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Giant Supervalu Grocery Chain Sues Small Workers Center

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R.M. ArrietaOrganizers say a lawsuit filed by a Minnesota grocery store chain against a worker center is nothing more than an attempt to bankrupt and silence them. Supervalu’s suit is a culmination of activity over 18 months in which workers have been calling for fair pay and better working conditions.

In May, In These Times reported that workers, frustrated with lack of response from representatives at Supervalu, parent company of Cub Foods, went on a 12-day hunger strike. That strike ended when several state lawmakers attempted to get executives at the retail chain giant to meet for talks and called on the group to end the fast.

Supervalu executives reportedly refused to meet with the workers and filed acivil lawsuit July 18 requesting damages against the small nonprofit workers center that supported the action: Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL).

The chain also filed a temporary injunction imposed by a judge and, among other things, ordered CTUL to post the suit on its website and Facebook page and on any Twitter feeds and link the order in any email, web postings or Twitter feeds concerning any planned actions against Cub Foods.

“We did not want to file a suit against CTUL, but because of their aggressive protests taking place in our stores we had no choice,” said Mike Siemienas, a spokesman at Supervalu, Inc. told In These Times.

Attorneys representing CTUL have filed a motion to dismiss the charges.

“We find it hard to believe the lawsuit was because of that. We believe it is aimed at trying to bankrupt us and silence us,” said CTUL spokeswoman Veronica Mendez, who has also been named in the suit.

The workers are calling for job safety and a “Code of Conduct.”

Several state representatives including Congressman Keith Ellison, State Senator Patricia Torres-Ray ELCA Bishop Craig Johnson, Rep. Jim Davnie, and Minneapolis City Council Member Gary Schiff are backing the workers. The Minneapolis City Council signed a resolution in support.

CTUL stated that it believes the lawsuit is in retaliation for the nonprofit calling on the help of the government to help resolve the labor dispute.

“Cub Foods should be commended for donating to food pantries and helping tornado victims. But the core of good corporate citizenship is not charitable giving; it’s treating your workers with respect and dignity. These workers have asked for little more than to meet and discuss their pay and work rules, and they have been rebuffed,” Congressman Ellison said in a statement.

Supervalu is one of the 100 richest corporations in the world – making more than $40 million in profits last year. For the quarter ending June 18, itreported a profit of $74 million, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, over the past 10 years, working conditions for cleaners have deteriorated. Many cleaners who once earned between $10-11 an hour now earn $7-8 an hour. The cleaning crew has shrunk from four to two, according to Mendez.

Cub Foods says it’s not responsible for the poor treatment of workers because they are subcontracted out to a cleaning company, Carlson Building Maintenance, whom Cub says is responsible for their workers. Said Siemienas, “It is a common practice for retailers to use third-party services to clean their floors. We ensure that our contractors follow all laws and labor laws.”

However, this practice allows retail companies take the lowest bid, pitting maintenance companies against each other. To keep the costs low, these companies do what they can to cut corners.

Mendez explains that Carlsen has told workers they do not have the money because they are not getting more money from Supervalu and that in fact, the price of the contract is going down.

“Carlsen doesn’t have ability to pay workers what they need to be paid. It’s clear to us that if there’s going to be real change, it has got to come from Supervalu.”

SHAREHOLDER MEETING

This week, workers and faith leaders went to a recent Supervalu shareholder meeting in Edina, Minn. Pastors Grant Stevensen and the Rev. John Gutterman got in, and asked the company to do the right thing.

Stated CTUL member Lucila Dominguez, who was one of the people who took part in the hunger strike in May.

This problem will not change until large retail chains like Cub Foods agree to ensure fair wages and working conditions for workers who clean their stores regardless of which contractor they use.

Said Mendez, “They’ve made lots of claims as to why they wanted this lawsuit, when all we wanted to do was sit and talk.”

This article originally appeared on the Working In These Times blog on July 29, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: R.M. Arrieta was born and raised in Los Angeles. She has worked at three daily newspapers and two television stations and is a former editor of the Bay Area’s independent community bilingual biweekly El Tecolote. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of outlets. She can be reached at rmarrieta@inthesetimes.com.


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No Pattern To Be Found

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Ravi BakhruDepartment of Labor news releases rarely get the attention they so rightly deserve. But I’m a fan of giving credit where credit is due, so when Assistant Secretary Joseph Main issued this statement, I perked up.

