Take your vacation days - you need 'em!

I love my time off. Whether it’s a ½ day to linger over a caramel latte and crossword puzzle, a day or two tacked onto a weekend for a
much-needed getaway or a full-out, 10-day vacation to explore someplace new, I savor my days away from the office. They’re a gift - a wonderful break in the routine and a perfect way to relax and regroup from the daily grind of working full-time.

But apparently quite a few employees are denying themselves that gift.

According to an online poll of nearly 700 people by Right Management, the human resources consulting division of the staffing firm Manpower, 66% of employees didn’t use all their vacation days last year.

And the main reason why? Cost. Many people don’t feel like they have the extra cash during these recessionary, belt-tightening times to take a vacation – so they just stay at work.

While I understand that few people can afford a luxury vacation to Europe right now (much less a road trip to Wally World), I still think it’s important to tap those vacation days. Even if they don’t act as true “vacation” days, they can be “take care of yourself, take a break from it all” days.

Experts on the subject back me up on this. “The research is clear that failing to take a vacation creates higher levels of stress and greater levels of disengagement at work,” says Douglas Matthews, Right Management's president and chief operating officer.

And for those who think it’s a risky move to step away from work when so many people are unemployed or getting laid off, that’s a type of martyrdom that simply isn’t necessary.

"It's silly to think that giving up vacation is going to make your colleagues think how important you are," says Connie Thanasoulis, a career services expert at the job search website "Take your vacation and let them miss you."

Yes, the show will go on, even if you aren’t there. And the payoff for taking those paid days off are great, including stress relief, rest and recuperation, and the satisfaction of feeling you’re in control of your own time.

Nobody wins in the 'blame game'

Walk down the hall or into a meeting room right now and you’re bound to overhear an employee blaming someone (or something) else - whether it’s a coworker, a boss, a client, the weather or a bout of stomach flu – for his work falling short or a project hitting a snag. It’s most certainly not the fault of the person doing the finger pointing, and he’ll do everything in his power to convince you of that.

It’s called “passing the buck,” and in workplaces where this is the norm, it’s a huge drain on creativity and performance. Plus, it appears to be contagious.

In a study at Stanford University, researchers asked 100 participants to read a news clip outlining a politician’s failure, where one group’s article had the politician blaming special interest groups for the mishap and the other group’s article had the politician taking full ownership of the failure. Then, the participants were instructed to write about a failure of their own, and what they think caused it.

The results? Participants who read about the politician blaming others were twice as likely as the other participants to blame someone else for their own shortcomings.

Before this study, researchers had a good idea about who does the blaming, and why. Pessimists blame more than optimists (“The glass is half empty, and it’s your fault”) and narcissists are more likely to shirk responsibility for their mistakes (“I’m so great, I don’t mess up”). And the biggest reason we blame others? To protect our self-image.

Now researchers also know that finger-pointing is catchy, which is detrimental in any social setting, the workplace included. They know, too, that while a blamer is busily guarding her self-image by shining a spotlight on others, she’s paying a price.

"When an individual is always pointing to external reasons for your mistakes you won't learn from those mistakes, so it hinders your ability to learn and become more effective," said study team member Nathanael Fast, of the Department of Management and Organization at the University of Southern California.

So what can you do to keep your company from turning into a bunch of finger-pointing whiners who throw everyone else under the bus? It starts at the top.

"If you're a leader, don't blame other people, at least not publicly. You might want to offer praise in public, but if you have to blame someone, do it in private,” says Fast.

It’s a matter of accountability, too. By taking responsibility for their own mistakes, managers and leaders can serve as positive role models. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that you struggled with a particular aspect of a work project, or that you made an outright mistake – as long as you close the loop by fixing the problem, or seek the help you need to resolve the issue.

The real mistake is blaming others – and sending the message that it’s OK to do so.

How to deliver an Olympic-worthy performance in the workplace

As I sit glued to my TV screen each night watching the highlights from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, I can’t help but draw some parallels between the performances on the ice and snow by the world’s top athletes - to those by everyday working folk in businesses large and small. Granted, the working professionals of the world aren’t competing for Olympic gold, but the challenges they face each day – and the tools they need to keep their head in the game – share some interesting similarities.

