January 21, 2008

Challenge and Growth: The Keys to Life-Long Satisfaction

This is the last of the series of e-zines that are written on what I consider to be the four foundational elements for building a positive workplace. In the prior three e-zines I looked at the topics of building a positive culture, productivity and quality relationships. In this one, I want to look at the relationship between continual learning and viewing the workplace as a positive experience. My hypothesis is that work is more attractive when an employee experiences challenge and growth on a regular basis. As is true of all the e-zines, the following reflects some of my thoughts on the topic as compiled from my reading and experiences.

I feel the need, however, to begin with a disclaimer. I do not believe that all employees desire challenge and growth. This fact is not necessarily bad for the organization so long as work is effectively being done. In any regard, for a variety of reasons there are employees who, at various times in their lives, are content to come to work, do their job and go home. Being challenged to grow is not seen as a positive to them as it requires effort and focus that these employees would rather not provide. But, I believe that this group of employees is usually in the minority, that they can change and that the learning organization, as it has been called by Peter Senge, is the desirable place for most employees.

Additionally, I believe there is a common view that growing means moving up and/or out in the organization. But in my view, while that would frequently be true, it seems to me possible that one can experience a lifetime of growth while remaining in the same position throughout the entire span of employment. A patrol officer in a police department, for example, can do the same job for 30 years and still find plenty of opportunity for personal and professional growth. I think we do individuals in the organization a disservice when we automatically conclude that someone who has been in their position for a long period of time is stuck. People do get stuck, but staying in the same position for a long period of time is not necessarily the measure of that fact and people can be stuck even when they move from position to position.

Similarly, if an individual is not doing well in a position, learning something new or acquiring new skills may not be the answer to the problem. The individual may be a poor fit for the position. If a position, for example, needs a gregarious person who meets new people easily and the organization has promoted an individual into the position whose personality is reclusive, it may not be wise to conclude that the person simply needs to "meet the challenge and grow."

Also, I do want to emphasize that this article is not about a performance improvement plan where an employee has been found wanting and is being directed to "grow." The issues and problems that surround informal and formal disciplinary acts have their own unique dynamics. That is not to say that growth which occurs through a performance improvement plan is not valuable, but rather to simply recognize that there are unique elements to corrective action that lay outside the scope of this short essay.

Having laid out the above points, I want to return to my hypothesis that meeting challenges, learning new skills and concepts – growing is invigorating. The following are four suggestions on how the organization can help create an environment where employees find plenty of opportunity to grow and where accepting new challenges becomes part of the enjoyment of work.

First, the social psychologist Anselm Strauss in his excellent book Mirrors and Masks discusses the two conditions that create growth and change in an adult. The first is the desire to change and the second involves receiving the type of feedback that will allow someone to know how or what to change. The bottom line of the first point is that when someone does not want to change you will receive resistance not growth. The solution to this problem is not to focus on the resistance but to focus on the absence of any desire to change. By looking for a method to help build desire, resistance should simply disappear.

As a person who has conducted a great many training programs, I have on many occasions encountered a situation where an individual in the session talks a great game but is identified to me as the chief violator of effectiveness protocols. This is where Strauss' second point fits in, I believe that individuals often see themselves as doing the right thing but need a coach to help them see where they are making mistakes.

A personal example I frequently use in presentations involves my experience on the golf course. Years of frustration at my inability to improve finally led me to a coach. His first comment to me was that "if you practice the wrong thing you will simply get better at being bad." Work with a video camera and his expert observations has substantially improved my golf game and enormously increased the enjoyment of playing golf.

Strauss' two points are clearly demonstrated here. I very much wanted to grow and I got the coaching I needed in order to know what I needed to change if I wanted to improve. As a side note, this is one of the reasons why I believe that a lot of corporate training is a waste of time. It does not help people to recognize where they specifically need to change. The one size fits all simply does not facilitate personal growth.

Second, psychologist Carl Rogers is famous for saying that "we all grow best in an environment of positive social regard." The difficulty many organizations have is that growth is often the byproduct of mistakes. Mistakes or incidents create what I have heard called the "teachable moment." These become wonderful opportunities for lessons to be learned but so often there is a tension and defensiveness to the environment that it makes growing in the positive sense extremely difficult. My experience has been that when there is a big boo-boo, there is not a lot of positive social regard running around.

It seems to me that there are two parts to dealing with this problem. First, the supervisor or person using the incident for learning purposes has to avoid finger-pointing behavior. The focus has to be on the lesson that is to be learned as opposed to the mistake that was made.

Second, I want to draw from my experience playing baseball (first golf then baseball, good grief). In baseball when you make an error all your teammates turn to you and say, "shake it off, shake it off." They all know that if the negative affect lingers in the players mind, the player is more likely to make another error. Similarly, for a situation to be turned into a positive learning experience, the person who has made the mistake in a corporate setting has to "shake off" the internal negative affect created by making the mistake. Unfortunately, supervisors are not necessarily skilled in using the shake it off, shake it off mantra.

Third, I am convinced that the most productive kind of learning comes from genuine dialog. Being talked to by your supervisor or going to a training program where you're talked at may have some value, but I do not believe it reaches the deeper levels for change and growth. That is not to deny that some supervisors are extremely good at engaging subordinates in meaningful interaction. Additionally, as a member of the National Speakers Association, I am aware that one measure of a truly effective speaker (trainer) is the ability to create a sense of dialogue between speaker and each individual member of an audience. Still, there is something truly unique about dialog. Perhaps most important it can create synergy around problems and solutions.

This is one of the reasons that I have worked with some of my colleagues to create what we call a dialog deck. Our dialogue decks looked like a regular playing cards on each of which is a question for discussion. Supervisors or trainers can use the deck to stimulate interaction – dialog. Typically the decks are written around touchy subjects that people often find difficult to discuss. My experience has been very good in being able to use the deck to create a non defensive dialogue around these topics.

Fourth and finally, I am a believer that learning energizes the individual. I am also a believer that daily routine can dull our mental capacities. I am sharply critical of many training programs that are offered by organizations. Some of this negativity will undoubtedly be explained in future e-zines for the purpose improving what is offered. Paradoxically I am a strong believer in a well designed facilitated learning experience. This is an opportunity for people to dialogue about important issues, to consider different points of view, to expand their knowledge on a subject, to be renewed and refreshed. One important measure of good training ought to be the amount of energy that is created by the program.

It is absolutely clear in my mind that dynamic learning makes work a better place to be.

Next Month: Last quarter I taught a new course in the MPA program titled Managing the Performance of Public Sector Employees. I plan on sharing some of the ideas with you that came out of that class.