After an investigation by Federal officials, a mine operated by Massey (think Upper Big Branch explosion) was cited for 29 violations in its Tiller No. 1 Mine. The violations ranged from hazardous roof conditions to inadequate ventilation to, wait for it….

Non-permissible electrical equipment with the potential to explode methane gas.

Section 104(d)(1) of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act describes a significant and substantial violation as being “of such nature as could significantly and substantially contribute to the cause and effect of a coal or other mine safety or health hazard.” A violation of this provision essentially means there is a reasonable likelihood that the hazard will result in serious injury or illness. The problem is not just the standard, but in the requisite number of violations that meet the standard to establish a pattern.

Judge David Barbour, who issued an oral ruling (written decision to come) on the matter, found that although he believed all 29 violations had occurred, only 19 of the violations amounted to significant and substantial, 6 less than the 25 needed to establish a pattern. Don’t bother asking if that’s a typo, 25 “significant and substantial” violations are necessary in order to establish a pattern. Establishing a pattern means that any significant and substantial violation found within 90 days thereafter automatically triggers a withdrawal order until the mine has a clean inspection with no S&S violations. In short, establishing a pattern would immensely help those who work in such unsafe conditions by forcing mine operators to clean up or face losing money every day.

“No mine has ever been successfully placed into pattern of violations status.” This is perhaps the most profound statement made with regards to the matter. In 2006, the American public endured the Sago Mine explosion and watched as a single miner emerged with his life. And in April of this year the Upper Big Branch mine exploded, killing 29 coal miners.

Mining is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and we continually disrespect those who risk their lives for our energy by refusing to recognize and fix a broken system of oversight. Employees of these mines should be disgusted, if they aren’t too busy being frightened. The Federal Mine and Health Safety Act is designed to provide regulations and oversight into one of the most hazardous industries known to man. It was not designed to protect the companies who owned the mines, but the average worker who spent a full 8-10 hours in a black hole.

A message needs to be sent to the mine industry: we will no longer tolerate such blatant disregard for workers. We may not be able to bring mining from one of the most dangerous jobs in the world to the safest job in the world, but surely we can help those facing such conditions. And we can do that by easing the restrictions on establishing patterns of violations. Doing so would allow regulators to shut mines down when they see violations deemed S&S, and force mine operators to think about safety more than once every explosion.

About The Author: Ravi Bakhru is a third year law student at George Washington University. He currently works as an intern for Workplace Fairness, and has an interest in pursuing employee rights law in the future. To get in touch with Ravi, you can email him at Ravi.Bakhru@gmail.com.


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Cubicle Blues

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Image: Bob RosnerYou’d expect the “father” of the cubicle to be a proud parent. Heck, his invention multiplied faster than rabbits. But you’d be wrong.

Thirty years ago, Robert Probst was seeking to create the perfect place to work for the office furnishings company Herman Miller. In search of the “office of the future,” he designed the perfect environment for maximum satisfaction and productivity. He called his creation “the action office.”

Yep, the cubicle. At the time Probst was looking for something better than the open bullpen that was the norm for much of the last century. He wanted to create a space that would allow privacy, personalization and the maximum in flexibility. For example, his original creation had a variety of surfaces that you could work from each that was a different height.

So much for privacy, personalization and flexibility. Just before his death in 2000, Probst called his creation “monolithic insanity” in Fortune.

There are many reasons why the “action office” devolved in the cube. Soaring real estate prices, corporations trying to get more bang for the buck by packing employees in like sardines and even the tax code (corporations can write off cubicles much faster than they can write off their investment in walls in an office building).

There is a part of me that believes that the successor to the cube will be emptying out our huge office buildings in a massive wave of telecommuting. This makes sense for so many reasons—spiraling gas prices, increasing real estate costs and the fact that so many homes now have broadband access. The only problem with this picture is that we barely know how to manage the people we can see at work, so few of us have the foggiest idea of how to manage people we can’t see.

Which leads back to the “action office.” It’s clear that business is now 0 for 2. The bullpen didn’t work. The cubicle has spawned Dilbert and a massive amount of griping from most of the people who’ve worked in one.

So what is the answer? I think it involves combining the best of the future with the best of the past. The first part of the equation is really figuring out what jobs can be done by telecommuting. And what workers and managers are up to this challenge. Once these jobs are moved out of our buildings then we’ll actually have the room to turn the cube back into the “action office” that Probst originally envisioned. With fewer people they can be bigger and hopefully employees can have the ability to tailor them to their needs.