=> Let’s start with the obvious: training. Every Olympic athlete logs countless hours in local practice rinks, tracks and gyms honing their skills before they ever set foot on the world stage. Without this discipline and dedication, we’d never know the likes of Lindsey Vonn, Apolo Ohno, Shani Davis, Evan Lysacek and Shaun White.

And without regular, focused training to keep their individual technical skills sharp, and their contributions in line with the company's goals, most employees will remain merely average. Employee training and development is the biggest opportunity you have for increasing productivity, improving morale and boosting employee commitment. Neglect this and some of your best employees (or, potentially, your best employees) may forever remain in the shadows and on the sidelines.

=> Right on the heels of training comes tools. What are the resources you’re providing employees to get the job done? An Olympic figure skater wouldn’t arrive at the rink with broken skates, or an alpine skier to the slopes with a cracked ski. Neither should your employees expect to do their best with outdated equipment and tired processes. You know the saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”? Athletes are constantly tweaking their training routines and trying out the latest sporting equipment in the hopes of performing faster, stronger, higher, longer. Perhaps it’s time to explore some new, affordable HR resources to give your employees a competitive edge and keep your business running more smoothly.

=> With nearly every sport, the coach plays a huge part in an athlete’s development and ultimate victory. In the interviews following a winning performance, an Olympic athlete almost always gives credit (often with a lot of tears and fist-pumping) to the coach. Are your managers acting like coaches – supporting and inspiring their direct reports on a daily basis, but also playing tough, when necessary, and pushing them to perform better? It’s a delicate balance that sets the great managers apart from the good managers. Again, with the right tools and training, your finest managers can achieve that balance and become something even more valuable to your organization – leaders.

=> Feedback is another important part of the athlete-coach relationship. In fact, it’s the essence of effective coaching. Athletes don’t practice in a vacuum, expecting their coaches to remain silent as they struggle with a certain move – or on the flip side, failing to cheer them on when they nail a difficult maneuver. Your employees need constant dialogue from their managers and supervisors, too. They should have the advantage of working side by side with someone that understands their challenges, praising them when they do well and providing thoughtful intervention and support when they fail. Performance management isn’t a once-a-year occurrence at review time but rather, a day-to-day dynamic that keeps the lines of communication open between an employee and a manager.

=> Finally, there’s the main event. After years of training and selfless dedication, the Olympic athlete gives the performance of a lifetime, beating all odds and leaving the rest of us speechless. Later, we swell with pride as these awe-inspiring athletes step up to the podium and graciously receive their gold, silver or bronze medals. And while the achievements in the workplace may never compare to the latest, gravity-defying trick on the half pipe or the fastest time on the Super G, they’re just as crucial to the advancement and success of your business. Don’t assume your best-performing employees know their worth and that’s enough. Reward them with the thanks and recognition they deserve – either through inexpensive perks now (such as a desktop award, title change or nicer office) or monetary benefits later (such as a raise or extra paid days off) when the economy picks up again.

So what about you? When the 2010 games officially close on February 28, and the Olympic torch is extinguished, will you remember the many lessons our top athletes have taught us? Let’s honor their accomplishments and keep a little of that Olympic spirit alive right here in our workplaces!

So what grates on your last nerve at work?

It’s been one of those mornings. You overslept, raced through your routine, tore a contact lens, spilled orange juice down the front of your shirt and hit every red light on your commute. When you finally DO get to work, you’re no more than 10 minutes in the door when Doom and Gloom Gary corners you and starts unloading about Project XYZ. It’s at that moment, before you’ve even had your first cup of coffee that you hear those words – the words that could possibly push you right over the edge: “Let’s touch base.”

Turns out, it’s office jargon like this (along with a handful of other irritations) that annoys workers the most, according to a survey of more than 1,800 people by London-based Opinium Research.

Not surprisingly, nearly two-thirds of the workers polled said these
day-to-day annoyances are enough to send their stress levels soaring – and one in 10 left a job because of them.

