Happy holidays, everyone!

A hearty hello to all my HR friends out there in the big ol’ blogosphere. Just wanted to let you know that I will be “offline” for the next week or so, enjoying the holidays with friends and family. I hope you’re doing the same – and that the holiday season is a festive, fulfilling time for you.

Speaking on behalf of everyone at G.Neil, I appreciate you stopping by to read this blog, sharing your thoughts and working together to tackle your HR challenges, big and small. I look forward to continued dialogue in 2010 – delving deeper into the day-to-day issues and looking at solutions from G.Neil that can make your work life a whole lot easier.

Thanks, again, for all your support in 2009. Best wishes, and “chat” with you soon!

They're back! Employee benefits slo-o-o-o-wly returning as economy rebounds

Like a slumbering bear awakening from his long winter’s hibernation, the economy is showing signs of life again. It’s still a little sluggish, but it’s stirring and has stepped into the light of day.

That’s good news, as is the fact that more employers are bringing back the benefits they were forced to freeze during the worst of the recession. During tough times, many companies slashed 401(k) matches, merit-based raises and bonuses, and other employee perks to help cut costs. A recent USA today article, however, shares some encouraging results from a report from human resources consultancy Towers Perrin:

=> Nearly two-thirds of firms that locked in salaries last year will start offering raises again in 2010

=> Approximately one-third of firms that dropped 401(k) matches will increase or restart those company contributions next year

And many of these companies are reinstating these benefits for the best of reasons: To motivate and retain their most valuable employees, so they don’t walk out the door as the economy (and job market) strengthens.

"When you start coming out of a recession, people remember how they were
treated," says Fred Crandall, a Watson Wyatt senior human resource consultant. "Some people who feel like they've been given a raw deal will jump ship." USA Today

Yet many of these benefits won’t be as robust as they once were. Gone are the days of the usual 401(k) match of 50 cents on the dollar, up to 6% of pay. Many companies, like FedEx, will offer smaller matches. Other companies will look at certain factors when adjusting benefits, such as tying 401(k) matches to quarterly or annual financial performance.

And what about raises? They may return in 2010, but not in an across-the-board, one-size-fits-all fashion. Four in 10 employers in the Towers Perrin report stated that they will differentiate among employees when considering salary increases, doling out the highest raises to only the highest achievers. A weak employee may see no raise at all.

While these re-emerging benefits will be a welcome change to employees in the new year, employees shouldn’t assume it’s business as usual in 2010. Most employers will be extremely cautious when reinstating benefits, keeping a close eye on the economy’s recovery.

“More organizations are being much more clear that benefits such as 401(k) matches are discretionary,” says Brad Kimler, executive vice president of Fidelity’s Consulting Services business.

What about your company? Are you in a position to start bringing back some of the benefits you placed on the back burner in 2009? Do you see the economy - and your business - rebounding enough in 2010 to reinstate 401(k) matches, raises and other benefits? We'd love to hear what's happening in your corner of the world!


Inappropriate texting on company equipment a privacy issue - or a policy issue?

Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear arguments in a case involving sexually explicit text messages sent by an employee using employer-provided equipment. After an employee of the Ontario, CA, SWAT unit was warned repeatedly for exceeding the number of texts sent per month, his employers reviewed the content of the texts, setting off a whole privacy debate. The court is to determine whether the employer violated privacy rights by reviewing the messages.

My knee-jerk reaction? Privacy shmivacy. When it comes to privacy vs. policy issues where employees don’t follow the rules, it’s hard to comprehend a reasonable defense.

“But judge, I didn’t understand the privacy policy.”

That’s the only possible explanation, in my opinion. As dim-witted as that may sound, it puts the onus completely on the corporation to defend itself. As HR specialists, it becomes your burden to first, create a comprehensive electronic usage policy that covers all the “what ifs” and then, to ensure every employee has reviewed and understood the policy. It only takes a few employees saying the rules and regulations were never explained to them, or that they didn’t understand what was explained, to create a leak in your airtight policy.

As unbelievable as this kind of court case may sound (the employee blatantly used a company phone to send racy messages!), it further demonstrates the importance of creating a thorough privacy policy review process that engages every employee. In the case of the Ontario SWAT unit, their policy allowed for a certain number of texts per month per employee. If employees exceeded the limit, it was their responsibility to pay for the overage amount. That’s a good policy and one that every officer understood. The issue arose when one officer repeatedly violated the limit policy, prompting his manager to audit the messages for personal use.