For all the talk of productivity, I’m surprised at how little of the conversation addresses the place where most of our work actually gets done. If more of us engage in this conversation, hopefully, we’ll be able to put the “action” back into the “action office.”

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.


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Work Doesn’t Have to Be Awful

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Image: Bob RosnerI’ve gotten a lot of email through the years. And most of it has been difficult to read—people who were cruelly fired, who are being hassled by coworkers or who have done something truly stupid (just this morning I just got an email from a woman who told me about how she sent her resume and cover letter to her current boss).

If you have a particularly macabre sense of humor it is possible to find my mail funny. But mostly it makes me sad.

So given the negative nature of most of my correspondence, the last few weeks have been a revelation for me. I’ve been working on a new business venture and I’m part of a team of four people putting together a business plan. One guy I’ve worked with on my last two books, so we have a bunch of history working together. The other two people were total strangers when we started. I barely knew either of them either personally or professionally. Another complicating factor is how different our expertise, world view and just general make up are from each other (that’s make-up in terms of approach to the world and not our use of rouge).

If this column had a sound track, you’d probably be hearing Steven Stills in the background singing “Love the One Your With.” (Don’t recognize it, then just ask the nearest boomer and they can hum a few bars for you).

Please note, I didn’t say that we were all singing “Kumbaya.” No this is a room full of Type A personalities. The key is as remarkable as it is simple. We all listen to each other. In fact, I can think of multiple areas where we all had hard and fast rules for what we wanted. We listened to the other people involved and either modified what we previously thought was essential.

I can hear what you’re thinking. It’s like a committee that produces lowest common denominator work. Not at all. We are actually able to draw the best from each person and then make it even better through our brainstorming.

One simple trick, we call it placeholders. When we have a name or idea that is good, but its clear to at least some of us that we could probably do better, we call the existing best effort our placeholder. We use it, but we’re always on the lookout to make it better. This is just one technique we’ve developed to not settle for okay, but to push for the best.

This experience has given me hope. It is possible to work with people who you like and respect and accomplish a lot in the process. You better sit down before you read this next sentence—not only is it possible to find colleagues that you can work with, I believe there are even a few sane bosses out there. The challenge is to find ‘em.

Okay, I’m sure that most of my regular readers think that either this blog has been hijacked or that I’ve lost my mind. It’s hard to argue with the latter argument, but after year upon year of horror stories from the cubicle world, I want to take a moment to report that work can be uplifting, collaborative and fun and not just a long process of letting all of the air out of your tires.

I’ve decided to go positive. I’ve learned from Allan, Shari and Jon that collaboration is a wonderful thing. Sure there are tough times, but the more brains you have at the table the better the quality of the work and the more fun you’ll have.

A few words for those stuck in a less than great working environment. I understand that people have mortgages, orthodontist bills and families to feed. That said, I’m hard pressed to say that there are just some jobs that are better to have in your rear view mirror. A paycheck just isn’t worth daily bouts crying, being yelled at or just feeling miserable. Hopefully this blog can play a small role in reminding you that there are saner possibilities out there.

I’ve also heard through the years from people who’ve taken a bad work environment and turned it around. Mostly through “random acts of kindness,” or building community, trust and support in a place where none exists. It’s not easy, but like flowers growing up through tiny cracks in a sidewalk, it happens.

There is a saying from an old court case, “Work time is for work.” But that doesn’t mean that it has to be a prison sentence—something to be endured. Work can have meaning, collaboration and, dare I say it, fun. But it probably won’t just fall in your lap. You’ll have to seek it out, but it’s out there.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Also check out his newly revised best-seller “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.


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JetBlue Loses Appeal On Hostile Work Ennvironment Age Discrimination And Retaliation Claims

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Complaints To Supervisor/Harasser Are Sufficient To Overcome Affirmative Defense On Hostile Environment Claim

There’s lots of meaty reading in the Second Circuit case of Gorzynski v JetBlue Airways Corporation decided this month. The 31 page opinion hits multiple issues including sexual harassment, age discrimination, race discrimination, and retaliation.

The Federal District Court threw out the case on summary judgment. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and this is why.

Facts Of The Case

It’s a long story, but here’s the gist of it.

