Same-Sex Harassment Claim at Yahoo

Things may not be so sunny in Sunnyvale, Calif. these days…

Late last Friday afternoon the news broke from Silicon Valley that a female tech executive at Yahoo is being sued for sexual harassment by a former female software engineer at the company, and the complainant lays some of the blame on the company’s HR department, according to a CNNMoney report:

The software engineer, Nan Shi, filed a complaint Friday, alleging sexual harassment, emotional distress and wrongful termination.

The executive is Maria Zhang, a senior director of engineering. Her previous company, Propeld, was acquired by Yahoo in 2013. She also held positions at Microsoft and Zillow in the past.

The complaint says that Shi had worked at Yahoo since February 2013, and that Zhang was her direct supervisor.

According to lawyers representing Shi, the two women had worked together at Propeld.

The complaint says that Zhang “coerced” Shi to have “oral and digital sex” with her on multiple occasions against her will.

The incidents took place at Shi’s temporary Yahoo housing unit in Sunnyvale, Calif., the complaint says.

Zhang promised a “bright future” at Yahoo, the complaint says, and also threatened that she could “take everything away from her.”

Shi’s lawyers told CNNMoney that the women never had an intimate relationship prior to the harassment.

A Yahoo spokesperson told CNNMoney in a statement on Friday that “there is absolutely no basis or truth” to the allegations against the executive. “Maria is an exemplary Yahoo executive and we intend to fight vigorously to clear her name,” the spokesperson said.

While Silicon Valley-based harassment claims may not be anyhing new, the fact that this suit involves two women may keep it in the headlines longer than a “typical” harassment suit might.

And it will be interesting to see just how exposed Yahoo’s HR protocols become during the course of this suit’s life. The complaint states that after Shi rejected Zhang’s advances, she received poor performance reviews and less important assignments, and when she reported the harassment to Yahoo’s human resources, the company allegedly did not perform a proper investigation and ultimately fired her.

Streamlining the Workforce Development System

You can mark July 9 down in your books: Lawmakers from both parties in Washington found something they could agree on!

496666235In case you missed it, Congress passed on Wednesday the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act, which revamps the nation’s workplace development program. The bill passed in the House by an overwhelming margin, 415 to 6, and is now on its way to President Obama, who is expected to sign it. (It passed in the Senate on June 25 by a 95 to 3 vote.)

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez issued the following statement regarding the passage …

Democrats and Republicans have come together on a bill that is good for workers, employers and the economy as a whole. It will help more people succeed in 21st century jobs and punch their ticket to the middle class. And it will help businesses hire the world-class, highly-skilled workforce required to compete successfully in the global economy.

“WIOA improves the workforce system, aligning it with regional economies and strengthening the network of about 2,500 American Job Centers, to deliver more comprehensive services to workers, job seekers and employers. The bill will build closer ties among key workforce partners—business leaders, workforce boards, labor unions, community colleges and non-profits, and state and local officials—as we strive for a more job-driven approach to training and skills development.”

As we reported in a June 30 story posted on HREOnline.com, the law aims to streamline the workforce development system by:

  •  Eliminating 15 existing programs.
  •  Applying a single set of outcome metrics to every federal workforce program under the Act.
  •  Creating smaller, nimbler and more strategic state and local workforce development boards.
  •  Integrating intake, case management and reporting systems while strengthening evaluations.
  •  Eliminating the “sequence of services” and allowing local areas to better meet the unique needs of individuals.

The legislation—a compromise between the SKILLS Act (which passed in the House last year) and the Workforce Investment Act of 2013—was endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce, which cited as positives the bill’s focus on “the continued leadership role of business, the clear language that promotes alignment of investments in education and training, and the increasing focus on outcomes.”

Of course, now the hard part begins. As James J. Parks, an attorney with Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss, noted in our June 30 piece, “The problem you always have when you change anything in the government is the bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is a self-sustaining animal.”

But that said, there’s no denying that any effort to streamline the nation’s workforce programs and remove some of the much-dreaded inherent red tape should be viewed by the HR community as a good thing.

Survey: Weak Leadership Pipelines a Big Concern

leaky pipesWho will be the business leaders of tomorrow? This is clearly on the minds of HR leaders around the world, judging from a new survey from Right Management titled Talent Management: Accelerating Business Performance. The survey of approximately 2,200 HR execs from 13 countries finds that 46 percent identified leadership development as the top priority for this year and that only 13 percent have confidence in the strength of their leadership pipelines to fill critical openings.

