Category Archives: HR leadership

Dangers of Social-Media Discipline

judge's gaveEmployers should be concerned by the National Labor Relations Board’s latest decision pertaining to social media and work. If not concerned, then taking very special note of, at the very least.

This ruling, as detailed thoroughly in this posting from Littler Publications, centers around employees’ off-duty social-media posts about work, and what employers can and can’t mandate about that.

In the ruling, as the posting puts it, the board came down hard on the employer — Triple Play (a.k.a., Triple D) Sports Bar and Grille in Watertown, Conn. — in that it “set a high bar for employers before they can terminate employees based on speech otherwise protected by Section 7 [of the National Labor Relations Act], determined that [a Facebook] ‘Like’ in that case was protected, reversed the employee’s firing and found a key provision in the employer’s social-media policy to be unlawfully overbroad.” I’d say that’s coming down hard.

The case has to do with several employees who were complaining in a Facebook discussion about a mistake they suspected the bar’s owners of making when calculating their state tax withholding. Some in the discussion were simply following the lines of the conversation. Here is Littler’s rendition of what transpired:

The owners organized a staff meeting with the payroll provider to discuss the issue. Before this meeting, Jamie LaFrance, a former employee who had recently left [her job] started a Facebook conversation by posting the following status update:

“Maybe someone should do the owners of Triple Play a favor and buy it from them. They can’t even do the tax paperwork correctly!!! Now I OWE money…Wtf!!!!”

Several comments followed in which a customer and a current employee sympathized.

LaFrance continued by accusing the owners of making a mistake in calculating tax withholdings, and she expressed her intention to report the mistake to the state’s “labor board.” At that point, a current employee, Vincent Spinella, selected the “Like” option under LaFrance’s initial status update.

As the Facebook exchange continued, LaFrance verbally attacked one of the owners:

“Hahahaha he’s such a shady little man. He prolly [sic] pocketed it all from all our paychecks.”

Another current employee, Jillian Sanzone, followed this statement by posting: “I owe too. Such an asshole.”  More comments followed, including a statement by another current employee that she planned to discuss the tax issue at a staff meeting.

After learning about the Facebook exchange from one of LaFrance’s Facebook friends, a current employee who happened to be the sister of one of the owners, the owners questioned Spinella about his “Like.”  They told Spinella that it was “apparent” he wanted to work somewhere else because he had “liked the disparaging and defamatory comments” and terminated his employment.

Spinella accused Triple D of illegal actions under the NLRA and the case came before the NLRB. Triple D argued that the disparaging comments and Spinella’s “Like” took the case outside the realm of the NLRA’s Section 7 protection as a concerted activity. The board, however, ruled otherwise because: Spinella did not specifically “like” any of LaFrance’s allegedly defamatory comments in and of themselves, the comments weren’t intended for public consumption on a private Facebook page and no one mentioned anything disparaging about the employer, per se, but related everything to an ongoing labor — i.e., tax withholding — dispute.

The NLRB also ruled this portion of Triple D’s social-media policy was too broad:

“[W]hen Internet blogging, chat room discussions … or other forms of communication extend to employees … 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.  … In the event state or federal law precludes this policy, then it is of no force or effect.”

So what should you be concerned about exactly? Littler attorneys Philip Gordon and Zoe Argento offer these six takeaways in their post:

  1. Because a “Like” standing alone can be protected, employers should consider consulting with counsel before disciplining employees based on their selection of the “Like” button.
  2. When analyzing whether a “Like” is protected speech, employers should refer to the specific post or comment to which the “Like” relates.
  3. When analyzing whether otherwise protected social-media posts have crossed the line and lost their protection, the NLRB will apply different standards to disparagement of the employer’s products and services and defamation of the employer or members of its workforce.
  4. The actual malice standard applicable to defamatory statements imposes a heavy burden on the employer to prove that the employee posted content knowing it was false or it was made with reckless disregard for the truth.
  5. Employers should consult with counsel before firing an employee for allegedly defamatory or disparaging speech when that speech takes place in the context of a group discussion in social media.
  6. The NLRB continues to closely scrutinize social-media policies. Employers should recognize that language which is general or establishes subjective standards, such as “inappropriate discussion,” will raise a red flag for the board unless accompanied by examples that make it clear to a reasonable employee that the general language is not intended to encompass protected speech.  Relatedly, employers should expect the board to closely scrutinize any disclaimer before relying on it to “save” policy language from invalidation.  Such disclaimers have not been very helpful overall in terms of avoiding NLRB problems.