The survey uncovered these top 10, ‘nails-on-a-chalkboard’ irritants:

1. Grumpy or moody colleagues (37%)
2. Slow computers (36%)
3. Small talk/gossip in the office (19%)
4. The use of office jargon or management-speak (18%)
5. People speaking loudly on the phone (18%)
6. Too much health and safety in the work place (16%)
7. Poor toilet etiquette (16%)
8. People not turning up for meetings on time or at all (16%)
9. People not tidying up after themselves in the kitchen (15%)
10. Air conditioning too cold (15%)

    And like a scene from “Office Space,” there’s the office jargon that creeps its way into the conversation of grown, otherwise rational adults. The top offenders:

    Thinking outside the box (21%)
    Let's touch base (20%)
    Blue sky thinking (19%)
    Blamestorming (16%)
    Drill down to a more granular level (15%)
    Let's not throw pies in the dark (15%)
    ** Now there’s one I’ve never heard before!**
    I've got that on my radar (13%)
    Push the envelope (12%)
    Bring your A-game (11%)
    Get all your ducks in a row (11%)

    What about you? What gets your scruff up at work? What are your pet peeves? How would you complete the statement, “I’d love my job if it weren’t for …”?

    As for my answer, I’ll have to get all my ducks in a row and get back with you.

    "Home-Sweet-Home" ... and workplace, for 11.3 million workers

    According to a recent report by the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of employees working from home (whether that be a 4th-floor apartment, house in the suburbs or local coffee shop) rose from about 9.5 million in 1999 to about 11.3 million in 2005. These workers made up 8 percent of the total U.S. workforce in 2005, an increase from 7 percent in 1999. Something else worth noting: Among the 11.3 million who worked at home in 2005, about 8.1 million did so exclusively - an increase from 6.7 million in 1999.

    The most popular home-based occupations were professional (25%), executive, administrative and managerial (22%) and sales (18%). Some of the other findings regarding home-based workers:

    => Their average annual income was approximately $68,000
    => About 46 percent earned $75,000 a year or more
    => Those who split their time between work and an office had the highest number (54 percent) of high-paying jobs
    => They put in longer hours, with 11% reporting that they worked 11 or more hours in a typical day
    => Yet they enjoy more flexibility – about 23% reported that their weekly hours varied

      And what does your typical "work from home" employee look like? (And no, I'm not talking about the PJs, sweats or baseball cap they may be sporting.) According to the report, that person is female (51 percent), age 35-54 (52 percent), white/non-Hispanic (82 percent) and college educated (47 percent).

      Check out the full press release here.

      Morale, Schmorale -- Why treating employees badly now will hurt your business later

      We all know the job market is a mess.

      People with Masters degrees and years of experience are competing for entry level contract temp positions that used to go to college students looking to pick up some resume lines between their junior and senior year. Staffing levels at most companies are at all-time lows. And sales? Oh, let's not even go there.

      By all accounts, this looks like a buyer's market when it comes to hiring and retaining talented employees. After all, where are they going to go if they express their discontent and write out that two week notice?

      The answer may be "No where." And you may have them by the ... well, you know. But that's only for now. But like the proverbial elephant who never forgets, the mistreated, misused or abused employee will keep those memories for a long time. And when the economy recovers, you can bet your best and brightest will be out the door first, looking for greener pastures and better opportunities.

      No matter how easy it may seem to keep people with no raises, lousy hours and triple assignments now, the best companies and the best managers know this kind of strategy will only doom their business in the long run. Sure, even the most forward-looking companies may be slashing their payrolls in order to ride out the storm, but they are treating their survivors well. They are paying attention to employee engagement.

      And that means they are building a solid core of loyal, capable, well-trained and committed employees for the future.

      When new hires come on board in the future, they'll need to learn the ropes and get some experience under their belts. And that core of solid, well-treated employees who lasted through the dark days and the down sales and saw their company's commitment to them will be the first to draw new staff members into the fold and make sure they understand just what a great company it is.

      So what do you do when the budgets just won't bear a regular or standard pay raise? How do you say thank you to employees in a way that matters?

