Google’s ‘Mobilegeddon’ Comes Tomorrow!

It’s hard to say exactly what’s all in store for employers when Google unleashes its massive search-algorithm update tomorrow, but from 178976393 -- mobile technologythe buzz out there about it, sounds like everyone will be impacted.

For the record, here is Google’s official announcement on its site about its new mobile-friendly-ranking system starting April 21 — complete with a helpful guide toward making your website mobile-friendly. Though … in all honesty, of course … if you haven’t started this yet, you will definitely be behind the eight ball when it comes to website user-ability and “bites.”

In short, Google’s algorithm change is tailored to favor sites suitably optimized for mobile use by increasing the search engine’s emphasis on mobile-usability as a ranking factor.

In super short, if you are not a mobile-friendly site, ranked thusly by Google (mind you, the company is not exactly forthcoming about how this will be measured), you run the risk of getting bumped down in search-result stacking.

Advice out there for employers is a bit scanty, since this is posting a day before update launch, but I did find this piece from iCIMS, stressing just how imperative it is for all career sites to take this mobile-friendly ranking — and mobile-friendliness altogether — very seriously. It quotes Chuck Price, founder of Measurable SEO:

“Because you don’t have a mobile-optimized site, you’re going to get bumped down from position one or two to the third page, and suddenly you’ve lost all of your organic traffic. That’s a big deal.”

Perhaps the best analysis of what this update means comes from this recent piece by Jayson DeMers on the Forbes site. In it, he makes no bones about its potential impact:

“The search giant seems to make near-constant updates to its search protocols. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this upcoming April 21st update is something like the last few we’ve seen—a data refresh or some small tweak that leads to almost imperceptible changes in search rankings for only a handful of businesses.

“Unfortunately for currently non-optimized businesses, this doesn’t appear to be the case. With one of Google’s own recently explaining that this latest algorithm rollout is set to have a bigger impact than either Panda or Penguin, and considering Panda and Penguin are the biggest algorithm updates we’ve ever seen from Google, this new mobile update could completely change how we look at search.”

This, from Search Engine Watch, lays out many particulars all companies should keep in mind when it comes to mobile-friendly modifications you should have made by now, but better late than never. I especially like its reference to “Mobilegeddon.”

Kind of says it all.

Twitter It!

Moving in the Right Direction

Yesterday, I was able to get an early look at the findings of The Hackett Group’s latest study on HR budgets and trends.

ThinkstockPhotos-166114849While there weren’t many huge surprises in the report, titled “The HR Agenda for 2015: Major Transformation Efforts Are Planned to Close the Gaps in HR Capabilities,” there definitely were a few data points to reflect on. (The study can be downloaded today with registration.)

As far as budgets are concerned, the study—based on research involving executives from more than 170 large companies in the United States and abroad—found that HR organizations, for the first time in a while, should experience marginal increases in both staff levels and budgets in 2015. Specifically, budgets are expected to rise 1.4 percent and staff grow by 1.5 percent—no doubt a reflection of a relatively healthy economy and the growing awareness among business leaders of the importance of talent strategies and practices.

The report, however, also points out that the increases are far from universal. Only 40 percent of the companies in the study actually expect to see budget increases, with just under 30 percent saying the same for staff levels. Further, just over 30 percent still expect to see declines in budgets and full-time employees, with the remainder expecting no change.

Of course, it’s good to see things move in the right direction, but as the Hackett report suggests, even more important will be what HR organizations do with the extra dollars and staff. In their report, the experts at Hackett suggest many HR organizations are largely unprepared to help improve enterprise agility and address those issues most relevant to achieving business objectives, including workforce strategy, innovation and talent management.

When I asked Hackett’s Global HR Practice Leader Harry Osle to elaborate on how world-class organizations differ from others when it comes to addressing these issues, he said, “they’re continually looking for ways to optimize their HR organizations.”

More specifically, he said, three characteristics come to mind when you look at world-class organizations. “First, these companies continue to look at process optimization … and look for ways to [eliminate] slack in the system.”

Next, he explained, they have a sharp focus on talent management and a hunger for finding and keeping the best talent, and making that talent more productive.