This lack of confidence stems from the de-prioritization of talent development in the wake of cost cuts, according to Ruediger Schaefer, Right Management’s global talent management chief:

Today’s optimism for growth is limited by a lack of organizational agility, and employers are seeing the impact of the financial cuts and cost reductions that placed talent development on the back burner. As a result, too man companies are facing talent shortages, skills mismatches and weak leadership pipelines that threaten business growth. Future success is dependent on a sustained strategic commitment to assessing, developing and activating talent.”

Other findings from the survey include:

  • The top three global talent management challenges are lack of skilled talent for key positions, shortage of talent at all levels and less-than-optimal employee engagement.
  • Forty-eight percent of global employers plan to broaden their employee engagement programs to keep top talent on staff.
  • Management succession planning ranks as a higher priority in the Americas (36 percent) than in Europe (17 percent) and Asia Pacific (31 percent).

 

HR Tech’s ‘Glorious Time’

In a just-posted contributed piece on the Forbes website, Gene Marks notes that industry experts have been tracking a recent rise in the popularity of HR tech software:

There has been a quiet explosion of cloud based HR applications during the past few years. And venture capital firms are literally throwing money at the companies that make them. For example:

  • Work4, a social and mobile recruiting service, raised $7 million from investors in April, bringing its total funds invested to $18 million.
  • A cloud-based service called Lever that assists human resource departments and outsourced hiring companies with their recruitment processes received its first venture funding in 2012 and now various investors from companies including Yahoo YHOO +1.1%!, Yelp YELP -0.34%, LinkedIn LNKD +0.34% and Pinterest have jumped into the fray.
  • In February, cloud-based payroll provider ZenPayroll raised a $20 million Series A round of financing from General Catalyst Partners and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, after previously raising a $6.1 million seed funding round from the chief executives of Yelp, Box, Dropbox, Yammer and others, as well as Google GOOGL +0.84% Ventures and Salesforce.
  • Zenefits, a start-up whose cloud-based software helps small businesses manage compliance and human resources-related tasks, has raised $84 million funding to date.  A recent deal, according to Lars Dalgaard a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, was unusually competitive.  “I’ve never seen a deal like this,” he said in an interview. “The top five firms all asked me personally whether they could get a chance to get in.”

But why the sudden popularity? It’s not just the number of jobs the economy has been adding over the past few months. According to Marks, it’s a triangulation of three trends that are particularly impacting this type of application: acceptance of the cloud; pent-up demand and more affordable answers.

The piece is a fascinating one and should be on all HR techies reading list, regardless of whether they are in the market for new HR tech solutions.

After all, as Marks quotes Dalgaard, “It’s a glorious time to be in HR.”

Larry Page Wants You to Work Less

Larry PageIt may seem a tad unrealistic to those of us who didn’t help start a billion-dollar behemoth of a company such as Google, but you have to like Larry Page’s concept of a world where we all spend less time at work. At least in theory.

In a recent interview with technology venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, Page and his Google co-founder Sergey Brin touched on subjects ranging anywhere from the San Francisco housing market to artificial intelligence.

During the interview, Page also offered up his vision of an ideal working world, in which employees work fewer hours, are more productive and “have more time with their family or to pursue their own interests.”

While theorizing that many of today’s employees are driven to work longer and harder mostly by a desire to feel valued and useful, fulfilling that need shouldn’t require a superhuman effort, he said.

“I think there’s a problem that we don’t recognize that,” said Page. “And I think there’s also kind of a social problem. A lot of people aren’t happy if they don’t have anything to do. So we need to give people things to do. [People] need to feel needed and wanted, and need to have something productive to do.

“If you really think about the things you need to make yourself happy—housing, security, opportunity for your kids—it’s not that hard for us to provide those things,” continued Page. “So the idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet peoples’ needs is just not true. The amount of resources we need to do that, the amount of work that needs to go into that, is pretty small.”

Page suggested a few alternatives to free up more of employees’ time while maintaining a productive work environment, such as adopting four-day work weeks, or splitting full-time jobs between part-time workers.

“I was talking to [Virgin Group founder] Richard Branson about this,” he said. “They have a huge problem there. They don’t have enough jobs in the U.K. He’s been trying to get people to hire two part-time people instead of one full-time [employee], so at least the young people can have a half-time job rather than no job.”