Answer to question

I recently applied for a transfer within my organization. I received an e-mail message back from the HR Director in which she indicated that in her perception I was over qualified for the position and therefore was not being considered. Isn't this a decision for me to make and do I have any legal protections?

Years ago I was arbitrating a dispute between teachers and a school district in a rural western state. The teachers introduced into evidence a decision by a local judge involving a similar type of dispute that had led to a legal action by the teachers against the district. I treasure part of the judge's decision in which he wrote in a manner that only a rural judge can that, "unfortunately there is nothing in statute that protects teachers against the stupidity of management."

The simple fact is, and the judge is obviously correct, that the law affords management substantial freedom to act as it perceives best. Therefore, management can act with great brilliance or substantial stupidity; freedom allows choice. I frequently in my discussions with my graduate students and other individuals find that there is a mistaken belief that somehow the law protects the employee against a bad decision. It does not unless that decision violates some specific prohibition such as the prohibition against discrimination on the basis of race or the prohibition against discrimination on the basis of a disability.

As to the matter of being over qualified, the HR Director shares a perspective common to a lot of organizations. Over qualified employees usually don't last very long in a position and are often unhappy during the time that they perform the duties of the position. It is not unreasonable for an organization to want to find an employee that is a good fit for the position. While it can be frustrating to a person who has applied for a position to see someone less qualified, from an experience and education perspective, receive the transfer, less qualified may actually be better qualified. This is one of the reasons that organizations speak about upward mobility and why they rarely consider downward mobility.


Professional Growth: We know what to do, but we don't do it, why not? How would you like to have three keys that will significantly help you move from the knowing of how to proceed to the actual implementation?

Change Or Die: The Three Keys To Change At Work And In Life
Alan Deutschman

Personal Growth: Marti Seligman has done it again. This is another of his books that has great practical application when it comes to the work we are all doing on improving our life; becoming more of what we want to be.

What You Can Change and What You Can't: The Complete Guide To Successful Self-Improvement Learning To Accept Who You Are
Martin E. Seligman


The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

Alvin Toffler

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December 3, 2007

Relationships: Quality is Not a Luxury

I am sure you have heard the phrase, “I am professional; I do not have to like you to be able to work with you.” While there is obviously some level of truth to this saying, it clearly does not describe an ideal situation. The simple fact is that business is much easier to conduct when relationships amongst the players are positive. I believe that all of us find it easier to work when our professional relationships are marked with respect, trust and a positive affect.

This is the third in a series of four e-zines which are looking at what I call the foundational elements for creating a great workplace. The first of the four looked at the organizational culture, the second at the concept of productivity and the last will look at growth and advancement. This e-zine focuses on the quality of relationships under the belief that attractive workplaces are marked with great relationships. While it may be simplistic, I believe it is fundamentally true to say that all great things, at least in a business sense, flow from the quality of relationships. So what constitutes “quality?” Read on.

The Speed of Trust is a new book by Stephen M. R. Covey. The basic premise of this book is that business transactions and business activity all work more efficiently when there is a high level of trust in the relationship of the players. He makes a very compelling argument. In the absence of trust, everything slows down while the parties go to great lengths to do their “due diligence.” I have always believed that trust, in the context of business activities, is a reflection of reliability. Or, how about this from Confucius: If language is not in accordance with the truth of things, then affairs cannot be carried on to success. Double speak will destroy trust very quickly.

In 2005 Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman released their book First Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers do Differently. Based on a massive amount of data collected by the Gallup organization, this book explores what organizations successfully do to keep their top performers. Not surprisingly, having a great relationship with one’s supervisor and having a close friend at work are two of the top five reasons why top performers stay.

One of the series of courses in the MBA program that I teach at Portland State University is in the area of labor relations. Does it surprise you at all for me to say that the quality of the relationship between the labor organization and the management is a critical component in how quickly and effectively they are able to resolve problems? If their relationship is strained, marked with distrust and full of animus, problem solving is often a tortured event. On the other hand, even when disagreement is substantial, where the parties respect each other they are far more likely to successfully work through the problem and find a solution acceptable to both.

Enough talk about why quality relationships are an essential part of a great workplace. The important question focuses on what can be done to create positive relationships. I have a thought or two to share with you in response.

To begin, I read somewhere in the distant past that many of the effective approaches to improving the quality of relationships are counter-intuitive. That is, these approaches involve doing the exact opposite of what we feel like doing. One of my favorite Abraham Lincoln quotes is his statement, “I find when I do not like a man that I need to get to know him better.” This is what I believe is meant by counter-intuitive. I usually find that when I do not like a man, the last thing in the world I want to do is to get to know him better (think of your favorite political whipping person). Yet most of us, when we study the matter, probably agree with the sentiment expressed by Lincoln.

Also, what I have found about building relationships is that the Robert Sutton book, The Knowing-Doing Gap definitely applies – knowing what to do is easy; it is the doing that is hard. Don Miguel Ruiz, in his marvelous book The Four Agreements, repeats on a number of occasions that each of the “agreements” are simple, very powerful and hard to do; with the first (be impeccable with your word) being the hardest.

I agree and, therefore, put before you three simple, powerful, counter-intuitive and hard to do suggestions.

First, Roger Fisher and Scott Brown, in their book Getting Together: Building a Relationship that Gets to Yes provides two key thoughts. They argue that a quality relationship should be pursued separately from the business issues that are being dealt with. Trying to build a relationship at the same time that one is dealing with a sticky business problem is difficult at best. Moreover, it is possible to build and maintain a good relationship even where the parties disagree on an issue. Respectful disagreement is possible and in almost every case will lead to better solutions and outcomes than disrespectful disagreement.

Additionally, Fisher and Brown are great proponents of what they call “unconditionally constructive behavior.” This is what I consider to be the counter-intuitive aspect of what they are proposing. Typically, we condition our constructive behavior upon the positive behavior of the other party. If they are less than honest, we are less than honest with them. If they fail to consult with us, we choose not to consult with them. According to Fisher and Brown, everyone loses when you participate in this game. One engages in unconditionally constructive behavior because it is in your best interest to do so. There is no benevolence or altruism involved. For example, one acts reliably even if the other acts unreliably because to act reliably is in your best interest. There are no positive payoffs from acting unreliably regardless of what the other party is doing.