What was the purpose of the excessive texts and were they a detriment to the officer’s productivity on company time? Which begs another question: How detailed should your privacy policies be? Enough to cover all the bases. The Ontario SWAT unit was very detailed in their policy in some areas, but lacking in others. If the policy had clearly stated that excessive abuse of the monthly limits would lead to a review of the message content, employees would have been aware that their activities could lead to further scrutiny.

While this case seems cut and dried, it isn’t because it forces HR managers from coast to coast to review, revise and reinforce their privacy policy standards. At the very least, you may want to look at your privacy policies when it comes to corporate-supplied equipment to ensure you have an iron-clad and understandable position.

DOL and EEOC could receive major financial boost in 2010

The House approved a massive $447 billion spending bill that would provide a significant bump in funding for the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for fiscal year 2010. The Consolidated Appropriations Act (H.R. 3288), which combines six separate spending measures, passed by a vote of 221-202 on December 10. The bill is now with the Senate and must be passed by December 18 – or extended by a temporary measure to keep it afloat.

Here are a few highlights regarding the proposed funding:

=> $13.3 billion for the DOL, with $1.6 billion earmarked for worker safety and health programs ($121 million more than the amount provided in 2009)

What it means: More financial support for the enforcement and compliance initiatives of the Employment Benefits Security Administration (EBSA), Employment Standards Administration (ESA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) – including the hiring of 600 new, full-time employees. Employers could see a greater presence by OSHA, with more inspections, more audits of safety records and more enforcement of required safety standards.

=> $367 million for the EEOC ($23 million more than the amount provided in 2009)

What it means: More funding to ease the backlog of 70,000+ pending employment discrimination cases. The EEOC received 93,277 private-sector discrimination charges in 2009, the second-highest number in 20 years. Employers could see more employee lawsuits coming their way for discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, age, religion or disability.

So while we can’t be certain how this bill will play out in the coming months, we do know that President Obama's administration places a high priority on employment and labor law reform, particularly the enforcement of laws designed to protect employees.

Now, more than ever, employers need to step up their compliance and training programs to prevent costly fines and potential lawsuits. In light of this possible funding and renewed enforcement, you would be wise to:

1. Conduct procedural audits and other internal reviews to identify any issues that require immediate action.

2. Review and revise the employment policies in your company’s Employee Handbook and ensure they’re properly distributed. Be certain your policies reflect the many employment law developments in the past year, such as changes to the ADA, FMLA and COBRA.

3. Assess your internal complaint procedures (as well as your employees’ awareness of such procedures). Employees who cannot voice their concerns are more likely to feel powerless and as a result, take legal action against their employers.

4. Provide ongoing harassment prevention and anti-discrimination training to employees and managers. Your company must send a clear message that harassment will not be tolerated in the workplace – and support that message with education on how to recognize and prevent harassment.

5. Maintain up-to-date labor law postings and other specialized, employee-facing posters, which keep your company in compliance and act as a first line of defense in an employee-based lawsuit.

Snuggies in the workplace? Oh no you didn't!

Do HR pros really need to delve deep into dress code decorum to determine that “the blanket with sleeves” is NOT acceptable in the workplace? Should this even be debatable? It’s as absurd as men wearing pleated shorts that expose their sock garters in summer. You just don’t go there … EVER.

But apparently there are those who want to “fight for their right to Snug-gie!”, based on a lively discussion I encountered in a BLR forum. The responses were pretty hilarious.

Here’s the deal, as “IrisD” explains:

"Our facility manager lowered the thermostat to save money. We don't allow space heaters, so some of the women are wearing those "snuggy" blankets and even going outside with them for their smoking breaks.

This has caused kind of a rift between men and women in the office because the men are wearing sweaters and jackets to keep warm, not blankets. One male supervisor told the snuggy wearers to "wear more clothes, not blankets." Emails are flying.

Can we ban snuggys? Or should we? They really don't come under dress codes."

The general consensus, as you might imagine, was that fleecy robe thingys don’t belong in the workplace. Shocking, right? My favorite response:

"Honestly, if your dress code does not rule out blankets-as-clothing, there’s probably something wrong with your dress code. It’s not like this is a question about a man with makeup or a woman refusing to wear hose, or oxfords vs. polos. This is a person in a fabric zip-lock bag with sleeves."