For your additional reading pleasure, and pointers, here are numerous blog posts we’ve written about social media in the workplace and social-media policies employers are drafting, should be drafting and shouldn’t be drafting in their attempts to control its impact.

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HR Gets an Upgrade at Apple

HR has long been something of a mystery at Apple. In our effort to compile our Top 100, a list of chief HR officers at the nation’s 100 largest employers, we often struggle to get a response at Apple. Eventually, we do manage to get the information we’re after, but it often takes more than a few follow-up calls and emails to get it.

apple-logoDuring his tenure as chief executive officer at Apple, Steve Jobs was known as someone who didn’t give a whole lot of credence to HR. In fact, it’s said that Jobs, in interviewing an applicant for the position of vice president of HR, once said, “I’ve never met one of you [HR people] who didn’t suck. I’ve never known an HR person who had anything but a mediocre mentality.”

Perhaps these words are merely an urban legend, but if he did indeed say them, they’re a pretty harsh assessment.

Well, as you know, Jobs selected Tim Cook, then Apple’s chief operating officer, to replace him soon before his passing in 2011. And since then, there’s been no shortage of stories that attempt to address how Cook’s leadership style differs from Jobs. Search the web and I’m sure you’ll find quite a few. But for those of us in HR, an appropriate follow-up question might also be: Is HR viewed any differently today under Cook?

I recently ran across at least a partial answer to that in a post titled “These VPs report directly to Apple CEO Tim Cook” on Business Insider. The story reports that Apple recently expanded the group of executives featured on its executive profiles page—from nine to 14 (there are actually 15 there)—and now includes the company’s heads of special projects, environmental initiatives and, yes, even HR. All report to CEO Tim Cook BTW.

In case you’re wondering, HR today is led by Denise Young Smith, who previously headed HR for Apple’s retail division. Smith officially took over the top HR post earlier this year from John Podolny, who now heads Apple University and is also one of the 15 on the executive profiles page. We learned of Smith’s appointment just in time for us to include her on this year’s Top 100 list, though, despite our efforts, we weren’t able to determine who she reported to.

When I asked Jason Hanold, managing partner of Hanold Associates, an Evanston, Ill.-based executive search firm specializing in senior HR positions, whether things have changed under Cook as far as HR is concerned, his response was an unequivocal yes. He noted that a few folks he knows well recently joined Apple, and there’s little question the firm is elevating its people capability and emphasis.

Today, Hanold says, “they get that they will compete best and most sustainably with the best talent driving the most compelling innovation and products.” He adds that Apple is showing no signs of complacency, given the talent they are bringing on board today.

Personally, I would put that under the category of good news for the firm, though who can question Steve Jobs’ truly amazing track record. Who knows, perhaps this could even be a sign that going forward, HR at Apple won’t be nearly the enigma that it’s been in the past.

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Chamber Renders a Scathing EEOC Assessment

85449254 -- gavel and flagI have Michael J. Lotito’s LinkedIn group, Littler’s Workplace Policy Institute, to thank for cluing me in to this latest blast against the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — a report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that is so weighty with criticism, it comes in two parts: one, an examination of what it calls the agency’s “unreasonable enforcement efforts,” and two, a detailed review of its “unsuccessful 2013 amicus program, in which its legal interpretations were rejected by federal courts approximately 80 percent of the time.”

The conclusions of each part give a clear sense of just how scathing this assessment of the EEOC is. Here’s part one’s:

Combating discrimination in the workplace is a worthy goal and one that the Chamber supports. However … EEOC’s abusive enforcement tactics can no longer be ignored. While some federal judges are pushing back in some cases, EEOC clearly has not received the message. Moreover, relying on judges as the final check on EEOC enforcement is often a case of ‘too little, too late': by that time, employers have already spent significant time and resources defending themselves against unmeritorious allegations. In other words, even when employers win, they lose. The time has come for EEOC to adopt institutional procedures to provide for internal accountability, more efficient use of resources and adherence to its own statutory conciliation requirement. If EEOC continues to ignore the problem, then Congress should use its oversight authority to install much needed safeguards within EEOC.”