Second, dealing with grumpy, grouchy, demanding people is frustrating and usually produces personal fantasies filled with revenge themes – how can I best get even with this person. Here is a counter-intuitive idea from the book and training film titled Fish! One of the most popular training films ever and based on a fish market at the famous Pike Place Street Market in Seattle, Washington, Fish! encourages us to “make the day” of the contentious person. Instead of “getting even” strategies, why not pursue the goal of making the individual’s interaction with yourself the best part of that person’s day? Two amazing things happen when you pursue this goal. One is that you may find an astonishing transformation in the person you are dealing with. The other is that you will feel much better personally when pursuing a positive strategy as opposed to being consumed by negative thoughts and actions.

Remember what I said earlier: these are simple, powerful concepts that are difficult to implement. It is hard to want to “make the day” of a person standing in front of you who is doing everything possible to make your day miserable.

Finally, I want to set forth Robert Greenleaf’s thoroughly discussed topic of servant leadership. Greenleaf’s work emphasizes that leadership is most effective when it is not viewed as power over subordinates, but rather is seen as being in service to those around you. Since Greenleaf’s original work in the nineteen eighties, there have been a multitude of other books written on the same subject. The point is always the same: being in service is far more effective than lording it over.

Applying the same reasoning to relationships, I would like to promote servant relationships. Tim Sanders' book Love is the Killer App provides excellent ideas on how one can properly express love in the workplace by being in service. Sanders believes that love is the killer app because it ultimately is the most powerful business tool.

A closing thought; Robert Heinlein is one of my favorite science fiction writers. Before his death he wrote almost 100 books. His best known character is a man by the name of Lazarus Long (still living at the age of 3,000). Lazarus Long is an interstellar warrior along the lines of Hans Solo. There is a little book called The Famous Quotations of Lazarus Long and in it you will find:

Always remember this; your enemy is not wrong in his own eyes. If you keep this in mind you may be able to make him your friend. If not kill him, but not with hate.

Whenever I use this quote I always remind the audience that on a planet far, far away killing may not be a problem. On earth it is a different matter. So, go easy on the killing part. There are two aspects of the quote, however, which I am very fond of. First, there is the counter-intuitive concept of turning your enemy into your friend. Second, and a good place to end this column, hate is a sure destroyer of relationships and it has no positive outcomes. Even when an organization is confronted with the necessity to take decisive action against an employee, a negative affect does not have to be a part of that process.

Next Month: Growth and Advancement as a component of the great workplace.

Reader Question

We are downsizing our agency by eliminating some programs. Most of the employees in those programs will be laid off. A substantial majority of the employees that will be laid off are over 40, while a significant majority of those retained are under 40. Are we in trouble?

Obviously you are concerned with what we call age discrimination. The ADEA (Age Discrimination in Employment Act) is the Federal statute of interest, and there may very well be state statutes that would apply. You should definitely assess your situation to determine whether there is a potential problem of sufficient risk that it warrants seeking specific legal advice. For example, you use the words “substantial majority.” What is the total number that you are laying off and what is the actual percentage of senior employees being laid off, as compared to the percentage of senior employees being retained? Is there a significant wage gap between the two groups? The arithmetic itself may make you vulnerable. If so, I would definitely want to check with a knowledgeable attorney as to how the law relates to your particular situation and as to whether there are court decisions that may give guidance on the matter.

While I will leave it to the attorneys to give specific council, there are some general comments that may be helpful with regard to employment and age discrimination. First, with regard to the concept of employment discrimination, there is both the issue of disparate treatment and disparate impact, both of which are prohibited by the ADEA. Disparate treatment involves singling out a protected group for adverse action. Disparate impact concerns what appears to be a neutral action, but one that disproportionately, adversely impinges on a protected class (senior employees being a protected class). Depending on the specific facts of the situation, either one of these two could be present in the situation described in the question. Most likely, however, the situation involves a question of disparate impact.

The antidote for a claim of disparate impact is a valid argument by the employer that actions were taken for a bona fide business reason. Be careful, what may appear on its face to be a neutral action (not favoring one group over another) may be seen quite differently by the courts. Here are some questions you might want to ask yourself:

  • Why are we closing these programs while keeping others?

  • Will we be reopening, in the near future, the same programs and hiring younger employees?

  • How is it that the programs we are closing have the senior employees while the programs we are keeping have the junior?

  • Are we denying bumping rights to our senior employees while in the past we have been open to finding positions for the senior employees in the programs we are retaining?

Answering these questions is important to fully understand the implications of what you are doing and to fully explore your vulnerabilities.

Books of the Month

Professional Growth: Marketing departments specialize in writing powerful, sticky messages. Regardless of your position, however, getting your messages to stick can have a substantial payoff. I found the following book very useful even though I have little to do with marketing.

Made to Stick - Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Personal Growth: Are you intrigued by the debate between science and theology? A Joyful Theology is a simple book with a powerful and deep message. I like books that expand your thinking and leave you feeling joyful.

A Joyful Theology – Sara Maitland

Quote of the Month

Instead of loving your enemy, treat your friend a little bit better.

Edgar Watson Howe

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September 20, 2007

Productivity: the Art of Accomplishment

One can easily view the workplace as a sweatshop where poor employees toil on endlessly under unbearably harsh conditions. While there may be an element of truth to that perspective in some parts of the world, it is hardly an accurate characterization of work in the USA. When I ask my graduate students, as I do every year, to describe a workplace that is desirable to them, inevitably work is viewed as a place to accomplish something. They find that it is not enough to simply get paid for the time you spend at work. Satisfaction is directly related to a sense of achievement.

Many of the graduate students are working on advanced degrees because they view public service as a personal value. In other words, work becomes a better place to be when I leave each day feeling that my efforts have resulted in measurable, positive outcomes. On the other hand, it is discouraging to leave work with the gnawing sense that my time has been wasted. This is one of the reasons why so many of us dislike group meetings: these meetings are often poorly run and highly wasteful of participants time.

Now, before I go on, I must set forth a disclaimer. There are obviously those employees who are not particularity concerned about accomplishment. If an individual is exhausted because he or she is working two low paying jobs in order to survive financially, personal satisfaction from high accomplishment is probably not on the top of the list. On the other hand, if a person is beset with personal problems, getting by and getting a paycheck may be more than sufficient to that person. While there are constructive strategies for managing employees who are not accomplishment-oriented, that is a topic for a different e-zine and not a concern of this one.

Ultimately, however, I believe that the vast majority of employees like to work in a situation where they believe their time is well spent and for a boss who is good at helping employees get the job done. The remainder of this e-zine focuses on concepts and actions related to creating a productive workplace.

