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Watching Them … Watching You … Watching Them

CC000736Steve Lovell says that when an HR staffer walks into a potentially difficult meeting with an employee, they should be wearing something extra: a camera.

Lovell is president of Vievu, which sells “wearable cameras” to police departments and security firms throughout the world. Its latest product is a wearable Wi-Fi camera that’s designed to be worn on a belt, lapel, pocket or other places that bulkier cameras won’t fit. The company also says it’s waterproof and bump resistant, should you have need of such features.

Why would HR need this?

“Companies get accused of wrongful terminations on a daily basis,” Lovell said in an email interview. “With video recording interactions between HR personnel and employees, the long chain of events can settle any false claims for wrongful termination or hostile work environment complaints. This is a valid usage whether a company is hiring, firing or just a simple employee performance evaluation.”

But why, I asked Lovell, would an HR staffer need a wearable video camera for these important meetings–why not just use a regular video camera?

He replied that the camera is unique in that it provides “egocentric video” — that is, video shot from the perspective of a person. Additionally, Lovell said, employees will immediately know when they’re being recorded — a green lens is displayed when the camera-wearer activates the device. “It is a proven fact that when someone knows they are being recorded, their behavior is improved,” he said. “This alone can offset conflict and is a benefit our law enforcement customers experience daily.”

Will Vievu crack the HR market? I have no idea. But Lovell’s last point — that people behave better when they know they’re under surveillance — is amply confirmed by Mark McGraw’s recent news story, which finds that surveilled employees are not only better behaved but more productive. None of this is, of course, good news for folks concerned about privacy — but then again, it’s a brave new world, isn’t it?

HR and Risk Management

How often do you collaborate with your risk-management counterparts at your organization? You should be doing so on a regular basis, according to Lowers Risk Group, a consulting firm with about 1,000 global clients. We’ve covered the issue of risk and human capital before, including this byline and this cover story. Now, a new whitepaper from Lowers highlights what it believes are key trends “driving the expanding role of human resources in enterprise risk management.”

Vince Pascarella, who has an SPHR and is vice president of Lowers Risk Group, has this to say:

Executives tend to rank human capital very high in terms of the potential impact on business results — often ahead of financial risks — but few believethey are managing human capital risk effectively. Most risks begin and end with people, so it’s not surprising to find that human resources is increasingly being called to the table to help mitigate risk.”

The whitepaper is free but requires registration, so I’ll summarize some of the key points and then you can decide whether to delve deeper. First, it cites a Deloitte report that finds a number of trends are leading to a greater focus on human capital risk management: “Black swans,” or low-probability events that have far-reaching impact (including the Euro crisis, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the tsunami in Japan, the Middle East uprisings) and ”people risks” such as fraud, theft and security breaches that end up making headlines. The view of what constitutes human capital risks is expanding, the whitepaper notes, and now includes four “manageable areas of HCM”:

1. regulatory compliance

2. position risk level

3. management risk tolerance levels, and

4. onboarding issues “that may allow individuals to fall through the cracks.”

This new awareness of risk is, according to the whitepaper, leading HR to collaborate more closely with their risk-management brethren and create a “risk mindset” for day-to-day HR activities. HR must also “make the most of its existing data” to help identify potential risks.

Mulling (Some Testy) Background-Check Testimony

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is still wading through testimony gathered Friday during its briefing to determine what impact the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidance on criminal-background checks is having or may have on the employment of black and Hispanic workers.

At this point, there doesn’t seem to be a precise timetable for an ensuing report and/or recommendation from the civil rights commission, or specific plan for the guidance, which the EEOC issued on April 25. But safe to say, one overriding theme of the Dec. 7 testimony – taken from 17 different individuals, representing employer groups, advocacy organizations, screening groups and providers, and employment sectors across the country – came in loud and clear: Businesses need to continue screening for criminal histories and they need some clarifications on portions of the guidance or they will remain, as one testified, “between a rock and a hard place.”

In the words of the USCCR, in its announcement about the Friday briefing, “the commission has initiated this investigation to determine whether the new EEOC guidance policy or other prohibitions or limitations on the use of criminal background checks results in lower job opportunities and reduced employment overall among minorities, including non-offenders.”

