Is Signet’s Response Enough?

On Tuesday, my colleague posted a piece on the gender-discrimination suit against Signet Jewelers Limited and some of the coverage it’s garnered.

As most of you are aware, The Washington Post reported on Feb. 27 that, according to arbitration documents obtained by the paper, hundreds of former employees of Sterling Jewelers, parent of Jared, the Galleria of Jewelry and Kay Jewelers, claimed “that its chief executive and other company leaders presided over a corporate culture that fostered rampant sexual harassment and discrimination.”

The story said …

“Declarations from roughly 250 women and men who worked at Sterling, filed as part of a private class-action arbitration case, allege that female employees at the company throughout the late 1990s and 2000s were routinely groped, demeaned and urged to sexually cater to their bosses to stay employed. Sterling disputes the allegations.”

Well, yesterday, Signet announced it would be taking additional steps “in the spirit of continuous review and improvement of its policies and practices.”

Signet Chairman Todd Stitzer pointed out in a press release that the retailer “outperforms national averages in the percentage of its store management staff who are female.” But in its quest to be “an employer of choice, we are taking a number of additional steps to ensure our policies and practices are functioning as intended and to identify areas where we can further improve.”

These steps includes the formation of a new board committee focused on “respect in the workforce”—and programs and policies aimed at supporting the advancement and development of the company’s female team members, the release states. The new committee, it states, will appoint an independent consultant to conduct a thorough review that will cover “current and future company policies and practices regarding equal opportunity and workplace expectations, including those covering non-harassment, training and reporting, investigation and non-retaliation.”

The committee will also establish an independent Ombudsperson office to provide confidential advice and assistance to employees who express workplace concerns.

Of course, these steps by the company are all well and good. But are they also simply one more example of a “too little, too late” response. Thomas B. Lewis, an attorney with Stevens & Lee in Princeton, N.J., thinks so.

“The company is talking about its training, its policies, its procedures–and that’s all great. But the real question should be, Did the company take action and enforce its own rules and policies to make sure this behavior is not rampant in the various stores?”

Lewis puts Signet’s problems in two buckets. First, there is the legal aspect, he says. At some point, according to him, that’s going to be resolved. The other—and perhaps bigger issue—is the public-relations problem, he says. Because of all of the negative press, Signet’s sales could take a hit, Lewis says, noting that “you could have a lot of people boycotting the stores and shopping somewhere else because of these allegations.”

In outlining the steps it’s planning to take, he adds, Signet is effectively responding to what the U.S. Equal Employment Opporunity Commission will most likely require them to do.

“It’s a smart thing to do, but they’re really doing it from a public-relations point of view,” he says. “They want to get the message [out] that they’re taking these allegations seriously.”

 

Retail Industry is Firing — And Hiring

The transition from brick-and-mortar physical locations to digital is continuing to shake the retail industry, as the February jobs report from Challenger, Gray & Christmas shows.

Overall, the month was a good one for employment, with the total number of layoff announcements (36,957) down 19 percent from January (45,934). Announced job cuts for the first two months of 2017 are down 40 percent from the same period last year, the global outplacement firm notes, while the total number of new-hire announcements for January and February is at an all-time high of 162, 266 workers.

Retail-industry disruptor Amazon announced plans in January to hire 100,000 workers.

Retail workers aren’t sharing in the good news, however: The retail industry leads all sectors in job cuts, with 11,889 announced in February and a total of 34,380 job cuts for the first two months of this year. The workforce at J.C. Penney was among the hardest hit, with the company announcing plans last month to close 140 stores and eliminate 5,500 jobs. The number of slashed positions in retail is 580 percent more than the 5,930 cuts announced last month by the energy sector, the next-highest industry.

“Retailers are experiencing a tremendous transformation from the traditional business model,” says Andrew Challenger, vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “The cost of digitizing merchandise, moving sales to online, and downsizing physical stores will likely take a toll on employees in this field.”

Of course, not all retailers are performing poorly — just look at Amazon, which announced plans to hire 100,000 workers in January. Indeed, the retail industry seems to be hiring nearly as many workers as it’s letting go, with 33,000 hiring plans announced through February, Challenger notes. Much of these new positions are in technology and customer service, as retail chains beef up their e-commerce platforms to better compete with the likes of Amazon.

“The new retail employee will need considerable tech abilities, in addition to the necessary customer service experience,” says Andrew Challenger.