About fifteen years ago there was a wildcat strike at a GM plant in Flint, Michigan. A wildcat strike occurs during the term of a labor contract and is both unusual and illegal. It most often occurs when employees are very angry about something. Ironically, one of the issues at the factory involved a new provision in the labor contract that permitted a piecework approach to certain jobs. Instead, however, of being paid by the piece, employees assigned to a job that was designated piecework were permitted to leave work when they completed the designated number of pieces for that position.

The example set forth in the article that I read involved employees who operated a muffler assembly station. Under the old labor agreement, each employee in this position was producing on average 38 mufflers for each eight hour shift. Under the new piecework system, when an employee finished 40 mufflers they would be allowed to leave work and receive pay for the whole eight hour shift.

Under this approach both the employer and employee benefited. In almost every case, the employer got two more mufflers for each eight hours of pay and a diligent employee could work fewer hours while receiving pay for a full shift. Here is the rub: under the new piecework system employees were completing 40 mufflers in just over four hours. This created tremendous internal dissension because employees who were not in a piecework job did not have the opportunity to receive full pay for less than eight hours of work. Ultimately, the employer went back to the old system to get rid of the internal strife.

There are two points from this example that I want to emphasize. First, in most cases employees are capable of producing far more than what they are currently producing. Further, I believe that employees are happier when producing at a higher level - they have a greater sense of accomplishment. In other words, better performance does not have to occur at the expense of job satisfaction, but rather can be an enhancer. Most importantly, it is the task of management to find constructive ways to bring out the best performance in each employee.

Second, it is not true that if an employee can produce 40 mufflers in four hours, he or she can produce 80 mufflers in eight hours. There is no reason to believe that the pace of work undertaken by the employees during the four hours could be maintained over eight hours. In the book The Power of Full Engagement, the authors focus on the importance of managing employee energy. They point out the significant difference between managing a steady flow of energy and managing short outbursts of high energy. They take the position that short outburst of high energy will generally achieve an increase in outcome. In other words, there can be a regular rate of work, which is not taxing, punctuated by periods of intense effort to achieve a clearly defined outcome.

The critical question involves the methods by which employees can be encouraged to provide the periods of intense effort. Going home early is obviously one reward, and there are many others that can be used. In the construction industry I have observed contractors very skillfully using a "celebration of accomplishment" as a reward at certain milestones in a project. In these cases, the employees were very well aware of the milestone and the push that was necessary to accomplish the work within the scheduled period of time.

I leave you with this thought as we move on to the next point: you really need to be thinking about how to manage for bursts of energy, as opposed to simply maintaining a steady state. A burst can be exhilarating to employees and, if properly managed, will provide a higher level of performance and greater job satisfaction.

Turning to another point, you will find under the recommended reading section of this e-zine my endorsement of the book Execution: the Discipline of Getting Things Done. One of the basic premises of the book is that organizations often spend a substantial amount of time creating business plans and determining action steps only to find that very little happens - there is a failure to execute. Execution is the carry-through of the action steps. The book states:

Execution is a specific set of behaviors and techniques that companies need to master in order to have competitive advantage. It is a discipline of its own. In big companies and small ones, it is the critical discipline for success now. (Page 7)

I see execution as the difference between working hard and getting the job done. I often feel that I work very hard and get nothing done. I would guess that many of you feel exactly the same way. Part of the discipline of execution is having an awareness that we need to be getting things done. Be clear as to what those things are and do not confuse hard work with execution.

One of the ways that I evaluate the effectiveness of my own work efforts is to determine what percentage of time spent was value added. Value added work is work which directly supports a desired outcome. I have found that being conscious of the fact that a significant portion of my effort needs to be value added helps me keep on task and assures that things will get done.

One other point about execution. I once heard a wonderful presentation titled Elephants Don't Bite, Fleas Do. The point of the presentation is that big mistakes aren't the problem with execution. Sure, they can happen and they can create a mess. But, in most cases the real problem is all of the small mistakes that constantly disrupt the flow of work. Thus, one of the critical components of execution is timely attention to the details; get it right the first time. The constant redoing of a task is not value added and it obviously detracts from getting things done.

Finally, I'd like to point to the work by Robert Mager in the classic piece titled Analyzing Performance Problems, or You Really Oughta Wanna. This book would have been my second choice for recommended reading based on the topic of this e-zine. It is an old classic published many years ago and recently completely revised into a third edition. It is full of good ideas on how to analyze and correct employee performance issues.

I want to conclude this portion of the e-zine by focusing on just one of the concepts from the book. Mager gives an example of a dental school that felt its students were performing poorly in fitting dentures to patients. In studying the problem, Mager noticed that the fitting room was on one floor and the lab where work was done on the dentures was down a long hallway and up a flight of stairs to the next floor. Significant improvement occurred in student performance when the lab was moved next to the fitting room.

Conclusion: make it easy for your employees to do the right thing. In my view this is the logical first step in looking for ways to improve the performance of employees. Are there ways to remove barriers from effective performance? Are there ways to make it easier for employees to do what we need them to be doing?

Reader Question

I manage a residential care facility that provides services to the developmentally disabled. Recently I was asked by the parents of a young man (early 20s) if I could move a male employee to another location. The parents thought that their son had developed an inappropriate crush on the employee. They are not accusing the employee of inappropriate behavior, but were worried about the feelings and actions of their son. The problem is compounded by the fact that the employee has openly acknowledged that he is gay. Do you have any thoughts?

There are days when I very much believe that it is much easier to be a college professor, seminarist and labor arbitrator then to manage anything, let alone a residential care facility. Your question potentially involves issues related to involuntary transfer, discrimination based on sexual orientation, good customer service and other less troubling matters. You ask if I have any thoughts, and I do.

First, since I believe in the concept of open management, the initial step should be to involve the employee. I have two reservations, however, about the involvement process. To begin, it is difficult to have open interaction on a touchy subject with an employee if the relationship does not have a history of friendly discourse. If the relationship with the employee is touchy or strained, then I think the communication will have to be more formal and guarded. Hopefully this is not the case and you will have an opportunity to determine whether the employee will positively accept a transfer. After all, the employee may be feeling a certain amount of personal stress over the situation and would welcome a new environment. Even if that is not true, the employee will be involved in a problem solving process.

My other reservation concerns the nature of the interaction itself. Management needs to retain control over the problem and not cede authority to the employee. Yes, you want the employee to be a part of finding a good solution, but the ultimate authority needs to remain with management.

Second, it has become almost trite to refer someone to an attorney. This is one of those situations, however, where you may need to consult an attorney before acting, as the laws in each state with regard to nondiscrimination and sexual orientation differ substantially. This is an area where the law has been changing and you will need the latest information.

