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Your Thoughts: Decoupling Health Care From Employment

I am reminded every day that I am lucky to be married (some days more than others) but here is at least one reason why I’ll admit I am extremely lucky to be married: I have group health insurance. It doesn’t cost much. It gives me great coverage. And I’d probably be on my back or broke if it weren’t for the fact that I am married to a person that has a job that provides it.

The last plan I had under my own name ran out in August of last year. I was able to enroll under my wife’s insurance for $140/month. In December, we were on vacation and I slipped and hurt my back pretty badly. Four doctor appointments, prescription drugs, physical therapy and massages: $200 out of pocket. What it could have been? Thousands of dollars. And knowing me, I would have sought shortcuts to ease the financial pain.

Decoupling health care was one of the things that many people at the Employee Health Care Conference rejected out of hand. While the argument made on a holistic level was that employers (especially large employers) could push for innovation better than individuals could, most of the concrete reasons I’ve heard is that employers put a lot of money into the pot and that benefits employees.

There is little doubt that companies could drive more innovation in health care than individuals if they wanted to. That’s the problem though: outside of internal cost containment or strategy, none of these companies (even huge ones) have forced the insurer and health providers hands.

So if the only legitimate concern is money, why aren’t we talking more about the separation of employment from health care? What are your thoughts on it?

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Do Employers Hold Any Answers In Health Care?

I’ve been vocally frustrated on this blog about the health care situation in the US for almost 18 months now. I’ve been personally frustrated for longer. As much of the national dialog has shifted to focus on the government and what it can do (and really, that is a wild card at this point), it is interesting that not much has changed. Interesting but unsurprising. And I do think it is an underrated threat to US dominance in global business and innovation.

How much say do employers have in all of this? For better or worse, they’ve been along for the ride as much as employees. They’ve been taking the brunt of the heat as insurers pressure them to use wellness plans and other poorly laid out incentives to bring down their rates a couple of percentage points. They’ve taken the brunt of the heat when premium payments for employees go up. It is no wonder that many of these companies are looking for answers.

In reality, most of these “innovations” in the health care are stop gap solutions at best and don’t address some of the key figures that continue to push health care costs further out of reach.

This Thursday and Friday, I will be attending the Employee Health Care Conference in New York as a guest of The Conference Board to see what else is going on in health care. Are insurers responding? How are they working together with employers? Will any of this mean anything with the possibility of reform?

Do you have any curiosities or questions you want answered from the Employee Health Care conference?

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Want To Fight H1N1? Change Your Company Culture

I have been inundated with e-mails regarding the H1N1 flu virus that is sweeping the world. Whatever I did to get on these lists, I appreciate the reminder that living in a state of physical isolation helps insulate me from all of your petty diseases. For those of us who don’t have that option though, what can you do to fight the disease? If you’re in the working world, the answer is simple:

Change Your Company Culture

Why? In many companies, the stigma of calling in sick (or worse, calling in with kids sick) is incredibly strong. Strong enough to compel even the most disgustingly sick to try to “stick it out” and “give it a go.” When their manager sees them, they say something along the lines of “Thanks for at least trying to come in. You can go home now.” Thanks for trying? Like it is a good thing to try to soldier through illness and expose your workforce to potential harm?

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

If your company is actually serious about stopping the threat of H1N1 (or any easily communicable disease), they would do the following:

  1. Provide a generous sick time allowance so people don’t have to choose between working sick or not paying the bills.
  2. Allow work from home whenever possible and get systems set up to accommodate it now.
  3. Don’t allow anyone to work sick, discourage it from the top down and lead by example at every. single. turn.
  4. Punitive measures for parents of sick children? Now your crappy policies impact daycare providers and other caretakers.
  5. Advise managers on identifying warning signs and teach them how to balance workloads.
  6. Understand the impact that forcing a sick person into work can have (hint: this person can get your healthy employees sick)

Not doing all of these? Then you’re paying lip service and are part of the problem.