Then there’s the issue of safety, as someone else pointed out: A long, flowy robe might get caught on objects and be a safety hazard for the wearer.

So what we have here is not only a serious fashion faux pas, but also a potential safety risk. And regarding your company’s dress code, I sincerely hope your employees use a little more common sense than those at Iris’ workplace. I know, I know, there’s always that one employee who will push the envelope with his or her wardrobe, but seriously? A brightly colored, one-size-fits-all, floor-length blanket?!?

So let’s do our best to keep the temperature at a comfortable level this winter - and encourage employees to grab their favorite cardigan, blazer, hoodie, shawl - anything but their Snuggie - to fight the chill.

P.S. Did you know that Snuggie ads also suggest you wear this warm, cuddly garment at sporting events, movie theaters and, my personal favorite, night-time pub crawls? Please, unless you’re a college student in the middle of rush week, stop the madness!

P.S.S. I don't own a Snuggie. But now that I live in the Pacific Northwest, I think I could really use one. Royal blue, please. And I promise you, no one will ever see it except my husband and my two Jack Russell Terriers.


Fast-food giant "burned" for mistreatment of transgender applicant

Although it has a strict policy prohibiting any form of discrimination or harassment in hiring, termination or any other aspect of employment, a McDonald’s in Orlando, Florida, is eating its words due to a former employee who overstepped his bounds.

In a complaint filed by the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund (TLDEF) before the Florida Commission on Human Relations, 17-year-old Zikerria Bellamy claims she was not hired by the fast-food restaurant because she was a transgender.

When Bellamy filled out the application at the Orlando location, she did not check off the box that asks whether the applicant is male or female (a voluntary question that states, “failure to respond will not subject you to adverse treatment”). Later, when she went in for an interview, she was forced to check off the box indicating her gender. And then, to make matters worse, she received this damaging voicemail: "You will not get hired. We do not hire (expletive). You lied to me. You told me you were a woman.”

McDonald’s quickly defended its position – and policies - forbidding this type of behavior:

"The behavior of the individual in question is not reflective of the employment policies in the organization. Further, this individual acted outside the scope of his authority and was not responsible for hiring.”

Not surprisingly, the individual in question is no longer employed by the restaurant.

Is your company doing enough?

According to the New York-based TLDEF, nearly 50 percent of transgender people in the United States have been fired or refused a job because of their transgender status.

While federal law clearly protects employees and applicants from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it doesn’t offer similar protections on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Protection runs deeper on a state level, however, where almost half the states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination in public and private employment. And earlier this year, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) introduced the Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2009, a proposed federal law that would prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace.

Legal requirements aside, many employers recognize that in today’s diverse environment, instituting policies and procedures that prohibit this type of discrimination is smart business.

Preventing sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace starts with understanding current laws, examining your policies and procedures, and training employees to abide by those policies.

For a quick overview of the issues, check out an earlier blog post, Sexual orientation, gender identity discrimination protections gaining legal ground, and the article in our G.Neil library, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Protection.

For specific guidance creating gender orientation policies and procedures, read our free whitepaper, Creating a Gender Orientation Policy for Your Workplace (pdf).

Uh-oh! Overtime oversight puts employer in the legal hot set

A few months back, I talked about how overtime lawsuits are on the rise (Can salaried employees receive overtime pay?), and that employers need to be especially careful with how they classify their employees (exempt vs. non-exempt).

Well, I just learned of a recent court case that highlights just how important it is to get this right. As the blog post, Court of Appeals affirms overtime ruling for non-exempt worker under FLSA, explains, “The Second Circuit has ruled in favor of a worker who was denied overtime pay, ruling that the Fair Labor Standards Act does not exempt workers whose job skills are not customarily the product of advanced educational training.”

Here are the details of Young v. Cooper Cameron Corp.: Andrew Young was a highly skilled “Product Design Specialist II” with 20 years of engineering-type experience when he was hired. His work at Cooper Cameron involved complicated technical expertise and responsibility, including designing hydraulic power units for oil drilling rigs. Like his fellow PDS IIs at the company, however, Young did not have any formal education beyond a high school diploma.

When he lost his job in 2004 in a reduction in force (RIF), he sued the company for the overtime he’d been denied due to his classification as an exempt professional.