Third, having acknowledged the above reality, there are two points that need to be considered. One has to do with the concept of equal treatment. What if the nature of the problem did not involve an employee that was openly gay? What if the individual in question had a crush on a female employee and the parents were concerned about this relationship? The general rule of thumb requires equal treatment of employees unless there is a clear business reason why they should be treated differently. In either case the Employer may see a good reason to transfer the employee or not to transfer. My guess is that the reasoning would be essentially the same for both situations.

The other point deserving of consideration involves the protocols you have in place for responding to a parental complaint or concern. Do you have a process by which to ensure that the parents are fully listened to? On the other hand, my experience is that an organization needs to be careful as to how it responds to complaints. At times, simply listening with a little reassurance will be sufficient to resolve the problem. Or, have the parents actually met the employee? That meeting may be sufficient to set aside any concerns. Ultimately, and this I believe is the important point, the agency must act in the best interest of the organization, even if the action is not to the parents' liking. At minimum, however, the action of the agency needs to be provided to the parents along with an appropriate explanation.

Note: Do you have a perplexing HR question? Send us the question by clicking on thehawthornegroup@msn.com and let us take a shot at answering it. We will select one question each month and research it. Please indicate whether we have permission to publish your name and organization when identifying the question.

Books of the Month

Professional Growth: This e-zine is all about getting things done. What better book then one that focuses on why some organizations accomplish a great deal while others accomplish very little.

Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done - Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan.

Personal Growth: How often do we do things without knowing that we are doing them even though whatever we are doing has a profound impact on our lives? While the central theme of this book is about our eating habits, the message is far deeper.

Mindless Eating - Brian Wansink

Quote of the Month

The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago; the second best time is right now.


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August 6, 2007

Building a Positive Workplace Culture

I want to introduce you to a new web site that I have created (www.makingworkabetterplacetobe.com) that is dedicated to promoting concepts related to building a positive workplace. Positive, of course, in the context of how employees feel about the place. A great workplace has four foundational elements: 1) a great culture, 2) high levels of productivity, 3) quality relationships, 4) opportunity for growth. I'm dedicating the next four posts to further exploring each of the foundational elements. We start, therefore, with looking at what it takes to build a great organizational culture.

When I think of organizational culture, my mind immediately goes to two constructs. The first involves what can be called the informal rules of behavior -- the way we do things around here. Another way to express this point is the concept of a boundary between what is acceptable activity and what is not acceptable. By the word activity I am referencing actions related to work and relationship - how we do our work and how we relate to each other.

The second construct I like to call the organizational affect - the feeling of the place. There are times when you walk into an organization and you have an immediate impression of good spirits and good will. At other times, the sense of the place may be tense and irritable.

When activity is combined with affect, the desirable end state is a positive, productive culture. Or, from an opposite point of view, the organization seeks to avoid a negative, unproductive culture.

It seems to me that much of what I have just written is somewhat obvious and, perhaps, common sense. The challenge, of course, is to focus on what will bring about a positive productive culture. How does an organization set boundaries on work and relationship behavior that brings about a positive, productive culture? I have a few thoughts for you.

First, Marty Seligman wrote a wonderful book titled Authentic Happiness. In that book he argues that true happiness emanates from behavior that is consistent with our core values. In my view, organizations have values. These values are frequently written out. The values that are written out are not necessarily the actual values of the organization. The organizational culture reflects the actual or working values. The employees within the organization also have their individual core values.

It is the connection between outcomes and values that I most want to draw your attention to. I do not believe it is possible to have a positive workplace culture if the stated values of the organization, the actual values of the organization and the individual values of the employees are out of alignment. This is true whether we are talking about the relationship between our values and how we treat our fellow employees or whether we are talking about values and how we are asked to perform our work. In his new book Measure of a Leader, Behavioral Psychologist Aubrey Daniels and his co-author write, "Competence comes when successful outcomes are produced by values-driven purposeful behaviors" [emphasis added]. The feeling of competence is obviously a dimension of a positive workplace affect, and that feeling, in my view, is buttressed when the outcomes are a reflection of our values.

I recently had a client who told me that she had devised a half-day training program around a series of hypothetical incidents. Participants were asked to identify possible courses of action in response to each incident. The second part of this activity was a discussion related to each and how the action reflected the expressed values of the organization. It was, she stated, a most thought provoking activity and one that drew an enthusiastic response from the participants. Most important, I believe that such an exercise will help build a positive culture in that it encourages participants to connect action with values.

Simply put, you cannot have a positive, productive culture if employees are pressured into acting contrary to their personal values. Moreover, when an organization expresses a positive set of values, but asks employees to act inconsistently with those values, it undermines any effort to establish a positive culture. A great culture cannot be built on unethical behavior.

Second, organizational culture is little influenced by memos, lectures and other formal edicts. Rather, culture is created primarily by everyday informal interaction and the example set by leadership. Extolling the virtues of a strong work ethic, for example, in a written memo will typically have little impact on the culture. Modeling a strong work ethic by being the first to arrive, the last to leave and by industrious activity will have a much greater impact. You cannot expect your subordinates to act civilly when you act like a jerk. You cannot expect your employees to act with integrity if you fail to act with integrity. You must walk the talk or, more importantly, simply let the walking speak for itself.

Gandhi's often used statement that "you must be the change that you want to see in the world" has become, perhaps, almost trite. What I believe is often missing, however, is the simple truth that modeling behavior by leadership impacts the organizational culture only if there is a strong bond of trust between subordinate and superior. If the superior is disliked and not trusted, employees are not very likely to follow the example that has been set. When employees believe in your leadership they will follow the behavior that is modeled. Question, what do you do that makes you believable and that permits your subordinates to respect you?

Third, I am a strong believer in the importance of affection in the workplace. Do we like each other? Do we enjoy working with each other? The difficulty so often is finding a way to make affection for your fellow employees part of the organizational culture. Recently I ran across the top level executive for a premier country club. In our discussions he shared with me that it was his practice constantly emphasize with his 140 employees that "the most important thing we do here is take care of each other. Our patrons are the benefactors."

What is intriguing to me is that many organizations have a strong emphasis on providing quality customer service. Obviously this is important for the survival of those organizations. However, I wonder if my executive friend is not correct. Is it not difficult to give good customer service if we don't like and take care of our fellow employees? Moreover, if we take good care of each other, are we not creating a positive environment (culture) that can be easily seen and appreciated by our customers?

Desmond Tutu is quoted as saying that "love is more demanding than the law." I view the word "law" as including everything from federal/state statutes to an employee handbook - the formal rules. To the extent that leadership can work with employees to create a culture that truly values taking care of each other, I believe that you will have surpassed the requirements of law and built a workplace that employees will truly appreciate.

