Category Archives: employee policies

Coming Soon: ‘Facebook at Work’

facebookThere was a time not so long ago when most employees were blocked from accessing Facebook while at work. My, how times have changed: Next month, companies will be paying Facebook so their employees can use “Facebook at Work,” a suite of business communication tools that’s designed to compete with the likes of Slack and Microsoft Yammer. The new application has been in beta testing with large companies such as Royal Bank of Scotland, and its capabilities could include the use of artificial intelligence technology to “read the mood of employees, including how they feel on certain topics,” according to USA Today.

Although those two products and others such as Salesforce’s Chatter are well-established brands with large customer bases, the sheer familiarity of Facebook’s user-interface (Facebook has 1.71 billion active users) may give it an advantage in the marketplace, writes TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden.

Its advantage lies in the fact that Facebook at Work’s user interface, functionality and even sign-in are all based on Facebook. That makes it instantly easy and familiar to use for many professionals, who will already be at least familiar with the workings of the social network, if not using it on a regular basis. (And that is crucial in a landscape where many companies have struggled to get their workers to engage well on their in-house “conversation” platforms.)

Unlike the other services, Facebook at Work will be offered to clients on a “per seat” pricing model rather than a flat fee, which could make it more affordable for smaller companies, reports ZDNet’s iGeneration. Facebook has not disclosed any specific pricing information yet for the service.

Facebook at Work is part of a trend in which companies are trying to spur greater employee use of enterprise software by making it more simple and user-friendly, like Amazon, Google and … Facebook. It will be interesting to see its full suite of capabilities at the official launch, scheduled for Oct. 10 in London.

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The Democratic Party Platform: A Cheat Sheet

ThinkstockPhotos-476244660Turnabout is fair play — at least when it comes to politics in 2016. Last week I gave you a rundown on HR-related provisions in the Republican Party platform. Now it’s time for the Democrats.

Reflecting the unusual character of this year’s race, the document — formally approved on Monday — contains many direct attacks on GOP candidate Donald J. Trump. In some cases the narrative has to stretch a bit to do so. In declaring the party’s support for small business, for example, the platform says:

“The Democratic Party will make it easier to start and grow a small business in America, unlike Donald Trump, who has often stiffed small businesses—nearly bankrupting some—with his deceptive and reckless corporate practices.”

Anyway. Back to HR. Following are the main provisions of interest.

Minimum Wage: Language in the platform on the federal minimum wage reflects some tension between the party and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Clinton favors a raise from $7.25 an hour today to $12, leaving states and cities to set higher minimums. Her now-vanquished rival, Bernie Sanders, pushed for $15. What emerged in final platform language was a compromise: $15 … “over time.” The party also calls for eliminating minimum-wage exemptions for tipped workers and those with disabilities.

“No one who works full time should have to raise a family in poverty. … We should raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour over time and index it [to inflation].”

Employer incentives: The party also favors federal support for employers who “provide their workers with a living wage, good benefits, and the opportunity to form a union without reprisal.” The language doesn’t specify the form of this support, but suggests such employers would get preference in existing programs.

“The one trillion dollars spent annually by the government on contracts, loans, and grants should be used to support good jobs that rebuild the middle class.”

‘Card Check’: The platform reiterates a long-held argument in favor of allowing unions to organize workplaces where a majority of workers have signed cards indicating approval — with no election. The idea, called “card check,” has been proposed in Congress for more than a decade, so far without success.

The provision is part of a larger argument the party makes in favor of stronger legislative and regulatory support for labor unions.

“A major factor in the 40-year decline in the middle class is that the rights of workers to bargain collectively for better wages and benefits have been under attack at all levels. … We oppose legislation and lawsuits that would strike down laws protecting the rights of teachers and other public employees. We will defend President Obama’s overtime rule, which protects of millions of workers by paying them fairly for their hard work.”

Mandatory Arbitration: Federal regulators have been going after companies that require workers to sign arbitration agreements that waive their rights to sue or join class-action suits. The topic got a big boost this month with news that former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes is citing such a clause in the contract of former Fox commentator Gretchen Carlson to keep her sexual-harassment lawsuit out of court.

