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What Message is Your Employer Sending?

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Talk about work-life balance! It was recently reported that when Chinese schools announced that single-parent teachers would be allowed to keep their jobs in the face of widespread layoffs, 41 teachers at a single school filed for divorce in a week. Could that happen here? Maybe not as blatantly, but it’s clear that workers every day make the choice to respond to their employers’ cues about what’s important to keep your job and get ahead. What messages are being sent in your workplace?

Reuters calls it “Oddly Enough” — news that’s always good for a laugh or at least a healthy dose of astonishment, and an article published today fit right in. In the Chinese town of Dandong, school officials announced that teachers in primary and middle schools would be losing their jobs, unless they were single parents. Workers didn’t take the news standing still — instead, they marched to the courthouse to get divorced. (See Reuters article.)

Although only 35 couples were divorced in Dandong during in all of 2005, 41 couples in one week alone filed for divorce in the town. Finally, officials put two-and-two together (or should that be two minus one?) and called a halt to the policy. They were even able to convince 39 of the 41 couples to remarry. (Perhaps the other two couples were just waiting for a good excuse.) Apparently, it isn’t the first time that this policy has been tried in China — last year, when a company announced that it would recall divorced workers who had been laid off at an oilfield, dozens of laid-off workers filed for divorce in order to get their jobs back. (See Reuters article.)

While I’m sure that the employers didn’t intend for their employees to get divorced, it seems they didn’t really think through the effects of their policies. Jobs are important enough to our happiness and ability to survive in this world that those who work for others have to pay attention to what their employer is saying — and even what they’re implying. But what messages are employers sending? Could some of those messages be so negative that employers are in essence reaping what they sow?

In a recent USA TodayEntrepreneurial Tightrope” column, Gladys Edmunds ponders this question as it relates to employee theft. Based on a conversation she overheard at the gym, she tested the following premise on a few of her entreprenurial friends: all employees steal from their employers in some way, even if it’s merely taking pens and paper. Surprisingly, most of the people she asked agreed with the premise. But the methods they recommended to solve the problem caused her to wonder why this was happening. She says,

Business both large and small influences more of our lives then we want to imagine. Much of what we learn comes from the business world. So my question is: How responsible are we as entrepreneurs in unconsciously teaching employees to steal from us? If this theory is correct, perhaps the time has come for more businesses to take a closer look at what happens inside of a company that would encourage an employee to deliberately take something away that he/she knows could be seen as stealing.

(See USA Today article.) She points to examples of employers who complain about competitors spying on them — but they knew that was happening because they too were spying on their competitors, and one employer who recruited the best employees — by enticing them away from their competitors. One example she personally experienced: she was delayed in getting a perm at her salon, because the stylist had to wait for a manager to unlock the cabinet with the perm solution. She concludes,

I don’t know how you feel about employees stealing from the workplace but my best guess is if you treat people like thieves, they become thieves. When you engage your employees in stealing staff members and customers from other companies and you keep important work-related items under lock and key, what message do you think is conveyed? If you are one to believe that all employees participate in workplace theft I would encourage you to look closer and make certain that your business practices are not basic training for such activity.

(See USA Today article.)

Today the group Winning Workplaces will announce this year’s winners of their Best Bosses Award, which honors “innovative leaders of small and midsize businesses who have created tightly knit workplaces and inspired intensely loyal workers.” While we don’t yet know who the winners are going to be (I’ll update this post once the winners are announced), I’m sure they’re not sending out the message that their employees are not to be trusted, or that the only way to keep your job is to leave your family life behind or divorce your spouse. (Update: Here are this year’s Best Bosses.)

A recent poll of American workers found that many employees are feeling unappreciated. In the Kronos Inc. survey entitled “Working in America: What Employees Want,” 67 percent of 1,050 workers said their job workload increased during the past six months, yet only half received a raise during that period. While more than 80 percent responded that having their companies invest in programs or activities to create a satisfied workforce is important, only 36 percent of employed adults actually work companies that make this investment. What do these messages mean to workers? The same survey found that 58 percent of respondents might leave their jobs if the economy continues to improve, an increase of 12 percentage points from last year. (See Kronos Inc. press release.) Do you suppose those results are connected to one another?

