HR Tech: Rise of the Machines

When you’re a first-time passenger in a Google driverless car rolling down busy Highway 101 near San Francisco, you go through three phases, said HR Technology Conference keynote speaker Andrew McAfee: the first is “raw, abject terror,” quickly followed by phase 2 — active fascination. Twenty minutes in, that tends to be followed by the third and final phase: mild boredom.

“These cars are programmed to drive the way we were taught to in driver’s ed classes and then promptly forgot,” said McAfee, principal research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of the recent bestseller The Second Machine Age. “There’s no speeding or abrupt lane changes — it feels like riding an airport monorail.”

McAfee’s driverless car adventure was the indirect result of a book  by two professor colleagues, who had written that despite the advances of computers and robotics, they would probably never overtake human beings’ ability to master and rapidly adapt to quickly changing patterns. Thus, they wrote, a computer could never do something like navigate a car through heavy traffic. The book in question, The New Division of Labor, was published in 2004. Six years later, Google announced that its engineers had been riding in computer-guided cars for a number of years.

“As soon as I heard that, I knew I had to experience it,” said McAfee.

The subject of McAfee’s talk, “Making the Right Choices in the Second Machine Age,” was that we’re now living in the greatest era of transformation since the Industrial Revolution. Driverless cars, supercomputers that handily beat long-time Jeopardy! champions and cheap, flexible robots mean that many jobs long-thought to be “automation-proof” because they could only be done by humans will likely be taken over by artificial intelligence. This will, of course, have huge implications for the workplace and for enterprises, he said.

“I don’t think all this will result in enormous factories staffed by only two employees, one of whom is a dog whose job is to bite the human if he tries to touch anything important,” said McAfee. “But I do think we need to re-examine the boundaries between technology and humans and rethink our business models.”

Ideally, human intelligence and artificial intelligence can complement each other, he said. He cited organizations that opened themselves to input from outsiders and used data algorithms to greatly improve service, accuracy and productivity. Such organizations stand in sharp contrast to those that continue to rely on “HiPPOs,” or “the highest-paid person’s opinion,” whether it be the CEO or highly paid outside consultants.

“Some HiPPOs will take data in, but it’s their gut that ultimately makes the decision,” said McAfee.

Geeks, by comparison (McAfee considers “geek” a compliment and describes them as people who are “fascinated and driven by data”) are willing to ignore their gut and follow the data to where it leads them.

This reaps notable dividends, he said: Companies that adopt “data-driven decision-making” achieve  a level of productivity that’s 5 percent to 6 percent higher than those that don’t. Digital intelligence is remaking occupations from dairy farming to pathology — indeed, a digital pathologist created by Stanford scientists has proven to be better, on average, at cancer detection than highly trained human pathologists, said McAfee.

For organizations, he said, the upshot of all this must be that they make themselves more open to data-driven approaches and to outsiders who promise to bring in different ways of thinking and doing things, rather than continuing to rely on HiPPOs. He cited the Obama 2012 campaign, which not only brought in “data geeks” to identify new ways of identifying and motivating voters but put them in charge of key operations — a sharp departure from most political campaigns, he said.

“A lot of companies will not be open to this approach, and that will lead to a lot of disruption,” he said. “But if we can find new ways to combine human and digital intelligence, then the sky’s the limit.”

 

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Giving Employees a ‘Priceless’ Experience

When it comes to interfacing with HR, MasterCard Inc. wants its employees to have a—you guessed it—“priceless” experience.

At a session yesterday titled “Deploying Technology to Support the HR Experience at MasterCard” during the 17th HR Technology Conference and Expo in Las Vegas, Lois Miller, senior vice president and group head of HR services and solutions at MasterCard, walked attendees through the company’s recent implementation of a global HR portal. (The portal was built with the help of Towers Watson.)