JetBlue hired Diane Gorzynski as a customer service agent in January 2000 for its operation at Buffalo International Airport. She was 54 years old at the time. In May 2000 she was promoted to the position of Customer Service Supervisor and stayed in that position until she was fired on July 5, 2002.

The customer service supervisors were managed by James Celeste, the General Manager. William Thro, a regional manager, was responsible for overseeing the General Managers of several JetBlue stations.

During her employment, Gorzynski experienced age and gender discrimination including sexual harassment. She also observed discrimination of other employees. The main culprit was her supervisor, James Celeste.

Gorzynski complained to Celeste on numerous occasions about the discrimination and harassment she experienced and about the discrimination and harassment of her co-employees.

She was retaliated against and fired, she believed, because of her complaints.

The Lawsuit

Gorzynski filed a lawsuit claiming that JetBlue:

* discriminated against her because of gender in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

* discriminated against her because of age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act

* retaliated against her for complaints to her supervisors about age and gender discrimination and race discrimination of co-employees in violation of Title VII and the ADEA

She also claimed numerous violations on the New York Human Rights Law.

The federal District Court granted JetBlue’s Motion for Summary Judgment of all claims. Gorzynski filed an appeal.

The Second Circuit Reverses

The Faragher/Ellerth Defense

One of the most important and interesting parts of the decision is its holding regarding JetBlue’s affirmative defense on which the District Court hung its hat to throw out Gorzynski’s sexual harassment claim – and it’s a holding which can effect lots of people.

In order to establish a hostile environment sexual harassment claim, a plaintiff must produce enough evidence to show that the workplace was:

* permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is

* sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and

* create an abusive working environment

In analyzing a hostile environment claim, the court is required to “look at the record as a whole and assess the totality of the circumstances.”

In this case, Gorzynski presented evidence that Celeste:

* grabbed Gorzynsi and other women around the waist

* tickled them

* stared at them as if” he was mentally undressing them”

* made numerous sexual comments including remarks about wanting to suck on or massage their breasts.

The District Court did not consider this evidence. Instead, it found that JetBlue was entitled to win as a matter of law because of its “affirmative offense” under the Supreme Court Faragher and Ellerth decisions.

The employer is entitled to raise the defense in certain sexual harassment scenarios involving supervisors and co-workers if it can show that:

* it exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any harassing behavior and

* the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid the harm

With respect to the first element, JetBlue presented evidence of its sexual harassment policy (contained in its employee handbook) which stated that: “any crewmember who believes that he or she is the victim of any type of discriminatory conduct, including sexual harassment, should bring that conduct to the immediate attention of his or her supervisor, the People Department or any member of management.”

JetBlue argued that Gorxynski was not entitled to proceed on her sexual harassment claim because she failed to take advantage of the policy in the handbook when she:

* only complained to her supervisor — the harasser

* did not complain to other members of management.

The District Court agreed with JetBlue and granted judgment in its favor on Gorzyynski’s sexual harassment claim.

The Second Circuit rejected the District Court’s conclusion and reversed. It stated:

We reject such a brittle reading of the Faragher/Ellerth defense. We do not believe that the Supreme Court, when it fashioned this affirmative defense, intended that victims of sexual harassment, in order to preserve their rights, must go from manager to manager until they find someone who will address their complaints.

Considering the courage it takes to complain about what are often humiliating events and the understandable fear of retaliation that exists in many sexual harassment situations, we decline to read the rule so rigidly.

Accordingly, we hold that an employer is not, as a matter of law, entitled to the Faragher/Ellerth affirmative defense simply because an employer’s sexual harassment policy provides that the plaintiff could have complained to other persons as well as the alleged harasser.

Instead, we conclude that the facts and circumstances of each case must be examined to determine whether, by not pursuing other avenues provided in the employer’s sexual harassment policy, the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the employer’s preventative measures.

In this case, the Court noted that:

* the other manager Gorzynski could have complained to was Thro — the regional manager

* the evidence showed that Thro was not receptive to receiving complaints from employees

* the evidence also showed that Thro was intimidating

* Thro retaliated against those who made complaints

Therefore, the Second Circuit held — in reinstating the sexual harassment claim — the question of whether or not Gorzynski unreasonably failed to take advantage of the options provided in the sexual harassment policy was a jury question.

