Category Archives: employer brand

Should Yelp Have Fired Employee?

There may be a few HR lessons to be learned from the recent media firestorm that’s engulfed Yelp since it fired former employee Talia Ben-Ora after she wrote an open letter to Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman complaining about her low pay.

Ben-Ora, who worked in customer support at Yelp’s Eat24 food-delivery service, said in her letter that the pay she and her co-workers earned simply wasn’t enough to survive in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the most expensive regions in the United States. “So here I am, 25-years old, balancing all sorts of debt and trying to pave a life for myself that doesn’t involve crying in the bathtub every week,” she wrote. “Every single one of my co-workers is struggling …. they’re taking side jobs, they’re living at home.”

Shortly after posting the letter on Medium.com, Ben-Ora was fired. She later wrote on Twitter that she was fired because she violated Yelp’s employee code of conduct.

For his part, Stoppelman has denied, via Twitter, that Ben-Ora was fired because of the letter and said he was not personally involved in her termination. He also acknowledged the high cost of living in San Francisco.

When an employee posts an angry diatribe against the company on social media, HR and the CEO need to “take a deep breath,” says employment attorney Erin Dougherty Foley of Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago.

“If the conduct was egregious or in some way violated the company’s code of conduct (or other policy), then the company would likely have a defensible reason for making the termination decision,” she says.

In Yelp’s case, there very well may have been other factors involved in the company’s decision to fire Ben-Ora, says Foley. “I get a sense that there’s a back story there.”

However, employers also need to be aware of the risks of firing an employee (particularly with respect to public opinion) in such a public context, even if their reasons for doing so are perfectly valid, says Foley. “Companies should not feel handcuffed by employees engaging in conduct on social media, they just need to ensure that they are considering the conduct both in the context of the risk that it poses to the company (i.e., is another employee being harassed or bullied as a result) or whether the employee is engaging in ‘protected concerted activity’ or just blowing off steam.”

The “concerted protected activity” part can be a bit tricky, as the National Labor Relations Board has ruled in a number of cases that employees were engaging in protected activity when they took to social media to complain about wages and working conditions. “We don’t yet have a lot of clear or consistent direction from the courts or the NLRB on what is, and isn’t, protected activity,” she says.

One of the most important lessons here is that HR needs to ensure that “a robust open-door policy is in place for employees to raise these types of concerns without going to social media,” says Foley. “A real value-added for HR is being the ear to the ground, hearing and addressing these types of concerns before they go to the Internet,” she says. “A culture that fosters this sort of openness will serve the company well in the long run.”

 

Not So Hot on Holacracy at Zappos?

Many of us were introduced to the concept of holacracy by way of Zappos, which famously began phasing in this management model—or non-management model, as it were—in 2013.

Zappos’ adoption of holacracy—which eliminates managers and distributes authority among sovereign, self-organizing teams—was greeted by observers as a big and bold step. The move might have seemed even more radical had it been made by most any CEO not named Tony Hsieh.

In his 15 years at the helm of the Las Vegas-based online shoe and clothing store, Hsieh has earned a reputation for employing innovative and unconventional people practices. His progressive approach has worked too, as Zappos has become an online retail giant and one of Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For.”

It’s no secret, however, that holacracy hasn’t been universally embraced by the Zappos workforce.

This past April 8, Hsieh sent a memo notifying his approximately 1,500 employees that the organization would be accelerating its implementation of the holacracy system, which Hsieh felt wasn’t moving quickly enough. The following month, the company reported that 210 workers would be leaving voluntarily, rather than sticking around to see how this whole holacracy thing works out.

Fast forward eight months, and it seems that many Zappos employees still aren’t sold.

A recent Atlantic article reports that 18 percent of Zappos’ staff has taken buyouts in the last 10 months, bringing the company’s 2015 turnover rate to 30 percent—10 percent above Zappos’ typical annual attrition rate.

The same piece delves into the possible reasons why this new manager-free structure may be driving workers away, and concludes that the system might be doing as much to confuse employees as it is to empower them.

To wit: Atlantic Associate Editor Bourree Lam references a 2015 New York Times article in which payroll employees shared their struggles in determining salaries once holacracy was put in place and job titles were effectively abolished at Zappos.

For its part, Zappos maintains that holacracy and its disdain for traditional hierarchies has had little bearing on recent turnover rates.

