When Employment Applications Go Bad

Starbucks narrowly missed losing another employment-related lawsuit – this time, about their employment application.

A California State Court of Appeal overturned a decision that would have made Starbucks liable for $26 million because of an improper employment application.

In California, it’s permissable to ask if a candidate has previous criminal convictions – except for minor offenses, such as possession of marijuana. The Starbucks application made no such provision.

An excellent summary of the case is written by Richard S. Rosenberg of Ballard, Rosenberg, Golper & Savitt here.

What is of bigger concern is what application form most businesses are using. One of the first things we review during our HR Compliance Audit is the employment application. Small businesses often use applications from their local office supply company.

Big mistake.

Each state has different criteria, and the employment application needs to be state-specific and legally reviewed.

Time to check your employment application!

Alternatives To Employee Layoffs

When consulting on potential workplace layoffs, the first thing I try to do is get an employer to quantify how valuable an employee is. For example, when the economy eventually rebounds, what will it cost that employer not to have that employee there?

It’s easy to make a rash decision to eliminate jobs, but the long-term consequences can be significant to a business.

Now, the California Employment Development Department has issued a “Guide For Worksharing Employers” – an alternative to employee layoffs. It’s an Unemployment Insurance program, which allows certain employers to reduce employee hours while the employees collect partial unemployment insurance benefits.

The program may help employers with cost-cutting as well as keep key employees. and avoid the mad hiring dash later.

An employer may be able reduce the employee workweek from five days to four – which results in a 20% reduction. The employees would be eligible to receive 20 percent of their weekly unemployment insurance benefits—and are spared the hardship of full unemployment.

There are qualifiers – but this is a good example of yet another alternative that should be considered when contemplating employee layoffs.

If You Don’t Act, They Will Come

There are a number of missteps an employer can make when faced with an employee accused of harassment or discrimination.

But the easiest mistake to avoid is often the first decision an employer makes – to ignore that accusation.

Employers are mandated to take “prompt corrective action”. In most cases, that means conducting an independent, unbiased workplace investigation; consulting with a labor attorney; avoiding retaliation; and taking appropriate action against the accused.

These steps are appropriate and necessary for all businesses. I’m constantly amazed, however, how large corporations replete with well-staffed human resources employees get accused in this area.

Case in point: The Cheesecake Factory, which was recently sued by the EEOC for failing to respond to accusations of same-sex sexual harassment.

The case is documented by Melissa Fleischer, Esq. in the Employment Law Information Network blog.

"Linkedin.com" and the Employer’s Dilemma

Most employers have a policy in their Employee Handbook (as they should), limiting the use of internet to ‘business use only’). Many employers also have ‘firewalls’ to ensure appropriate use of the internet and to mitigate the intrusions of viruses.

Myspace and Facebook are clearly social sites and – in my opinion – should not be used during worktime.

But what about linkedin.com? This is a business networking site which toes the line between social (“look up old classmates”) and networking for professional opportunities.

The answer? It’s really up to the manager. While professional networking can increase visibility and potential sales, a lack of productivity may result as employees spend too much time ‘networking’ and not enough time producing.

My recommendation is to monitor each employee’s productivity individually. If productivity is falling, then consequences should result.

And remember – a lot of linkedin users are on the site to network for another job…

An article from Eric J. Sinrod via cnet.com adds some more perspective.

Creating Value For Your Employees

In the last two employer assessment surveys we conducted for medium-sized businesses (both since the recession started) – both employers were ranked very low by their employees with the statement “I know what my benefits are”. In addition, employees felt their benefits package was inferior.

One way small businesses can manage those issues (which go directly to morale and performance) is to communicate precisely what those benefits are worth to each employee. In fact, we’re designing those communications for those clients right now.

The best communication tool I’ve seen in this area in a long time comes from Jessica Lee, an HR executive with APCO Worldwide, and blogger at Fistful of Talent and now her own blog.

Take a look how she designed the compensation summary – it’s clear, concise, and communicates not only what is included in the employee’s benefits package but the dollar value on what it costs the company.