      • First, give 'em what you can. Even if it's a 1% raise or a one-time bonus, let the hard-working double-duty working employees you still have know you are stretching the limits to give them SOMETHING. Remember, a flat wage means your employees are actually losing money year after year. (A caveat -- make sure your pay increases for senior management are just as flat as those in the rank-and-file. They will find out, no matter how closely you try to guard that secret!)
      • Second, reward them with cost-free pats on the back. Let them take some time (during work hours, and of course, paid) to learn a new software, take a personal interest class at a local college or community center or volunteer for a favorite charity. Make school assemblies, little kid concerts and end-of-the-year school award ceremonies something they can attend without using their leave time. Boost their paid vacation time by one day, or declare their birthdays (or the next working day after it) a paid holiday for each employee. (I once worked for a company that did this, and it did make every employee feel special!)
      • Work on what they're called. Give them a title that honors all that they do, even if the pay isn't there just yet. Of course you have to make sure the titles don't get your business into trouble with FLSA rules, but even within those guidelines, there is plenty of room for more impressive (and morale boosting) job labeling.

      Posted via email from G-Neil's Posterous


      How engaged are your employees?

      The better question might be, "Do you know how to measure employee engagement?" Too many business owners and managers try to gauge employee engagement by walking the halls and making judgments about what they see. But monitoring water cooler activity or the number of cars in the parking lot after 5 p.m. or how long employees are taking for lunch doesn’t always cut it.

      I think the answer is part psychology, part productivity. First, you must understand what makes your employees tick and the type of work environment that keeps their head in the game.

      What does “everyone humming along, feeling like their work matters” employee engagement look like? The Gallup Organization’s Q12, a 12-question survey that identifies strong feelings of employee engagement, can help you peel back the layers.

      Consider how your direct reports, your team, your department might answer these questions:

      • Do you know what is expected of you at work?
      • Do you have the materials and equipment you need to do your work right?
      • At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?
      • In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?
      • Does your supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about you as a person?
      • Is there someone at work who encourages your development?
      • At work, do your opinions seem to count?
      • Does the mission/purpose of your company make you feel your job is important?
      • Are your associates (fellow employees) committed to doing quality work?
      • Do you have a best friend at work?
      • In the last six months, has someone at work talked to you about your progress?
      • In the last year, have you had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

      A negative response to any of these questions could reveal gaps – and of course, opportunities for improvement - in the areas of training and development, performance management and motivation and recognition. What deserves more attention from your managers and leaders to turn these negatives into positives?

      After psychology, there’s the matter of productivity. Assuming employee engagement means more is getting done, you need a way to measure that output. Businesses small and large are well-served by systems that allow them to evaluate real-time productivity and key business performance analytics. This type of information can provide a much clearer snapshot of employee engagement and performance than laps through the building to see who has his nose to the grindstone and who is lingering too long at the coffee machine.

      Again, having the ability to review division, department and employee performance data helps HR managers and company leaders identify areas of strength and weakness. Top performers are easier to identify (and ideally, be recognized and rewarded) and weaker employees can be given a chance to improve.

      That knock on your office door may be Homeland Security

      In a move that disturbed many employers, but surprised few, Homeland Security has indicated that they are stepping up inspections and enforcement for I-9 Form violations.

      You remember I-9 Forms, right?  Those fun "prove to me you're allowed to work in the U.S. even though you were born in Queens, and have a Brooklyn accent and I've lived next door to your Aunt all my life" forms? The ones where employers get to look over bad driver's license picture and even worse Passport pictures and try and decipher crumpled birth certificates? Yeah, those forms.

      Well, according to the people who create and enforce that kind of thing, those forms and the supporting documentation are no laughing matter, and they intend to prove it to you with a big boost in random door-knocking and file-reviewing.

      So what is an employer to do? You could just hope that the only knocks on your door are from customers, Candygram delivery people and whoever it is who's giving out those oversized checks and balloons these days. Or you could:

      1) Make sure the I-9 Forms you're using are the right ones.  There have been several changes to the I-9 over the past few years, so check the version number and date on yours.

      2) Review your I-9 files. Make sure you have completed I-9's on file for all current and past employees for the required record retention period. That includes temps, too.

      3) Make sure you have not violated I-9 rules by copying documents, requiring too many types of documents, or accepting disallowed types of documents as verification for work-eligibility.

      4) Keep all of your I-9 forms in a separate file or binder to allow for quick and easy inspection should your business come under the auditor's review.