And finally, they have a strong commitment to digitization and technology. “That means,” Osle said, “having the right data at the right time to make the critical analytical decisions that organizations have to make today.”

The study found that the best-prepared HR organizations are clearly committed to making digital transformation and the utilization of cloud-based technologies a reality. Roughly 70 percent of the best-prepared HR organizations view the development of an HR digital-transformation strategy a high priority, compared to 25 percent of typical HR organizations. For cloud-based HR solutions, the gap is smaller, but still significant, with 50 percent of the best-prepared HR organizations considering it a high priority, compared to 40 percent of typical HR organizations.

As Osle explained, investing in technology in the cloud and SaaS is an easy decision to make when you consider the cost savings—and efficiency and effectiveness improvements—it can result in.

Osle predicted a substantial amount of the budget increases will likely be targeted to HR technologies. (Assuming he’s right, I would have to think this fall’s HR Technology Conference and Exposition® in Las Vegas will be a pretty lively event.)

Twitter It!

A Downside for Health Apps?

appsThis year’s Health & Benefits Leadership Conference saw a host of vendors and experts touting the benefits of the smartphone in promoting employee health. Checking in with apps such as MyFitnessPal (an app for tracking calories and diet) or the FitBit activity tracker will “engage” (that crucial word!) employees in their health like nothing else, they say.

Not so fast, cautions a new article in BMJ, a British medical journal. The BMJ piece features opposing viewpoints from two doctors: Dr. Iltifat Husain, who oversees a review site for medical professionals, writes that apps can help doctors hold patients accountable for their behavior. In a counterpoint, Dr. Des Spence, a Scottish general practitioner, argues that health apps encourage healthy people to unnecessarily record their normal activities and vital signs, ultimately turning them into “continuously self-monitoring neurotics.”

Health apps, Spence writes, are untested and unscientific and should be viewed with skepticism. “Make no mistake,” he writes. “Diagnostic uncertainty ignites extreme anxiety in people.”

This caution is warranted: The New York Times notes that federal regulators have been cracking down on health-apps vendors who’ve falsely claimed, among other things, that their products could accurately analyze skin moles for potential melanoma.

“If an app claims to treat, diagnose or prevent a disease or health condition, it needs to have serious evidence to back up those claims,” the Federal Trade Commission’s Mary K. Engle told the paper. In other words, although health apps clearly have the potential to get employees more focused on improving their health, they should also be wary of apps that claim to diagnose or treat a health condition.

Twitter It!

$70,000: The New Minimum Wage

By now, you’ve likely heard of Gravity Payments’ CEO and Founder Dan Price, who set off the latest salvo in the wage wars when he told his 120-person staff that he would raise the salary of even the lowest-paid clerk over the next three years to a minimum of $70,000.

According to the New York Times‘ piece, Price, who started the Seattle credit-card-payment processing firm in 2004 at age 19, said he would pay for the wage increases by cutting his own salary from nearly $1 million to $70,000 and using 75 percent to 80 percent of the company’s anticipated $2.2 million in profit this year.

The paychecks of about 70 Gravity workers will grow, with 30 ultimately doubling their salaries, according to Ryan Pirkle, a company spokesman. The average salary is $48,000 a year.

While Price’s audacious move may not have many companies following in its path, it at least speaks to an economic issue that has captured national attention in the years since the recession: The disparity between the soaring pay of chief executives and that of their employees.

 Indeed, in an essay published recently by Politico Magazine, venture capitalist Nick Hanauer warned that the widening income gap in the United States would eventually spark a violent revolution:

“No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out.”

But, according to the Huffington Post,  rather than see this as a charitable offer to his workers, Price sees the pay raises as an investment. In theory, workers motivated by higher salaries will ultimately attract more business and handle clients better.

“This is a capitalist solution to a social problem,” Price said. “I think it pays for itself, I really do.”

Twitter It!

Increased Skepticism Around EEOC Claims?

lawsuitAccording to at least one attorney, a recent Sixth Circuit appeals court ruling in a disability discrimination case underscores the federal courts’ increasingly cynical view of EEOC claims.