Clearly, there is much more that can be presented with regard to the above three points. My intention is to continue to do so, but primarily through material placed on the making work a better place to be website. For now, I want to simply emphasize the point that with some focused effort it is clearly possible to build a strong, productive, positive workplace culture.

Next Month: Obviously, this month focused on the first of the four foundational elements to building a great workplace, next month I will look at the second - the productive workplace. The workplace does not feel, to most employees, like a great place to be when they see that their work efforts are either wasted or short-changed. We all want to feel that our life counts for something.

Reader Question

I was recently conducting a job interview along with my boss who is the owner of our small company. To my surprise, the owner asked the candidate whether or not he was a smoker.
I did not think it was appropriate to ask this question and wondered if it violated some statue. Can you clarify this for me?

I can understand the owner's interest in this question. Over the years I have run across a number of different statistics on the negative impact of the smokers in our work force. This includes higher medical premiums, more sick days, lower productivity, etc.

But, you are right to be concerned at least in a number of different states. Our research indicates that 29 of the 50 states have specific provisions protecting the right of employment for smokers. The state of Oregon statute, for example, puts the matter as follows:

ORS Chapter 14, Title 51, 659A.315 Restricting use of tobacco in nonworking hours prohibited; exceptions.

(1) It is an unlawful employment practice for any employer to require, as a condition of employment, that any employee or prospective employee refrain from using lawful tobacco products during nonworking hours, except when the restriction relates to a bona fide occupational requirement.

I have two general thoughts about your question and the state of employment law. First, as a general rule, it is not advisable to predicate employment practices on off duty conduct that is legal. If the off-duty conduct has a negative impact on the workplace, then focus on controlling the negative impact. For example, the employer can focus on the attendance problem, not the smoking behavior.

Second, even in those states that do not have a specific provision against discrimination for lawful outside of work behavior, I would be careful about using it as the basis of an employment action. I would definitely want to check with a knowledgeable attorney as to the specific state of the law and as to whether there were court decisions in your state that give guidance on the matter.

Note: Do you have a perplexing HR question? Send us the question by clicking on thehawthornegroup@msn.com and let us take a shot at answering it. We will select one question each month and research it. Please indicate whether we have permission to publish your name and organization when identifying the question.

Books of the Month

Professional Growth
I was recently talking to an association executive about a speaking engagement. He made a telling comment, "my constituents are tired of hearing the same old stuff about leadership." If you are tired of the "same old stuff," then I strongly recommend you read:

Measure of a Leader - Aubrey Daniels and James Daniels.

Personal Growth I have always been fascinated by authors who can make profound statements with very simple words. Don Miguel Ruiz has that ability and one of his newest books addresses a key issue, one that is mentioned above.

The Mastery of Love - Don Miguel Ruiz

Quote of the Month

The real act that leadership should fear is indifference - indifference to the vision and values that make the organization unique.

Daniels and Daniels, Measure of a Leader

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January 3, 2007

Making Work a Better Place to Be, Revisited

In April of 2006, I wrote an e-zine titled Making Work a Better Place To Be. That e-zine marked a transition into both a new format and a specific focus. My goal was to develop each topic with the underlying purpose of making the information helpful in creating a more dynamic, constructive workplace. I have decided that, for a couple of reasons, it is time to revisit that topic.

The workplace, of course, is defined by the people in your employee. Obviously, therefore, the concept of making work a better place is specifically focused on how employees experience the workplace. From a leadership or HR perspective, it is very easy to focus on specific factors such as compensation, benefits, employee orientation, performance management and other such concerns. What about the bigger picture, however?

My father was a minister and, like most preachers, loved a good story. One of his favorites, that I heard many times, involved the building of a great cathedral – think Notre Dame of Paris.

In the story, a “reporter” decided to write an article on the building of the cathedral. In order to do so he determined to interview some of the workers on the project. Talking to masons, glazers, carpenters and other craftspeople, he asked them to explain what they were doing. Each, in greater or lesser detail, described the duties of their craft. This went on until he interviewed a common laborer whose job it was to dig trenches in which to lay drainage tile. Without hesitation, when he was asked the question, the man responded, “Why sir, I am building a great cathedral.”

For all of us, it is easy to get caught up in the daily grind of activities, losing sight of the bigger picture. Are we simply performing the functions of our craft with little awareness of a larger goal? Or, are we consciously aware that our efforts are contributing towards building a great workplace? I am one who believes that being able to see a bigger picture, at least some of the time, will have a significant impact on organizational effectiveness.

Several years ago I listen to a presentation by a highly respected consultant. He provided some insights which I found very useful. One point he made is that there is an endless buffet of tips for leaders. A difficulty is that we often do not distinguish between strategy and tactics. Strategy is the overall plan for creating the desired end (in our case, building a great workplace).

Tactics are individual steps needed to implement the strategy. Tactics are useful, therefore, only to the extent that they support the chosen strategy. Thus, tactics should support a strategy designed to achieve an end goal. I am often dismayed when I see tactics chosen that actually sabotage the strategy. Anger, frustration and ego appear to be some of the motivators for these tactics.

So, are we just doing our craft? Or, are we building a great workplace? Check out my new web site: www.makingworkabetterplacetobe.com. I have committed to maintaining this site as a noncommercial venue to provide articles and ideas related to the creation of a great workplace. The site is new and will be constantly upgraded as we develop material. Most importantly, I am encouraging you to contribute to the website. I welcome your suggestions, articles and other submissions. Obviously, I will retain editorial control but want to make the information as broadly based as possible.

One of the first things you’ll notice when you go to the site is that I have subdivided the larger topic of a great workplace into four primary concerns. In my view, a desirable workplace is dependent on building a great culture, high levels of productivity, quality relationships and the opportunity to grow. There is nothing original in this group of four; I call them the fundamentals. Like any variable that can be called a fundamental, the important issue is not originality but rather effective implementation. In other words, the best workplaces are good at the fundamentals. This is not to say that creativity in implementation cannot be helpful. Rather, the point is that there are basics that must serve as the foundation for a great workplace. I am providing a quick introduction to each of the four foundational principles with the promise to expand on each in future editions of this e-zine.

  1. Much is known about the relationship between organizational culture and organizational performance. In my work I have run across two different definitions of organizational culture: 1) “the way we do things around here,” 2) the point at which the work group says “no.” One fact for sure in any organization, effective and long lasting change occurs only when the culture buys into the new program. Most importantly, culture is little influenced by edict and policy. Rather, the culture must be built and/or influenced overtime. I will have much more to say on this last point in the next e-zine.