Meanwhile, higher energy prices and an industry-friendly presidential administration (new Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Scott Pruitt has said carbon dioxide is not a primary contributor to global warming, for example) have led to a sharp decrease in job-cut announcements by the energy industry compared to last year. Energy companies have announced 5,930 job cuts so far this year, compared to 45,154 job cuts during the same period in 2016.

Below is additional information from Challenger’s latest jobs report:

Top Five Industries for Job Cuts

2017   2016
Retail 34,380 23,342
Energy 5,930 45,154
Health Care/Products 4,181 1,699
Computer 4,177 16,006
Automotive 4,008 4,038
MONTH BY MONTH TOTALS
  2017 2016
January 45,934 75,114
February  36,957 61,599
March   44,207
April   64,141
May   30,157
June   38,536
July   45,346
August   32,188
September   44,324
October   30,740
November   26,936
December   33,627
TOTAL  82,891 526,915
Some reductions are identified by employers as workers who will take early retirement offers or other special considerations to leave the company.
LAYOFF LOCATION
Year To Date
Ohio   17,710
Texas   13,124
California   10,395
Pennsylvania   4,632
Michigan   4,151

Source: Challenger, Gray & Christmas

Sacrificing Safety or Creating Jobs?

The fate of an Obama-era piece of legislation designed to improve worker safety appears to be anything but safe.

On Monday, the U.S. Senate voted by the slimmest of margins—49 to 48—to eliminate the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule, which was created to “limit the ability of companies with recent safety problems to compete for government contracts unless they agreed to remedies,” as the Washington Post reported this week.

Signed by then-President Barack Obama on July 31, 2014, the executive order required prospective federal contractors bidding on federal deals worth more than $500,000 to disclose their violations of certain workplace protection laws before receiving a contract. The rule also obligated federal agencies to work with noncompliant contractors in an effort to address existing safety-related issues.

The regulation was put on hold, however, by an October 2016 court order determining that it exceeded congressional limits. A measure to abolish it has since made it through the House, and this week’s Senate vote all but assures that will now happen. President Donald Trump is expected to sign off on rolling back the rule—just one of a handful of worker safety regulations the administration is eyeing for elimination.

“This is the opening salvo of the Republicans’ war on workers,” Deborah Berkowitz, senior policy adviser at OSHA, told the Post. “It sends a signal that Congress and the administration is listening to big business and their lobbyists and they are not standing up for the interests of the American workers.”

Meanwhile, groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable contend that the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule hampers businesses’ ability to compete for government contracts, which subsequently reduces jobs.

“Any changes in employment laws proposed by the employer community [are] disingenuously described [by Democrats] as an attack on workers,” Randy Johnson, the U.S. Chamber’s senior vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits, told the Post. “The left has never seen a regulation they don’t like, no matter how many jobs it kills.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) doubts that the motives behind wiping out this particular rule have much to do with saving or generating jobs.

“Instead of creating jobs or raising wages, they’re trying to make it easier for companies that get big-time, taxpayer-funded government contracts to steal wages from their employees and injure their workers without admitting responsibility,” she said in a Senate floor speech ahead of Monday’s vote.

As the Post points out, the eradication of the Safe Workplaces rule is likely just the first phase of a Congressional movement to “kill Labor Department regulations.”

The “Volks rule,” for instance, could be next.

Adopted in January, the rule was meant to “give OSHA authority to issue citations and levy fines against companies for failure to record illnesses, injuries and deaths that date back as far as five years,” according to the paper.

U.S. Representative Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) has introduced a measure that would do away with the rule, which he has described as an overreach.

“If you are determined to be a bad actor, you’ll be a bad actor,” Byrne told the Post. “I don’t think this is going to encourage noncompliance. I think OSHA is being lazy on getting its investigations done.”

For their part, Congressional Democrats maintain that rejecting the rule would undermine OSHA’s efforts to enforce safety reporting requirements.

For example, Rep. Robert C. Scott, of Virginia, says doing so would “create a safe harbor for those employers who deliberately underreport.”

The arguments coming from both sides of the aisle with respect to such workplace-related regulations are nothing new, and are sure to continue. But it seems every bit as certain that we’re going to find out what sort of impact taking these rules away will have on workplace safety.

Lessons from the Sterling Scandal

With the salacious details of the Sterling Jewelers pay-discrimination lawsuit still sickeningly fresh in our minds, many of us have been asking how such behavior — as alleged by some of the 69,000 former employees involved in the suit– could happen at such a large company.

From security guards with overactive wands to district managers with overheated libidos, the sexual-misconduct accusations truly run the gamut of the perverse, according to court filings.

“But don’t they have programs in place to prevent this sort of behavior?” we wonder.