An overview of what led to the April 10 decision in EEOC v. Ford Motor Co.:

Jane Harris, a now-former Ford employee with irritable bowel syndrome, sought a job schedule of her choosing, which would allow her to work from home as needed, up to four days a week. Ford denied her request, determining that “regular and predictable on-site attendance” was essential to Harris’s “highly interactive” job as a resale buyer with the company.

Early in her career with Ford, Harris—who joined the automaker in 2003—earned awards and accolades for what court documents describe as her “strong commodity of knowledge” and “diligent work effort.” Her performance soon deteriorated, however, and by her fifth full year with the company, Harris ranked in the bottom 10 percent of her peer group within Ford. By 2009, her last year with the organization, she “was not performing the basic functions of her position,” according to court records.

In addition, Harris missed an average of 1.5 work days per week in 2008, and frequently arrived at work late and left early, court records indicate.

Harris’ irritable bowel syndrome naturally exacerbated the situation, with her symptoms contributing to greater stress. In turn, the added stress worsened her symptoms and made it more likely for her to miss work.

Court records suggest that Ford “tried to help” Harris, adjusting her work schedule and allowing her to work from home on an ad hoc basis, for instance. But, despite these measures being taken, Harris was still “unable to establish regular and consistent work hours” and failed “to perform the core objectives of the job.”

After Ford attempted to offer alternative accommodations—some of which Harris rejected—she was terminated in September 2009, as a result of what the company called “several years of subpar performance and high absences.”

In August 2011, the EEOC sued Ford under the Americans with Disabilities Act. While the Sixth Circuit ruled against Ford in an April 2014 decision, an appellate panel voted to rehear that ruling. The court ultimately reversed that decision, noting that an employee with a disability is not qualified for a position if he or she cannot perform the necessary functions of the role with or without reasonable accommodation. The court noted that telecommuting may be a reasonable accommodation per the ADA, except in a scenario in which regular attendance is essential to performing the job’s critical functions.

The EEOC “has been pursuing telecommuting claims on a regular basis,” says Mark Girouard, a Minneapolis-based labor and employment attorney with Nilan Johnson Lewis.

This decision, however, figures to make establishing these claims more difficult for the organization, says Girouard.

“Obviously, each position must be analyzed individually, but the Sixth Circuit’s description of the job at issue in this case could be applied to many other positions.”

In other words, there are many jobs where availability to participate in face-to-face interactions should necessitate regular and predictable performance, he says, adding that “the en banc decision makes clear that courts should defer to employers’ business judgment on that issue.”

Last week’s decision “adds to the list of recent major losses for the EEOC,” says Girouard. “Separate and apart from the substance of the decision, the fact that the EEOC lost another major lawsuit highlights the increasing skepticism applied to the EEOC by the federal courts.”

Twitter It!

Get Set for the NLRB’s ‘Quickie-Election’ Rule!

If you thought April 15 was a date to keep you awake at night, the day before — April 14; that’s tomorrow, folks! — could be worse. 116040122 -- labor unionTomorrow is the day the National Labor Relations Board’s “ambush-election rules,” aka “quickie-election rules,” governing how union representation is voted on by employees, takes effect.

Late last month, I was made aware of this post at LaborUnionReport.com, pointing out (in pretty cryptic terms) that “as President Obama’s union attorneys controlling the National Labor Relations Board push through their so-called ‘ambush-election rules’ … the NLRB is conducting ‘practitioner’ training at NLRB offices and other locations (including a union office) across the country.”

The post says little else, but does include the PowerPoint presentation being used for the practitioners’ education. I found it somewhat interesting. You might too.

Meanwhile, NLRB General Counsel Richard F. Griffin Jr. did release early last week a guidance memo on modifications to organized-labor-representation procedures effective April 14 — specifically, how new cases will be processed from petition filing through certification. In his words,

“I am confident that the guidance provided herein will allow regions to implement the final rule effectively and efficiently.”

What effect these new rules will have remains to be seen, though Joel Barras, employment attorney at Reed Smith, says he’s pretty  confident they’ll “dramatically limit the time employers have to run pro-company campaigns.” As he puts it:

“I believe unions will now wait to file their union representation petitions until the new rules take effect. If I am right, and we see a high number of petitions filed in mid to late April, that would serve as an excellent indication that unions agree with employers that the new rules will dramatically improve the likelihood that employees will vote to join unions.”