And here’s part two’s:

Whether EEOC’s 2013 amicus program’s success is measured on a pure numerical won/los[t] basis, or on the importance of the substantive interpretations of federal law it supported in its amicus efforts, one thing is clear: It was an overwhelming failure. What’s more, the courts’ rejection of EEOC’s underlying regulatory guidance leaves employers searching as to where to find accurate, reliable guidance on their legal obligations under federal non-discrimination laws. And, with a fully staffed Commission, several new guidance positions are possible on a broad range of topics including: wellness plans, reasonable accommodations, pregnancy and national-origin discrimination, and credit-related background checks. Of course, whether any future guidance would fare better than EEOC’s 2013 track record is unknown. However, if the best predictor of future performance is past performance, in light of EEOC’s 2013 amicus performance, it is unlikely.”

I contacted Christine Nazer, public spokesperson for the EEOC, to get her agency’s reaction to this hefty slap. Here’s what she had to say: “The EEOC’s litigation program is a critical part of the success of our mission to stop and remedy unlawful employment discrimination. By any measure, the EEOC has achieved a remarkable record at trial in recent years: We prevailed in nine out of 10 jury trials in 2013.  The agency also takes the concerns raised by members of Congress seriously, and will continue to work with them to ensure the nation’s workplaces are safe and free of discrimination.”

Still, as we report in our July-August HRE cover story, “Get Ready to Rumble,” which went live earlier today, and in last year’s June 16 cover story, “Watch Your Step!” the EEOC does, indeed, need to be reckoned with by employers and their HR departments because of its stepped-up enforcement tactics. And when it does come knocking, and it will, you and your counsel better be prepared with well-documented answers and proof of compliance.

Mind you, as the Chamber points out, and as many news stories and blog posts by us corroborate, including this one of mine on April 17, the agency hasn’t exactly been without its missteps in trying to carry that enhanced enforcement out.

But EEOC missteps haven’t stopped the agency from marching in and clamping down. At least, not yet.

As Merrily Archer — a Denver-based attorney, head of EEO Legal Solutions and a former staff attorney with the EEOC — put it in a recent blog post quoted by writer Will Bunch in “Get Ready to Rumble,” EEOC lawyers and human resource executives should ideally be acknowledging their shared goals in reducing discrimination — “but that level of peace and understanding is not likely anytime soon.”

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Turning Employee Cynicism into Trust

Employee trust. It’s a subject most of us steer clear of around here. Too hard to define. Too hard to measure. Impossible to teach or train.

78459275 -- smug businessmanBut Forbes Publisher Rich Karlgaard has taken a stab at breaking down that nebulous force called trust, and its nebulous nemesis, cynicism. In his new book, The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success, he offers 10 strategic steps toward reconfiguring the latter around the former. Here is the recent release, via the Alister & Paine website, about his book, and those steps.

I like some of his comments, including this one:

Mocking irony, snark and cynicism are very much in vogue, but they are also toxic to your company’s culture. Once cynicism gets a foothold in your culture, it spreads — just like an ill-advised tweet or blog post. You need to proactively fight it.”

And this:

Cynicism is the defense mechanism of people who feel unsafe and powerless. It’s an expression of the uncertainty that comes from working in an environment where ethics are lax, employees don’t feel valued and information is withheld. When it thrives in an organization, it signals a lack of employee trust — a problem that’s gotten significantly worse over the last generation.”

And just for the record, here are the steps in as much of a nutshell as this posting will allow:

1) Know that trust has two dimensions, external and internal. External is between an organization and its customers; internal is between employees, managers and top-level management, and it’s here where Karlgaard says you should start. If employees “don’t feel that they can trust your company with their careers,” he says, “you’re in trouble.”

2) Get clear on what a culture of trust and earnestness looks like.  Hold a company-wide trust summit where everyone can share their opinions about trust within your company. In addition, Karlgaard says, “identify the ways cynicism manifests — for instance, through snarky comments, manipulating customers, talking behind co-workers’ backs and so forth.”

3) Then, get the “rules” in writing. Put the results of your trust summit in writing and ask all employees to sign the document. Creating an official “standards of behavior” document helps too. I happen to know some companies are doing this now — documenting desired behaviors, then hiring and managing for them — including Starbucks, which I recently wrote about in this HRE feature.

4) Let only “Boy Scouts” and “Girl Scouts” lead. The key here is to hire and promote leaders who truly do live the values your company espouses.

