Are They Really Sick?

Q – Dear Kathleen: Our company has a vacation policy and a sick time policy. We offer our   employees six sick days per year and they are not allowed to carry over any sick days to the following year. They have to use it or lose it. As you can imagine, the employees always exhaust their sick time. We have had suspicions on many occasions that employees have not actually been “sick,” but have called in sick for personal reasons. How do we manage this and make sure they are calling in for a legitimate illness? Bob R., CEO – Advertising Company, Newark

A – Dear Bob: The answer to your question is – there is no way to make sure employees calling in sick are actually sick. It’s not surprising that your employees take all their sick time during the year. The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 42 percent of all workers in private industry are not entitled to sick time. For those who are, paid sick time is viewed as an entitlement to the employees and most do take all the time allowed – and call in at the last minute. Sick pay banks, especially the “use it or lose it” kind, are a haven for deception. Statistics show that, on average, only 34 percent of employees calling in “sick” are actually sick. The other 66 percent take off for personal reasons. Employees who call in under the guise of being sick, call in at the last moment to support their story of illness. This causes undo strain on the daily functions of a business. Managers have to scramble to reschedule work activities, other employees must unexpectedly pitch in, work is delayed, and, many times, customer service suffers. As long as employers offer “sick time” banks, the problem of the last minute scramble will always be there. So what do you do? Many companies are switching from a traditional vacation and sick time banks to one “Paid Time Off” (PTO) bank. PTO banks are gaining huge popularity due to the win-win situation for employee and employer. A work-life balance is of growing importance; PTO policies offer employees one bank of paid time to be used for illness, family matters, vacation or whatever they like. They no longer have to worry about manufacturing an illness excuse to earn their sick day. It gives them the freedom and flexibility to schedule their time off without worry.

For the employer concerned about employee retention, this flexibility is a significant benefit to the employee and can be used as a tool in the hiring and retention process. A PTO policy typically reduces man -hours and offers less administrative hassles with only one time off bank to manage. If employees are given PTO instead of vacation and sick time, they are more likely to schedule their time off in advance. As a result, PTO offers the company more control in the approval process. PTO allows companies to better manage the day-to-day business needs without as many last minute “no-shows,” and keeps up productivity since work arrangements can be pre-scheduled. The employer no longer needs to worry if the employees are being honest about their time off. It’s really a win-win situation for both employee and employer!

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Probation? Should we?

Q- Dear Kathleen: We have a policy that states employees are given a probationary period when they are

first hired. We have an employee who just passed his 90-day probationary period, but now we want to terminate him. Our management is concerned that we should have done this before his 90-day probationary period, but they were so wrapped up in the day-to-day business that the probationary period was overlooked. What should we do now?

A- I would guess by your policy that you have a very outdated handbook. Because almost all states comprise some version of an at-will state, probationary periods have gone by the wayside. At-will means that the employee and employer may terminate the employment arrangement at any time, with or without cause. This is the case, unless you make promises or implied promises, such as in your handbook.

Without reading the exact policy, the first thing I would suggest is that you update your employee handbook to reflect the current HR and legal best practices, state and federal laws, and eliminate the probationary period. An employee handbook is an employer’s first defense against legal action and is an absolute MUST. This is a “living” document that should be reviewed at least annually to make sure it reflects the current laws and your company’s business practices.

Assuming you are in an at-will state, you can terminate the employee for any reason other than a discriminatory reason, unless you have made a promise or contract otherwise. If you want to terminate this employee because of performance issues, I suggest that you Document! Document! Document! Start progressive discipline immediately; record all performance problems to date and have a discussion with the employee regarding where he is failing in his job performance. Document all the specifics, facts and pertinent conversations, and convey the consequences for not improving within a specific time period.

The last thing you need is to terminate this employee and then be faced with a lawsuit. Employees win approximately 71 percent of all employment related lawsuits. Even if your company is completely in the “right,” it will cost you to make him go away. It is vitally important, now more than ever, that employers have a savvy and knowledgeable person heading their human resources function – or educate themselves on the current federal, state and local laws so they are not in the position your company is in now.