Remaining Issues Of Fact For The Jury

Age Discrimination

Gorzyski established a prima facie case of age discrimination:

* she was over 40

* she was qualified for her position

* she was fired

* she was replaced by a woman in her 40’s

JetBlue countered this inference of age discrimination with its “legitimate business reason”: it fired Gorzynski because of her “management style,” “unprofessional conduct and poor interpersonal skills” and the “hostile work environment she created.”

The District Court found that Gorzynski did not present any evidence that JetBlue’s reasons were false or pretextual – and threw out her age discrimination claim.

The Second Circuit disagreed. Some of the evidence it noted was:

* the negative evaluation Gorzynski received from Celeste — a 2 out of 5 — was conducted after he had supervised her for only one week

* a contemporary, anonymous crewmember gave her a 4 out of 5

* at the same time Celeste gave Crowly, a 30 year old customer service rep. a 4 out of 5 even though Crowly had been written up and counseled on numerous occasions –Celeste then promoted him

* JetBlue’s investigation regarding an incident which immediately preceded Gorzynski’s discharge was “questionable at best”

* Celeste told Gorzynski she reminded him of his 80 year old aunt

* younger employees were not disciplined for violating numerous policies including smoking and sleeping on the job

The Court stated:

Given the cumulative weight of this evidence, we believe that a reasonable jury could find not only that the explanations given by JetBlue for Gorzynski’s termination were pretextual, but also that, together with Celeste’s passing comment about his aunt, it was her age that was the ‘but for’ cause of Gorzynski’s termination.

Accordingly, we vacate the District Court’s dismissal of Gorzynski’s age discrimination claims.

(the case also has a very interesting discussion of “age plus” discrimination in connection with her claim that Celeste discriminated against older women)

Retaliation

The District Court also dismissed Gorzynski’s claim that she was discharged in retaliation for complaining about race, gender and age discrimination.

In order to establish a retaliation claim, the plaintiff must show

1. that she participated in a protected activity
2. suffered an adverse employment action
3. a causal connection between her engaging in the protected activity and the adverse employment action

The Second Circuit reversed the District Court’s holding on the retaliation claims noting in part:

* five months – the time between Gorzynski expressed concern about a co-workers race discrimination and her discharge – was “not too long to find a causal relationship.”

* a complaint about a sexual harassment incident two months before her discharge sufficiently alleged a causal connection between her protected complaint about sex discrimination and her termination

* Gorzynski’s statements in her affidavit that there was unequal enforcement of the rules at the Buffalo station with respect to older employees versus younger employees should have been considered by the Court

In sum, the Court said

JetBlue has articulated a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for Gorzynski’s termination, and Gorzynski has produced evidence that casts significant doubt on that rationale, leaving a triable issue as to whether JetBlue retaliated against her for complaining about prohibited discrimination.

Lessons To Be Learned

The decision is filled with points of law that are very helpful to employees who have filed employment discrimination claims. It gives numerous examples of what may be considered evidence of disparate treatment, pretext, and retaliation.

It also has a very interesting discussion of gender/age “plus” discrimination, where a subset of women are being discriminated against in the workplace, ie., older women, or black women, but not all women — which in reality is quite common.

Most noteworthy is the discussion of the Faragher/Ellerth defense. While it is critical for those who have been sexually harassed to complain to someone in management, the opinion makes it clear that victims of sexual harassment will not lose their rights because they did not complain to each person designated in a company’s sexual harassment policy.

Complaints to the supervisor/harasser are sufficient. That particular point of law will be a huge help to many victims.

Images: www.bajanfuhlife.com/news/news

*This article was originally published in Employee Rights Post on February 28, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the first and foremost employment and civil rights attorneys in the United States, Ellen Simon has been lauded for her work on landmark cases that established employment law in both state and federal court. A sought-after legal analyst and expert, she discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman’s issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post www.employeerightspost.com/ has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. Learn more about Ellen Simon at www.ellensimon.net/.


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What Is the Biggest Complaint at Work?

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Image: Bob RosnerI once ran an online contest asking a very simple question—what is your biggest complaint about work? The responses flooded into Costco.com and were not at all what I’d expected.

I was totally prepared for a ton of responses about low pay, disrespect, poor working conditions, etc. Actually more than half of the responses all touched on the same topic—people who steal food from the company refrigerator. I couldn’t make this up. At first I thought that they’d all come from the same company. But as I read through them I realized they all had different details.