And really, this goes for any communicable illness like the annual seasonal flu. Poor policy making on the part of companies or poorly conceived company cultures have caused millions of hours of lost productivity in the workplace. All because we couldn’t stand to lose 16–40 hours of productivity from a single employee.

And why do we do things this way? So we can prevent a few abusers of the system? Employees that do that are, at least in my experience, already poor performers who should be managed up or out. Here’s the real question: why are you still employing these losers? Drop them.

Now even as an individual employee, you can follow the CDC’s advice to the letter and still get in trouble because the company’s culture hasn’t shifted. You can either see your career prospects plummet as a sickly or needy employee or you can actually get the same disease from your co-workers who are trying to stick it out. That’s why it is a company wide thing. That’s why it is a culture thing. Are you ready to get on board?

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Stop Being Afraid Of Putting Information Into Customer’s Hands

My first job was at a fast food place. It was a local chain that was trying to go for this retro 60’s diner like atmosphere. So I had to wear a button down, white, short sleeve shirt (actually a snap down, white, short sleeve shirt) and a tie to work at a place that served greasy burgers and fries. Since this was high school, I chose the job because almost every one of my friends worked there. Since it was high school, I also made sure to do the least amount work possible while maintaining my job.

All good things had to come to the end and we parted ways (I quit without notice because they wouldn’t let me work with my ear piercing in, my first experience with dress code policies). Things have changed a bit in 11 years. What was once a beloved but tacky regional restaurant chain has become the fast food iteration of the “Eat Local” movement.

Burgerville (based in my hometown of Vancouver, WA) has become a powerhouse of the Northwest casual cuisine scene. From hipsters and hippies to cube dwellers and suburbanites, I’ve found few that really dislike the joint and even less that have never experienced it. Not to mention that they are an interesting case in business transparency.

Burgerville started off by naming suppliers of their products and opening both themselves and their partners to scrutiny. Guess what though? It wasn’t the end of the world. People felt better about what they were eating.

Now they’ve attracted attention for another bit of transparency: nutrition labeling based on what you order. Cabel’s Blog posted a copy of his receipt and it was picked up by A Hamburger Today (one of my favorite food blogs for obvious reasons).

So you can see that he not only ordered a halibut sandwich but that he removed tarter. And those sweet potato fries? Better in the fiber category but bad everywhere else in comparison to regular french fries.

While other companies put their nutrition information on weird parts of a website or in little pamphlets with tiny printing, Burgerville puts it right where it counts: in your face, before you eat it.

And yes, people who know me know that I am against mandatory laws about these sorts of things. But using labeling and transparency as a key differentiator in your marketing strategy? I really love it. Especially when none of your competitors can roll out anything close to this in a timely manner.

Put information into your customer’s hands, respect their intelligence and let their informed wants guide you to better products. How hard can it be if a regional burger chain is leading the way?

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Exploiting (For) A Good Cause?

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month and if you didn’t know that, you were probably living in a cave. Every NFL game has had a bunch of oddly placed pink items on their uniforms and fields. Television and billboard advertising is up in major cities around the country.

I get it. I can’t think of too many people that haven’t been impacted by breast cancer in some way. So yes, awareness is good. It seems like companies have gone a little overboard on the using the awareness month to hawk their own products though. So what do I go to the store to find?

Of course, I came to find out that it wasn’t just Pepsi but a bunch of products in my local Fred Meyer store (a subsidiary of Kroger). The program aims to give three million to breast cancer. Sweet, right?

Riding The Line

How do you ride the line between promoting awareness and promoting your brand (for promoting awareness)? Can you do both effectively or will it always come off as transparent and pathetic? Should we expect companies to do good things without having to promote the crap out of it?

And not that this is the component of this particular promotion but how good is a company that will donate some proceeds of the sale to a charity? So if you’re willing to buy our product, then we’ll donate it (oh, and we’ll throw in the fine print that we won’t donate more than a few thousand bucks).

The Real Problem

If people start to become cynical about a company’s charitable donations, will companies stop donating money to these causes? And if they become cynical about partnerships between companies and charities, will the associated charities see a lowered reputation? The real problem is that the charities could potentially suffer from cynicism and companies that pull out of their causes. Companies don’t need charities to hawk their wares but charities often need all of the promotion they can get.