The 2016 platform adds the cause to a list of labor measures.

“We will support efforts to limit the use of forced arbitration clauses in employment and service contracts, which unfairly strip consumers, workers, students, retirees, and investors of their right to their day in court.”

Paid leave: After a passing reference to the party’s support for gender-based pay equity, the Democratic Party platform gets more specific about laws that would mandate family and medical leave.

“Democrats will make sure that the United States finally enacts national paid family and medical leave by passing a family and medical leave act that would provide all workers at least 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a new child or address a personal or family member’s serious health issue. We will fight to allow workers the right to earn at least seven days of paid sick leave. We will also encourage employers to provide paid vacation.”

Profit-sharing: Suggesting a program that may appeal to some employers, the party also backs an unspecified government incentive to some that provide profit-sharing bonuses to employees.

“Corporate profits are at near-record highs, but workers have not shared through rising wages. … we will incentivize companies to share profits with their employees on top of wages and pay increases, while targeting the workers and businesses that need profit-sharing the most.”

International trade: Trade policy is a sore subject for both parties, with Trump and Sanders railing against NAFTA and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. The Democratic Party platform walks a narrow line, calling for tougher bargaining — without shutting the door on the TPP.

“Trade agreements should crack down on the unfair and illegal subsidies other countries grant their businesses at the expense of ours. … These are the standards Democrats believe must be applied to all trade agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”

Immigration: The 2016 party platform reaffirms longstanding calls for comprehensive immigration policy reform — but makes no mention of increasing employment-based visa allowances to help companies recruit talent abroad.

“Democrats believe we need to urgently fix our broken immigration system—which tears families apart and keeps workers in the shadows—and create a path to citizenship for law-abiding families who are here, making a better life for their families and contributing to their communities and our country.”

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A Glimpse Inside a Strange Corporate Culture

At Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, employees are expected to familiarize themselves with “a little white book” written by the firm’s founder, Ray Dalio, that’s filled with more than 200 of his “principles” on life and business. Aside from the overtones of Chairman Mao and his little red book, a New York Times story that’s based on documents from a filing against Bridgewater by the National Labor Relations Board and interviews with former employees and people who’ve done work with the $154 billion company suggests there are other odd practices at the Westport, Conn.-based firm.

An employee who filed a complaint earlier this year with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities likened the company in his complaint to a “cauldron of fear and intimidation,” the Times reports. Employees are under constant video surveillance, all meetings are recorded and security guards regularly patrol the building, all as part of an effort to “silence employees who do not fit the Bridgewater mold.”

Employees in some units of the company are required to lock up their personal cell phones when they arrive at work, the sources tell the Times.

Such secrecy and surveillance sounds, and probably is, uncomfortable, but then again hedge funds do tend to be secretive places with enormous amounts of money at stake. But at Bridgewater, the practice appears to have been taken a step further, with meetings between employees and managers not only routinely recorded but also shown to other employees. For example, new are shown videos of confrontations between executives and managers in an effort to “give new employees a taste of Bridgewater’s culture of openly challenging employees and putting them on the spot,” the Times reports. In one such video (which is no longer shown, according to the former employees), a confrontation between executives and a female manager ends up with the woman breaking down and crying. That certainly must have made for a memorable onboarding experience.

The employee who filed the initial complaint with the state commission was Christopher Tarui, an adviser to large institutional investors, who contended that he was sexually harassed by his male supervisor. In his complaint, Tarui said he did not report the conduct “out of fear it would become public because of the firm’s policy of videotaping confrontations between employees.” He ultimately complained to Bridgewater’s HR department, he said, because his supervisor gave him a bad performance rating despite the fact he’d been promoted and given a pay raise a few months earlier. Tarui said in his complaint that the firm promised to investigate, but management tried to persuade him to withdraw his allegations.

Tarui said all of his meetings, including his meeting with HR to complain about the alleged harassment and a subsequent meeting with top executives, were recorded and “widely shared” with managers at Bridgewater, the Times reports.

“The company’s culture ensures that I had no one I could trust to keep my experience confidential,” Tarui said in the complaint.