In most cases, if an employee is given specific guidelines and goals for job performance when they are first hired AND they receive continual feedback from management, you have a much more productive and engaged workforce. Through progressive discipline, you give the employee the opportunity to correct the performance issues. You never know; he just may live up to your expectations!

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HUD Zone Hiring to Avoid Discrimination

Dear Kathleen:
I need to hire, but to qualify for HUD zone, I need to hire people who live in two specific towns near my business. Can I run an ad saying that only those who live in these two cities need apply? Am I opening myself up for lawsuits?

Todd A.

Dear Todd:
Well, it’s a little complicated, but here’s your answer. I wouldn’t specify an area requirement in an advertisement to the world, but you can screen for candidates who are most advantageous to your business model as long as your hiring practices do not discriminate against a protected class. In the end, you may not have a problem, but it’s always good to err on the side of caution.

Here’s the issue. If the area you are targeting is primarily made up of Caucasians and very few African Americans, you could be accused of “disparate treatment” or “disparate impact” because your business practices may adversely impact members of a particular minority group. You can’t discriminate based on where a person lives because where they live may indicate their national origin and/or racial background, or a number of other factors.

Consider where you advertise. There are two ways to look at it. If you advertise in local papers, you may get you candidates from the areas that is most advantageous to your HUD status. However, if you advertise on, for example, this ad will definitely cast a wider net and get you more qualified candidates. If you are hiring for entry-level positions or you think it may be important, you might want to include something about public transportation and mention your area.

In the end, you have to remember to hire based on the person’s qualifications for the job. As always, check with you employment attorney for legal advice.

Good luck!

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RSS Feeds for Federal and State Employment Law

Dear Kathleen:
I’m the HR manager for our company and also wear other hats. We have about 60 employees in our state and a few in other states. I am concerned about keeping up with what is going on with Federal and state laws. What is the best way to keep up to date?

Mary M.

Dear Mary:
The amount of information to keep up with for any HR professional is overwhelming. I spend at least two hours a week reading employment law update, law blogs and industry alerts. Still, even with that much dedication to stay current, I still get surprised.

For you, I’d start by joining the Society of Human Resources (SHRM) and their local chapter as well. There is a wealth of knowledge that comes from this organization. The website is chock full of toolkits, advice and updates on state laws, as well as message boards so you can connect with other HR professionals.

The local chapters usually have monthly meetings. You can to go to find the location nearest you. From my experience, some chapters are better than others, so if you have more than one near you, check each of them out before deciding on which one to join.

Another way I keep up with state and Federal employment law is through RSS feeds. I get at least 30 RSS feeds on a regular basis through “My Yahoo” account. It’s quite easy to do this once you find the feeds that appeal to you. Start by setting up your “My Yahoo” page, but you can also use Google, MSN, AOL and other aggregators if you may prefer. Then, by doing a web search for “employment law RSS feeds,” you’ll find dozens of employment law firms that issue RSS feeds for their articles. You can customize your list by changing your search terms to include the states you desire or other criteria important to you. Here are some I like to subscribe to:

The amount of information available is endless, but it does take a tremendous amount of dedication if you really want to have your finger on the pulse of employment law. The consequences are dire for those that ignore and proceed with business as usual. It’s not easy to keep up with the law, but it’s well worth it if you are faced with a lawsuit. If you’re not going to keep your company updated and in compliance, it’s best to have a trusted HR consultant and employment attorney available at hand.

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Innovative Ways to Change Your Working Environment

Dear Kathleen: 
Our company has gone through a lot of change in the last five or six years. Thankfully, we’ve grown tremendously, but now it seems as if our innovative culture is somewhat stuck in a rut. I’d like to get some ideas as to how to give everyone an uplift in attitude and innovative thinking.

Nancy B.

Dear Nancy:
One of the hottest and most cutting-edge components in business today is creating an innovative and creative workspace. The space around you affects mood and attitude tremendously, and employers are starting to realize this. The best companies to work for have taken a calculated and innovative foot forward when it comes to the company’s environment, perks, culture and workspaces, realizing that they are all tied together to discourage or promote productivity.

There are many things you can do at your company that can give the culture a revitalization toward innovation and collaboration; some can be expensive and some can be quite inexpensive.