In other words, the commision’s concern – as raised over the past year by one of its commissioners, Peter Kirsanow – is that, for employers to either remove or not rely so heavily on the criminal-conviction question in a job application, as the EEOC has recommended, they might be creating a hiring system that, in turn, encourages discrimination of black and Hispanic males due to the sheer larger incarcertaion rates for these minorities.

As Rich Mellor – vice president of loss prevention for the Washington-based National Retail Federation and one of those testifying – told me in a follow-up phone call, “without that confirmation that an applicant does not have a criminal background,” an employer might be prone to try that much harder to hire a non-minority.

Even with such a confirmation, or disclosure of a criminal record and the chance to explain, minority job applicants are often hobbled by still-pervasive racial bias in hiring, according to testimony from Glenn E. Martin, vice president of development and public affairs for The Fortune Society, based in New York. He cited a Princeton University study of the low-wage labor market in New York that showed black and Latino applicants with clean backgrounds fared no better than white applicants just released from prison.

“Moreover,” Martin testified, “the positive outcomes for black applicants, when presenting evidence of a criminal record, were reduced by 57 percent.”

Mellor, in his testimony, raised an additional red flag about the transparency of this crucial criminal-background conversation. The EEOC guidelines, he said, ”were enacted without giving retailers or other employers a chance for input,” according to an NRF release issued just after the briefing. “Hearings,” it says, quoting Mellor, “were held only with a ‘select group of predetermined stakeholders’ and actual text of the guidelines was released only the same morning that they were approved and implemented by the EEOC.”

The EEOC gave me this response today to the NRF’s release:

The NRF and other business groups communicated their views to the EEOC, and we considered them during the development of the guidance. Representatives of employers, individuals with criminal records, and other federal agencies testified at public EEOC meetings in November 2008 and July 2011.  The [EEOC] also received and reviewed approximately 300 written comments from members of the general public and stakeholder groups that responded to topics discussed during the July 2011 meeting.

The stakeholders that provided statements to express their interests and concerns include prominent organizations such as the Retail Industry Leaders Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Society for Human Resource Management, the American Insurance Association, the National Association of Professional Background Screeners, the NAACP, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, and the D.C. Prisoners’ Project, among others. Additionally, throughout the process of drafting the guidance, individual commissioners and staff met with representatives from various stakeholder groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, SHRM, HR Policy Association, College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, the National Employment Law Project and the Equal Employment Advisory Council to obtain more focused feedback on discrete and complex issues.

Many of those organizations listed above had people testifying Friday before the USCCR as well, in addition to employment lawyers Jackson Lewis and Duane Morris, screening provider EmployeeScreenIQ, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics and many more.

Duane Morris’ Jonathan Segal, who testified Friday on behalf of SHRM, told the commissioners that some state and federal laws require employers to conduct background checks for positions such as daycare providers and firefighters. EEOC guidance, he said, puts employers in the tenuous position of “losing their state license if they don’t comply with a state law mandating criminal background checks and risking a class-action lawsuit if they go forward with criminal background checks and base hiring on the results.”

In addition, he said, the guidance’s interpretation of disparate impact appears to make employers “vulnerable to an EEOC investigation any time they take an adverse employment action against individuals of certain races or national origins based on criminal background checks regardless of whether they have conducted a valid individualized assessment — seemingly making criminal convictions a new protected status.”

Rest assured I will be following this and will report developments as I catch wind of them. Pretty packed with pressing issues for employers, I’d say.

 

To Catch a Thief

Guess it’s time for me to stop asking colleagues to “come by my office.”

According to Tom Phillipson, risk manager for Zurich-based Swiss Re Corporate Solutions and one of the presenters at this week’s Risk and Insurance Management Society Conference and Expo in Philadelphia, that particular phrase is one of many that could set off employer alarms.

Phillipson, speaking earlier today at a session titled “Fighting Crime in the Workplace,” noted that there wasn’t a whole lot new in the world of crime detection and prevention, with the exception of linguistic software that can scan emails to identify employees who might be up to no good. “It’s the only real innovation that’s come in the last few years.”

Phillipson advised attendees to check out a February 2012 Economist article that provides a good overview on how the software works:

To find employees with the opportunity to steal, the software looks for what snoops call ‘out of band’ events: messages such as ‘call my mobile’ or ‘come by my office’ suggest a desire to talk without being overheard. E-mails between an employee and an outsider that contain the words ‘beer,’ ‘Facebook’ or ‘evening’ can suggest a personal relationship.