What do you think about companies using good causes to promote their products? What works and what doesn’t?

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Is Human Resources Fatally Flawed?

Don’t think about it. Just answer me quickly: Is HR fatally flawed?

How many of you answered yes? When I first started writing this in April, I said yes too. Yes, this has been on my mind since April, sitting in my draft folder waiting for me to answer the question. And I can tell you, if I waited until I had a perfect answer, you may never have seen a post. In that time frame, I’ve gone back and forth but I finally come to the conclusion that HR isn’t fatally flawed but it does need some work.

Is The Tide Turning Against HR?

When I wrote this question back in April, I knew my answer but was afraid to post it. So I thought about it over and over again for almost five months. Here’s why I thought HR was through:

  1. Most of HR’s value could be outsourced — Heck, it already was in many cases. Everything from talent recruitment and selection to heavy lifting in critical employee relations and benefits matters were being taken care of (or very heavily influenced) by outside agencies and consultants.
  2. Unclear goals and ROI — If you are a small to medium sized company, you can’t afford to have an entire department sucking funds from your other profitable departments. At some point, HR will become a luxury department for large Fortune 500 companies (the same one’s that can afford to run advertisements simply to raise “brand awareness”).
  3. No input on business direction — You don’t get a seat at the table without having business savvy. You want to know why C-level titles or so inconsistent for HR? A true lack of business courage outside of the talent world. If you have nothing to add about marketing messages, sales forecasts, or budgeting issues, you’re of no use at the table. Let’s just put that to bed.

So I saw all of that and thought that in a decade or so, you won’t see robust HR departments outside of large companies. And even at those companies, HR would be in a precarious position if bad financials started influencing decision making.

Of course, my thinking changed.

The Light At The End Of The Tunnel

When you have a near death experience, one of the common experiences is the light at the end of the tunnel phenomenon. One of the other common experiences was a feeling of warmness, comfort and an almost enlightened state. Now some will tell you that it is your soul going on to its next destination or a series of chemical and electrical responses to your body shutting down. Whatever it is, when people come back from an episode like that, it is one of the few ways humans become permanently rewired.

What’s the connection to HR? I am convinced that HR is going to be transformed due to a soon coming near death experience. It is going to become a fad to integrate high performing HR folks directly with operation groups in organizations (it already has in some forward thinking companies). This will end up reducing HR to a complete administrative function and to the brink of death. People are going to scramble and eventually, a new way of integrating the talents of HR will hit someone and it will become the norm for decades afterward.

We won’t get there until something drastic happens though. People in HR are still too comfortable with the current system.

New HR: Now More Than Ever

HR doubters and haters are reading through this thinking I am just making the case for them. Only in their mind, HR just ends up dying at the end and everybody is happy. HR has heard this for how long, right? Maybe the biggest indictment on corporate inaction is the fact that the HR department you see today is still the best thinking we have on how to best manage our “most important asset.”

So I began thinking about what critical functions of HR I would want to keep if I wanted to put together a minimalistic but effective corporate structure. Here’s what I came up with:

  1. Workplace Process and Productivity Expert — I would want someone that could look at a workplace process and figure out all of the issues negatively impacting the productivity. While some would put this under supply chain management, I would want a person that could incorporate supply chain principles with organizational development to give a wide perspective.
  2. Functional and Effective Internal Ombudsman — This would be a person that becomes the next generation of employee relations. Someone who would be comfortable (and be given the authority) to call out management and employees on their detrimental actions and be compensated based on solving issues. An internal ombudsman will command respect (but not necessarily agree) because their recommendations and results will be explained and made public to all employees. Hard to wiggle out of that.
  3. Employee Life Cycle Manager — This person would be the guru on how to best integrate new people into an organization, develop careers internally and anticipate and plan exits for any number of reasons. As part of their internal career management, this person would also be in charge of all internal and externally coordinated training and development activities. If you thought of your company’s employees like a giant factory with thousands of moving pieces, this person would know where each piece is at and will be in any given minute.