For its part, the company has denied any wrongdoing. On the matter of pay and promotion discrimination, the accusations are “not substantiated by the facts,” Signet Jewelers Limited, the parent of Sterling, said in a statement. In addition, Sterling said it found the claims of sexual misconduct to be without merit.

But today’s New York Times takes a look at some of the programs that may have unwittingly contributed to the harassing behavior being alleged by the suit plaintiffs:

…[L]awyers and academics who specialize in gender discrimination say the documents — more than 1,300 pages in total — provide a rare insight into how a company’s policies work in real life. Whether it is a not-so-confidential tip line or an in-house court, they say, some widely used corporate procedures can mask problems that women often face in the workplace. Here is a look at what the documents revealed.

The Times article looks at three employee-centric programs in particular: the company’s employee hotline, its arbitration policy and its “tap on the shoulder” promotion policy.

The entire article is well worth a read, if only to remind HR leaders that, just because you have a program in place to remedy a problem, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily working. In fact, it could actually be covering up more issues than it is resolving, as Sterling is now learning the hard way.

 

 

 

 

 

Student Debt Still a Plague

Here’s some more fuel on the financial-stress fire, particularly as it affects employees straddling student debt: A new survey by American Student Assistance finds more than half of all young workers worry about repaying student loans either all the time or often.

Here are some key — translated alarming — findings of the Young Workers and Student Debt survey, which polled 502 young workers (ages 22 to 33) as well as 451 human resource managers at companies with at least 100 employees:

  • 40 percent report that worrying about their student loans has impacted their health,
  • 55 percent would like to go to grad school but couldn’t take on any additional student loans,
  • 61 percent have considered getting a second job to help pay off their student loans,
  • 63 percent of young workers report that they don’t have anyone to turn to for help with regard to paying off their student loans,
  • 75 percent of HR professionals report that their company does not offer any guidance or assistance regarding student loans, and
  • 54 percent of young workers report that, right now, paying off student loans comes first, and they will put off saving for retirement until later.

Seriously folks, how did this burden on this nation’s young workers get this bad? And why aren’t we doing a better job of triage here?

Kevin Fudge, director of consumer advocacy and ombudsman at Boston-based ASA, says the stress these workers experience over student debt “clearly impacts their health and productivity in the workplace.”

In this editorial I wrote in November of last year, I cite a study by EdAssist in which 72 percent of all people with student debt say it impacts their daily lives, forcing them to give up on dream jobs and further education. That study also finds nearly half (49 percent) of these people saying they’re so stressed, they’d prefer help with school debt over budgeting, credit-card debt and even retirement.

Indeed, the ASA survey shows more than 90 percent of young workers would take advantage of a sign-on bonus or a company match targeted at paying back these mountainous burdens. So why do a whopping 75 percent of HR professionals say their companies offer no help or guidance?

Granted, some companies are treading into this muck and mire to try and clean some of it up. We blogged on this site about PricewaterhouseCooper’s commitment to pay up to $1,200 a year toward employees’ student loans for up to six years. And we blogged about Natixis Global Asset Management’s pledge to contribute up to $10,000 to every full-time employee who has been at the company for at least five years and has outstanding Federal Stafford or Perkins Loans. But that was 2015. And we’re still not hearing about any massive debt-help-bandwagon jumping.

Let’s hope a bipartisan bill introduced Feb. 1 in the U.S. House of Representatives called the Employer Participation in Student Loan Assistance Act does better this time around than when it was introduced in October 2015 as H.R. 3861. The proposed law would shield employers’ student-loan-repayment benefits from federal taxes, thereby opening the door to many more than just a few willing to help their employees pay down their school debt. Why didn’t this garner more support two years ago? This needs to pass.

Meanwhile, this November feature by Larry Stevens, which I mention in my editorial, cites a new approach some employers are taking for all their financially stressed employees: paying them pre-paycheck for the income they’ve already worked for — in other words, the hours they’ve already accrued. As Ijaz Anwar, the co-founder and chief operating officer of one of the suppliers behind this approach, San Jose, Calif.-based PayActiv, told me:

“Why can’t you just give people [living paycheck to paycheck] what they have earned, what is rightfully their, when they so desperately need it [and when it can mean] dignity for these struggling people who can’t even qualify for a credit card?”

But, sadly, there again, there’s no flood of employers taking this approach. Not sure why, when the benefits include better health and productivity for employees, and there don’t appear to be any negatives.

Apple’s Latest Design Feat

Architectural firms are continuing to push the envelope as far as workplace design is concerned.