What messages are you getting? Are they telling you that you’re a good employee and that your work is valued? Or not?

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My Dinner With Andre

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Well, not quite…it was just a reception (with free food and drink.) But it was work-related…the most famous retiree in America right now headlined a fundraising event in Washington, DC to support the Arizona and Nevada state minimum wage campaigns.

When my turn came to speak with the tennis legend, I thanked him for supporting a workers rights issue, pointing out that not too many celebrities lend their name to causes supporting workers. He thanked me and said that he was happy to help out.

In his short and most humble speech later, he pointed out that supporting a minimum wage increase is consistent with all the work he’s done previously to support children, because if their parents can’t afford to live and support their families, then the children are going to suffer as well. His talk was prefaced by the appearances of Rep. Shelley Berkley, who praised one of her most prominent constituents in her Las Vegas district, and Rep. Ed Pastor of Arizona. The best quip of the evening was when one of the speakers quipped that Andre needed a higher minimum wage in Nevada because he’s now retired, and he said without missing a beat, “I’m unemployed.”

Let’s hope that the minimum wage movement, and other workers’ rights issues, become so popular that more of the rich and famous jump in to get involved and raise the profile of these important causes. Certainly not to take away anything from the work of the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation, which by all accounts is doing great work in the Las Vegas area, but it’s refreshing to see him make the connection between his work with children and the needs of their parents. Perhaps others will do the same, even if working to support low-income workers perhaps isn’t quite as glamorous as helping children.

And while I’m making this personal, feel free to check out my recent appearance on Fox 5 News, here in the Washington, DC area. I’m apparently becoming known for my telecommuting (I work from a home office in the DC area, while the rest of the Workplace Fairness staff (Glenn Simpson and Eva Silverman) work in our San Francisco headquarters.) You can tell me if you agree that my kitty Morgan stole the show…

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Is There a Good Way to Get Fired?

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Perhaps not, but there are definitely some really bad ways that employees have suddenly lost their jobs. Radio Shack made headlines last week for delivering the 21st century version of the pink slip by laying off over 400 employees via e-mail. The resulting publicity then spawned some stories about even more egregious ways that companies have decided to divest themselves of unwanted employees. They’d almost be funny, except when you realize that each one of these stories involves someone who lost their livelihood without warning, beginning a struggle that in some cases can go on for years, as employees try to recreate what they’ve lost.

Radio Shack needed to lay off over 400 employees, mostly at its corporate headquarters. On Tuesday, August 29, it delivered the following e-mail to those selected for termination:

The work force reduction notification is currently in progress. Unfortunately your position is one that has been eliminated.

(See National Ledger article.) Workers who received the notification then had 30 minutes to collect their thoughts, make phone calls and say goodbye to employees before they went to meet with senior leaders. Coffee bars were set up on each floor, and laid-off Radio Shack employees then met with supervisors and human resources personnel before leaving. Complimentary boxes and plastic bags were also distributed for employees to pack their personal belongings in. (See Associated Content article.) The laid-off workers will receive up to three weeks pay for each year of service. Hourly employees can expect up to 16 weeks, while workers that made more than $90,000 a year will get 36 weeks. (See WIStv.com article.)

When I first learned about this, my reaction was the following: “Doing it via email seems to be the cowardly way out. RadioShack should have invested the time and effort into figuring out a compassionate way to do it. They’re not the first company to have to lay off in a large way.” Others were not so critical: Said defense lawyer Mike Kelly of the San Francisco firm Squire Sanders and Dempsey, “It certainly is an ecologically friendly way to do it,” – apparently seriously, according to the reporter who interviewed him, Janice Podsada. Kelly said that more and more companies are distributing important memos electronicallyand their workforces are growing accustomed to it. (See Hartford Courant article.)