As always, everything starts with your people, so when you hire, hire those who have the qualities that fit into your culture. Structure the interview so that identifying questions are part of that process.

Create workspaces that inspire. Remember the old Apple commercial with the IBM drones walking in single format? Yes, that’s what you want to avoid! A cheap and easy way to brighten attitudes is to brighten the office. Swap out traditional drab colors for bright splashes of color on the walls. Use colors that inspire and stimulate the brain versus the “mental institution green” commonly used to subdue the brain.

I recently found a fantastic product called Idea Paint. In my humble opinion, every office in the country should have this product. It’s a specialized paint that can make any wall or surface a whiteboard. The product is flying off the shelves to companies such as yours. Paint an entire wall in offices, hallways, the refrigerator or anywhere your staff need to collaborate or brainstorm. Find it here.

One of the best examples of a creative workspace is from Red Bull. If you haven’t seen this, it’s worth a look: Red Bull Office Slide. Red Bull has installed slides for employees to move from floor to floor in their multi-level office. I have to say it’s as cutting edge as you can get. Not every company has the money or space to install slides in their office, but here are some examples of what other companies are doing:

  • If you have wireless, allow employees to work in spaces other than at their same old desk. If you have access to outdoor space, set up areas for employees to work outside in the fresh air.
  • Arrange for spaces to be open and unobstructed, even if that means moving cubicles around and adding some open meeting spaces.
  • Install a climbing wall (Google).
  • Many companies now have free snacks and drinks.
  • Bring your dog to work days.
  • Convert an unused office to a company wellness room where employees can take naps on their lunch break, keep up with the news, watch a movie, or meditate and de-stress.
  • Offer health perks for gym memberships or have mini-gym in your offices.
  • Have creative team building events.
  • Free flu shots (Wegmans)
  • Free fruit on Tuesdays (
  • Use online meeting services that incorporate webcams. GoToMeeting now has the beta version coming out to incorporate into their current web meeting software.
  • Reward and recognize creativity and innovation. If the company does not actively recognize these qualities, employees won’t strive for them.
  • Reward for referrals. Employees who work for you know the drill, so when they refer an applicant for an open position, most are pretty sure that they will be a good fit, especially if they themselves like working there. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and referrals from employees have a lower turnover rate. Cisco topped the list as one of the best companies to work for; 47% of all new hires are from employee referrals.
  • Make the employees’ lives easier for little or no cost to the company. Negotiate costs for a weekly on-site car cleaning service or dry cleaning pickup. Even if the cost is on the employee, this makes life easier. As a result, employees are more likely to be productive and creative.
  • Meet in creative spaces. Check out the “conference bike.”
  • Use office flexibility. This product creates a temporary wall wherever you need it. Just roll or unroll as needed.
  • Add art. What a better way to inspire creativity? Art doesn’t have to be expensive but makes a huge difference in an office setting.

In the end, the movement toward creativity and innovations comes from the top. If your leadership values these qualities in its employees and this is communicated in the way your company works, you will in turn have that culture. It’s the “build it and they will come” philosophy. Good luck!

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Employee Surveys Offer Valuable Information

Dear Kathleen:
I’ve heard about employee surveys, but we have never done one. We’ve had quite a bit of transition due to poor hires, the economy and business changes, and we’re wondering where the employee’s “collective head” is. Any suggestions?

Max J.

Dear Max:
Employee Attitude Surveys are great and you can gain a tremendous information from this venture. They can give management the information it needs to address moral, employee turnover, benchmarking, work and productivity inefficiencies, compensations issues, training needs, and many more issues. And, the results may surprise you!

There are many employee attitude surveys available and many companies willing to assist you in your quest. Choosing the one that is best for you should not be difficult.

Before starting an employee attitude survey, consider the following:

  1. What is the purpose of the survey? Do you want general feedback over a wide range of areas or are you more interested in feedback regarding compensation, for example.
  2. Where will the questions come from? Will they be developed internally or will you use a “boxed” set of questions?
  3. What is your communication plan, and what will you tell employees before, during and after the survey?
  4. What is your plan to administer the survey? Will you have an electronic survey or simple paper and pen? How will results be collected and who will do this?
  5. What will you do with the results? Do you plan to share them with the employees? What actions will be taken as a result of the findings or will there be any at all?
  6. Who is responsible for an action plan as a result of the findings?
  7. The goal of any employee survey should be improving organizational performance. With that, you have to be prepared to act on the results. You don’t want the perception to be that it was a “waste of time” by the employees. There’s nothing worse than being asked your opinion, only for it to be ignored.

