Monday, August 16, 2010

The Fundamentals of Smooth Sailing

We all hope for smooth sailing: brilliant marketing, substantial profits, equipment that works, secure facilities, and happy employees and customers.

It looks like I'm enjoying smooth sailing in this photo, but I'll tell you a secret: I wasn't sailing alone. Captain Dave was keeping track of the depth in the channel, Admiral Janet was preparing hors d'oeuvres (no sexism going on here - she can trim the sails as well as anyone, but she also happened to work miracles in the galley). My husband was helping with each tack.

It's no surprise that a business, like a well-run ship, requires many hands on deck (okay, I'm done with the nautical lingo, I promise). The problem I often see is a lack of coordination, because the business of running the business gets in the way.

Your floor manager knows it is important to document every time Albert comes in late, but he doesn't because the receptionist is sick and he spent half an hour on the phone with various temp agencies to find a substitute. Your office manager mentioned the company is past due for a refresher on harassment training, but you finally got that big contract you were hoping for, and the deadline is looming.

And then, when Albert is terminated for yet another late arrival, he files a claim with BOLI alleging racial discrimination and harassment. Now, you have no documentation that he's not being singled out because of his race, and no proof that you've taken steps to prevent and address harassment (a key element of your defense).

Here's my advice: schedule some time - put it on your calendar as if it was a Very Important Client Meeting that you absolutely positively can't miss - to establish (or refine) the fundamental processes for coordinating your employee relations efforts. (And though it sounds self-serving, get your lawyer involved in that meeting!)

1. Create a log, with pre-printed columns, for incidents (complaints, absences, etc.). That way, all a supervisor has to do is dash off a quick note on a pre-printed form. More extensive documentation can come later, if necessary.

2. Check your posters: do you have all the required employee postings?

3. Get your employee handbook updated at least every two years (a few months after each legislative session). It's a tedious process, but absolutely crucial.

4. Create a leave request form to be used ahead of time and after the fact (for unexpected illness), that allows the employee to note if the absence is or may be covered by medical leave laws.

5. Make sure timesheets or other payroll documents require employees to sign off that the time is accurate, that they've received all required rest and meal periods (if applicable), and that they've reported any problems with their schedule, timecard, etc.

6. Set up an exit interview process that documents employee complaints and ensures you have fulfilled all obligations related to termination (continuation insurance notification, final paycheck on time, etc.)

7. Create an easy-to-use procedure for reporting complaints (such as harassment), and a step-by-step process for responding to complaints - and then make sure all employees are aware of the procedure (get a signed acknowledgment).

Even the best planning won't avoid all storms and squalls, but you can take steps to maximize your chances of coasting serenely into the future (sorry, I couldn't resist).

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Violence in the Workplace

The article in today’s Oregonian said Omar Thornton was caught on video, stealing beer. When he was confronted, he shot and killed eight people, including his union representative, and then turned the gun on himself.

While the family and friends of the victims grieve, the rest of us are left to wonder whether there was anything the company could have done to prevent this tragedy.

As with every other aspect of employee relations, the answer is yes – and no.

Employers have an obligation to provide a safe workplace, which includes implementing policies to prevent foreseeable dangers, such as faulty equipment, hazardous substances, and violence. That task is made harder by the recent Supreme Court ruling that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals (like Omar Thornton) to carry a handgun, and therefore states are limited in their ability to restrict those rights. (That comment is not a reflection of my personal feelings about gun ownership, the Constitution, or the Supreme Court--it simply highlights the increasing squeeze on employers subject to conflicting legal obligations).

But consider this: even if the state of Connecticut banned weapons in the workplace, and even if the Hartfort Distributors had imposed a more stringent policy than permitted by state law, it is highly unlikely an employee who was capable of murder would have complied with the policy.

Which is why I don’t advocate a rush to impose draconian policies in the wake of the Connecticut shooting.

Do you remember the Shoe Bomber? After a would-be terrorist hopped on a plane with explosives in his shoes, the FAA began requiring all travelers to remove their shoes for scanning. Are we safer now? I’m not sure. There will (presumably) be no future shoe bombers, but what’s to stop someone from hiding explosives in the hem of his pants, or some other article of clothing?

Similarly, businesses could begin install a metal detector at one entrance – or even a full body scanner – and require all employees to use that entrance at the start of their shift. But even if Hartford Distributors had such a policy, Mr. Thornton could have kept his gun in his car, and retrieved it to wreak havoc on co-workers and members of the public outside the building.

Don’t get me wrong: I am unabashedly in favor of prohibiting weapons in the workplace. (Interesting aside: a client once told me their employees at remote Alaska worksites need to carry a gun to prepare for the very real danger of encountering a bear—that seems like a pretty reasonable exception to the general proposition that employees don’t need to pack an arsenal at work).

My point is that while employers must take every reasonable precaution to prevent workplace violence, there is no fail-safe method of eliminating every conceivable risk. So, we are left with the unsatisfactory option of taking admittedly imperfect steps.

1. Evaluate your EAP program : Do employees suffering from addiction or emotional problems have resources? Do they know about those resources?

2. Provide training to your supervisory employees in recognizing the danger signs of an unstable or at-risk employee.

3. Review and update (and enforce) your weapons at work policy.

My heart goes out to the family and friends of the victims of Omar Thornton, and to the family and friends of Mr. Thornton himself. We can send them our compassion and our prayers, but in evaluating our own policies, we should focus on policies that really have the potential to keep us safe.