5) Never lie or hide the truth. Even in the case of very bad news, tell them anyway. ” … [P]eople should never feel they’re being kept in the dark,” says Karlgaard. “Transparency and trust must co-exist.”

6) Show employees that you care. When people don’t believe their leaders care about them, not just as workers but as human beings, trust can’t thrive.

7) Aspire to predictability. “[E]mbrace innovation to your heart’s content in areas such as product development and marketing campaigns,” he says. “Just don’t be unpredictable in your behavior, priorities and values.”

8) Make it safe to speak up. Bottom line, there’s no such thing as a dumb idea and when your employees make honest mistakes, let them admit to them without being scolded and belittled. “Either trust rules your organization, or fear rules it — you have to choose,” says Karlgaard.

9) Celebrate grit and gumption. Basically, reward, reward, reward. Or, as he puts it, “notice and celebrate the behaviors you want more of … . Engagement and cynicism can’t co-exist in the same moment.”

10) Lastly, constantly drive home the “meaning” of the work people do. I know we’ve all been hearing this, probably too much, that each employee needs to understand his or her link — his or her line of sight — to the top, to the whole organization. What I like about Karlgaard is his focus on the actual narrative; the story about your business that you need to be infusing into your entire workforce. He calls it your “true north.”

“My point?” he asks. “Figure out what meaningful things your company provides customers, whether that’s peace of mind, easier lives, reliable support or something else, and look for ways to convey that purpose at your company.

“It’s hard to be cynical about your work and your customers,” he adds, “when you actually do believe in what you’re doing.”

Again, maybe stuff you’ve heard, but not quite like this:

 The next time you’re considering how to make your organization a better place to work, think beyond an in-house masseuse, climbing walls, and free fresh-baked cookies. While employees will certainly appreciate ‘fun’ perks like these, they don’t mean anything if your culture isn’t grounded in trust.”

 

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It Appears Leaders are STILL Behaving Badly

Despite the rhetoric, concern and attention paid to the need for more effective leaders and managers over the last decade — including in the pages of HRE and 467703295-- bad manageron its websites — the latest indication from Bruce Tulgan at Rainmaker Thinking Inc. is they’re about as ineffective as ever.

Tulgan calls it the “under-management epidemic” and says “today’s workplace is afflicted” with it. He defines the epidemic as “a condition in which a leader with supervisory authority fails to provide, regularly and consistently, any employee directly subject to that authority with the ‘management basics.’ ”

And those he defines as: 1) clear statements of broad performance requirements and specific expectations, 2) support and guidance regarding resources necessary to meet requirements and expectations, 3) accurate monitoring, measuring and documentation of the individual’s actual performance, 4) regular candid feedback about the individual’s actual performance, and 5) rewards and detriments allocated and distributed in proportion to actual performance.

Here’s a more detailed description from Tulgan, in The Stubborn and Persistent Under-Management Epidemic (linked above), of just how bad this “under-management” can be:

We find that the vast majority of managers spend an inordinate percentage of their ‘management time’ in what we call, ‘firefighting mode,’ solving one urgent problem after another — usually problems that could have been avoided with better planning or identified and solved more easily at an earlier point. When not in ‘firefighting mode,’ these managers prioritize ‘catching up’ on their other work and their management practices take a back seat, defaulting to a mode we call, ‘managing on autopilot,’ in which they communicate with their direct reports mostly in low-structure, low-substance conversations punctuated by way too many mediocre meetings and way too many emails. As a result of ‘managing on autopilot,’ unnecessary urgent problems occur or small problems go unnoticed and thus grow more serious or urgent. Then the manager gets pulled back into ‘firefighting mode.’ Most managers don’t realize they are stuck in a vicious cycle.”

Worse still, Rainmaker actually revealed this cycle 10 years ago in its inaugural study on the subject, yet “our ongoing research shows that under-management has not improved” since then, Tulgan writes. “One important and fascinating new finding shows that, while nine out of 10 managers are, in fact, under-managing, most of them don’t know it! Five out of 10 managers think they are doing an ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’ job … .”

Less than a year ago, I spoke with Richard Wellins, senior vice president of Bridgeville, Pa.-based Development Dimensions International, about a leadership report DDI had just put out with no more good news than Rainmaker’s. (Here’s that news analysis.)