Choosing a winner from all of these tragic cases of lunches lost was a challenge. Until I came across the most painful and pathetic story. This poor person described how her lunch thief not only ate your lunch, but they managed to rub your face in what remained.

She described in painful detail about how her thief opened a box of chicken wings, ate half of them and then carefully put the bones back in the box and resealed the container. Ouch.

Besides being thankful that you don’t have to work with this person, why should you care about this isolated case of cruelty?

Because when it comes to our jobs the big stuff—not getting a big promotion, having a really tough competitor, not feeling like your work is appreciated—fades in comparison to the little annoying stuff like people stealing your lunch. I call it the pebble in the shoe vs. getting hit by a boulder rule. Over time the pebble drives you the craziest.

Don’t believe me? There was another study that asked what is your biggest complaint at work? The number one response? It’s too cold. Wanna guess the second most common complaint? Yep, it’s too hot.

Granted this study was done by the International Facility Management Association, but it does point out that power of the little annoyances can have at where we work.

What is the moral of this story? Management tends to focus on the big stuff in those rare times when it focuses on employee morale. Issues like bullies, food thieves and temperature are not the kind of stuff that most managers think of when they focus on employee satisfaction. Yet these are the very issues that are wearing down your people.

I’m not discounting the big stuff. I’m just trying to shine the spotlight on the little annoyances that have a big impact at work.

Lest you think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill here. I recently saw a remarkable survey from the Conference Board. They asked employees in 1995 if they were satisfied at work. 61% said they were. The survey was repeated recently. The number of satisfied workers has dropped to 45%.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Also check out his newly revised best-seller “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.


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What Are the Biggest Taboos at Work?

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Image: Bob RosnerI was flipping around the channel and came across George Carlin’s last comedy special on HBO. I started thinking about his famous list of the seven things you can’t say on television. So this week I’m going to present a work variation on Carlin’s list — a list of five taboo words for today’s workplace.

The first taboo in today’s workplace is the word “felony.” Corporations don’t like prison records. However, ex-offenders don’t need to worry too much, because this will change for two reasons. First, the dramatic increase of executives who visit the big house. If these guys keep getting arrested, every head honcho is going to have a rap sheet, and they have to work somewhere.

The second taboo at work is not a word but an acronym: “TMI” — too much information. This can apply to all manner of information, but of particular note is the often uncomfortable revealing of personal medical situations. People don’t want to hear about your medical challenges, your itchy rash, your surgery or your prostate, etc. Yes, the practice of avoiding running your mouth and disclosing TMI rules at work today.  Find a therapist, a mate or a relative who really cares about the medical details of your life. But don’t share it with your coworkers, because hearing about those things makes them uneasy and can make work an uncomfortable place to be.

The third taboo at work revolves around the word “relationships.” Don’t go there. People don’t want to hear about your marital or relationship problems. Through the years I can’t believe how many people have shared intimate information about their relationships with me. Call me a prude, but I think pillow talk should be reserved for conversations that actually take place over pillows.

The fourth taboo is the word “why.” As in “Why did you…” “Why do we…” Most corporations don’t take kindly to being asked this simple question. Sure, there are bosses who can handle it. I just think that they are rarer than most people think. Sometimes it’s better to just bite your tongue and forge ahead with an assignment, even if you’re not totally sure about the outcome. People who constantly question the worth of a project or a boss’s decision often get tagged as malcontents. So be careful when you drag out the “W” word.

And finally, the fifth taboo — “bravado.”

Most of us learn at a very early age that we are never to show weakness or vulnerability at work. Bravado is the way; do what you can and fake what you can’t. I personally believe that the lack of vulnerability weakens organizations because it prevents real connection and real interactions between people.

If I had a magic wand I’d hope that we could all do a much better job of being more vulnerable at work. Sure it’s tough, but isn’t it time that we all brought a bit more humanity to our jobs? And what better way is there to do this than being genuine and vulnerable with the people we work with? So stash that bravado and learn to show a softer side — it will humanize you in the eyes of your coworkers and probably encourage them to do the same.

My five taboo words at work — felony, TMI, relationships, why and bravado. Of course I left layoff off the list. Just too painful to go there right now. I’d love to hear your suggestions.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.


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Hilda Solis’ Approach is a Departure From the Policies of Predecessor Elaine Chao

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Image: Richard NegriThis is an AP story written by SAM HANANEL. I am reposting to UnionReview.com with the hope of spreading the news.