In fact, a Jan. 15 statement posits that last year saw employees leaving in larger-than-usual numbers “not because of anything related to holacracy or Teal, but because the economics of the offer were too good to pass up.”

(“Teal,” if you’re wondering, is the state of self-organization that author Frederic Laloux describes in his 2014 book Reinventing Organizations. Within Zappos, the “Teal Offer” is a version of the company’s long-standing proposal in which employees who aren’t 100 percent on board with the organization’s plans for the future can opt for a buyout. In the aforementioned memo, Hsieh announced that those who felt the new self-management style wasn’t for them would be offered at least three months’ severance if they chose to leave.)

According to this statement, the company says the 10 percent spike in turnover in 2015 “was mostly due to us giving long-time employees the opportunity to pursue their dreams.”

For example, some long-time employees were offered more than a year of severance or one month for every year worked, whichever was greater. Meanwhile, other veteran workers were offered the same severance, as well as the chance to rejoin Zappos after 12 months, which “allowed people the opportunity to pursue their new startup ideas, or take time off to take care of that sick relative, for example.”

That may smell a bit like spin, but Zappos maintains that the number of employees who have taken “The Offer” is in line with what the company expected.

Be that as it may, the retailer has certainly taken a hit since adopting holacracy, losing more than 200 workers and evidently ruffling the feathers of at least some who stayed.

It will be interesting to see how, if at all, the hoopla surrounding holacracy affects Zappos’ employment brand beyond the short-term. Given Hsieh’s track record, I think it’s a safe bet that Zappos will fully recover. Lam seems to agree.

“ … It’s clear,” she writes, “that Zappos is going through a rough transition—one that it anticipated, and one that could make it stronger in the end.”

Beware What Constitutes Concerted Activity

You may not “Like” this much, but the warning shot from a recent ruling broadening the definition of protected concerted activity is 179693002 -- Likestill reverberating and worth keeping front of mind as you go about your 2016 planning when it comes to social-media approaches and policies.

In the ruling, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals — covering Connecticut, New York and Vermont — upheld the National Labor Relations Board’s finding that two employees at the Triple Play Sports Bar and Grille in Watertown, Conn., were wrongfully terminated after one posted on Facebook, and the other “liked,” a disparaging criticism of the company’s income-tax-withholding policies.

An NLRB judge found, and the Second Circuit agreed, that both activities were protected and concerted under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act  because they involved multiple employees and were related to workplace complaints.

“It didn’t matter that there was no union to be found on the premises,” Carmon Harvey, a shareholder in national law firm LeClairRyan’s Philadelphia office, writes in a blog post at EPLI Risk.

“It also didn’t matter that customers could see the public employer-bashing,” she writes, “because the content wasn’t directed at customers, was not defamatory and did not tend to disparage the employer’s brand, products or services. This meant that their subsequent terminations were a big NLRA ‘no-no.’ ”

To top it off, the court also affirmed the NLRB’s ruling that the employer’s expansive Internet and social-media policy went too far, unlawfully prohibiting activity protected under the NLRA.

Brian Hall, writing on the Employer Law Report, highlights two interesting points about the case: that the comment and “Like” were protected because they both related to ongoing employee concerns over their employer’s workplace-tax withholding and their resulting tax liabilities, and that the Facebook communications “were not so disloyal or defamatory as to lose the protection of the Act.”

“Specifically,” he writes, “the court found that the employees did not disparage the employer’s products or services and their communications were not ‘maliciously untrue.’ ” He continues:

“The court was not swayed by any profanity contained in the one employee’s comment because it was not made in the presence of or directed at customers and did not reflect the employer’s brand. According to the court, accepting Triple Play’s argument that the Facebook discussion took place ‘in the presence of customers’ could lead to the undesirable result of chilling virtually all employee speech online. [As the ruling states,] ‘almost all Facebook posts by employees have at least some potential to be viewed by customers.’ “

As a result, the court upheld the board’s order requiring the employer to offer reinstatement and full back pay to the terminated employees. It also, as mentioned above, called into question the company’s social-media policy, which states that:

“[W]hen internet blogging, chat-room discussions … or other forms of communication extend to employees … [by] engaging in inappropriate discussions about the company, management, and/or co-workers, the employee may be violating the law and is subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment.”