Pitfalls of Reductions-In-Force

We’re presently working with a number of clients on reducing their workforce. There are a number of organizational development issues related to a RIF (such as who stays, who goes, what does the company look like after the reduction and how will all the tasks continue to be done).

But there are a number of compliance issues as well.

Baker Donelson has a good piece on some of those pitfalls.

A reduction-in-force is not simply “let’s eliminate ‘x’ number of positions”; it takes careful decision making; excellent organizational development consultation; and a good employment attorney.

What’s The Best Way To Communicate In The Workplace?

One of the cornerstones of my management philosophy is:

Without the ability to communicate well, a manager is doomed to failure, no matter how well he or she does in every other required area.

How should you communicate?

Lindsey Pollack, writing at abcnews.com, suggests that how you communicate information is predicated on the person you’re communicating to. [By the way, she’s right!]

That means you must understand your boss (or your subordinate) well enough to be able to make that correct decision.

Employers: Get a new Employment Application

When we conduct HR Compliance Audits for our clients, one of the first things we look at is their employment application (assuming they even have one).

Most smaller business go to Office Depot and pick up a packet of standard applications. Big mistake. Most of those applications are not state-specific and may even ask questions prohibited by state laws.

A legally reviewed employment application is critical. Solely relying on a resume does not solve the problem: you should get signatures that the candidate signs understanding that you’re an at-will employer; that they approve of you getting references or background checks; and that any lies on the application could result in failure to hire or termination.

Also – studies suggest that up to 70% of all resumes contain false or misleading information.

An even clearer argument is made by Jennifer Brown Shaw and Matthew Norfleet in this post on the Shaw Valenza website.

Management and Business Trends For 2009

2009 is shaping up to be a challenging year for small businesses with a world full of unknowns. The businesses that succeed will be those who can quickly adapt to change; embrace unknowns; and innovate.

Successful small business owners don’t look at this recession as a challenge – they look at it as an opportunity. Your competition is going to struggle, but that doesn’t mean you have to.

For the purposes of this article, we’re defining a small business as one who employs between 1 and 500 people. Here are our predicted employment trends for 2009, and ways you can use these trends to sustain and improve your business for the long term.

1. Employees have transformed from an ‘entitlement’ mentality into a ‘privilege’ mentality.

We’ve observed over the past several years that employees have generally viewed their employment as that of entitlement – they are owed by their employers for the work they do. With a robust, growing economy, that means they can pick up and leave for a better opportunity at the first sign of disappointment. It also means their attitude is generally not that of a team player – but as an individual who deserves promotion, salary increases and more attention. This is no longer the case. Everyone knows that layoffs have been pervasive, and they could be the next to go. This will result – if managed properly – in employees who will complain less, work harder, and become more appreciative of the job they have.

2. Adapting to change is key to success.

Change is one of the most misunderstood and feared actions in business. No one knows how to deal with it well. When things are going well, you don’t want change. When things are going badly, change can’t happen fast enough. To employees the fear relating to change is simply the fear of the unknown. People get into comfort levels and resist mightily when someone or something attempts to break that comfort zone.

Regardless of whether it’s good or bad change, it rests upon management’s shoulders to incorporate the changes with a minimum of difficultly. The first thing to do is find a way to make the change work for you and your employees. What can you do within your power to mitigate the negative aspects of the change? How can you emphasize the positive aspects of change, if any?

Next, realize that you’re a leader. You are on stage. Your team will know your nuances, so you’re not allowed to show frustration or weakness in front of them. Leaders lead – they say “here is the way I believe we need to go,” and then go. This is the attitude you must take when managing change.

Some people never accept change. They are the ones who have to leave or they become so jaded and negative they no longer are functioning members of your team. When change happens, it happens. End of story.

Virtually any change breeds opportunity – the key is finding the opportunity and acting on it. Focus on the positive.

3. Wage & Hour lawsuits will become even more prevalent.

Your house needs to be in order before you take action. Labor lawyers are changing their practices to focus solely on wage and hour lawsuits, which are easy to prove and violations are myriad in businesses throughout the United States.

Employees everywhere are reading about the huge sums of money ‘won’ by disgruntled ex-employees filing lawsuits against their employers. The major focus will be on exempt or non-exempt status, meal and break periods and whether an ‘independent contractor’ should properly have been classified as an employee.