Soon after she became the nation’s labor secretary, Hilda Solis warned corporate America there was “a new sheriff in town.”

Less than a year into her tenure, that figurative badge of authority is unmistakable. Her aggressive moves to boost enforcement and crack down on businesses that violate workplace safety rules have sent employers scrambling to make sure they are following the rules.

The changes are a departure from the policies of Solis’ predecessor, Elaine Chao. They follow through on President Barack Obama’s campaign promise to boost funding for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, increase enforcement and safeguard workers in dangerous industries.

Solis made a splash in October when OSHA slapped the largest fine in its history on oil giant BP PLC for failing to fix safety problems after a 2005 explosion at its Texas City refinery.

Garnering less attention, she just finished hiring 250 new investigators to protect workers from being cheated out of wage and overtime pay. She also started a new program that scrutinizes business records to make sure worker injury and illness reports are accurate. And she is proposing new standards to protect workers from industrial dust explosions — an effort the Bush administration had long resisted.

Some business groups say they prefer a more cooperative approach between government and businesses — what the Bush administration called “compliance assistance.”

“Our members are concerned that the department is shifting its focus from compliance assistance back to more of the ‘gotcha’ or aggressive enforcement first approach,” said Karen Harned, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business’ small business legal center.

Other business leaders point out that the rate of workplace deaths and injuries actually fell to record lows in the previous administration, while the agency also helped employees collect a record amount of back pay for overtime and minimum wage violations. Chao has claimed that success was the result of cooperating with businesses to help them understand the myriad regulations.

Keith Smith, a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers, said his members “want to build upon that progress and recognize what’s working.”

But a November report from the Government Accountability Office suggested there is widespread underreporting of workplace safety issues. Investigators cited evidence that some employers pressure workers not to report illnesses and injuries and urged OSHA to be more aggressive in verifying business records.

Labor Department spokesman Jaime Zapata said the idea of helping businesses understand the rules remains an important part of the agency’s strategy, along with stepped-up enforcement. Solis plans to hire 100 new OSHA inspectors next year.

“Compliance assistance was not a creation of the last administration,” Zapata said.

The changes have drawn praise from organized labor leaders who spent millions to help get Obama elected. Solis, a former California congresswoman and daughter of immigrant parents who were both union members, is a favorite of labor unions and a longtime advocate for workers’ rights.

“We will not rest until the law is followed by every employer, and each worker is treated and compensated fairly,” Solis said last month as she described a new national public awareness campaign to make sure workers know their rights on the job.

The massive fine against BP certainly caught the public’s attention, but other businesses are also paying a steep price for violating safety rules.

Two months into the new fiscal year, OSHA has already cited six companies for “egregious” violations that carry the highest penalties. There were only four such egregious cases in all of the previous year.

Solis said her agency this year will tackle 90 new rules and regulations next year. One change would give workers more information about how their pay is computed. Another would make employers disclose whether they sought advice from anti-union labor consultants.

*This post originally appeared in The Union Review on January 2, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Richard Negri is the founder of UnionReview.com and is the Online Manager for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.


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Do You Trust People Where You Work?

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Image: Bob RosnerPlease don’t tell my boss, but I hit Netflix hard this week. Among the movies I saw were, Casino Royale, The Departed, The Good Shepherd and Wall-E. As different as these three movies are, they all seem to revolve around the same point—that you can’t trust anyone. Ever.

It’s clear that Hollywood is picking up on our general discomfort and disillusionment. And they’re running with it at a dead sprint.

So what does this have to do with us working stiffs? I’m going to propose a radical strategy. Something that is probably going to suggest to you that I’m either naïve or crazy. But probably more likely, both.

My suggestion is that we all need to start trusting people. Just by writing that sentence guarantees that I’m going to get a flood of emails from people who disagree. No, who really DIASGREE! The emails will outline in graphic detail stories of abuse, cruelty and general nastiness. How people used to trust others at work, but have learned the hard way that they can’t. And how it’s crazy to either forgive or forget.

I understand how hard it is to do what I’m suggesting. To trust again. Pardon me for going all “Oprah” on you, but if we allow ourselves to get painted into this cynical corner, we end up being the very enemy we decry. Because to others it will appear like we are isolated and only looking out for ourselves.