  1. Feeling good about your work is difficult if you believe that most of your effort during the workday is wasted. I absolutely believe that employees want to experience the sense of accomplishment that comes from producing desired outcomes. Work that is value added feels good. Work that appears to produce no useful end result is frustrating and demoralizing. While I will write much more on this topic at a later time and encourage your submissions on this point, for the present I want to emphasize that a great workplace has more to it than a warm supportive environment; employees must feel that their time is well spent.

  1. Love is a topic which once again we can discuss in the context of the workplace. Not in the sense, of course, of a romantic relationship or something illicit but in the context of how employees treat each other. Are you surprised? Tim Sander’s marvelous best seller, Love is the Killer App helped to encourage the reconsideration of the importance of positive affection between employees and the appropriate behaviors that should accompany that affection. In my view, you cannot have a great workplace if your employees do not genuinely care for each other.

  1. General systems theory takes the position that an organization is either growing or dying. The same can be said for employees; they are either growing or stagnating. Much has been written about the learning organization and how to implement those strategies that will move the organization and its people in that direction. Without question, a great workplace energizes its employees by promoting growth and opportunity.

I am looking forward to using both the web site and this e-zine to continuing to develop these four concepts and others related to making work a better place to be.

Next Month: obviously, since I have just finished reviewing what I consider to be the four foundational elements of a constructive workplace and have indicated my intention to expand on each in a separate e-zine, the next e-zine will focus on the first of the four: building a positive culture.

Our company recently bargained its first contract with a union, and I’ve just been given the task of representing our position in a grievance over a discharge. It is my understanding that I, as the employer representative, have to meet the burden of proof. Isn’t this backwards? I thought that the party bringing the grievance had the responsibility of proving its case.

There is an old saying in labor relations, “management acts, the union reacts.” Under this concept, the union has the right to challenge a management action when it believes that the action has violated the labor agreement. Thus, in challenging the action, the union carries the burden of proving the violation. If the matter goes to arbitration, then the union goes first with its presentation.

This approach, however, is not applied in a matter of employee discharge. Rather, a regular status employee is viewed as having a right to his or her job and, if the employer wishes to take it away, then a good case needs to be presented towards that end. As a result, if you are in an arbitration proceeding where the discharge is being contested, the employer will be asked to go first with its presentation and it will need to present “just cause” (a well documented case with solid business related reasons) for the termination.

Even if your employees are not represented by a labor organization, you may still be required to present an affirmative case for a discharge. This could happen, for example, related to an EEOC complaint or regarding an unemployment compensation filing. What is important to recognize is that each venue (labor arbitration, EEOC, unemployment) has a different set of decision-making criteria. Thus a solid case for discharge presented to the labor arbitrator may not be a basis for challenging the employee’s petition for unemployment compensation. Likewise, an employer can prevail in a discrimination complaint before EEOC even when it is not successful before the labor arbitrator. Obviously this leads to the conclusion that if the employer wishes to self-represent in all three arenas, then it needs to develop the knowledge necessary to make an effective presentation, a presentation appropriate to the venue. Otherwise, competent professional assistance needs to be obtained.

Quote of the Month:

To be creditable, we must be truthful.

Edward R. Murrow

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December 1, 2006

Attendance Control Programs: Summarizing My Thoughts

Last week a local newspaper ran a front page story about sick leave abuses in the Sheriff’s Department. Overall, sick leave usage was substantially increased over just a few years ago. It seems that the new Sheriff has not been nearly as diligent as the old Sheriff in policing sick leave usage among deputies in the corrections department. When interviewed the Sheriff indicated that he believed his hands were tied by the labor contract and the fact that the deputies were only using sick leave that had been legitimately accrued.

Maybe, but let’s think about that.

As noted in the last e-zine, the main topic for this month is the effectiveness of attendance control programs. As the above article helps illustrate, this is a timely topic and one I frequently receive questions about. Over the years I have reviewed a number of surveys conducted with HR managers on important issues. Tardiness and absenteeism has been, on every single survey, the number one concern. In a prior e-zine I wrote about no fault attendance programs that are based on a rolling twelve month period of time. I am not intending to duplicate that article but rather my intention is to share information, insights and observations related to the attendance issue that have been accumulating over the past 35 years of working with HR problems.

In public sector employment, my experience is that the most common accrual rate is roughly one day of sick leave for each month of work. At one time it was not uncommon to find many of the older employees that had several hundred days of accumulated sick leave. Sick leave was typically viewed as an insurance policy against potential illness. Thus, if you were not ill then sick leave days simply continue to accumulate. If there was a limit on total accrual, potential days of sick leave were simply sacrificed when the limit had been reached. This was viewed no differently than having fire or flood insurance on your house. While one paid for the insurance, the hope is that collection never occurs and the money paid for the insurance simply lost.

Current research indicates that the attitude about sick leave has substantially changed from insurance used to offset an undesired outcome to one of entitlement. Thus many employers, like the above reference Sheriff’s Department, find that a substantial portion of their employees, even those who have been there for many years, have little if any accumulated sick leave. In fact, the last major national survey (2003) contracted by the department of labor added a new statistic covering employees who come to work sick so that they can save their sick leave days for more enjoyable activities. This survey indicated that 7% of sick leave usage was impacted by this new category.

On the other hand, other employment data indicates that there is an offset against the high use of sick leave. This data indicates that today’s employee work on average 200 more hours per year in the U.S. then 30 years ago. Higher levels of sick leave usage may be substantially impacted by the longer hours of work.

Regardless of the causes of sick leave abuse, however, most employers are finding it necessary to implement some type of attendants control program. Hopefully you’ll find the following information helpful in assessing your current program and looking at how it can be modified to become more effective. I believe you should give careful consideration to a number of different factors.

, how you communicate the importance of regular attendance is going to be very important. Obviously a single message is not going to be sufficient. I recently ran across an employee handbook that dealt with the issue of attendance differently than what I have seen in the past. Typically there is a section in the employee handbook spelling out actions that will bring about discipline. Poor attendance is typically identified in this section of the handbook with varying degrees of emphasis.

Oftentimes there is a separate section of the handbook dealing with the various ways in which employment can end. Quitting, retiring, being laid off and being discharged for cause are usually mentioned. The handbook I am referencing, took pains to identify poor attendance as a basis for separation from service and gave it top billing in this section. Employees were informed that attendance issues would result in discipline and multiple days of absence without notification would be considered job abandonment resulting in separation from service.