In a recent survey by the Opinion Research Corporation (ORC), 46% of companies made no changes as a result of the feedback. For those companies that did make changes based on the feedback from the survey, 84 percent of employees felt that the changes were in a positive direction.

To have the most employee engagement, it’s best to involve your employees in the process in some way. If you are a larger company, you may want to have a joint management/staff task force to take action on the results and coordinate communications. If you are a smaller company, it may be just as effective to communicate the survey results and ask for suggestions from the team.

Either way you go, you’ll gain insight and understanding with the information you receive. Now that you have the information, what are you going to do with it?

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How to Get Past the “Us and Them” Attitude

Dear Kathleen:
We’ve recently merged two companies and have had come difficulty with the “us and them” mentality. We usually have a joint monthly meeting and would like some team building ideas on how to bring these two groups together. Can you help?

Doris R.

Dear Doris:
You’ve asked about one of my favorite subjects. Team building is one of the most overlooked and neglected subjects in many businesses. During mergers and acquisitions, loyalties run deep. Employees are afraid of layoffs, changes in management and the unknown. Human nature dictates that we hold on to what is familiar and cling to those we empathize with.

I have a few very simple activities that will work great for you. However, the objective is not necessarily to get them to work as a team. I assume they already do that well within their own group, but in your case, you would rather get them to identify with the “other” team members as individuals, find common ground and pave the avenue to build new bonds. Try these team building activities and don’t be afraid to thrown in your own twist.

Truths and a Lie. As the meeting begins, ask each individual to share two truths and one lie about themselves. John might say, “I collect sea shells, I’m 42 and I was Superman in my last life.” It can be a serious or as silly as you like. This will not only prove to be very enlightening, but can also inject some hilarity into the start of your meeting. Nothing brings people together better than laughter.

Speed Mingle. Another game that really gets people up and moving around. Each person starts with a piece of paper with a list of all the names of the people of the other team. The paper has three columns next to the name: “Similar, Different and More.” When you say “go!,” each employee is to meet and mingle with as many people as possible to complete the information. They are to find one thing similar, one thing different and one thing they would like to know more about this person. You can change the last column for variation with options such as “Like,” or what you like about the other employee. You could also use “Passion” and have the employee inquire about what the other is truly passionate about. This will help both teams get to know the others on a more personal level.

Another great choice is the Name Game. Give each employee a pen and paper, and no more time than 5 minutes, they are to write their name on a piece of paper and use the letters to describe themselves and their interests. For example, using my name:

K – Ketchup – Only Heinz for me! Go Pittsburgh. A – Love collecting art. T – Teamwork. Something I believe in. H – Heritage; I am a genealogy buff. L – Listen – I try to be a good listener. E – European cruise. A memorable trip of a lifetime! E – Employees –The reason I am here. N – Nicholas Cage is one of my favorite actors.

After everyone has completed their list, they are to share it with the group. You also might want to consider posting their lists randomly around the office. Either way, it will start to build common ground and bring them together.

The more the employees get to know each other on a personal level, the more they will be likely to work well in a team. The “us and them” mentality should, and will, wane. Wishing you the best of luck!

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Developing a Useful Onboarding Process for New Employees

Dear Kathleen:
Our company has been growing over the past few years and it seems as if there is still much confusion for new employees when they start and getting them up to speed with our company’s culture. We do have each employee meet with the HR manager and then they are handed over to their department manager. Any suggestions to make this a more robust process?

Joe G.

Dear Joe:
You definitely have room to grow when it comes to your orientation process. “Onboarding” or otherwise known as an “orientation process” can be a very valuable and rewarding process, not only for the employee, but also for the employer.

There is no set right or wrong way to create your onboarding program, but what you want is to create a program that is the best fit for your company’s culture and working environment. I suggest you start with the basics and then get the big picture. By basics, I mean the new hire paperwork, employee handbook and necessary items to get them in the system. Beyond that, look at the big picture to the life of this employee.