Think it can’t happen to you? Or is your excuse that you’ve never had it happen to you before?

All it takes is one employee to talk to an attorney. Ask Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Electronic Arts, and the thousands of small businesses that have paid hundreds of millions of dollars in the past year. If you’re going to terminate or reduce an employee, they’re going to look for a way to get money – especially in a dismal job marketplace.

4. The opportunity is now to do more with less.

If you’re maximizing the people you have, you won’t need so many people. You can get more done with fewer people. How? By knowing what your people do best. Evaluate your talent. Carefully consider your need for every one of your employees. Most businesses are not maximizing each and every employee they have. There are techniques available to ensure talent maximization. Find your best performers. Decide you can best support you and your efforts both over the next year and the next few years.

5. Businesses that communicate effectively are those who will succeed.

There is fear in the marketplace. Employees are wondering if you’re going to cut staff, perquisites, and their free coffee. They’re wondering what you are doing to sustain your business this year. It is imperative that frequent and clear communication lead the way to your success. Your employees are heavily invested in the success of their business, and they have a right to know what you’re doing. Even saying, “I don’t know” is preferable to not communicating. And you need to do more than put out a memo or company-wide e-mail. Your managers and supervisors must be empowered to candidly talk with their staffs as well. The last thing you need is to lose a great employee simply because they didn’t know what was happening in your business.

Before you consider cuts, survey your employees: What benefits would you cut if we needed to? You will be surprised that the suggestions you get. The things you think employees hold dear are not necessarily the ones they believe are important.

6. Adversity breeds innovation.

Too many businesses over the past several years have become complacent. And that complacency (“we’ve always done it this way”) has failed both businesses and employees. When times become difficult is the exact moment to innovate. I never saw a successful manager who didn’t take a calculated risk now and again, or who was not considered an innovator. On the other hand, I’ve seen many average managers miss becoming great because they were afraid to make a mistake. Great leaders do not avoid or fear trouble: they embrace it.

Put together groups of your employees into focus sessions. Ask them what they would do if they were in your shoes. Encourage participation and never denigrate an idea. At this time – any idea is worthy of exploration.

Your competition will be inert this year. The best way to excel over your competitors is to honestly re-evaluate your business. Solicit the advice of your employees and make no pre-conceived notions of them.

For my book, I developed a list of hallmarks of great managers of people. Several years later, they are even more appropriate for business owners and leaders:

  • Vision. They know where they want to go and, equally important – they know how to get there.
  • Communication. They are world class communicators.
  • Equality. They treat employees the way they want to be treated and they are no more demanding of others than they are of themselves.
  • Decisiveness. They can make decisions quickly, are accountable for those decisions but are never so rigid they are wed to those decisions.
  • Leadership. People want to work for them. (There’s a big difference between liking someone and wanting to work for someone).
  • Knowledge. They know their position, their industry and what their employees do better than anyone else.
  • Accomplishment. They get things done.
  • Style. They are not so entrenched with their professional lives they forget that a quality personal life is the most important thing to most people.
  • Commitment. They are committed to the success of their business unit, of the people who work for him, and to the company they work for.
  • Temperament. Employees want to work for a person who has a great temperament – someone who isn’t moody or subject to numerous highs and lows, but one who has an understanding that he or she is always on stage, because employees are always looking at their leaders to set high standards of both temperament and judgment.

In 2009, the business owner and leader who has the ability to honestly evaluate talent, performance and make the decisions necessary to sustain the business not just in the short term, but for the long term, is the leader who will be highly successful both this year and beyond.

Managing Layoffs

A lot of large businesses have been laying off employees, and small and medium-sized businesses are doing the same.

The difference is that (generally speaking) large corporations have large teams of attorneys and HR specialists managing that process, while smaller businesses do not.

If you’re considering laying off employees, slow down. The process is fraught with potential for lawsuits if not managed properly.

We have gained many clients in the past few months who wish to layoff segments of their workforce, and doing it properly is key.

If this is a consideration for you, read this article from our friends at Jackson Lewis first.