In a webinar Friday by several Littler attorneys, addressing what more than one called this “new reality,” Tanja Thompson, Memphis, Tenn.-based office managing shareholder for Littler, confirmed that her office has seen a recent “slowdown” in the number of union petitions filed, indicating many are, indeed, probably waiting to file under the new rules, as Barras predicts.

“Make no mistake; this rule change is designed to see increases in union win rates,” she said. ” … We do anticipate accelerated activity starting April 14.”

She and the others shared cautionary tips for making sure nothing is missed in the new system, such as adhering to deadlines for supplying lists of personal contact and job information of all likely and eligible union members … and remembering that union notices will now be coming via email, not fax, and “unions don’t always get it right in who they email, yet that’s who’s being served,” said Thompson.

They also laid out all kinds of strategies for being proactive and not waiting to take action until a petition is filed under the new system, which is expected to change the current six-week election process to something closer to two-to-three weeks.

Action plans should include putting your employer statement out now on unions and how you view them, ensure supervisors and managers are comfortable talking with employees about that view, and ensuring all workers understand the value of their wages and benefits.

“My fear for employers,” said Jeff Harrison, a Minneapolis-based Littler shareholder, “is they’ll be busy meeting the many requirements [of responding to a petition] at the expense of focusing on their [anti-union] campaign communication strategies.”

For a further frame of reference on what’s coming, here is our most recent post by Michael J. O’Brien on the “current ‘quickie’ kerfuffle,” as he calls it — namely, the vote on March 19 by the U.S. House of Representatives, passing a GOP-led resolution to overturn the rule. With Obama almost certain to veto it, the vote appears to have created hardly a wrinkle in the NLRB’s preparations, as I indicated above.

Here, too, is some good discussion of the GOP’s effect on the NLRB that Tom Starner raised in a January news analysis. Specifically, he writes, “while the NLRB has characterized its actions as ‘modernizing its processes,’ legal experts representing employers say the real impact will deny employers an adequate chance to stage an anti-union campaign prior to employee voting.”

So … “gather your bragging points now,” as Harrison said in the webinar. “Conduct vulnerability assessments,” with special focus on employees being treated fairly, with dignity and respect, and with robust employee-appreciation programs … those catch phrases “you often find in union petitions,” he said.

Bottom line, look closely at your people issues, said Harrison. “Are your people treating your people right?” Because it’s those types of complaints — treatment ones — that “are almost always behind” employees being driven to unionize.

Twitter It!

Payment Reform Urgently Needed

The way in which healthcare is paid for in the United States is a perverse mess — it rewards unnecessary procedures and is lacking in transparency while failing to reward providers for doing things that are actually needed.

“We know the way we pay for healthcare today is inherently inflationary and often does not lead to the outcomes we want,” said Suzanne F. Delbanco, executive director of Catalyst for Payment Reform, a coalition of employers and healthcare purchasers. She spoke at a general session on payment reform on Day 2 of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference in Las Vegas.

The CPR is working to create a “critical mass” of employers that would push for changes needed to rectify serious problems — such as those uncovered by a report 15 years ago that found healthcare providers throughout the United States charging wildly varying prices for the same medical procedures that bore no relation to quality or outcomes. A decade and a half later, Delbanco said, little progress has been made.

That’s not to say there aren’t bright spots: New innovations such as accountable care organizations and patient-centered medical homes have proven to be viable alternatives to the traditional fee-for-service model and have resulted in lower prices and better outcomes, she said. The CPR is also encouraging employers to experiment with new approaches such as shared savings and non-payment for botched or unnecessary procedures.

One hurdle has been the fact that many employers are more comfortable making changes to benefit-plan designs that shift more of the cost to employees than in challenging the traditional way in which healthcare is paid for, said Delbanco. “Ideally, employers should be doing both,” she said, adding that employees have generally become more receptive to the need to control costs.