He filed the complaint in January. However, in March both Tarui and Bridgewater jointly asked to withdraw the complaint from consideration by the Connecticut human rights commission, which halted its investigation. The Times notes that Bridgewater employees (as at many companies) are required to settle disputes through binding arbitration.

However, the Times reports that in a related action, the NLRB later filed a separate complaint against Bridgewater accusing the company of “interfering with, restraining and coercing” Tarui and other employees from exercising their rights through confidentiality agreements that all employees are required to sign once they’re hired. The Times obtained the NLRB complaint and Tarui’s initial complaint through a Freedom of Information Act request. In a statement to the Times, Bridgewater said “we are confident our handling of this claim is consistent with our stated principles and the law.”

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Should Employers Say No to Pokémon Go?

By now, the Pokémon Go phenomenon has quickly swept the nation (yours truly excepted) into a fever of using smartphones and tablets to “find” and “capture” digital creatures from the Pokémon universe that virtually appear at specific locations in the real world.

(If you need any proof that it’s not just a game for kids to play, Forbes contributor Paul Tassi has been posting tips and tricks on its site for all the business world to see and use.)

Now, it may sound like an odd — or perhaps paranoid — question, given the seemingly harmless nature of the game, but could Pokémon Go actually have negative effects on employers and organizations, beyond a dip in worker productivity?

Well, of course it could, according to a few different sources.

According to the International Association of IT Asset Managers (IAITAM), fans of the game “do not include the corporate professionals who deal with Information Technology Asset Management (ITAM) designed to keep phones, tablets, and other devices secure in the workplace.”

And that’s why the group has called on corporations to ban the installation and use of Pokémon Go on both corporate-owned, business-only (COBO) phones/tablets and “bring your own device” (BYOD) phones/tablets with direct access to sensitive corporate information and accounts.

Here’s IAITAM CEO Dr. Barbara Rembiesa discussing the dangerous world that players enter when tracking down the fanciful creatures on the phones, tablets, etc.:

Frankly, the truth is that Pokémon Go is a nightmare for companies that want to keep their email and cloud-based information secure. Even with the enormous popularity of this gaming app, there are just too many questions and too many risks involved for responsible corporations to allow the game to be used on corporate-owned or BYOD devices. We already have real security concerns and expect them to become much more severe in the coming weeks.

The only safe course of action, she advises, is to bar Pokémon Go from corporate-owned phones and tablets, as well as employee-owned devices that are used to connect to sensitive corporate information.

The group outlines three of its greatest concerns when it comes to the game:

* DATA BREACHES. The original user agreements for Pokémon Go allowed Niantic to access the entire Google profile of the user, including their history, past searches and anything else associated with their Google Login ID. This has since been corrected, but for COBO devices the result was, by definition, a data breach. It is unclear of the extent of data breaches that took place prior to the changes, what happened to the information accessed, and how that information was stored and/or destroyed. Further, there is nothing that would prohibit Niantic Laboratory from once again seeking access to all or some of this information.

* RISKY KNOCKOFF COPIES. There are now reports that some versions of the Pokémon Go app available from non-official app stories may include software allowing cyber crooks to remotely control the user’s phone or tablets. Unsophisticated users may not understand that third party app providers should be avoided due to the risks involved. The online security firm Proofpoint already has detected knockoff Android copies of Pokémon Go in the wild containing a remote controlled tool (RAT) called DroidJack.

* ENCOURAGING BAD BEHAVIOR. One of the most important things for employees using COBO devices, in particular, is the need to stick with approved software and apps. Pokémon Go must be considered a “rogue download,” which is any software program downloaded onto a device that circumvents the typical purchasing and installation channels of the organization. Rather than simply banning Pokémon Go, corporations should also use this as a learning opportunity to encourage maximum employee understanding of the rationale against rogue downloads, particularly the security risks they represent.

Also lending his voice to the chorus of concern is Philippe Weiss, Chicago-based lawyer and managing director of Seyfarth Shaw at Work.

