of this dearth of people data, we cannot truly know what their culture is like, and this situation emphasizes the need for reliable, real-time measures of team-level data for companies of all sizes.”

Averbook adds that companies need to “be doing a much better job of putting tools into the hands of team leaders themselves to empower them to take action.”

With the volume of millennials entering the workplace — even in managerial roles — “we need to provide both the training and tools to allow them to lead effectively,” he says. “It’s a reminder for companies to take a look at their current processes and identify how they need to improve now.

“This is the kick in the pants HR and companies need,” he adds. “If there was ever a question about the return on investment of HR tools and processes, the Amazon debacle should resolve those concerns as long as they are the right tools and processes.”

But, despite the public-relations black eye the story has caused Amazon, it certainly appears the company will continue to grow toward being the first trillion-dollar retailer in history, regardless of how we feel about the way our packages and products ultimately get to us.

Indeed, in Seattle alone, according to the piece, “more than 4,500 jobs are open, including one for an analyst specializing in ‘high-volume hiring.’ “

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The Paradox of Unlimited Paid Leave

Paid leave is in the news lots these days: President Obama has just drafted an executive order requiring federal contractors to provide paid leave for medical or health reasons or to care for a sick relative. Employers who fall under the order’s purview would be expected to provide a minimum of about seven days of paid leave per year and to allow the leave to accrue year after year. The executive order — which is expected to go into effect within a couple of months – would not only affect hundreds of thousands of employees, but may have an effect that extends beyond federal contractors: “You can build an expectation that paid sick leave comes with a job,” Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, told the New York Times. “Changes in cultural norms matter.”

rbrs_0240Over in Silicon Valley, meanwhile, the cultural norm is plush benefits for the employees of the area’s tech behemoths – and now Netflix has raised the bar: Earlier this week it announced it would offer unlimited paid maternity and paternity leave. Employees can stay out as long as they like to care for their newborn or newly adopted children while still receiving full pay and benefits, said Netflix Chief Talent Officer Tawni Cranz.

Netflix’s announcement makes the generous leave policies offered by Facebook, Google, Accenture and Johnson & Johnson – which offer paid leave for up to four or five months – pale in comparison. However, the longstanding question about unlimited time-off policies – whether they’re for vacation, health reasons or the birth or adoption of a child – is that if you leave it to the discretion of employees as to how much time to take, won’t they actually end up taking less time (or none at all) than if they were given a set amount?

“An unlimited policy sounds great in theory,” writes Jena McGregor, the On Leadership columnist for the Washington Post. “Unless the culture really supports it, however, employees won’t know how to react and may even end up taking off less time than they otherwise would.”

When tech firm Evernote began offering unlimited vacation time to its employees back in 2011, it noticed some employees were actually taking less vacation in order to look better to their bosses, writes MarketWatch’s Catey Hill. The company then actually began paying people $1,000 to actually take a vacation, she writes.

The culprit may be “work martyr syndrome,” Hill writes: Employees – especially those in highly competitive workplaces – are looking for any advantage they can, and by deciding to take less (or even no) time off, they believe they’re looking better in the eyes of their bosses. “You’re trying to show you’re a harder worker,” executive coach Marc Dorio told Hill.

In other words, unless Netflix and other companies offering unlimited time off actually build support for extensive parental or medical leave time into their culture (with leaders setting the example), it will probably be a perk in name only.

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CEO Generously Delivers to Workers

Why not end the week with a brief but upbeat story about a CEO who isn’t reluctant to share …

ThinkstockPhotos-480903116Stories appearing on CNN Money and Entrepreneur websites this week reported that Nevzat Aydin, co-founder and CEO of Yemeksepeti, a Turkish food delivery company he helped launch 15 years ago, recently decided to share a huge chunk of the proceeds generated from his company’s $589 million sale to Germany’s Delivery Hero with 114 of his employees. (The firm employs a total 370 employees.)

CNN Money reported the employees received an impressive $237 million from the sale. According to the story, “Aydin’s employees are paid between $1,000 and $2,000 a month. That means the average payout is worth roughly 150 times their monthly wage, and tops the average Wall Street bonus for 2014 by $65,000.”

Aydin told CNN Money that “Yemeksepeti’s success story did not happen overnight and many people participated in this journey with their hard work and talent. I believe in teamwork and I believe success is much more enjoyable and glorious when shared with the rest of the team.”

In deciding how to allocate the bonuses,” the Entreprenuer website reported, “Aydin factored in how long they’d worked for the company (requiring two years, minimum) along with the individual’s job performance and their ‘future potential in the company.’ ”

The story was first reported by Turkish newspaper Hurriet.

CNN Money noted that the bonus plan was decided upon prior to the sale, but that the acquirer, Delivery Hero, supported the move.


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Catching (and Spreading) the Rudeness Bug

It’s said that laughter is contagious, right? Well, apparently, the same is the case for rudeness.

ThinkstockPhotos-476962485According to a study out of the University of Florida, titled Catching Rudeness Is Like Catching a Cold: The Contagion Effects of Low-Intensity Negative Behaviors, “encountering rude behavior at work makes people more likely to perceive rudeness in later interactions. … That perception makes them more likely to be impolite in return, spreading rudeness like a virus.”

Trevor Foulk, a doctoral student in management at UF’s Warrington College of Business Administration and the lead author of the study, puts it this way: “When you experience rudeness, it makes rudeness more noticeable. You’ll see more rudeness even if it’s not there.

“Part of the problem is that we are generally tolerant of these behaviors, but they’re actually really harmful,” he continued. “Rudeness has an incredibly powerful negative effect on the workplace.”

Tracking 90 graduate students who practiced negotiation with classmates, the researchers found that those who rated their initial negotiation partner as rude were more likely to be rated as rude by a subsequent partner. In other words, they ended up passing along the first partner’s rudeness. The study found the effect continued even when a week elapsed between the first and second negotiations.

In a separate test, the researchers also found that people who witnessed rudeness were more likely to be rude to others. “When study participants watched a video of a rude workplace interaction, then answered a fictitious customer email that was neutral in tone, they were more likely to be hostile in their responses than those who viewed a polite interaction before responding,” a press release on the research explained.

So what do these findings (published in the Journal of Applied Psychology) mean for employers? Foulks points to the need to take incivility more seriously.

“You might go your whole career and not experience abuse or aggression in the workplace, but rudeness also has a negative effect on performance,” he pointed out. “It isn’t something you can just turn your back on. It matters.”

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