      5) Get a good guide to the I-9 Form and the I-9 audit process. This could be a trustworthy and up-to-date employment law book or the advice of your employment law attorney.

      6) Designate one person in your business to keep track of I-9 changes, requirements and record retention.

      If you're on top of the rules, and current with your I-9 records, an audit shouldn't be any problem. And who knows -- the next knock after that could be a Candygram!

      Posted via email from G-Neil's Posterous


      Under new proposal, COBRA premium subsidy would be extended again

      As part of its proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2011, the Obama administration is recommending another extension to the COBRA health insurance premium subsidy – a move that Congress will most likely support.

      If approved, employees laid off from March 1 through December 31, 2010, would be eligible for the 65% premium subsidy for up to 12 months. (Currently, employees who are involuntarily terminated from September 1, 2008, through February 28, 2010, can receive the premium subsidy for up to 15 months.)

      “As long as unemployment remains at high levels and access to health insurance coverage remains spotty, the willingness to extend COBRA assistance will remain strong and persistent,” says Frank McArdle, a consultant with Hewitt Associates Inc. in Washington.

      More and more employees are opting for COBRA as a result of the 65 percent premium subsidy – part of a broad economic stimulus package Congress approved nearly one year ago. In fact, Hewitt discovered in a survey of 200 large employers that the number of employees choosing COBRA more than doubled to 39 percent during a nine-month period last year.

      According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), only laid-of workers who could not get coverage under another group health plan (such as a spouse’s plan or Medicare) would be eligible for the subsidy. In addition, premium assistance is only available for individuals with incomes under $145,000 and families filing jointly with incomes under $290,000.

      If you’re a little bewildered about the various extensions and how to communicate them to employees, you’re not alone.

      "… as originally passed, the subsidy was provided for a period up to nine months. In December 2009, the period was extended to a total of 15 months, and under the latest proposal it would be 12 months," says Karen Frost, health and productivity solutions leaders at Hewitt Associates in Chicago. "That's three different time frames and three different provisions."

      As far as what this means to you as an employer, Frost suggests that the hardest part – adjusting to the original subsidy – is over.

      "For the first extension, we just had to modify what we were already doing in terms of the subsidy. And the efforts around a second extension would be very similar. It's a modification; it's not a brand new game."

      Until a possible second extension is approved, G.Neil recommends that you display a poster informing employees of their COBRA subsidy benefits to date.


      Playing the labor law poster game

      If you own or manage a business, odds are you know about the labor law poster shuffle. It's that game we all play where we try to get the right labor law posters in the right spaces by the right deadline, and then wait, breathless, to make the dash again when the feds or a state agency decide to change the posters because they changed a microscopic date located on the bottom 1/16" of the lower right hand corner -- you know, that spot that gets hidden by the poster frame, right?

      Or they have rearranged the boxes containing the information no employee has ever read, or could understand because it's written in government legalese which is twice as bad a regular legalese because it's the government. And now because of those rearranged boxes (because heaven knows, our elected officials and heads of agencies have nothing else to worry about like health care reform or campaign reform or an economy that's tanked...) every business person must scramble to tear down the old no-longer-valid posters and replace them with new valid-for-the-next-10-minute labor law posters.

      And as if the shuffle wasn't bad enough, there's the trying to find out about the changes. Never mind that you're trying to run a business in the aforementioned tanked economy, managing a bunch of sick employees who can't afford to see a doctor so they came to work to cough all over you. You have to spend hours searching state and federal websites for minute changes in labor law posters and posting requirements and then rush to order the new ones before they too are outdated. Then hope that you found all the right sites and all the right posters! It's kind of like trying to dance with the music on mute -- you know it's there, but it's impossible to hear it, so you're just kind of stumbling around the dance floor.

      Only in this case, one wrong step in the labor law poster shuffle and you could get slapped with some pretty hefty fines or an employee lawsuit, or maybe both. Kind of makes the trips and falls on "Dancing with the Stars" look like a fun time, doesn't it?

      So what are you supposed to do? Well, you can save a few bucks and keep trying to find those posters and stay ahead of the mandatory labor law poster game. Or you can go with a labor law poster service and take just one thing off your already heaping-piled-overflowing-never-get-through-it-all plate. Your choice.