Several vendors are mentioned in the piece, including a unit of Ernst & Young, Fast Tracking Technologies and NICE Actimize.

I followed up the RIMS session with a quick phone call to one of the sources quoted in the Economist article, Alton Sizemore, a former fraud detective at the FBI who now serves as director of investigations with Forensic/Strategic Solutions, an anti-fraud consultancy based in Birmingham, Ala.

Though he doesn’t consider himself an expert in the area of linguistics software, Sizemore says he could certainly see a positive advantage to using such technology. Though it’s hardly proof of wrongdoing, he points out, “You might be able to pick up an indication that someone might be up to something and that it might make sense to do a further review.”

That said, Sizemore suggests employers ought to tread carefully. Among other things, he explains, that means making sure your processes fully factor in privacy considerations.

The software obviously isn’t for everyone. Phillipson notes that a scan of a 10,000-employee organization costs about $45,000, and the Economist article mentioned mostly financial firms as clients. But I also recall a time when only a handful of companies tracked the Web browsing activity of employees.  So I suppose you never know.

What a Little Workplace Sleuthing Might Uncover

I learned a few things about going undercover in the workplace today when I came across this article by a business consultant named Eric Egeland.

For one, undercover assessments aren’t exactly management tactics I’ve read, edited or written much about in my years here. Several years back, we ran a story on top managers hitting the front line or manufacturing floor incognito to ferret out internal problems, but I don’t recall learning about the extent to which workplace sleuthing is such a marketable service.

According to Egeland, president of Capacity Consulting Inc., it’s often a lot less sexy and a lot longer-term than what you’d see on TV’s Undercover Boss. ”Actually, it’s a lot like surveillance,” he writes. “You watch and listen to a whole lot of nothing for what seems like forever and then, suddenly, you witness something big.” Such as? you might ask. Consider this excerpt:

Over the years we have learned about various seedy activities performed by employees. We have seen employees engage in immoral behavior while requiring subordinates to watch guard. We have seen the most respected member of a management team threaten and assault the employees of an entire department as part of their natural “management style.” We have seen groups of employees in one department band together to undermine another department. We have seen employees purposely provide poor service to customers they didn’t like and brag with a sense of accomplishment after chasing them away. Extreme? Yes, but more common than you think.

On the less dramatic, but just as damaging side are the bookkeepers who really don’t know how to keep the books, employees who get angry about the boss’ new car and retaliate by lowering their productivity, and the snoops who go through the boss’ desk and computer when alone and then brag about it. The part that should surprise and shock you the most is that the overwhelming majority of these examples involve the longest-term and most trusted employees.

Why the long-term employees versus the new employees? The new ones can certainly pull some doozies, but they can’t get away with such nonsense for long. They haven’t been there long enough to have the support and/or fear of the other employees. They do something wrong and the current employees sell them out.

Fascinating … at least to this workplace-snooping novice. Far less dramatic but equally important are the work-process inefficiencies, or the safety and data-breach issues, Egeland says. “We always find improvement opportunities that increase the bottom line,” he writes, “and that is the true value of the undercover assignment whether it’s real life or television.”

A Different Way of Looking at Corporate Misconduct

Not sure how helpful this is, but this recently published guide to lessons learned from cases of corporate misconduct is so uniquely packaged it caught my eye.

Called The Unlucky 13: Lessons Learned from Companies Caught in the Act, the small and free downloadable publication offers tiny little synopses of small and large cases — some I’d heard of — from the likes of Xerox, Ford, Siemens, Tyco, Hewlett-Packard, Johnson & Johnson, Mattel, Google, Verizon and more.

Most of the write-ups start with the monetary damage involved, followed by one or two graphs about what happened, followed by one or two bullet-pointed corporate “takeaways.”

Like the $50-to-$100-million case from November 2010 involving a former Ford employee who pleaded guilty to stealing trade secrets by downloading design documents unrelated to his job onto an external hard drive. Reminders there: Don’t ever give employees access to information unrelated to their jobs and eliminate their abilities to connect any sort of media-storage devices to the network.

Or the $20 million disability discrimination settlement by Verizon, underscoring the need for employers to have attendance policies in place that take into account the need for paid or unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities.