Brin wasn’t so sure that idea would fly, however.

“I don’t think that, in the near term, the need for labor is going away,” said Brin. “It gets shifted from one place to another, but people always want more stuff, or more entertainment, or more creativity or more something.”

Brin has a point there. And there’s also the question of how the average employee would maintain his or her current standard of living on a part-time job that would presumably mean less money. Page didn’t shed any light on just how that might work. And I certainly wouldn’t want to be an HR professional given the task of clearing it up for a full-time employee who was just bumped back to part-time status.

A Few Surprises in Study on Hourly Workers

490136049 -- gavel and clockI met with some folks from St. Louis-based Equifax Workforce Solutions during the Society for Human Resource Management’s conference in Orlando (June 22 through 25) and they shared with me some stats they compiled recently reflecting the potential impact of the Affordable Care Act that even they admitted had some surprises in them.

Working toward Jan. 1, 2015, when the majority of the ACA’s employer mandate takes effect, the company had just released its Equifax Workforce Solutions June 2014 report, highlighting “key indicators of how the ACA will affect business[es] and what they can do to ensure compliance [thereby avoiding penalties] as the regulations continue to go into effect,” as Mike Psenka, senior vice president of Workforce Analytics for Equifax Workforce Solutions (formerly TALX), put it.

For the record, and some important reading, here is the press release and here is the infographic, based on Equifax data culled from 500 million consumers and 81 million businesses worldwide.

Surprisingly — and in keeping with employers making employee-schedule-and-status adjustments to prepare for the ACA’s mandate that all employees working an average of 30 hours or more per week be offered healthcare coverage — 66 percent of the current U.S. workforce is now hourly, accounting for more than 73.6 million active employees, and 59 percent of them are working more than 30 hours per week, according to the study. (Those numbers were higher than anticipated, the folks from Equifax told me.)

Remember, for these workers, employers must track hours for each employee over a 3-to-12-month measurement period to determine healthcare-coverage eligibility. The study found average workloads vary greatly by industry and can be a key indicator of workforce eligibility. “For example,” the report states, “hourly employees in the finance industry work an average of 37 hours per week while those in the restaurant industry work an average of 23 hours per week.”

Also somewhat surprising — to me as well — was the fact that 71 percent of hourly employees have been at their jobs longer than 12 months, which represents “a significant number of workers who may become eligible for coverage after their employer’s first measurement period,” the report says.

And don’t forget employers must also offer affordable coverage to all eligible employees, meaning the monthly premium cannot exceed 9.5 percent of the employee’s income. Based on the average hourly pay rate by industry, as computed by Equifax, estimated maximum premiums can range from $108.80 per month (in the restaurant industry) to $251.20 per month (in the healthcare industry).

The goal here in releasing these stats, Psenka said, is not only to offer employers a few more tools for protection from potential penalties, “but also [to] ensure their valued employees receive appropriate — and affordable — coverage.”

Just bear in mind, as was underscored in an otherwise enjoyable, stress-free SHRM meeting, the clock is ticking and time to get this whole hourly, ACA-eligibility thing right is running out.

Unemployment: Good News and Bad News

unemploymentThe jobs report for June, released today by the Labor Dept., has some welcome good news: Employers added 288,000 jobs last month, which is well above the rate of hiring recorded during the first five months of this year. The unemployment rate has ticked down to 6.1 percent, according to the DOL, which is the lowest it’s been since 2008, when the financial crisis hit.

This good news does not, of course, mean that we’ve finally left the economic doldrums behind. Two thirds of the jobs created in June were part-time, the DOL reports, and no doubt many of the employees who took those jobs would rather be employed full-time. As for the unemployment rate, that doesn’t include people who’ve simply given up looking for work. If these people were included in the official unemployment rate, it would actually be 9.6 percent instead of 6.1 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

More distressing still (apologies for being such a gloom-meister right before the national holiday) is a new study from the Boston Consulting Group, which projects that the U.S. will be one of the few economies that is projected to struggle with high unemployment through 2030. It is expected to have a “worker surplus” equal to between 10 percent and 13 percent of its labor force in 2020 (between 17 million and 22 million people) and of 4 percent to 11 percent in 2030. The U.S. must “find ways to better utilize its workforce or it will continue to face relatively high unemployment,” according to the BCG report. “Improvements in training and education, as well as incentives for individuals and businesses to produce workers with the necessary skills and education, are needed to counteract this trend.”