That study, Driving Workplace Performance through High-Quality Conversations: What Leaders Must Do Every Day to Be Effective, taken from a meta-analysis of DDI’s assessment data from close to 4,000 leaders worldwide, found most front-line leaders lack the fundamental interaction skills and behaviors required to be effective leaders. And senior leaders, it found, are even worse

There too, business leadership seems to be way too knee-jerk, with 90 percent of executives acting before checking their understanding of an issue and being ineffective at inviting ideas from others and facilitating effective conversations to build relationships and get work done

“Leadership really is a series of conversations,” Wellins told me. “The quality of that interaction accounts for a large variance of good or bad leadership,” yet few employers really understand that and hire, develop and reward their leaders accordingly.

I wish I could sign off here with a solution to all this. Maybe next year. Hopefully not 10 years from now.

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Latest Wrinkle in Employers’ Severance Policies

More of a case has been made for some much-needed and immediate reviews of employers’ severance policies.

476619387 -- money and gavelAs this story from Bloomberg lays it out, the U.S. Supreme Court just decided in favor of the Obama Administration and its Internal Revenue Service in a dispute over taxes on severance compensation, overturning a lower-court decision that could have forced the IRS to refund more than $1 billion.

In its ruling in the case of Quality Stores Inc., the court has said payments to laid-off workers are subject to Social Security and Medicare taxes under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act. In essence, the defunct company fired 3,100 workers when it closed its stores in 2001 and 2002, paid the taxes on their severance and then asked a bankruptcy judge to order the IRS to refund $1 million.

Obviously, this is a huge victory for the IRS, which has been fighting more than 2,400 refund claims from companies and their ex-employees. It’s also a huge wake-up call in the business community. As Bob Hertzberg — the lawyer representing Quality Stores before the Supreme Court — told Bloomberg: “The decision is a huge blow for employers and employees alike. In addition to the impact on Quality Stores and its former employees, this ruling has far-reaching implications for the thousands of other organizations and workers fighting for refunds.”

This news comes right on the heels of a news analysis by HRE Staff Writer Mark McGraw about a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit against CVS Pharmacy Inc. that experts say could also shake up how companies approach severance agreements.

In that case, the EEOC is charging that CVS “conditioned the receipt of severance benefits for certain employees on an overly broad agreement set forth in five pages of small print,” and interfered with their right to file discrimination charges and/or communicate and cooperate with the EEOC, according to the suit.

As A. John Harper III, a partner in the labor and employment practice group in the Houston office of Haynes and Boone, told McGraw, the provisions in the CVS separation agreement coming under scrutiny are “common in many severance and other employment-related agreements.”

Comments he got from Robert Hale, a Boston-based partner and chair of Goodwin Procter’s labor and employment practice, are worth repeating, too:

If the EEOC wins here, that would make it difficult for employers to reach agreements that prevent former employees who accept severance pay [from making] disparaging statements or [disclosing] personnel information that many employers understandably view as confidential.”

At the very least, as this case makes its way through the courts and as the Quality Stores decision continues reverberating, employers should be closely evaluating their severance agreements. As Hale puts it,

HR should work with counsel to take a hard look at existing severance agreement forms to determine whether any steps should be taken to reduce the risk that a decision in this case would make those existing agreements more vulnerable to legal challenge.”

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A Message Worth Repeating?

In case you missed it (apparently I did), Jack and Suzy Welch crafted a LinkedIn post last week that again spoke to the importance of HR.

188065235“HR should be every company’s ‘killer app,’ ” they wrote in the piece, titled So Many Leaders Get This Wrong.

“What could possibly be more important than who gets hired, developed, promoted or moved out the door? Business is a game, and as with all games, the team that puts the best people on the field and gets them playing together wins. It’s that simple.”

Considering this, the two noted, it’s too bad “HR rarely functions as it should” and is often relegated to the background. “If you owned the Boston Red Sox, for instance, would you hang around with the team accountant or the director of player personnel?” they ask.

They continue …

Sure, the accountant can tell you the financials. But the director of player personnel knows what it takes to win: how good each player is and where to find strong recruits to fill talent gaps. Several years ago we spoke to 5,000 HR professionals in Mexico City. At one point we asked the audience: ‘How many of you work at companies where the leader gives HR a seat at the table equal to that of the CFO?’ After an awkward silence, fewer than 50 people raised their hands. Awful!”