So what are the takeaways for employers and HR? Hall says they’re twofold:

“To help avoid liability, employers should:

  • Have their social-media policies reviewed by experienced counsel to eliminate provisions that can be reasonably misconstrued to restrict employees from discussing the terms and conditions of their employment with others; and
  • Understand, before disciplining employees for any communication or activity on social media, that otherwise protected communications or activities will not lose their protection under the NLRA simply because they disparage or are uncomplimentary [to] the employer, [and] contain statements that are not true, or contain profanity.”

Is it just me or has social media made it exponentially harder for employers to protect their reputations and brands? Even if you can’t comment on an employee’s disparaging private Facebook discussion, you’d better start arming yourself with strategies for getting your good word out online, as this recent HRE feature by Staff Writer Mark McGraw explores.

Parental Leave Enters Political Storm, Too

Paid parental leave has certainly taken over the media waves of big businesses trying to one-up each other in just how accommodating 510042321-- parents & newbornto new parents they can be. (See our most recent HRE Daily posts on large companies announcing such leave accommodations, including Michael J. O’Brien’s post just Wednesday on Amazon’s plan to up its allotted leave for new parents and allow them to share their paid time with partners not employed there.)

In addition to this race toward better policies, however, paid parental leave has entered a political-football frenzy of late as well. Just as Amazon was making its announcement Monday via a memo to all employees, newly elected Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was in the news for resisting calls to back a federal paid-family-leave law.

And this despite his outspoken desire to spend more time with his own family, according to this Huffington Post piece and this — far-more critical — piece on dailykos.com, as well as the fact that he provides his own staff with paid family leave.

“Because I love my children and I want to be home on Sundays and Saturdays like most people doesn’t mean I’m for taking money from hardworking taxpayers to create a brand new entitlement program,” Ryan told Meet the Press in a recent taping. He thinks offering such leave is up to employers; it’s their role, not the government’s.

Yes, that’s the common Republican stance — less federal control in favor of more individual control — but personally, says Terri L. Rhodes, CEO of the San Diego-based Disability Management Employer Coalition, the Paul Ryans of the world, as well as most all businesses and politicians from both sides of the aisle, “are all probably thinking mandated paid family leave is a good thing.”

Small and mid-sized businesses, especially, tend to be in favor of a federal mandate, she says, because they can’t necessarily afford the sweeping changes and allowances big businesses can in their attempts to stay one step ahead of their competition.

This mad race is further compounded by the fact that some states — including New Jersey,  California and Rhode Island — already offer some kind of paid family leave, and some states, and many companies, are backing paid sick leave as well.

“For big multi-state or global companies,” says Rhodes, “they can afford to figure how all this fits in with their policies and costs.” They can find a way to make it all work. But for smaller and mid-sized businesses, it’s much more complex “when it comes to considering provisions and accruals” and such.

“If we had a mandated paid leave,” she says, the playing field would be leveled more in terms of “what is expected; it would be more cut-and-dried.”

What’s more, she adds, many large corporations may espouse more liberal parental-leave policies, but don’t actually “support the policy that’s just been announced” when it comes to the corporate culture. The actual taking of the leave may still be frowned upon internally, but the external employer brand comes out smelling like a rose.

The sad reality — in the United States, anyway — is that “having a family still isn’t looked on as a great career path,” Rhodes says. “That’s a problem for everyone” — big business, small business … and Paul Ryan.

A Cup of Reality for Starbucks?

In the world of coffee retailing, there’s little question Starbucks has been an innovator, experimenting (often successfully) with new product offerings and fine-tuning the customer experience on a regular basis. But it’s also no secret that Starbucks hasn’t limited its innovation to just these areas. It’s also been a pioneer where employee practices are concerned, launching cutting-edge initiatives in areas such as health benefits, tuition support and career development.

Starbucks_West_CoastBecause of these programs and others, Starbucks leaves many of its competitors in the dust when it comes to Glassdoor ratings, earning 3.8 stars out of 5 and supposedly beating the industry average by a wide margin. In comparison, Dunkin Donuts earned 2.8 and Peet’s Coffee earned 3.2 on Glassdoor.

But if we’re to believe a recent analysis conducted by San Francisco-based Monitor 360 that takes a closer look at the Starbucks narratives smattered throughout the Glassdoor reviews, the Seattle-headquartered employers isn’t without some noticeable blemishes.

Monitor 360, a former unit of Monitor Group that was spun off a few years back, recently applied its Narrative Analytics methodology to Starbucks’ Glassdoor reviews in order to identify sentiments and themes contained in the comments. (Earlier this week, Kevin Rockmael, chief marketing officer at Monitor 360, shared a report detailing the findings with me.) As you might expect, the report contained a lot of positive feelings. But it also revealed some definite “needs improvement” areas.