Delbanco was joined on stage by Anna Fallieras, G.E.’s program leader for healthcare initiatives and policy, who described her company’s journey to consumerism.

“Our message to employees is, ‘Be an active consumer: Think about managing costs and getting quality care,’ ” she said, adding that GE spends $2 billion per year on employee healthcare.

GE, which rolled out consumer-driven health plans to its employee population in 2013, also created new tools and services to help them make better healthcare decisions. These include a telephonic health-coach service designed to help employees get access to top-performing healthcare providers, and a treatment cost calculator that offers price and quality information on providers.

The cost calculator has helped employees save between 5 percent and 30 percent on their healthcare bills, said Fallieras. GE also offers a telemedicine service that’s garnered a 90-percent satisfaction rate from employees, she said.

Fallieras called on other employers to join GE in fighting for payment reform. “We can’t do it all ourselves,” she said. “We as employers have a central role.”

 

Twitter It!

Work/Life ‘Innovation’ in the Valley

As a session titled “Unlimited Time Off and the Leading Work/Life Benefits of Silicon Valley” reminded those attending this year’s Health & Benefits Leadership Conference, high-tech employers are innovating in areas well beyond technology.

ThinkstockPhotos-78521845Indeed, representatives from Adobe, Yahoo! and CA Technologies each detailed a wide range of work/life programs aimed at providing employees with greater flexibility and making their organizations more attractive places to work.

Lauren Vela, a senior director of member services at the Pacific Business Group on Health and the moderator of session, pointed out that bringing work/life balance to a high stressed, high-achieving population isn’t always an easy feat.

But that said, it’s clearly something companies such as Adobe, Yahoo! and CA Technologies take very seriously.

“In looking at our population,” explained Luz Garcia, senior Americas benefits specialist for San Jose, Calif.-based Adobe Systems, “people were not taking time-off. They were adding huge balances to their PTO accounts,” something that wasn’t in the spirit of Abode’s time-off program.

“We wanted people to take the time-off for rest and relaxation,” she said.

In response, Garcia said, Adobe revisited its program and implemented an unlimited time-off program.

Adobe’s policy states 

“… exempt U.S. employees will be paid their regular base salary at all times while they are actively employed by Adobe (including while on Adobe holidays and during Company break periods); the only time they will not receive their base salary will be during periods when they are on a leave of absence or are taking Sick Time Off, at which time they will be subject to the compensation and benefits provisions of the applicable Adobe leave of absence policy or the Sick Time Off provision below.”

Adobe, Garcia said, also enhanced its sabbatical program in 2009 with a tiered approach— so that after five years of service employees were entitled to four fully paid weeks off; after four weeks, five fully paid weeks off; and after 15 years, six fully paid weeks off.

Garcia noted that the changes helped reinforce the fact that “we value people taking time-off to decompress.”

Adobe also has instituted summer breaks. “We always had a winter break, where we shut down the last week of December. But now, with the summer break, we shut down the week of July 4,” she said.

CA Technologies’ Vice President of Global Benefits Lisa Mars, meanwhile, shared CA’s efforts in onsite day-care.

CA, with facilities in Silicon Valley, launched its first onsite Children’s Center in 1992 at its corporate headquarters in New York, Mars said. Since then, it rolled out centers in all of its large offices. “These sites have programs for children from six weeks of age to six years [and] teachers who we train … who are very highly skilled,” she said.

“It’s emerged as a wonderful influence on our culture,” Mars told attendees. “We have a very family friendly culture.”

CA also regularly holds onsite events, such as a “spring fling” (one was being held as Mars was speaking), where all of the families with children in the center, as well as other employees with children, are able to participate. (The events includes ponies, a petting zoo, kites and games.)

“It just nice to see people step back from all of that stress,” Mars said.

Mars noted she’s been required to do a lot of CEO education over the years, as new CEOs have joined CA and want to know “why we’re spending money” on these programs. “I have to explain to them [that it’s not just about] dollars and sense,” she said. “We have to look at it as something you can’t really apply a dollar value to, but it still brings the organization value.

“We’ve done studies that show that the retention levels of people who bring children to our programs are really much higher than those who don’t,” she added.