They then go on to propose how to fix this mess …

It all starts with the people they appoint to run HR — not kingmakers or cops but big leaguers, men and women with real stature and credibility. In fact, managers need to fill HR with a special kind of hybrid: people who are part pastor (hearing all sins and complaints without recrimination) and part parent (loving and nurturing, but giving it to you straight when you’re off track).”

Of course, these comments are right in line with others offered up by Jack and Suzy Welch in the past. In a 2004 story we ran, Jack Welch shared an anecdote similar to the one in Mexico City, pointing out that having a scorekeeper in baseball who’s more important than the director of player personnel on a team is crazy.

Also, this isn’t the first time Jack and Suzy Welch referred to HR as a “killer app.” (One reference I found dates back to 2006.)

I’m sure some of you may be scratching your heads, wondering why the two are revisiting this subject once again. But considering how many organizations have yet to adjust their thinking, I think a case could easily be made that it’s a message worth repeating. (In case you were wondering, last count, the LinkedIn piece received 163,376 eyeballs, 2,679 likes and 565 comments.)

Adding one more point of view to this discussion, Bloomberg TV interviewed former GE executive and former Home Depot CEO Robert Nardelli yesterday, asking him to share his thoughts on the couple’s piece. Nardelli, who is now founder and CEO of the investment banking firm XLR-8,  said he was in complete agreement. (No surprise there, considering he describes Jack Welch as a mentor.) Companies, he said, “will spend an inordinate amount of analysis on your physical capital, and yet it’s your human capital that brings that to life.”

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An Eye to the Future

As I’m sure many of you are aware, HRE has published a fair share of stories on the need for HR leaders to pay closer attention to their own talent pipeline.

159252853In light of this, I’d like to once again call your attention to an initiative introduced by the National Academy of Human Resources a number of years ago aimed at raising future leaders in the profession: The NAHR Ram Charan HR Essay competition, which is now open to undergraduate and graduate students majoring in HR, industrial/labor relations or related fields.  In addition to the priceless prestige that goes with being selected a winner, award recipients also receive handsome cash prizes of $20,000, $10,000 and $5,000. The deadline for submissions is Aug. 1.

This year’s topic ….

Performance Management – A Very Real Issue for Employers and Employees.  Students are asked to identify a new way to measure and improve employee performance that is efficient, effective, and will be embraced by employees because they view it as a fair system that is helpful to them in their career.  The new process must be measurable for effectiveness, contributions to the success of the organization, and reassure management that the right people are being rewarded.”

If you know of anyone who might be interested in participating in this competition, please pass on the above link.

And if you’d like to get a sense of some of the original research and thinking that resulted from last year’s competition, check out the first, second and third place winning entries, submitted by Tiffany Scheff and Josie Trine of Cornell University’s ILR School; Joseph Redlitz of Rutgers University, and Indranil Dey of the Asian Institute of Management in the Philippines, respectively. Their topic: “How are electronic technology and social media affecting the employment relationship between employers and employees; and the roles, responsibilities and contributions of HR organizations?”

I suspect those of you who do will walk away feeling a bit better about the profession’s future.

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Momentum Building for Putting Disabled to Work

Nice to see how much attention RespectAbilityUSA has gotten in just a little more than a month since I posted this plea to employers by the Washington-based nonprofit to get more disabled Americans into the workforce.

122470463 -- disabled execThe group — dedicated to empowering people with disabilities — made sure I saw this latest release touting all the big names to have signed on since that plea went out Jan. 13, including BMX bike legend and host of MTV’s The Challenge, T.J. Lavin; Delaware Gov. Jack Markell; U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas; U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif.; and Paralympian Matt Cowdrey.

Yes, the word is getting out. So much so that Lavin is now starring in a new public-service ad for RespectAbilityUSA that started airing Feb. 14. In the ad, he says “whether it is me, you, or someone who just wants to work — we all should have the same opportunity to achieve the American dream.”

Last month’s post included results from a just-completed RespectAbility poll showing three out of four people with disabilities surveyed value a job and independence over government benefits. This latest announcement, one short month later, mentions companies that are starting to get it, such as Walgreen’s, EY and AMC. They “have found people with disabilities to be highly valued employees who drive their company’s productivity as loyal, safe employees,” the release says.

Now, says Respectability President Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, “it is time for other companies to open new doors for people with disabilities.”

“The bottom line,” she says, “is that people with disabilities want a hand up, not a hand out. They want to work side-by-side with people who don’t have disabilities, make their contribution to society, pay their taxes and achieve the American dream.”