MasterCard_Logo_svgIn 2011, Miller said, the Purchase, N.Y.-headquartered company officially moved over to Workday from a Lawson HCM and several best-of-breed solutions. In doing so, the company sought to create a unified platform with greater efficiencies and effectiveness, including giving employees direct access to information. “We wanted to enable employees to find the answers to questions themselves” instead of having them call or email HR directly, she explained.

At the same time, Miller said, MasterCard sought to give its 10,000 employees around the globe a “consumer-grade look and feel”  in order to simply the experience for them.

In conjunction with the portal going live, Miller and her team shut down HR’s email system so employees would have no other choice but to use PeoplePlace to get the information they were seeking. If employees came up empty handed, they could seek an answer through another new tool called AskHR. (Prior to the rollout, she said, HR performed a number of usability studies to ensure that both PeoplePlace and AskHR were a positive experience.)

Miller noted that “change management” topped the list of challenges she and her team faced. Interestingly, she said, it turned out that employees and managers were more accepting of the changes than HR. (Certainly, a comment we’ve heard before.)

To address the barriers standing in the way of adoption, HR produced a comprehensive communication effort, including a video featuring MasterCard’s CHRO Ron Garrow and describing the new portal and its purpose. HR also created a competition aimed at getting employees to try out PeoplePlace, asking them to locate five words (“find human resource information faster”) buried throughout the tool.

Speaking to the success of the effort, Miller reported that adoption has been impressive and that there’s been “zero pushback.” In August of this year, she said, HR received 30 percent fewer AskHR cases than emails it received in August 2013.

As might be expected, the company is currently tracking how the tools are being used, including the kinds of information employees are consuming, and plans to use that data to make improvements.

Miller presented the session with Jonathan Sears, Towers Watson’s Americas practice leader.

 

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HR Tech Keynoter: Big Data is a People Issue

Although the buzz phrase “Big Data” can still fill the hearts of some HR professionals with dread, Rahaf Harfoush wants them to get over it — indeed, they need to get over it.  Harfoush, co-author of the recent bestseller The Decoded Company: What If We Understood Our Talent Better Than Our Customers?, delivered the first-ever “Welcome Keynote” yesterday at the 17th HR Technology Conference and Expo at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas.

“Big data is no longer a technology issue, it’s a leadership issue,” she said.  The sheer amount of data being produced these days — particularly by individuals, thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones — means that big data will affect all industries.

“We live in a time of data abundance, and we as individuals have become data-producing powerhouses thanks to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the like,” said Harfoush. All of this personalized data floating around makes it much easier for companies to offer products and services tailored to individual tastes, based on personal preferences, she said.

Data abundance and the rise of personalization is coming up against a third trend, she said: A talent shortage that, according to a Manpower survey, has left one out of three companies unable to fill key roles.

Companies that make smart use of big data can become “talent magnets,” said Harfoush. She urged the attendees to consider “the Decoded Model,” which consists of using technology as a coach, using data as a sixth sense, and “engineered ecosystems.”

By using technology as a coach, companies such as Sprint have been able to track data from its 45 call centers to link shortcomings in performance to training deficiencies, and use those “teachable moments” to support its employees in providing better customer service, she said.

UPS relied on “data as a sixth sense” to analyze the routes its delivery drivers used and discovered that if it came up with routes that eliminated the need for left turns, it was able to save millions of dollars in reduced costs and improved delivery time.  Google, meanwhile, used “engineered ecosystems” to identify the eight qualities of its most-effective managers via its Project Oxygen initiative. Once those eight qualities were identified, said Harfoush, Google remade its management training and recruitment processes to take into account that the ability to be an effective coach ranked much higher than technical skills. The result, she said, was higher employee job-satisfaction rates and lower turnover.

“The best part about a ‘Decoded Company’ is that their workplaces don’t suck,” said Harfoush. “People like going to work there.”

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Adapting to the Affordable Care Act

ACAHow are we going to respond to the Affordable Care Act?

That’s the question CHROs have been asking themselves since President Obama signed the ACA into law in March 2010.

The University of South Carolina Darla Moore School of Business recently asked that question of CHROs, in its annual HR@Moore Survey of Chief HR Officers.