How did the company defended its choice of how to deliver the bad news? Said corporate spokesperson Kay Jackson, “It was important to notify people as quickly as possible,” and that the electronic notification was quicker and allowed more privacy than breaking the news in person. The workers also had notice that it was coming, in that company officials had told employees in a series of meetings that layoff notices would be delivered electronically. Jackson said employees were invited to ask questions before the notification on a company Intranet site. (See National Ledger article.)

Although I wasn’t thrilled with Radio Shack’s approach, it started to look pretty good once some other articles started appearing with the theme of “worst ways employees were ever fired.” A CNNMoney article entitled “Worst ways to get fired,” listed this tongue-in-cheek strategy:

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.

Another strategy advised that there is no such thing as “too low,”so companies shouldn’t be afraid to test bottom and let employees figure things out for themselves. The example given: 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. (See CNNMoney article.) Readers responding to the CNN Money story had their own tales: Al of Toronto said that this happened to a coworker of his:

We went out for lunch and when we came back his security pass wouldn’t work so I let him through the gate. We passed the boss’s office on the way to our desks. He went in and said “I need a new pass. Mine’s failed.” The boss said “Your pass hasn’t failed. You don’t work here.” and took the card out of his hand.

(See CNNMoney Blog comments.)

In the Washington Post, Amy Joyce’s article, Fired Via E-Mail, And Other Tales Of Poor Exits, discusses the Radio Shack firing, and adds some more true stories from workers she interviewed. Peter Storandt, now director of marketing for a higher education association in the District, was director of admissions at a Boston law school in the early 90s. In the midst of an interview with a potential new student, he was summoned to the dean’s office and forced to terminate the interview. There, the dean told Storandt that he was being replaced with a computer system that would figure out which students to admit. Not only was the job over immediately, but the dean expected that Storand would consider it a lucky break, asking Storandt what he would do with his time off and suggesting sailing in Nantucket. While Storandt found a better job after a couple of months on unemployment and some consulting on the side, his firing was still unexpected and an unwelcome shift. “I didn’t take this as a finding that I was unskilled and incompetent. It was just a bizarre one-of-a-kind response to a business situation that was inappropriate,” he said.

So what’s a better way? Would the Golden Rule be too much to ask? If you wouldn’t want to learn via e-mail that you’re losing a job and have 30 minutes to exit the building, then it’s not unreasonable to think that your employees aren’t going to think too highly of it either — and perhaps not so surprising that this made the national news. And bringing in armed guards, as some companies have done, can be completely dehumanizing, when an inconspicuously placed plainclothes security person would be sufficient to protect against deletion of computer files and violent outbursts. (See CNNMoney article.)

If companies spent even a fraction of the time thinking about how their employees would want to be treated in this situation as they do papering the files to justify the layoff in the first place, then we might expect to see fewer of these “Worst Way to Fire Your Workers” stories. And if employees have any grounds at all to pursue a lawsuit against their former employers, then you can bet that making them really mad on the way out the door is not the way to reduce the number of costly lawsuits. Avoiding the humans who have made your company what it is, even when they’re no longer needed, may guarantee facing them much more than you had ever planned during the next several years of litigation.

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Stay on Top of the Good Bad and Ugly with Workplace Fairness

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Labor Day is a prime opportunity for organizations like Workplace Fairness to reflect upon how the American worker has fared, asking the Reaganesque question, “are you better off now than you were last year?” We attempt to answer this question in our latest special report: The Good, The Bad, and Wal-Mart: the Year in Workplace Fairness. And as promised, there’s some good news, some bad news, and just plain ugly news for American workers.

Over the course of a year, certain stories stand out. There are stories that inspire, and stories that enrage; stories that reveal the sort of change we advocate for every day, and stories that represent our greatest frustrations. In The Good, The Bad, and Wal-Mart, written by our legal intern Timothy Jordan (UC-Hastings College of the Law Class of 2008), we highlight those stories.