Weiss offers managers five “valuable strategies to safely manage Pokémon Go perils” at work:

Prioritize Performance over Pokémon: Start watching your employees’ timeliness and attendance with greater attention than usual in the coming weeks. Follow-up on even small delays in work/task completion while the Pokeman Go craze is upon us. – Note any employees walking around with gazes fixed on their smartphone screens (and exhibiting an accompanying semi-spaced-out demeanor). – Train your managers to know when and how to safely tell employees: “Pokemon STOP!” (And train them not to set the wrong example, themselves, by playing Pokemon Go during work time).

Train on Pokemon Go Protocols: Give security people and managers simple scripts to use when they encounter any wandering/errant players. The key is to “Respectfully Reroute” players, quickly and safely.

Patrol Possible Player Pathways (especially if you operate any outdoor facilities): Regularly check all doors, gates and access ways to unauthorized areas to confirm that they are effectively secure. (And do not leave any hazards exposed. You don’t want distracted players falling into a floorboard gap followed by a 30 foot drop to the sub-basement.)

Use the Power of Your Policies: Remind everyone at work about your electronic device policy and ask that smart phones be turned off at all meetings. Don’t cede your power to the Pokemon.

Consider the Potential Poke-Payoff: On the plus side, if your store or business is near (or is itself) a Poke Stop or Pokemon Gym, you most likely have already seen increased foot traffic. Businesses can also purchase an in-game module called a “lure” to attract Pokemon (and thus, more players/potential customers) for a 1/2 hour period.  However, be ready for the possible resulting Poke-mayhem. If that happens, take steps to ensure that your own employees continue to focus on their work.

“The phenomenon is here,” Weiss notes, “but Pokeman GO need not mean that Performance STOPS!”

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The Political Season and the Workplace

There's no reason political discussions at work can't be civil and respectful.
There’s no reason political discussions at work can’t be civil and respectful.

Next week, the Republicans will hold their nominating convention in Cleveland — today, the party released a list of speakers at the event, who will include former Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow and Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. It’s an unconventional list of speakers for a political convention, but that’s fitting because it’s been a thoroughly unconventional political season and will no doubt only get stranger still as Election Day approaches.

The anger and controversy the season has generated is resonating at many workplaces, of course, and today CareerBuilder released a survey of thousands of workers and managers that finds three in 10 employers and nearly one out of five employees have argued with a co-worker over a particular candidate this election season. Donald Trump has been the subject of most workplace arguments (13 percent), followed by Hillary Clinton at 8 percent.

Thirty percent of managers and 17 percent of employees have argued with a co-worker over a political candidate, the survey finds, and younger workers (ages 18 to 24) are the most likely to engage in heated political debate at work, at 24 percent.

In his campaign, Trump has stressed that political correctness is “killing our country,” and many employees share his concern: 50 percent of employees and 59 percent of managers say the American workplace has become “too politically correct,” with more workers saying it has hindered their business (34 percent) vs. the 22 percent who say it makes their business stronger. One third of employees (33 percent) say they’re afraid to voice certain opinions because they feel they may not be considered politically correct.

Of course, “political correctness” is a notoriously fuzzy term, and what some may consider overly PC behavior others would describe simply as common courtesy. In fact, PC behavior can actually boost productivity on male/female work teams, a 2014 study by Cornell ILR finds.

A few companies have fired employees for their political activity, prompting a conservative organization to call on large U.S. companies to publicly commit to respecting their employees’ rights to express their political opinions. That said, HR obviously needs to remind IT employees (who are the most likely to engage in political debates, at 47 percent, according to the CareerBuilder survey), manufacturing workers (37 percent), professional/business services employees (30 percent) and everyone else that –questions of free speech aside — if you can’t discuss a topic calmly and respectfully, it’s probably best to just leave it alone.

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A Lesson on Politics in the Office

ThinkstockPhotos-153920586Some of the biggest events at this week’s SHRM 2016 Annual Convention and Exposition had little to do with HR. One was a concert Tuesday night by the band Train. The other was a highly entertaining discussion about politics between pundits Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson.

I don’t know about Train — I didn’t go, but it’s hard to imagine that the performance had much instructive value. On reflection, though, I think Begala and Carlson had a lesson for HR practitioners.