What I particularly liked about this approach is attendance was given a specific, separate treatment. This distinctive treatment allowed the employer to put a special emphasis on attendance during employee orientation and to highlight it in the event the disciplinary action became necessary for attendance problems. The bottom line is that you need to find ways to effectively communicate the critical importance of regular attendance.

, while modifying existing sick leave programs, particularly if you have a labor contract, will usually raise substantial employee resistance, the “new” attitude toward sick leave usage encourages at least some adaptation. One of the most common is to shift all of the various paid leaves of absences into a single category called paid time off (PTO). If the PTO program is properly administered, it can result in better attendance, less overtime and an easier job for the supervisor. While a detailed discussion of PTO is probably a good topic for a future e-zine, I want to emphasize two elements of a PTO program. The first is that the sum total of vacation time plus sick leave plus other personal leaves should be less than the total days of PTO, but that the employee is fully entitled to use all days of PTO.

The second is that PTO is but one version of an attempt to stop rewarding employees for doing what we don’t want them to do. Sick leave typically can only be used if you’re sick. But, we don’t want people to be sick and therefore to be absent. Employees can use PTO without being sick, just like vacation. Having to use a vacation day (PTO) to cover an illness is not the same as using a day that can only be used to cover an illness.

Most importantly, notice that a PTO program can be fine tuned. One employer I know grants four days of sick leave each year but sick leave is used only on the second day of an illness. The first day is either unpaid or the employee can choose to use a vacation day PTO). This employer informs me that dramatic changes have occurred in employee usage by this simple change. Another employer I am aware of allows sick leave benefits only on the third day of an absence.

Here is a thought: if the standard homeowner was more interested in insurance money as opposed to their home, fire insurance companies would go bankrupt. Employees are no different, if they are more interested in using sick leave as opposing to banking it against future significant illnesses, then you’re sick leave program must be adapted to this attitude otherwise your costs will skyrocket.

, as previously noted, I have already written about no-fault attendance programs. There are a couple points, however, that I would like to emphasize about these programs as part of this e-zine. To begin, while they are probably the most difficult type of program to administer, they also have the greatest likelihood of either controlling the unwanted behavior or expediting the discharge of the employee. They are difficult because absences must be carefully monitored over a rolling twelve months. But, on the positive side, the reason for the absence is not important. The no fault program assumes that people become ill. A legitimate absence or two is of no significance in the no-fault program. It is only a repeated pattern that becomes an issue and that pattern can quickly lead to the termination of employment.

Additionally, the no-fault program operates in such a way as to give significant deference to the person who has incurred a substantial illness. This is true because the typical program revolves around an incident not simply an absence. An incident can be a one day absence or it can be a 45 day absence to recover from a heart attack. Since both are given exactly the same weight, the no-fault program does not work to the disadvantage of good employees who have a single, significant illness; hip replacement surgery comes to mind or something similar.

As noted, however, the challenge to a no-fault program is consistent management of the program. Records need to be impeccably kept and the employer needs to have the highest concern for consistency of application.

One final point on no-fault programs, what I particularly like about them is that they can be presented to emphasize that the employee is needed in the workplace. The quantity, timeliness and sometimes the quality of work suffers when employees are not present. It does not make any difference why someone is absent, the absence impacts work product. Thus, for the employer to attempt to distinguish between unexcused and excused absences may make sense as it applies to employee culpability, it makes no sense whatsoever on whether work is being performed. “We hired you because we need you and we need you all the time,” should be the message we send to our employees.

, now a word of caution. The law protects certain absences from any attendance control program. For example, an absence, covered under the American Family Medical Leave Act (AFMLA) cannot be the basis for disciplinary action under either a no-fault or other attendance program. Also, in many states, Illinois and California as examples, employees who are the victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse have special rights to employment and are entitled to the same protections found in the AFLMA. Likewise absences cause by jury duty cannot be used for discipline or discharge. Additionally, in some states being subpoenaed to testify in a criminal or civil procedure cannot be cause for disciplinary action. I suggest checking with your state department of labor if you are unsure or have questions.

Note: the only protection that the Employer has against abuse for any of the above situations is the right to demand proper documentation. Self diagnosis and/or self serving statements are insufficient to trigger the protections of law. You have the right to require the documents necessary to establish the truthfulness of what the employee is asserting.

Fifth and finally
, the above discussion focuses on threats, sanctions, discipline and ultimately employment termination as methods of controlling absenteeism problems. There is another side to addressing attendance problems. Do your employees experience the workplace as a positive, even if the work is not always the most personally gratifying? I have a strong suspicion that when employees enjoy coming to work that the Employer has substantially fewer problems with attendance. As you will note below, the next e-zine addresses the topic of making work a better place to be.

Next Month: so I already let it out, I plan to start a five part e-zine series on the topic of making work a better place to be. The first installment takes on the topic from a global perspective. The next four installments will break the global into specific component parts.

What barriers are there to imposing a ceiling on the accrual of vacation time?

The essence of this question involves the right of the Employer to impose a “use it or lose it” policy with regard to vacation time. Under this policy, for example, if an employee is allowed to accumulate 120 hours of vacation time, then his/her total accrual will never exceed 120 hours regardless of the accrual rate or the amount of vacation time actually taken. Since vacation accrual is typically noted on each paycheck, the amount shown on a paycheck will never exceed 120 hours regardless of whether any vacation time has been taken. Thus it is possible for the employee to receive less of a benefit then he/she is entitled to by not taking any vacation time.

One of my graduate students recently wrote a paper in which she found that in 2004 Americans gave back $22 billion worth of vacation time; obviously a very significant number which makes this a significant issue.

The question asks about barriers to imposing a use it or lose it policy. My first response is to note that it is a subject not covered under Federal wage and hour legislation. Rather it is the subject that is in almost every case covered under state regulations and found as part of administrative code (however that is depicted in each individual state). I have been most successful in finding information from individual states by looking for those provisions covering payment and collection of final wages and compensation.

I have yet to find any state that does not permit a use it or lose it policy, but the right of the employer to implement such a policy is always linked to two conditions. First the employer must clearly communicate its policy to employees. Second, the employee must have had reasonable opportunities to use vacation time. Since I believe there is always some risk to employers when employees receive a reduction in wages and/or benefits, my thought is that annual notification to each employee, perhaps the first week of January, of the use it or lose it policy and the amount of vacation time currently accrued would help fulfill the employers affirmative notice responsibilities. The employer would also, undoubtedly, be wise to have a system by which employees were given notice of potential accrual loss the pay period before any losses occurred.


The entire world is a narrow bridge
But the main thing is not to fear.

Likutey Moharan 2:28

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