I like how Lavin puts it, too: “Recognize the disability, respect the ability, but imagine the possibility.”

We’ll keep watching this momentum and where it heads. In the meantime, employers and their HR executives should be bracing for two final rule revisions — issued by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs and impacting affirmative-action plans for veterans and people with disabilities — that go into effect on March 24. I have a news analysis appearing soon on our website, HREOnline.com, about these new rules and what they mean, and will share a link here when it goes live.

You might say the rules, revising the OFCCP’s Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act and Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, are the government’s way of ensuring this momentum does, indeed, go forward.

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Courting Controversy at AOL

Tim ArmstrongAs you just might have heard, AOL chief Tim Armstrong is making headlines again, this time for attributing recent alterations to the company’s 401(k) plan in part to rising medical costs associated with two employees’ families “distressed babies.” Armstrong has since apologized, and emailed AOLers two days after making the contentious comments, to announce his reversal on the changes.

This latest flap comes just months after Armstrong made news by angrily firing an employee during a meeting; a move he apologized for within four days.

So, Armstrong has offered up the expected mea culpa here, expressing his regret for singling out two employees’ children as factors in AOL’s climbing medical costs.

But we thought it would be interesting—albeit in hindsight—to ask a handful of HR experts how they would handle Armstrong’s penchant for creating controversy, and perhaps give HR leaders a few pointers on how to keep executives at their organizations from making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Here’s a sampling of what they had to say:

Rita McGrath, an associate professor of management at the Columbia Business School in New York, says a little coaching could go a long way for Armstrong.

“If there were ever a case for why a top-notch executive coach would be great for a CEO, this would have to be it,” says McGrath, who was quick to offer the disclaimer that executive coaching is “not the work that I do.”

“As an executive, everything that you do has substance and symbolism. In both of Armstrong’s somewhat bizarre communications—firing an employee in a public meeting, blaming cutbacks on ‘distressed’ babies—the symbolism conveys mean-spiritedness at best, and at worst [reveals] a guy who is unable to control himself in a public forum.”

A good executive coach, she says, “would be able to do two things: increase his awareness of the perception of his communications, and put in place mechanisms to help him change the more dangerous aspects of his behavior.”

Lou Solomon, founder of Charlotte, N.C.-based communication consultancy Interact and author of Say Something Real, doesn’t quite get why Armstrong was commenting on employee benefits at all, let alone making questionable remarks about “distressed babies.”

“Any changes in employee benefits should be facilitated and communicated by HR,” says Solomon. “There is nothing more destructive than a lone, loose-cannon CEO. The folks in HR and communications have to scramble to pick up the pieces, when they should have been out front to begin with.”

(Incidentally, Solomon raises an interesting point there. In a Feb. 10 column, Forbes contributor Dan Munro went a step further, wondering if the comments—whether uttered by Armstrong or anyone else—were not only insensitive, but perhaps constituted a HIPAA violation as well. Read it here.)

The fact that Armstrong even knew of these two employees’ healthcare situations is cause for concern, adds Rob Wilson, president of Employco USA Inc., a Westmont, Ill.-based employer management, contract staffing and human resource outsourcing services provider.

“From an HR perspective, you cannot talk about individual cases or personal employee issues,” said Wilson, in a statement. “Further, taking that information and using it as a scapegoat to cut retirement benefits is a poor business move.”

Matt Eventoff, owner of Princeton Public Speaking in Princeton, N.J., suggests HR can help keep executives from committing similar slips by helping them take a good look at themselves. Literally.

“Exposure is often very, very valuable for an executive,” says Eventoff. “Prior to an important call, presentation, panel discussion, etc., prep the executive by asking continuous questions and allowing the executive to answer—all while being taped, and then allowing the exec to review the tape.

“This is obviously very sensitive training, but simply seeing the answer on tape is eye-opening, especially for an executive who’s used to speaking ‘off the cuff.’ ”

The second step would be taking the executive’s answers to the aforementioned questions and “illustrating how they might sound and look to different audiences,” he continues, adding that HR may want to bring in an outsider for this part of the process.

“Asking difficult questions of a C-level executive can be uncomfortable for all parties, especially if they work together every day,” says Eventoff. “And it’s also difficult to tell your boss he or she is wrong on a regular basis. Every boss says they want this feedback, but the number [of those that truly do certainly does not include] every boss.”

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