The court ruled in his favor.

Why? The issue lies with the definition of “professional capacity,” a legal standard that exempts an employee from overtime pay under the FLSA. According to FLSA regulations, an exempt professional is someone “whose primary duty consists of the performance of work requiring knowledge of an advance type in a field of science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized instruction and study.”

The judgment in Young’s favor was due largely to the fact that although Young had technical expertise, his job did not require a prolonged course of specialized intellectual study. Plus, none of the other product design specialists at Cooper Cameron had advanced degrees – they were all high school graduates with no college training.

Not a good day in court for Cooper Cameron. Young was wrongly classified as an exempt professional and as such, was entitled to overtime pay under FLSA. (To make matters worse, the court found that the company did not act in good faith when it classified Young, changing his job title from a non-exempt position to a title that “sounded” more professional.)

Don’t let the overtime rules overwhelm you! Check out the ComplyRight Now E-Guide Determining Exempt vs. Non-Exempt Employees, for help figuring out whether an employee is exempt or non-exempt – and to steer clear of FLSA-related employee lawsuits like this.

Does your bereavement policy ease their suffering - or add to it?

If you’ve ever experienced the death of a loved one, you know how devastating the loss can be – and how it turns your world upside down. When you’re feeling a new, raw emotion every few minutes, it’s hard to create any sort of normalcy, especially with your job.

That’s why you should take a considerate, compassionate approach to bereavement and do everything you can to ease an employee’s burden.

During this difficult time, an employee will hear these words again and again, “If there’s anything I can do – anything at all - please let me know.” Well, this is your time to show that you, as an employer, are not just talk when it comes to supporting your employees, during the good times and the bad.

Death, stress and struggling to move on

Based on the stress scale created by psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe in 1967, the death of a spouse is one of life’s most stressful events, with the death of a close family member not far behind.

And the upheaval it creates is considerable. According to the online resource,

“Symptoms of complicated grief include intense emotion and longings for the deceased, severely intrusive thoughts about the lost loved one, extreme feelings of isolation and emptiness, avoiding doing things that bring back memories of the departed, new or worsened sleeping problems, and having no interest in activities that the sufferer used to enjoy.”

As you might imagine, this level of personal turmoil does not bode well in the workplace. An employee who was once upbeat and productive might become forlorn and distracted after a significant loss. What you do during those first few days and weeks can make all the difference to your grieving employees, and help them get back on their feet that much faster.

How your bereavement policies can boost morale

What types of bereavement benefits and resources can you provide to show you’re a company that cares about your employees and their well-being?

=> Funeral leave for a family member – As a matter of policy, most companies extend up to three paid days off for a full-time employee to attend the funeral of an immediate family member. But is it enough?

“Three days is a tragedy,” says Russell Friedman, author of The Grief Recovery Handbook and executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute. “Some companies are extraordinary and have big hearts when it comes to giving time off after a death, but many are stuck in the dark ages.”

He claims that employees need at least a week to deal with the details surrounding a death and funeral, especially since many people don’t live near their families these days. He also recommends extending your funeral leave policy to part-time employees.

Be sensitive to the fact that every situation is different. Managers should be allowed to adjust this policy to meet the needs of their staff. An employee who just lost a spouse of 25 years in a terrible accident might need more time off than an employee whose grandmother died peacefully at age 94.

=> Thoughtful support from management and peers – It’s not always easy knowing what to say to a grieving employee after a loss. But this is one of those critical times when managers need to push through their own discomfort and reach out to the employee. Now, more than ever, managers and supervisors need to be a stable influence, lending a helping hand and an open ear.

If you’re like most companies, you’ll give the employee a sympathy greeting card, send flowers or make a donation to a special charity.

Be sure to notify fellow employees of a death in a coworker’s family, as well. Share the news face to face with those coworkers who will be most affected by the news – and issue a simple e-mail or memo to the rest of the staff.

=> Remind the employee of your employee assistance program (EAP) – An employee’s need for support doesn’t end when the funeral is over. If your company offers counseling services, encourage the grieving employee to take advantage of them. And keep in mind that an employee’s work performance may be inconsistent in the first few weeks back on the job. If the employee was hard-working and dedicated prior to the loss of a loved one, he or she can get back to that place - with the right amount of support and assistance.

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