Last July, some of you may recall, I wrote about Amazon’s new corporate headquarters in downtown Seattle and the three giant transparent spheres, which serve as greenhouses for more than 3,000 species of plants. (The spheres, BTW, are slated to be open later this year.)

Well, now, joining the parade is Apple and Apple Park, the company’s 175-acre campus. Beginning in April, around 12,000 employees are scheduled to move to the new site over a six-month period.

As a recent Apple press release put it, “Apple Park is transforming miles of asphalt sprawl into a haven of green space in the heart of the Santa Clara Valley.”

The campus realizes Steve Jobs’ vision of creating a “home of innovation for generations to come,” according to Apple CEO Tim Cook. The workspaces and parklands, he says, are “designed to inspire our team as well as benefit the environment. We’ve achieved one of the most energy-efficient buildings in the world and the campus will run entirely on renewable energy.”

The intent is to create a wonderfully open environment for people to create, collaborate and work together, adds Apple Chief Design Officer Jony Ive.

As you might expect, the campus reflects Apple’s “intense focus” on design.

Apple Park, which was designed in collaboration with London-based Foster + Partners, includes a visitors center and cafe that will be open to the public, a 100,000-square-foot fitness center for Apple employees, two miles of walking and running paths for employees and the Steve Jobs Theater, which is slated to open later in the year.

To be sure, collaboration, innovation and environmental friendliness—the objectives that are included in Apple’s press release—lie at the heart of campuses like Apple Park. But, as a recent study conducted by Sodexo also reminds us, we’d be making a mistake were we to overlook the talent-acquisition and retention benefits of creating more alluring work environments.

The Sodexo study of 2,800 U.K. knowledge workers, titled “Creating a Workplace That Maximises Productivity,” found that 67 percent of those workers said they had left their last jobs because their workplaces were “not optimized for them” and 69 percent of them said  workplace design directly impacted their effectiveness.

I have to imagine that was in the backs of some folks’ minds at Apple, as well, as they worked to fulfill Steve Jobs’ vision.

End note: Don’t forget today is Employee Appreciation Day—so try not to behave like this CEO in the car (even if the recipient of his rant isn’t actually an employee)!

 

Critical Uber Blogger Lawyers Up

Things just keep getting worse for Uber.

Various media outlets are reporting Susan Fowler, who wrote a scathing blog post about her alleged experiences with sexual harassment and stonewalling from Uber’s HR department — has lawyered up.

Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer whose Feb. 19 essay detailed myriad examples of sexism, tweeted Thursday that “Uber names/blames me for account deletes, and has a different law firm – not Holders (sic) – investigating me.”

Fowler also said in her tweet that she has retained the employment law firm of Baker Curtis & Schwartz.

According to USA Today, on Feb. 24, Fowler tweeted that “research on the smear campaign has begun,” and she urged her friends not to provide personal information should they be contacted. She then added that she didn’t know “who is doing this or why.” At the time, Uber denied any knowledge of a smear campaign, and called such behavior “wrong.”

CEO Travis Kalanick and other execs then held long meetings with upset employees, and faced criticism from investors who blasted the company’s “toxic” environment and urged wholesale changes lest the company lose its way.

Kalanick addressed the issue directly in an emotional meeting with 100 female engineers.

“I want to root out the injustice. I want to get at the people who are making this place a bad place,” Kalanick said.

“I understand this is bigger than the Susan situation,” he said, adding that the topic was “a little bit emotional for me.”

Given the pervasive nature of Silicon Valley’s sexual-harassment problem, it’s not hard to imagine that almost every one of those 100 female engineers has a story similar to Fowler’s.

 

DOL Wants to Delay Fiduciary Rule

The U.S. Dept. of Labor is seeking to delay the implementation of a rule that is intended to protect the best interests of retirement savers but has drawn the ire of many in the financial-services sector. The fiduciary rule, which would apply the “fiduciary standard” to all those who provide retirement investment advice in order to prevent conflicts-of-interest (which the Obama administration’s Council of Economic Advisers said costs retirement savers $17 billion a year), was set to go into effect on April 10. The DOL is seeking a 60-day delay of the rule, to June 9. The proposed delay (which is itself a new rule) will have a 15-day public comment period ending on March 17.

President Donald Trump expressed his concerns about the fiduciary rule in a memo issued on Feb. 3, in which he directed the DOL to examine the rule and “determine whether it may adversely affect the ability of Americans to gain access to retirement information and financial advice.” It directed the DOL to propose a new rule “rescinding or revising” the fiduciary rule if it determines that the regulation is likely to harm investors by limiting their access to certain financial products or services and cause an increase in litigation.