This is one area where our do-nothing Congress (which currently has a sky-high approval rating of 16 percent) might actually do something: As Kecia Bal reported this Monday on HREOnline, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act would reauthorize and amend the Workforce Investment Act with the intention of making it easier for states and local communities to match unemployed workers with the skills and training needed by today’s companies. As we’ve learned the hard way, there’s no magic wand that will solve our current unemployment problem, but maybe if we make better use of our existing resources so that jobs requiring specialized skills no longer go begging even as so many Americans have gotten too discouraged to look for work, we can at least make some serious progress.

Woman Sues Ex-Employer Over Commute

Just when you think that every possible employment-based lawsuit that could be filed has been filed…

According to a piece in Cherry Hill, N.J.’s Courier-Post, a woman has filed suit against her former employer that refused to change her work schedule to avoid rush-hour traffic. The woman also contends in her suit the company fired her in May 2013 in retaliation for her efforts to address alleged workplace bias.

From the Courier Post:

In her lawsuit, [Andrea] DeGerolamo says she joined [Lancaster, Pa.-based] Fulton Financial as a marketing consultant in 2007 and took a medical leave in August 2012.

Around that time, DeGerolamo “began to feel great anxiety and depression, which was especially aggravated by crowded roadways experienced during the heavy traffic of rush hour,” the suit says.

“Her medical condition qualified her as being disabled,” it asserts.

When DeGerolamo returned from leave in November 2012, she requested a work shift “by which she could come in after morning rush hour and leave prior to evening rush hour.”

The lawsuit asserts that change, requested “at the mandate” of DeGerolamo’s doctor, would have been a reasonable accommodation for the woman’s disability.

According to the lawsuit, Fulton Financial changed DeGerolamo’s schedule for a short period, then made no effort to accommodate her. The suit also says DeGerolamo returned from leave to find her duties were downgraded improperly to “clerical-type work.”

DeGerolamo objected through her firm’s ethics review board in May 2013 but never heard back about the complaint; instead, she was terminated on May 17, the lawsuit says.

The story also notes the case has been moved from Superior Court (where it was originally filed) to federal court in Camden at Fulton Financial’s request, which should give the company better hope for a quick dismissal.

But, if allowed to proceed, the suit could eventually have far-reaching ramifications for employers everywhere, and that’s certainly not good for any HR leader’s anxiety levels.

Millennial Meltdown

stressed womanBy definition, employee burnout occurs when someone begins to feel emotionally and physically spent after doing a difficult and demanding job for a long time.

With that in mind, it seems to make sense that older employees—baby boomers bearing down on retirement age, Gen Xers now hitting their 40s and 50s—would be the most likely to feel worn down from work.

Doesn’t it?

Not necessarily, according to a recent Monster.com survey, which actually finds millennial-age workers to be the most burned out of the bunch.

In a Monster poll of nearly 1,100 employed or unemployed job seekers, 81 percent of workers said they feel some sense of burnout in their jobs. Eighty-six percent of millennials report experiencing some level of burnout, compared to 76 percent of more experienced workers saying the same.

Of course, with some of their more seasoned colleagues moving into different positions or getting ready to settle into retirement, many Gen Y workers may find themselves bearing a larger load than ever before in their relatively young careers.

Looking through that lens, maybe it’s not so surprising that more members of Gen Y are feeling fried, according to Jeffrey Quinn, vice president of Monster’s global insights.

“It’s probable that millennials are expected to take on larger roles than their more experienced predecessors, and thus are feeling the pressure,” said Quinn, in a statement.

“That said, millennials are proving to be more open-minded than the more experienced workers when it comes to job locations and roles,” he said. “This flexibility will be advantageous to the millennial generation, allowing them to cast a wider net and find better success and satisfaction in their careers.”

HR and managers can play a part in helping Gen Y get a handle on their increased responsibilities, but should bear in mind that “millennials have a very different mindset from the older generations in the workforce,” says Jay Meschke, president of Leawood, Kan.-based CBIZ Human Capital Services.

“For example, millennials are eager to please, but they tend to require more feedback than other generations,” says Meschke. “Executives should communicate and provide [frequent] feedback that is timely and specific, and addresses performance issues, not intergenerational differences.

“It’s also important to create an emotional connection,” he adds, “through simple acts like highlighting internal promotions.”