      We've got a good service at G Neil. Pretty cheap, given that it covers a full year and covers any fines you get if we mess up. Pretty simple too. Just sign up, pay once, and you're good for a year. Second year and on gets even cheaper. Wanna try it? Take a minute, step out of the shuffle and see how easy labor law poster compliance can get.

      Posted via email from G-Neil's Posterous


      Independent contractor vs. employee: Proposed bill would toughen classification standards

      In mid-December, 2009, Senator John Kerry introduced a bill in the Senate that focuses on employers misclassifying workers as independent contractors. The bill, called the Taxpayer Responsibility, Accountability, and Consistency Act of 2009 (S.2882), would amend Section 530 of the Revenue Act of 1978.

      The “safe harbor provision” of Section 530 gave businesses some leeway in classifying workers as independent contractors for employment-tax reasons. If certain requirements were met and the business had a “reasonable basis,” it could treat an individual as an independent contractor without having to resort to the IRS’ 20-factor common-law test.

      But that could change with Kerry’s proposed legislation. Under the Taxpayer Responsibility, Accountability, and Consistency Act, a business would have a “reasonable basis” for classifying a worker as an independent contractor (and not be held to the common-law test) only if it met these two new standards:

      1) The employer didn’t treat any worker in a substantially similar position as an employee since December 31, 1977

      2) The independent contractor classification was based on a written statement from the Department of Treasury that the worker was not an employee, or on an IRS examination that concluded the worker was not an employee

      The bill would also require you to issue a Form 1099 to anyone your business pays more than $600 annually, in addition to giving workers classified as independent contractors the right to obtain a determination of their status from the Secretary of the Treasury.

      So what’s your status, Gladys?

      If a worker is classified as an employee, you are required to withhold income taxes, and pay Social Security, Medicare and unemployment taxes. With independent contractors, however, you do not have these same obligations.

      Yet if you misclassify an employee as an independent contractor, you may pay dearly down the road.

      Basically, the questions in the IRS’ common-law test fall under three categories:

      1) Behavioral control – Does your business direct or control how a person’s work is done through instructions, training or other means?

      2) Financial control – Do you direct or control the business aspects of a person’s job, such as reimbursing expenses or providing supplies?

      3) Type of relationship – What is the relationship between your business and the worker, such as written contracts or employee-type benefits like insurance and vacation pay?

      In most cases, if your level of control extends to what is done by an individual – as well as how it is done – then that worker is an employee and not an independent contractor. An independent contractor, as a sole proprietor, directs many aspects of the business relationship.

      Getting this right is critical – and could become more so under the Taxpayer Responsibility, Accountability, and Consistency Act. Misclassify a worker and you could be looking at a substantial tax bill and penalties from the IRS. There’s also the possibility of a misclassified independent contractor suing you for not providing the necessary overtime, meal periods or rest breaks that an employee would receive.

      $1 million in back wages nothing to cluck about for poultry processor

      The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) recently reached a settlement agreement in a back wage case against the country’s largest poultry processor - Texas-based Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. Under the terms of the agreement, Pilgrim’s Pride will pay more than $1 million in overtime back wages. The recovered wages affect nearly 800 former and current processing workers at the Dallas facility, where the company failed to pay its employees for all hours worked under Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) guidelines.

      Of particular interest in this case was the fact that employees were not properly paid for the time spent “donning and doffing” work-related protective gear.

      Donning and doffing – now that’s a term you don’t hear everyday. Basically, employers must pay employees for the time spent on preliminary and/or post-shift activities that are an “integral and indispensable part” of the employees' principal activities. Especially relevant in the food-processing industry, this includes the time it takes employees to put on and take off protective gear, like smocks, gloves and rubber boots.

      Regarding the Pilgrim’s Pride case: "These low-wage workers were not paid for time donning and doffing at the beginning and end of the workday and before and after meals," said Cynthia Watson, regional administrator for the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division's Southwest Region.

      The takeaway for employers, then, is that you take stock of your current pay practices to be certain you’re complying with this FLSA requirement. Just as important as providing the appropriate protective gear to your staff is paying them for the time it takes to don and doff the gear!

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