The Financial Services Roundtable, a lobbying group, issued a statement praising the delay. “The fiduciary rule will lead to fewer retirement savings choices for many Americans and we are encouraged the DOL is proposing to delay the rule.”

However, Lisa Donner, executive director of Americans for Financial Reform, told the Los Angeles Times that the delay is merely a preamble to the Trump administration’s plan to ultimately scrap the rule.

“Blocking the common-sense, long-overdue rule, which requires retirement advisors to act in their customers’ best interests, would allow Wall Street to continue to grab more than $17 billion a year —  tens of millions of dollars a day —  from retiree savings,” she said. “This decision is not justified by the facts, and it is a betrayal of the public interest.”

HR Automation is on the Way

We might never see the human touch completely leave the HR suite—it is the human resource department, after all—but new research suggests that automation is still going to significantly touch the function in the years to come.

The pace of automation in HR might be a bit slower than in other departments, though. In a survey of 719 HR managers and recruiters, CareerBuilder finds that, while more companies are turning to technology to address time-consuming and labor-intensive talent acquisition and management tasks that are susceptible to human error, a “significant proportion” of firms still rely on manual processes. For example, 34 percent of respondents said their companies don’t use technology automation to recruit candidates, while 44 percent don’t automate onboarding and 60 percent said they don’t automate human capital management activities for employees.

So, what is being automated within HR? According to the CareerBuilder study, most automation is centered around messaging, benefits and compensation, “but there is room to increase efficiencies across a variety of basic functions.” Among employers reporting that they automate at least one part of talent acquisition and management, 57 percent said they are automating employee messaging, with 53 percent and 47 percent saying the same about setting up employee benefits and payroll, respectively. In addition, 47 percent indicated that their organizations have automated background screening and drug testing.

Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority (93 percent) of those whose companies have automated part of their talent acquisition and management processes say they’ve saved time and increased efficiency by doing so. Another 71 percent feel their organizations have improved the candidate experience by automating some processes, with 69 percent saying they’ve reduced errors and 67 percent reporting they’ve saved money and resources.

As organizations expand and add employees, “there’s a certain tipping point where things can no longer be managed efficiently and accurately by hand,” says Rosemary Haefner, CHRO at CareerBuilder, in a statement.

In order to successfully turn certain HR-specific tasks over to technology, “automation needs to be incorporated,” says Haefner, “so the HR team is free to focus on strategies versus tasks, and focus on building relationships with employees and candidates.”

As certain functions on teams become more automated, she says, “we’ll see those workers’ roles evolve and concentrate on the strategic, social and motivational components of HR that technology cannot address.”

 

 

Co-Workers: Friend or Foe

If you’ve even been edged out of a job and didn’t see it coming, you’re apparently not alone.

New research from Washington University in St. Louis reveals workers, more often than not, have difficulty figuring out who may be edging them out of their positions.

Hillary Anger Elfenbein, professor of organizational behavior and one of the researchers, points out, “You tend to know who likes you. But, for negative feelings, including competitiveness, people [in the study] had no clue.”

How did the researchers reach their conclusion?

Elfenbein and her co-authors, Noah Eisenkraft from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Shirli Kopelman from the University of Michigan, first surveyed salespeople at a Midwestern car dealership where competition was both normal and encouraged. They then studied more than 200 undergraduate students in 56 separate project groups. All were asked similar questions about their co-workers, and what they assumed those people thought of them.

In a story on the research appearing on the Washington University of St. Louis website, Erika Edsworth-Goold quotes Elfenbein as saying …

“Some people show their competitiveness, some people you can tell have it out for you, but others have it out for you and act like they’re your close friend. Those two effects wash out, and people on average have zero idea about who feels competitively toward them.”

The researchers, Edsworth-Goold reports, offer two main reasons for the disconnect: First, people tend to mask outward feelings of competitiveness toward others in an effort to be polite. Also, the concept of reciprocity played a role.

Reciprocation, he says, is a good thing. “You keep dates, you give gifts, you have shared, positive experiences. But to get the benefits of competition, such as promotions or perks, you don’t need it to be reciprocated. And when you don’t get that feeling back, it’s hard to gauge who’s truly competing against you.”

In light of this, Elfenbein is quoted as offering following advice to those worried about being blindsided?

“You need to pay more attention to what people do rather than what they say. When people are too polite to say something to your face, you need a good, strong network that will let you know what other people really think.”