On the positive side, the report found that more than 60 percent of employee comments expressed confidence in Starbucks’ senior leadership and company vision. “The three narratives that comprised this coverage—’Starbucks the Star,’ ‘Grueling with a Shot of Great,’ and ‘ “Ground” by Middle Management’—focused more on employees’ pride in Starbucks’ vision and values than on benefits,” the report said, “suggesting that consistently delivering an inspiring narrative about the value of employees to the company can motivate as much as offering free lattes.”

Additionally, the first two narratives suggest that Starbucks can be an exciting place to build a career.

As for the negative, narratives such as “Part Time Pariah” and “Baristas are the Backbone” emerged that bemoan the difficulties of building a career at Starbucks — revealing one critical driver of employee turnover. The report points out that these were less prominent than the positive narratives about the company’s vision and values, but still comprised a disturbing 31 percent of total employee comments.

Meanwhile, the report continued, “The ‘Ground’ by Middle Management” narrative suggests that “many employees who have a positive view of Starbucks as a corporation simultaneously hold major concerns about middle management. Many view middle managers as out of touch — visiting stores infrequently and promoting those who are undeserving. This suggests that leadership’s efforts to brand Starbucks as a place for opportunity resonate deeply with employees on an emotional level, but that same vision is not regularly communicated by local company leadership, nor does the inspiring vision always match the day-to-day reality.”

A fourth narrative, something the report’s authors labeled “Glorified Fast Food,” suggests some internal and external brand-facing challenges. As far as the internal implications are concerned, the report contends that this narrative reflects employees’ beliefs that “Starbucks is losing its identity as a specialty brewer, suggesting that replacing the art of brewing with increased mechanization can damage retention.”

I asked Rockmael for his thoughts on the report’s biggest surprises. He said the narratives having to do with middle management and glorified fast food were at the top of his list. In the case of the latter, he added, the analysis suggests that employees and former employees are connecting Starbucks more to the likes of McDonald’s and Burger King than management would like.

Rockmael told me this is the first time Monitor 360 has used Glassdoor to uncover these types of narratives, but it may not be the last. (Glassdoor, he said, gave his firm permission to conduct this analysis.)

He also noted that Monitor 360 hasn’t shared the findings directly with Starbucks, at least not yet. But were it to do so, I’d have to think Starbucks might consider some of the more bitter ones worthy of further reflection.

 

Making Workplace Meditation Work

Mindfulness appears to be alive and well in Fort Collins, Colo. Or at the Fort Collins Housing Authority anyway.

139980668-- meditationJust before the holidays, I came across this release about the FCHA completing a month-long mindfulness program for its staff.  Seems the organization’s top leaders took its annual wellness survey seriously when a common complaint came back suggesting improvements in work/life balance and health and general well-being were needed.

In the words of FCHA Chief Executive Officer Julie Brewen: “We are committed to implementing new programs for the health and well-being of our staff.”

In an industry that deals with tough issues such as poverty, homelessness and families in crisis, she says, the program was a step in the right direction. The program consisted of daily, hour-long sessions during work hours that blended presentations, group discussion and meditation practice.

The results? According to Brewen, lowered stress and depression, and an increase in work/life balance.

What’s even more impressive is what she shared with me just recently, that her organization’s commitment to this lives on, with additional mindfulness training planned for this year, and some added questionnaires and wellness-survey questions designed to keep a close eye on the workplace well-being meter.

“Many of the participants [intend] to continue [their] meditation and mindfulness exercises” into the rest of 2015, she says.

Of course, putting this kind of program together takes a huge and collective commitment to the idea and the practice. It needs to come from the top and be ingrained into the culture, as this column a year ago (to the month) by our benefits columnist, Carol Harnett, suggests.

Her column also suggests the concept could use some booster shots in the business community. “In my experience,” she writes, “most employers pay scant attention to stress and defer to employee-assistance programs as check-the-box solutions — despite poor utilization of this service.”

So what’s it going to take for the Fort Collins approach to become the approach of most? Perhaps when employers start acknowledging they have nothing to lose and everything to gain, even as it relates to your brand and reputation. As Harnett writes:

” … mind-body curriculums will please a growing portion of your employee population and improve your workers’ perceptions of the workplace culture. And that may be an employer’s greatest consideration of all.”