They didn’t make their point explicitly, but rather by modeling a healthy way for colleagues to disagree. The takeaway: Political discussions — including those playing out every day in company lunchrooms — don’t have to be divisive.

It’s a natural concern, particularly this year. An unusually heated and dramatic presidential race has passions running high, and employers naturally don’t want workers distracted by conflict in the workplace.

A SHRM study released as the conference began Sunday in Washington, D.C., found 26 percent of HR professionals responding said employees are more vocal about their political opinions this year. The survey found 72 percent of employers discourage political activity in the workplace, but only 24 percent have a written policy.

Companies can ban bullying or active campaigning in the office. But a SHRM news release quotes Edward Yost, an employee-relations expert with the organization, saying they generally “cannot have policies that prohibit all political discussions,” without running into issues with the National Labor Relations Board.

Here’s where your company culture gets tested. If workers are going to disagree on political issues, you want them to do it the way Begala and Carlson do — with empathy, humor and respect for other views.

Begala is a former adviser to President Bill Clinton and longtime Democratic political consultant. Carlson is a commentator on Fox News and founder of the conservative news site The Daily Caller. The two co-hosted CNN’s political talk show “Crossfire” more than a decade ago and often appear together on stage as they did Tuesday morning at the SHRM conference.

In some ways their presentation was a comedy show, with the men gently poking fun at each other — and themselves. But they had serious and substantive disagreements.

Carlson’s main point was that the nation’s elites on both sides of the aisle have missed the rise of middle-class economic anxiety that fueled the rise of presumptive GOP nominee Donald J. Trump. And he freely included people like himself in that blame.

“Where I live, there is literally no downside to mass immigration,” because high-income jobs are not threatened, he said. “Immigration is a no-cost way to feel good in my neighborhood.”

Begala agreed that both parties have “failed a whole lot of people in Youngstown,” using that city as a proxy for white middle-class families whose livelihoods are threatened by a changing economy. But the answer is not to demonize immigrants, as he contends Trump is doing. Instead, “we have got to find a way to lift up the poor and middle class.”

Both men acknowledged each other’s perspective and recognized that neither Democrats nor Republicans had all the answers — basic elements of any healthy political discussion.

The nation’s polarized political environment has led many to feel “a contempt for people who disagree with them,” Carlson said. “There should be a space for sincere, honorable disagreement.”

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Pawternity, Could it Happen Here?

A good bit of attention has been paid recently to a phenomenon taking shape across the pond.

521075238 -- petsIt seems a growing number of companies in the United Kingdom — mostly smaller start-ups — are beginning to offer their employees what’s being called pawternity leave; i.e., paid-time-off to bond with their new four-legged furry friends or tend to their old ones.

This piece that appeared on the appropriately-named website, “The Bark: Dog is My Co-Pilot,” mentions several employers that have gone this route — Mars Petcare, BitSol Solutions and Now What.

At Manchester-based IT company BitSol, company owner Greg Buchanan says pawternity is actually good for the bottom line, according to this piece in USA Today.

“You know, we are quite sympathetic to pets in the U.K.; we’re a pet-loving country,” he tells the paper. “Obviously we take it on a case-by-case [basis]. If somebody’s asking for time off for a goldfish, no, no — then it’s not quite what we set out for.”

He also cautions that “[i]f you do give time off for pawternity leave, you are limiting the number of people available to you.” However, he adds, “I believe morale of staff definitely improves and they actually want to work harder for you.”

The Bark piece puts the number of pet owners in the U.K. who have been offered time off to care for Fido or Fluffy at nearly one in 20. It also mentions that Mars Petcare, a pet-care company, was one of the first employers to institute a formal pawternity policy, now allowing its employees 10 hours of paid leave when adding a new pet to the family.

Based on his recent column on the U.K trend toward better treatment of its workers, I reached out to HRE‘s talent management columnist, Peter Cappelli (George W. Taylor professor of management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia), to see if this four-legged phenomenon could happen here.

“I’d say the U.S. model of just giving people personal time for whatever is important to them makes more sense than trying to define legitimate reasons for leave,” he told me. But he did seem impressed with how far the Brits will go in their efforts to accommodate pet owners.