Distributed to more than 560 chief HR officers at Fortune 500 firms as well as members of the HR Policy Association, this year’s poll asked these HR leaders to specify the actions they’ve already taken, or plan to take over the next 12 months, as a direct response to the Affordable Care Act.

The answers of the 200-plus respondents indicate that most companies are responding by pushing costs and responsibility on to employees. For example:

  • 73 percent of respondents said they have moved or will move employees to consumer-directed health plans.
  • 71 percent said they have raised or will raise employee contributions toward health insurance.
  • 30 percent of organizations have moved or will move their pre-65 retirees to ACA exchanges.
  • 27 percent have either cut back the coverage eligibility of employees’ spouses and dependents or plan to do so.
  • 23 percent have or will more rigorously ensure that part-time employees work fewer than 30 hours per week.

The study, which the University described as a “definitive look at how medium- and large-sized firms have been affected by the changes to the health insurance and healthcare system,” could serve as a “valuable benchmarking tool” for CHROs weighing their organizations’ options in terms of mitigating ACA-related costs, says Patrick Wright, a professor of strategic human resource management at the Darla Moore School of Business, and director of the school’s annual CHRO survey.

“Up to now there has been only speculation as to [the Affordable Care Act’s] impact on business and workers,” says Wright, in a statement. “This survey provides the facts about that impact and specifics on changes to employment practices as a result.”

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SCOTUS to Hear Headscarf Case

courtWhile the upcoming caseload for the United States Supreme Court’s fall term may not be as heavy on HR issues as in the past, there is at least one case that will examine the role of religious freedom in hiring .

The Court has announced it will hear the case of a Muslim woman who was denied employment at trendy clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch because she wore a headscarf.

The company has faced more than one discrimination suit in recent years over the policy, which has subsequently been amended, according to the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

In this case, according to the MSN News story:

Samantha Elauf, then 17, was refused a job at the retailer in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2008 because she wore a headscarf, violating the company’s “look policy,” which outlines how store staff should be groomed and dressed.

While a federal judge hearing the case found Abercrombie & Fitch was liable for discrimination — to the tune of $20,000 — that decision was later appealed, where the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Colorado ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act only protects employees who provide “explicit notice of the need for a religious accommodation.”

Under the act, no one can be refused employment based on their religion, unless the employer cannot accomodate the person’s religious beliefs without adversely affecting business, and court documents said she did not ask about how the company’s “look policy” could be adjusted to accommodate her religious dress at the time of the interview.

“Before her interview, Ms. Elauf knew the position required her to model the Abercrombie style, knew the style of clothing that Abercrombie sold, and also knew that Abercrombie did not sell headscarves,” Abercrombie said in its court brief.

The EEOC said its cases involving complaints of religious discrimination have more than doubled in the past 15 years, according to MSN News.

SCOTUS is expected to take up the case in January, with a decision expected in June.

Stay tuned…

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The Wellness Journey Continues …

Earlier this month, the Economist Intelligence Unit released a study (sponsored by Humana) of 255 executives. It found that roughly 70 percent of the respondents believe their organization’s wellness programs are effective, even though only 31 percent deploy some sort of “rigorous evaluation methods.”

Kevin Volpp, founding director of the Leonard Davis Institute Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics, is quoted in the report saying he believes asking whether wellness [programs] have value based solely on return on investment is a mistake. Instead, the question should be, “Do we improve health at a reasonable price.”

185998025At this year’s Benefits Forum & Expo at the Boca Raton Resort in Florida, there seemed to be ample evidence that the business community’s commitment to wellness is very much alive and well, even if the data isn’t nearly as visible as some might like.

As might be expected, many of the employers featured on the program are, with the help of the vendor community, applying tools such as biometric screenings, health coaches and gamification in their attempts to improve the well-being of their workforces and, in turn (hopefully), reap meaningful productivity gains. (Such approaches will also be explored at HRE‘s Health and Benefits Leadership Conference next April.)