My personal favorite: a smaller case involving a $22,500 discrimination settlement paid by Happy Days Children’s Wear Inc. for – of all things, considering the business – firing a female employee because she was pregnant.

If you really want the full scoop in any of these cases, you’ll have to do your own digging. The guide is hardly comprehensive. But you might find some of the reminders helpful.

Perhaps the best advice around corporate misconduct comes from HREOnlinecolumnist Susan Meisinger in her column this week: If you, as an HR leader, detect unethical practices or behavior that set a cultural tone you — hard as you try — can’t change … “Go. And go as quickly as you can.”

Fired Worker Bombs Bank in China

News of a tragic tale of workplace retaliation came to us from China where a bank worker bombed the facility after being fired for stealing money, according to Newser.

Yang Xianwen threw a gasoline bomb inside the Tianzhu County Rural Credit Cooperative Union bank in Northwestern China, according to government officials cited in the story.

More than 40 people were hurt in the blast and some even had to jump out of a five-story window to escape.

Emergency Plan Saves Workers and Customers from Deadly Southern Tornado

Amid the violent storm that ripped through the South this weekend, employees at a Lowe’s store in Sanford, N.C. said the company’s emergency-preparedness plan saved their lives.

In accordance with the plan, more than 100 employees and customers were herded into a windowless room toward the back of the store and remained safe even as a tornado ripped off the steel roof.

Instead of news reports about a deadly scene, Yahoo! news is hailing Michael Hollowell a hero, for his actions in leading the group.

“It can’t help but have saved lives,” Sanford police Capt. J.R. Weeks told the AP.

When it appeared imminent that the tornado may hit the building, Hollowell and his assistants urged everyone to cram shoulder-to-shoulder in the back room, which has joined concrete walls and no heavy inventory stacked high on shelves, according to the AP story.

“It was so tight that you couldn’t move with everybody in the hallway,” said Hollowell. “We got as close as we could.”

Latest Twist in Renault Spy Case

It may not come as a big surprise that someone in HR is paying a price for the Renault espionage debacle.

For those of you who haven’t been following the story, Renault terminated in January three executives, accusing them of selling company secrets. But following an investigation that showed a “chain of failings and dysfunctions,” the company eventually determined that the three executives were indeed innocent of any wrongdoing, as the executives contended from the beginning.

Renault appears to be close to settling with those who were let go. But in a press release issued yesterday, the company also announced some top leadership changes. While CEO Carlos Ghosn remains chairman and CEO, Renault’s No. 2 executive, Chief Operating Office Patrick Pélata, resigned from his post (though it’s worth noting he isn’t going to entirely sever his ties with the company, taking on a top role at the Renault-Nissan alliance). At the same time, the company announced it had dismissed three executives in its security department and suspended three others, including Jean-Yves Coudriou (an HR manager responsible for senior-executive staffing), “pending discussions concerning their future.”

(Interestingly, along with the changes, Renault’s HR chief, Marie-Francoise Damesin, was appointed to the company’s executive committee.) 

It’s not entirely clear what part these terminated or suspended executives might have played in the twists and turns of this bizzare tale. (Maybe none at all, if the terminations that started this chain of events is any indication.) But the suspension of someone in a senior HR role is a reminder of the often challenging and precarious role HR leaders can find themselves in as they conduct internal investigations.

To be sure, this wasn’t your typical internal investigation. Indeed, it has the makings of a good spy novel, with allegations of corporate espionage, Swiss bank accounts and accusations of fraud. But whatever the degree of drama, it definitely pays to move deliberately and carefully, considering what could be at stake.

Stealing From Workplace? Everybody’s Doing It

Ever stolen something from work? A pen or two for the kitchen drawer? Some paper clips for your home office? Maybe even a stapler?

An alarming number of people (76 percent) have stolen something from their workplace, according to Maris Interiors, a London-based workplace-design company.

The most common items stolen are:

  • Pens – 60 percent
  • Paper – 42 percent
  • Post-It Notes – 34 percent
  • Computer Software - 31 percent
  • Mugs – 28 percent
  • Toilet paper – 24 percent

Men are particularly light fingered, with 82 percent admitting to stealing from work, compared to 71 percent of women.

One in 20 decided to go for bigger scores like printer toner or even laptops.

“We all know that the stationery cupboard suffers a bit, but we were extremely surprised that the numbers were quite so high,” says Michael Howard, chairman of Maris Interiors.