Personally, I have been thinking about getting a dog lately. And being single, I’m concerned about what will get chewed or stained while I’m at work. Not even sure the effort would be worth it without a benefit like this.

But …… moving to London seems like a pretty drastic solution.

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New Trade Secrets Law: The HR Angle

It’s incredibly rare these days for a proposed law to receive near-unanimous backing in the U.S. House and Senate but, by George, our nation’s politicians managed to pull off this miraculous feat recently, which culminated with President Obama affixing his signature yesterday to the Defend Trade Secrets Act.

The new law puts trade secrets on par with patents, copyrights and trademarks, which are already protected under federal law. The Defend Trade Secrets Act provides a “uniform set of rules for trade secret protection” throughout the United States (although it does not replace trade secret laws passed by individual states). The upshot is that companies whose trade secrets were violated in multiple states can now file suit in a federal court rather than trying to determine which state may (or may not) provide the best legal remedy.

Trade secret claims have long been a key component of employee non-compete agreement lawsuits, writes Chris Marquardt, a partner at Alston & Bird’s labor and employment law group. For this reason, the new federal law “not only gives employers another tool to protect their confidential business information, but will also likely shift many routine employment-agreement lawsuits into the federal court system,” he writes.

Employee non-compete agreements can vary widely from state to state and the new law is written in such a way as to recognize that “the statute should not override state laws” on such agreements, Marquardt writes. However, he adds, “only time will tell how broadly federal courts interpret the new law and how willing they are to use it to prevent employees from accepting new jobs in competition with a former employer.”

Brett Coburn, also a partner with Alston & Bird, writes that one of the less-frequently discussed aspects of the new law is one that will impact nearly all employers: “The law grants both criminal and civil immunity under both federal and state trade secrets laws to individuals who disclose a company’s trade secrets to the government” if the person has reason to suspect that a legal violation has occurred. It also requires employers to notify employees of this immunity “in any agreements that govern the use of trade secrets or other confidential information.”

To ensure compliance, Coburn writes, HR leaders and legal counsel will need to reexamine their company’s restrictive covenant and nondisclosure agreements, as well as policies regarding the protection of confidential information and employee whistleblower activities.

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HR’s Role in Aiding Ailing Employees

We all know this standard bit of wisdom: When you’re told you have a major disease — like cancer — one of the first things you should do is get a second opinion from another doctor. However, employees at some organizations may have an easier time getting that second opinion than their counterparts at other companies, according to a recent survey from the Northeast Business Group on Health.

86507521The NEBGH conducted a benchmarking survey on employers and cancer care with self-insured companies representing 1.2 million covered employees, along with interviews with cancer experts and benefits professionals and two workshops held last year. The resulting report, Employers and Cancer Care Quality: A Closer Look, finds that nearly half the employers do not offer third-party second opinion services — a finding the NEBGH says is important not only because data shows that second opinions can often reveal an initial misdiagnosis or point to a different treatment path, but because health plan-directed second opinions are sometimes mistrusted by employees.

Less than half the survey respondents say they have a network of high-performing oncology providers in place, and results also show there are “variations and gaps” in the non-clinical support services they offer, such as treatment navigation, emotional counseling and financial-planning services.

“Another major gap highlighted in our work is the lack of accessible, organized and systematic communication efforts directed to employees [diagnosed with cancer],” says Dr. Jeremy Nobel, executive director of NEBGH’s Solutions Center, which oversaw the report.

Most employees diagnosed with cancer choose to continue working during treatment, partly because doing so “helps them cope,” according to a survey conducted last year by Harris Interactive on behalf of the group Cancer and Careers. More employees are choosing to share their cancer diagnosis with their supervisors, according to Brenna Haviland Shebel, director of the National Business Group on Health’s Institute on Healthcare Costs and Solutions. It’s incumbent upon HR, these experts say, to ensure that employees who are waging battle against cancer are equipped with the knowledge and support necessary to get what they need while fighting to regain their health.

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Employee Handbooks Under Scrutiny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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