During a session titled “Domino’s Pizza: Evolving Wellness Strategy into Business Strategy,” Domino’s Director of Benefits Sandra Lollo shared some of the outcomes her company has achieved through the use of Quest Diagnostics’ Blueprint for Wellness tool, which has served as the cornerstone of its wellness efforts for quite some time. Lollo noted that Domino’s uses four key performance indicators to gauge its progress: participation, a health-quotient score (including a wellness scorecard combined with HRA), metabolic-syndrome risks (targeting BMI) and tobacco use.

Eight years into its effort, Lollo reports, Domino’s has seen discernible improvement on each of these fronts. In the case of the tobacco-use KPI, for instance, the percentage of tobacco users has been cut in half, dropping from 26 percent to 13 percent over that period.

The company’s benefits team is currently in the process of rebranding its effort (“dusting it off,” Lollo says) and pursuing a more holistic approach to wellness, including adding components that address issues such as financial wellness.

As might be expected, gamification found a decent amount of air time at the conference. In a session titled “Gamifying Wellness: How to Challenge Employees to Lead Healthier Lives,” Goldenwest Credit Union Assistant Vice President of HR Ashley Shreeve co-presented with hubbub Vice President of Sales and Marketing Brian Berchtold and shared some of the ways her 421-employee firm has used the hubbub platform to drive engagement and change behaviors.

Through simply named challenges such as “Walk the Dog” (a 14-day challenge that involves, yes, dog walking) and “Home Cooking” (a 14-day challenge aimed at eating healthier foods), Goldenwest is getting employees to take a small but valuable step in a better direction. (In other words, don’t bite off more than you can chew?)

One of the goals, Berchtold said, is to get employees to understand that wellness doesn’t end at 5 p.m.; it’s something that needs to be 24/7.

Goldenwest is attempting to undo the fact that “we’re asking our employees to be unhealthy by having them sit behind a desk all day,” Shreeve said.

For the 421-employee credit union, encouraging participation has not been a problem. All of its employees are currently on the platform and have, last count, completed more than 18,440 challenges.

(Here’s another interesting stat I jotted down from the session: There are more than 43,000 weight-loss/fitness apps out there today.)

Of course, gamification may not be the answer for every organization.

Elkay Manufacturing Co. Corporate Manager of Compensation and Benefits Carol Partington offered me a preview of a session she was slated to present later in the day with Interactive Health Senior Wellness Strategies Sandi Eskew: “Elkay Manufacturing: Tune Up Your Wellness Program.”

Elkay is entering its third year of on-site screening through Interactive Health. Under the program, employees who participate in the screening and independently declare they’re not tobacco users pay 20 percent less for their healthcare than a person who doesn’t do either of those things. From a financial standpoint, Partington said, that translates to about a $1,000 per year.

As with most things, the success of these initiatives often hinges on how well they’re communicated.

“We need to get employees to understand what we’re doing and that there’s a partnership; they’re not in it all by themselves,” Partington said. To that end, Partington and her team have worked hard to get the messages out into the workplace and employee homes. “You’d have to have your head in the sand if you didn’t know what’s going on,” she said.

What’s proven to be the most effective way to get these messages out there at Elkay? Through the organization’s plant managers, says Partington, because “it’s not corporate giving the message” … it’s coming from someone the employees know and trust.

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Get Outta Here!

leaving officeMany contend that the unique perks the Googles and the Qualcomms of the world offer employees—on-site dry cleaners, pet-friendly workspaces, employer-hosted farmers markets—are as much about keeping people at work as they are about making their lives easier.

So it was interesting to read this recent Washington Post article, which highlighted a few companies that seem intent on helping their employees actually stay away from the office, and remain disconnected from their work after punching out for the day.