Those would be the functions I would choose to continue if I had to cut it down to the bare minimum with functions I could track ROI and clear cut goals on. Everything else I could outsource effectively if needed.

Obviously there are people in HR that cover these areas in various ways but I’ve yet to see an HR organization that organizes them around these sorts of functions.

Does this make sense? If it doesn’t, what does? And if you’re happy with how things are currently structured, what’s the argument against trying a different approach if your manager came to you with this idea?

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Feeling locked into your current role?

Most companies take a stance where they want to promote from within. If you are with such a company and you feel trapped in your current role (maybe you’ve been overlooked for several promotions, etc…), here are a few things that can help you out.

1. Go beyond your job. As I pointed out earlier, your job title doesn’t matter. Offer your assistance on special projects or tasks. If you have a talent that you don’t use in your job, offer it to your company. As a real world example, even though I am in HR, I also have done work in product delivery and supply-chain management. When my company needed that expertise, I could offer it to them.

2. Bring out the big guns. If going beyond your job description isn’t enough, it is time to take your skills and play to your strengths whenever possible. Nobody in the office likes a show off (except your boss). Don’t be afraid to go the extra mile.

3. Get additional education. Even if the company doesn’t pay for it. Even if you only do it one class at a time. Educating yourself is one of the sure fire ways to raise your personal capital in the job department. It shows you are willing to sacrifice a bit of time to give those skills back to your company (for a higher wage of course).

4. Talk to your boss. And listen. It is amazing what showing a bit of interest in moving up can do and the positive consequences that can take place when you listen to and act on your boss’s advice. I almost put this one first but what fun would that be?

5. If you take all of these steps and you still don’t get a bone thrown at you, start looking elsewhere. Or get used to your current role. An employer somewhere will appreciate a person that is willing to go beyond their job description, get additional education and talk to management when they have an issue.

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Worst ways to get fired

Here are some of the worst ways to be fired.

There are some interesting points to be made here but here is the meat of the criticism:

Strategy 1: It can be extremely taxing to ruin people’s day face to face, so create a little breathing room.

Besides e-mail, companies have been known to fire people by FedEx, registered letter, text message, voice mail and conference call.

Strategy 2: Consider the cattle call. It can build team spirit.

One company herded employees into an auditorium and gave them one of two color-coded information packets. Those with the same color packets sat together. The two groups were then escorted out of the auditorium through different exits. One led back to the office, which meant that group of employees could stay. The other led to the street, which meant the workers should file for unemployment.

Strategy 3: There is no such thing as “too low.” So don’t be afraid to test bottom. One option is to let employees figure things out for themselves.

One company deliberately left a new organizational chart on the photocopy machines. Some employees were left off entirely, and others were moved to new positions.

Strategy 4: Remember, no one is ever too old to play musical chairs.

Some companies in the middle of a merger have asked all employees to resign and reapply for jobs. The goal: to disengage from the old and reinvent the organizational structure — with fewer employees.

Strategy 5: It can be a nice touch when you offer the newly fired a ride home.

It actually can be, unless you’ve organized the corporate equivalent of a funeral procession. One company had cabs lined up around the block before alerting employees on the layoff list of their new jobless status.

Strategy 6: You know what they say: it’s always the quiet ones.So make sure the meek don’t go ballistic.

During a layoff, it’s perfectly reasonable for a company to want to protect its computer files, other property and the remaining employees. But bringing in armed guards, as some companies have done, can be completely dehumanizing. An inconspicuously placed plainclothes security person is far preferable, said Lee Miller, a negotiations expert who used to run HR divisions at three companies.