First a personal admission. I’ve been burned. Big time. And as I’m writing this blog many of the past burns are coming back to me. But I’ve decided that I’m going to try to rise above them. Because I don’t want that to define who I am. Or how I approach my life.

I’m not saying that we all should trust people who’ve already earned your trust. Or who haven’t yet violated you trust. I’m suggesting that we all reach out to people who we aren’t sure about. Heck, while you’re at it, to people who’ve burned you in the past. Offer them a hand of friendship. Give them a second chance to prove themselves worthy.

I can hear what you are thinking, why take this risk? Okay, now I’m going to get really touchy-feely. Pardon me. But the key reason that we should take this risk is because chances are that if we were in the shoes of the person that you don’t really trust, we’d want someone to give us a break. Right?

Sure some will disappoint you. Maybe even a majority. But think about the people who will come through in a way that you would have never expected them to. Think about how that will inspire you and introduce new possibilities in your career and in your life.

I’m willing to bet if you take my challenge, you’ll experience far more gains than losses from this experience. You’ll have renewed faith in the human spirit. Either way I’d like to hear your thoughts. Are you willing to take me up on my challenge? And if you do, what happened.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.


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What Are the Biggest Taboos at Work?

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Last week, I was watching George Carlin on HBO. I started thinking about his famous list of the seven things you can’t say on television. So this week I’m going to present the Workplace911 variation on Carlin’s list — a list of five taboo words for today’s workplace. 

The first taboo in today’s workplace is the word “felony.” Corporations don’t like prison records. However, ex-offenders don’t need to worry too much, because this will change for two reasons. First, the dramatic increase of executives who visit the big house. If these guys keep getting arrested, every head honcho is going to have a rap sheet, and they have to work somewhere.

OK, Martha Stewart hasn’t gone out and hired a bunch of her former prison bunk mates to work at her company. But she has been speaking out about ex-offenders as potential contributors to society. And over time this will have an impact. That leads to the second reason why some of the sting may come out of the word felony at work. Though there are 44 million Gen-Xers in the workforce, they are greatly outnumbered by the 76 million baby boomers who will start planning for retirement in the next couple of decades. We’ll have to run our economy while millions of workers worry more about weekends and Winnebagos than their work. Something’s got to give, and the modern workforce is going to have to get creative to find new workers. I predict that with more than two million incarcerated in the U.S. and a dwindling supply of workers, ex-offenders will become more common around the office.

The second taboo at work is not a word but an acronym: “TMI” — too much information. This can apply to all manner of information, but of particular note is the often uncomfortable revealing of personal medical situations. People don’t want to hear about your medical challenges, your itchy rash, your surgery or your prostate, etc. Yes, the practice of avoiding running your mouth and disclosing TMI rules at work today.  Find a therapist, a mate or a relative who really cares about the medical details of your life. But don’t share it with your coworkers, because hearing about those things makes them uneasy and can make work an uncomfortable place to be.

The third taboo at work revolves around the word “relationships.” Don’t go there. People don’t want to hear about your marital or relationship problems. Through the years I can’t believe how many people have shared intimate information about their relationships with me. Call me a prude, but I think pillow talk should be reserved for conversations that actually take place over pillows.

The fourth taboo is the word “why.” As in “Why did you…” “Why do we…” Most corporations don’t take kindly to being asked this simple question. Sure, there are bosses who can handle it. I just think that they are rarer than most people think. Sometimes it’s better to just bite your tongue and forge ahead with an assignment, even if you’re not totally sure about the outcome. People who constantly question the worth of a project or a boss’s decision often get tagged as malcontents. So be careful when you drag out the “W” word.

And finally, the fifth taboo — “bravado.” 

Most of us learn at a very early age that we are never to show weakness or vulnerability at work. Bravado is the way; do what you can and fake what you can’t. I personally believe that the lack of vulnerability weakens organizations because it prevents real connection and real interactions between people.

If I had a magic wand I’d hope that we could all do a much better job of being more vulnerable at work. Sure it’s tough, but isn’t it time that we all brought a bit more humanity to our jobs? And what better way is there to do this than being genuine and vulnerable with the people we work with? So stash that bravado and learn to show a softer side — it will humanize you in the eyes of your coworkers and probably encourage them to do the same.

My five taboo words at work — felony, TMI, relationships, why and bravado. I’d love to hear yours.

Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.


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