For instance:

  • Redwood, Calif.-based software company Evernote offers employees a $1,000 stipend for taking a full week away from work.
  • FullContact, a Denver-headquartered provider of contact-management software, gives employees $7,500 a year if they take time off of work. According to the Post, use of vacation time among the firm’s employees shot up after the policy was introduced.
  • Dutch design firm Heldergroen makes it impossible—or at least pretty uncomfortable—for workers to hang around the office past 6 p.m., when employee desks are lifted to the ceiling via steel cables, and all furniture is cleared from the floor.
  • Menlo Innovations opts not to offer technological tools for remote work. No employer-provided laptops, no virtual private networks and no remote-access software. The message to employees is clear, according to Richard Sheridan, the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based software design firm’s CEO. “You can’t take work home with you,” Sheridan told the Post.
  • Quirky, a crowd-sourced consumer product maker with headquarters in New York, takes things a step further, shutting down completely for four weeks out of the year. Founder and CEO Ben Kaufman began the practice in early 2013, closing Quirky’s doors the first week of every new quarter.

Yes, most of these and the other examples cited in the Post piece are smaller and/or start-up type tech companies. But, with larger, more traditional-minded organizations always looking for ways to help employees strike that ever-elusive work/life balance—and position themselves as “cool” places to work—wouldn’t it be interesting if we started to see more Fortune 500 firms co-opt this piece of the freewheelin’, forward-thinking start-up culture?

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Hiking the ‘Living Wage’ in NYC

According to the New York Times, Mayor Bill de Blasio plans to sign an executive order today designed to “significantly expand” New York City’s living wage law, covering thousands of previously exempt workers and raising the hourly wage itself, to $13.13 from $11.90, for workers who do not receive benefits.

The executive order will immediately cover employees of commercial tenants on projects that receive more than $1 million in city subsidies going forward. Workers who receive benefits such as health insurance will earn $11.50 an hour, compared with $10.30 before, the paper notes.

And the current living wage law, passed in 2012, has applied to about 1,200 jobs, officials say, excusing many retailers and companies that lease space as part of city-subsidized projects, the paper reports.

The paper says the living-wage change is also intended to frame a looming debate in Albany, where Mr. de Blasio hopes to win the authority to set the citywide minimum wage at the same amount. If Mr. de Blasio succeeds in matching the minimum wage to the living wage, all hourly workers in the city would earn more than $15 by 2019, according to the city’s projections.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who in February said that allowing local governments to set their own minimum wages would yield “a chaotic situation,” seemed to have reversed himself months later. He said he would support a plan, advocated by the Working Families Party, that allowed municipalities with higher costs of living to set their own minimum wages.

As a result, the governor has endorsed an increase to $10.10 in the statewide minimum wage, with a provision allowing New York City and other areas to raise their minimums as much as 30 percent higher, to $13.13.

It will be interesting to see how — and if — New York City’s example is adopted elsewhere when it comes to setting a higher bar for a living wage for workers.

Regardless, HR leaders should keep an eye on this development to ensure they won’t be caught off guard when a living-wage boost may be introduced in their municipality or state.

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Yes, a ‘Cantankerous Jerk’ Can Be Fired

177030950 -- angry bossCan a person be lawfully terminated just for being a hard-core grump? Yes, says the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in the case of Matthew Weaving v. City of Hillsboro.

Weaving, an officer with the Hillsboro (Ore.) Police Department, was cited several times over a period of years for conflicts with fellow employees. A formal report — issued after a departmental investigation of an officer’s grievance about him — concluded he was “tyrannical, unapproachable, belittling, demeaning, threatening, intimidating, arrogant and vindictive.” (That’s quite a list.)

Based on the investigation, which also found Weaving had created a hostile work environment and did not possess the emotional intelligence to work in a team environment, he was fired Dec. 11, 2009, after three years with the force.

He sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act, claiming he had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and this condition caused his work conflicts and limited his ability to work or interact with others (a requirement of his job).

He contended his ADHD was a disability, which a district court upheld, but the appeals court reversed. (For everything you ever wanted to know about Weaving’s contention and how both courts viewed the ADHD/ADA issue, see both links above.)