Employers Missing ADA Coverage in FMLA Cases

Employers are missing half of Family and Medical Leave Act cases involving employees’ serious illnesses that should also have been reviewed for Americans with Disabilities Act eligibility.

462011275 - disability and gavelThis according to Chicago-based ComPsych, in this report issued last week, June 24 to be exact, titled The Risk of Non-Compliance With ADA. The report breaks down by certain industries the percentage of FMLA cases that need ADA review, yet are being missed.

They include: retail at 13.2 percent, health services at 10.9 percent, manufacturing at 6.8 percent, public administration at 6.7 percent, trades at 6.5 percent and professional services at 5.9 percent.

These numbers, says Matt Morris, a vice president and licensed attorney at ComPsych, are “significant.”

“A common mistake employers make,” he says, “is to deem an FMLA leave request as ineligible, then not review it for ADA purposes.”

The potential consequences of such oversight “can be severe,” says Morris, “since one ADA misstep can lead to an investigation of the employer’s entire leave practices.” Hence the rash of recent ADA class-action lawsuits by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he adds.

Indeed, the EEOC is coming off a record 2013 in terms of ADA penalties paid out by employers, a whopping $109.2 mill. Here are just three of the most sizable payments: $6.2 million by Sears Holding Co. involving 235 plaintiffs, $3.2 million by SuperValu involving 110 plaintiffs and $20 million by Verizon.

I asked Morris for a good example of an ineligible FMLA leave that would be covered under the ADA. Here’s what he said:

An employee has been at the company for six months and breaks his leg. He needs time off for rehab and to recoup, but is denied FMLA leave because he hasn’t been employed long enough. In this case, the employer should still review for ADA accommodation.”

Basically any ineligible FMLA leave for the employee’s own health condition (obviously not for baby bonding, etc.) has the potential to be an ADA leave, he tells me. “Although a ‘serious health condition’ under the FMLA and a ‘disability’ under the ADA are both two different standards, they are each very likely applicable to a health condition that forces someone to be out of work,” says Morris. And while the FMLA requires an employee to have been employed for 12 months and worked 1,250 hours in the last 12 months in order to be eligible, the ADA has no such standard. So, an ineligible FMLA employee still may have an ADA disability.

Perhaps the most common ADA misstep is waiting for an employee to “raise her hand” to request an ADA accommodation specifically or by name, Morris says. Courts have been clear that the “notice requirements under the ADA are nearly identical to those under the FMLA,” he says, but employers often don’t recognize that requests for FMLA leave are “hidden” requests for an accommodation — i.e., leave — under the ADA.

Interestingly, he tells me, employers all share a common misstep, which is that the company created and tried to enforce a standard policy — strange, in part, because generally this is exactly what HR tries to do: create uniformity and equality.

“But … they don’t consider whether the leave should be continued on a case-by-case basis,” says Morris. Maybe the more important thing is to note how easily one mistake can turn into something broader. What can happen — and, in fact, has been the way most of these cases start, he says — is:

1) The employee has an adverse action taken against her (usually, she’s fired).

2) She files a charge of discrimination with the EEOC (such charges are free to file, don’t require a lawyer, and often list several bases on which the employee believes she was discriminated against – for instance, race, sex, religion and then disability).

3) If the EEOC determines that, in that one case, the disability policy had a uniform cutoff — what it calls an ‘inflexible’ policy — it then uses its subpoena power to request the names of all employees who were subject to that policy (fired because they crossed that inflexible line).

4) The EEOC then sues on behalf of all, or most, employees subject to the policy and suddenly there are hundreds of plaintiffs.”

Thus far, this has only arisen because the policy was clear (“if you take more than X amount of time on leave, your job will not be protected”), but even if employers are detecting the right employees [for FMLA leave], they still have to have the expertise to apply such ADA standards as “reasonable accommodation,” “undue hardship” and “significant limitations (of a major life function)” appropriately.

So what should you be keeping top-of-mind? Here’s Morris’ caution:

Employers have been pining for three to four years for additional guidance from the EEOC on how to conduct the interactive process (how to determine a ‘reasonable’ amount of time, etc.). Chances are, given indications from the EEOC itself, the guidance will not come soon. Until then, employers will still be held responsible for appropriately applying these vague standards to a host of factors (e.g., What does the employee do? Could others help? Are there other jobs she could do? How long will the disability last? Are there things [you] can do to help reduce the time?)”

Hope this is helpful.