Obviously most of these companies were misdirected in their ideas of how to do a layoff correctly. There are three easy steps to do a layoff correctly:

  1. Don’t put it off. Whenever layoffs are on the table as the option you are going to be taking, just do it. Don’t wait for business to possibly improve. Layoffs are bad but you can prevent more by making your business much more competitive by doing layoffs earlier and reducing future layoffs.
  2. Take responsibility. Have executive management there to take responsibility in person for the end result. Apologize and offer a fair package to help move on.
  3. Be sensitive. Allow employees to gather belongings and say goodbye to those who are staying. Regroup with the remaining employees and talk to them about the layoffs and concerns they have. It is critical that you don’t shut off the remaining employees from the layoff process. Your future productivity and turnover is dependent on it.

And while layoffs are one of the most heart-wrenching parts of the business, good things can come from them for both the employer and employee.

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I fought the law and the law won

While many of the HR people I know in the field are very principled people but one thing where that changes is in regards to the law, specifically employment law. Litigation avoidance is one of the main assumptions most people in my field make about their employers. And not to get too political on you but over the last 30 years, it has become less and less difficult to bring litigation against employers. Whether you agree or disagree with that enhanced ability, there is no denying that it has changed the face of the business world.

For one, the concept of litigation avoidance was unheard of 30+ years ago. Companies rarely got sued and if they did, it was typically by consumers who had suffered through some sort of physical harm. If you paid minimum wage and you weren’t physically abusing your employees, you were probably alright.

In those days, being an employee was like being a child on a teeter-totter with a 300 pound adult on the other side. The equation was out of balance.

Since the formation of the EEOC, the balance has slowly shifted. Sexual harassment policies started taking effect and those who were used to the good old days had to adapt or be out of a job. Same with discrimination (which is still in the process of being full adapted). And for the most part, these regulations have been for the better. It has put the focus on work. Studies have been focused on the glass ceiling in workplaces where people are not allowed to advance due to non-work related reasons.

The balance has changed and we can argue all day long as to where that balance is but it is incredibly important to realize that most businesses have changed policies and that has had both a good and bad effect on the performance and morale of employees.

Whenever a sexual harassment charge comes to me, the “factory” shuts down. Regardless of my view of the reliability of such a charge, I must take certain actions to ensure my butt (I can be sued personally) and my company’s butt stays out of the line of fire. Whatever I was doing before is of no consequence. A sexual harassment investigation could take weeks of interviews, documentation and communication between all parties. If it goes to litigation, it could be months or years. Not all of that is going to be spent on this case but it is going to change my workload severely.

So whenever I make sexual harassment policies within the workplace, I am pretty much banning almost every type of non-work related conversations imaginable. That may seem over the top and my enforcement of it may be incredibly rigid but look at the alternatives I have. Either we spend the hours up front to ensure that people understand that we want them talking about spreadsheets and TPS reports, not big butts and Jesus or we spend days, weeks, months or years defending why we didn’t talk enough about it to begin with. The choice seems pretty clear to me.

Not all businesses are that strict but there is a significant risk attached with that. So if I seem a little keyed up while people tell jokes around the water cooler, maybe you have a little taste of why that is the case. 🙂

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Your HR Guy Wants You to Perform

I had an employee at an old job of mine who thought I was out to get him. I’ve had many “come to Jesus” talks over the course of my career but the one I gave him was simply brutal…brutally honest. Performance wise, he was the worst employee consistently. He might never be at the very bottom of the list but he was constantly in the bottom 10%. Finally, during one of my meetings with him, he asks me a question:

Why do you pick on me?

I paused. I took a breath and realized my initial response wouldn’t work. I was going to answer “What makes you think that?” but it came off as defensive. Plus, I already knew the answer. I was picking on him. What he didn’t understand is my motive. That was the question he was wanting to be answered. So I answered him:

I want you to perform. I don’t want to see you fail nor do I want to hire a new person and go through training and the added expense. The thing I want you to understand that despite me not wanting to do these things, I will go through with them and that all hinges on how you perform. So if you feel that I am picking on you, that is why.

Maybe not the most fantastic answer but the understanding it brought between the employee and myself cemented for me that posturing doesn’t work when dealing with your employees. The defensive answer I was going to give (that I am sure would tempt anyone in the heat of the moment) was the wrong one for the situation. It is a good lesson to learn by practicing conversations with pauses.