Considering Weaving’s argument that ADHD falls under the ADA, I thought I’d share several earlier blog posts from some of us at HRE that delve into other expansions of, or attempts to expand, the definition of disability under the law.

This one, by David Shadovitz, delves into an appeals court ruling establishing that temporary impairments are now allowed under the law so long as they’re severe enough.

This post, by Mark McGraw, also gets into the temporary-condition allowance, in a different lawsuit, and mentions the American Medical Association’s new definition of obesity as a disease, adding exponentially to the ranks of the disabled.

And this from me a few years back highlights an informal letter issued by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission warning that requiring a high-school diploma from a job applicant might violate the Americans with Disabilities Act because the requirement could effectively screen out anyone unable to graduate because of a learning disability.

Meanwhile, in this latest case, employers have good reason to breathe a sigh of relief, says Myra Creighton, a partner with Atlanta-based Fisher & Phillips. The case, she told me, “upholds the principle that employers can enforce their employee-conduct standards governing personal interaction without worrying that the employee will blame his or her bad behavior on his or her disability.”

The ruling doesn’t, however, rule out ADHD as a disability if the plaintiff can prove the condition limits his or her ability to work.

As the Practical Law piece in the first link above puts it, the Ninth Circuit majority held “that the employee’s condition … did not rise to the level of disability [and argued] that a different holding … would open employers to potential liability each time they take an adverse-employment action concerning a hostile employee.”

The dissenting minority, however, it says, notes that “employers are [still] left in the complicated position of having to determine whether an individual, who has been properly diagnosed with ADHD, should be deemed disabled or just a jerk.”

 

 

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Getting Out the Vote

Business groups are looking to make a difference in November’s midterm elections.

As a recent piece on the The Hill website reports, “Heavyweight groups such as the National Retail Federation, the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Associated General Contractors of America and BIPAC are among those seeking to increase engagement in the political process this year.”

According to The Hill, more than 90 companies and industry groups are taking part in the Employee Voter Registration Week (which ends today), including the American Forest & Paper Association, Anadarko Petroleum, Caterpillar, eBay and a slew of state-level organizations.  Their hope is to break the gridlock and get employees registered and involved.

About 54 percent of American voters went to the polls two years ago, compared to around 38 percent in the 2010 midterms.

David French, the senior vice president of government relations at the National Retail Federation who discussed the initiative at a press conference the other day (see video), notes that …

“Any of these races could be decided by a few hundred votes, so a strong turnout from the business community could make the difference between a candidate who understands our concerns and a candidate who’s tuned to other voters’ interests.”

As The Hill piece explains, “trade groups and corporations will not be instructing their members and employees how to vote or who to vote for … but will be providing information about deadlines, how to register and where to vote.”

I asked Littler Shareholder Michael Lotito (who is based in San Francisco, but always keeps a watchful eye on what policymakers are up to in Washington) to share his thoughts on the significance of this effort.

Lotito sees it as a counter weight to what the American Federation of Labor does in getting out the vote through registration drives and email solicitations.

“Businesses have been largely quiet in this regard,” he says. “But often, the employees would benefit from hearing from their employer as to how the positions of candidates and state and local propositions may impact the company and, either directly or indirectly, the employees who depend on the company.  Many companies are not engaged in this process, not even encouraging their people to register and vote, let alone modify work schedules on election day to make sure people can vote.”

Lotito also suggests that HR might want to be more than just a bystander in this regard. “Let HR be the leader for the identification of issues, how those items will impact the company, which candidates (regardless of party) advances those interests, and then advising how a person can register to vote, obtain absentee ballots and go to the polls on election day.”

At the end of the day, it’s probably going to be tough to know how much of an impact any of this will have, but with voter turnout for the midterms being as pitiful as it is, it would seem to me that any effort to get citizens more engaged (if I can borrow a word from the HR lexicon) in our electoral system should be viewed as a good thing.

In case you’re wondering, the midterms are November 4—so, if you haven’t yet, mark it down.

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