At Yahoo!, meanwhile, the goal of its various work/life programs is to not only make the firm a great place to work, but also to draw in “the best of the best.”

One of the areas the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo! has focused on is extending paid leave of new mothers and fathers, explained Joe Gracy, director of global benefits for Yahoo! “If you had a baby, adopt a child, provide foster care placement, you get eight [fully paid] weeks off. Birth mothers get an additional eight weeks [fully paid] as a part of their disability leave.”

Management, Gracy said, also wanted to make the experience fun for those new parents by introducing new-child gift baskets that included a diaper bag, toys and more.

All of the initiatives are aimed at “making the employee feel valued and engaged,” Gracy said.

Twitter It!

Are Your Managers Just Muddling Through?

boredIf your managers are supposed to set an example for employees to follow, a new report finds the odds are pretty good they’re leading your workers down a road that’s been paved with apathy.

In its State of the American Manager: Analytics and Advice for Leaders report (available for download here), Gallup Inc. surveyed 2,564 U.S.-based managers, studying the relationship between managerial talent and engagement, and the level of engagement among managers. The Washington, D.C.-based performance management consulting company found that just 35 percent of managers are engaged in their jobs, with 51 percent of managers “not engaged,” and another 14 percent “actively disengaged.”

It stands to reason that this type of managerial discontent would have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the workforce, and this survey doesn’t offer any figures to suggest otherwise.

For example, Gallup’s analysis found that employees who are supervised by highly engaged managers are 59 percent more likely to be engaged than those overseen by actively disengaged managers.

That finding shouldn’t surprise anyone. No, it’s the sheer number of disengaged managers that should be alarming. And, just as disconcerting is the small percentage of supervisors the poll found to have the “innate talent to become a great manager,” according to Gallup.

Defining talent as “the natural capacity for excellence in a given endeavor,” Gallup found just one in 10 individuals has the “unique blend of innate characteristics” that are predictors of management excellence, including motivational skills, assertiveness, accountability and decision-making talents.

Another two in 10 have “functioning” talent, which means they possess some of the aforementioned traits but not all of them, and could become successful managers with the right coaching. Just 18 percent of current managers have “high” talent, according to Gallup.

Naturally, these managers are more likely to be engaged. Fifty-four percent of those classified as having high managerial talent described themselves as being engaged in their work, compared to 39 percent of those with functioning talent and 27 percent of managers in the “limited” talent group.

It can and has been argued that “employee engagement” is a somewhat nebulous concept. But few would dispute that—however you define the term—getting and keeping employees engaged at all levels throughout the organization is critical to success.

And, this Gallup data certainly suggests there’s a big problem with engagement among managers. Fixing it may be a tall order, but, as Gallup notes in its report, a failure to do so comes with a hefty price.

“Managers influence everything that gets done in organizations,” according to Gallup. “They translate energy into action and hold employee morale, turnover, productivity, safety and creativity in their hands. A great manager improves lives while improving performance. A poor manager makes workers’ lives miserable while destroying performance.”

Twitter It!

Starbucks Doubles Down on College

Starbucks, the Seattle-based coffee giant, announced yesterday it was doubling its free college tuition plan for employees to cover a full four years of college instead of two. Starbucks will offer employees faster tuition reimbursement–after every semester instead of after completing 21 class credits.

The program, in partnership with Arizona State University, offers all eligible full-time and part-time employees full tuition coverage for a four-year bachelor’s degree though ASU’s online degree program. Starbucks says it will invest up to $250 million or more to help at least 25,000 employees graduate by 2025.

Nearly 2,000 Starbucks employees have already enrolled in the program, which offers 49 undergraduate degree programs through ASU Online.

“By giving our partners access to four years of full tuition coverage, we provide them with a critical tool for a lifelong opportunity,” says Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, in a statement. “We’re stronger as a nation when everyone is afforded a pathway to success.”

And in a LinkedIn piece announcing the move, CEO Schultz talks in a video interview about the importance of education and his company’s role in making the American workforce a more robust and agile one within the next 10 years.

“We have a long history of under-promising and over-delivering,” he says. “We think we’ll do the same there.”

Twitter It!