It’s not all bad news—we lead with five developments that give us hope that working people will be able to reclaim some of the rights, status, and dignity they enjoyed in previous generations, and also be able to lead the way in solving some of our nation’s most pressing workplace challenges. The good news includes these developments:

  • Immigrant rights were brought to the forefront of the American social consciousness in the past year, as the country witnessed the mobilization of immigrant groups in an unprecedented show of solidarity, and issues relating to immigrant employees were finally being discussed openly.
  • Since Congress has refused to raise the federal minimum wage in nearly a decade, a growing number of states—with prodding from labor unions and community groups—took the initiative to raise their minimum wages in the past year.
  • America may be witnessing the beginning of a fundamental change in workplaces, thanks in part to the technology of telecommuting.
  • Corporate executives faced greater accountability, as courts dealt with the white collar criminals and their corporate fraud that made headlines earlier in the decade, and the SEC recently passed a new rule requiring companies to make more accurate disclosures regarding the compensation of top executives.
  • Workers had reason to be pleased with the Supreme Court’s decisions this past year, as three key decisions expanded protections for workers.

Of course, you wouldn’t need a group like Workplace Fairness if there wasn’t still plenty of bad news for the American worker, such as:

  • In addition to the enormous human loss of Hurricane Katrina, workers in the gulf region were particularly hard hit, as unemployment soared and working conditions deteriorated.
  • Although to many observers, the American economy has been in a constant upswing since the recession earlier this decade, the middle class has not seen the benefits of this robust American economy, as the income gap between the richest and poorest one-fifth of families is “significantly wider” than it was two decades ago.
  • Although the airline and automobile industries have long been considered the ones in which labor was strongest, they are now the fields in which labor seems most embattled, largely because of the companies’ staggering financial losses.
  • The Sago mining disaster was an unfortunate reminder of the dangers—dangers which are largely avoidable—that hard-working men and women face every day just doing their jobs.
  • While employees are often the beneficiaries of technological advances, technology has also given employers a new frontier in which to invade the privacy of their employees, as it becomes easier and easier for employers to pry into their employees’ personal lives.

Any examination of the past year in the workplace could not neglect the behemoth Wal-Mart, which deserved its own category. It’s not pretty, when you consider the following:

  • November’s release of the Robert Greenwald film Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, presented a critical view of Wal-Mart’s policies, particularly with respect to treatment of Wal-Mart employees. The head of the advocacy group (Working Families for Wal-Mart) Wal-Mart formed in response, former Atlanta mayor and UN Ambassador Andrew Young, was eventually forced to resign after comments he made targeting various racial groups were released.
  • Wal-Mart’s combative tactics towards unions were found to be illegal in QuĂ©bec, and Arkansas, while workers in central Florida formed a workers group, the Wal-Mart Workers Association, which has already had several successful non-unionized collective action campaigns. To comply with Chinese law, Wal-Mart agreed to establish unions for 30,000 store employees in China.
  • Widespread instances of worker exploitation in the U.S. and worldwide were brought to the forefront in the past year, as Wal-Mart was sued for violating workers’ rights in foreign countries; charged with failing to provide adequate safety equipment (gloves) for its fabric cutters and seamstresses overseas; fined for child labor violations; and busted for its executives’ knowledge that illegal immigrants were systematically hired by Wal-Mart’s cleaning contractors.
  • Multiple wage and hour lawsuits charged that Wal-Mart forced employees to work off the clock, failed to pay required overtime, and ignored meal and rest break laws.
  • An internal memo was revealed which documented the company’s efforts to reduce health care costs by pushing out “unhealthy people,” by requiring physical activity in each position and moving more associates to part-time employment.

In releasing this report, we drew upon the news stories and developments we have tracked over the last year in our e-publications Workplace Week and In the News. We hope this report will help you look back on your own year, and help you see that employees everywhere are going through the same problems, and making the same progress. You are part of a larger world—a world that needs every single person who works for a living to resist the forces that prevent all working people from living out the American dream.

We ask you to share this report with others, and let us know how you want to be part of what Workplace Fairness stands for. How can your workplace become a better place? What can you do to make that happen?

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