The objective has several “wins” or components:

  1. Increase employee engagement – If the employees feel as if they are part of the big picture, you increase your likelihood of an actively engaged (better) employee.
  2. Increase productivity – If the employees get a well-rounded overview of the company, key personnel and departments, you want them to understand the workings of the business, who the players are and how it all fits together with what they will be doing. The purpose is to allow the employees to be and feel as if they are part of that big picture – your overall objective.
  3. Decrease turnover – Studies show that employees who have an effective onboarding experience are more likely to be successful and competent in their jobs, and less likely to be fired or quit early on.
  4. Foster relationships – The simple process of spending time and meeting with key players from each department will organically help establish working relationships. These relationships will be beneficial in the overall productivity of the company.
  5. Increase communication – Certainly, communication between departments and employees will improve.

Your first steps should include a brainstorming session with HR and the department heads.

  • What does each new employee need to know and where you have had challenges.
  • Do you need a different onboarding program for each department?
  • Interview some of the employees hired in the last one to two years, and get an understanding of what they would have like to have experienced when they were hired.
  • Interview some employees who have insight into past employers’ onboarding programs.
  • Meet with department heads to get feedback of what is most important to them.
  • Don’t limit your onboarding program to just meetings with the various departments. You could include various training videos, shadowing, online training or even assigning a specific book to read for a new sales person, for example.
  • Think of outside individuals the new employees should meet with, such as the representative from your retirement plan or a supplier who they will deal with as part of their responsibilities.
  • Keep in mind that an onboarding program does not need to all be conducted in one day, but it can be tailored to the company’s individual needs and be over the course of a year’s time. Actually, it is preferable that you don’t overload the employee with too much information the first day.

Start with a list of all the departments/people EVERY new employee should meet with. This will be the basis of your onboarding template. From that, create customized additional tasks or meetings depending on the position of the employee. Again, there is no right or wrong way to create an onboarding program, and most likely, your plan will evolve and change over the first months and years of it onset.

As a final note, don’t forget to get feedback from the employees who have gone through your onboarding process so that you can have information to refine and perfect it for your future staff.

Good luck!

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Learn How to Manage Your Holiday Party

Most employers are planning to have employee parties over the holiday season. It’s hard to find anyone without at least one office party nightmare story to share about a fellow employee – and possibly themselves.

Year-end celebrations are a great way to boost morale and show employees just how much they are really appreciated. With the holiday spirit in mind, we, as employers, also need to keep our employees safe, especially if alcohol will be served at your party. Let’s not forget, we’ve got to protect the company and our employees from any unnecessary sexual harassment issues as well.

Here are a few tips when planning your company’s holiday party:

  1. Set expectations and communicate. Let employees know what is expected of them and what is and is not inappropriate. Pay special attention to those inexperienced employees who may not have attended many office parties yet in their career. Post your policies in the break room and via email as a friendly reminder.
  2. Limit the amount of alcohol served. Have plenty of non-alcoholic drinks available and make sure they are easily accessible. For example, you may have an open bar, but if possible, have a separate table with soda, juice and water available as well.
  3. Define the party’s start and end time, and stop serving alcohol at least an hour before things wrap up. Parties with an open-ended end time are a big red flag.
  4. Consider the distance. If employees are driving themselves, try to plan something close to home to minimize the distance they have to travel.
  5. Provide transportation. Consider providing transportation from the office to the party and back, or a cab ride home in the event an employee has had too much to drink.
  6. Serve lots of protein rich foods and limit the salty snacks that may increase thirst.
  7. Keep them occupied. Some companies have a gift exchange event, team building or scavenger hunt, or other contests. Our company, for example, always has some type of sharing of positive thoughts about our fellow co-workers that has evolved into a great moral boosting event.

As a final thought, you should know that only about half of all company holiday parties will be serving alcohol this year so feel no guilt if you decide to forgo the spirits.

Happy Holidays to all! Be safe.

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Don’t be Caught Short on Harassment Policies

Dear Kathleen:
A friend of mine who owns a similar sized company has been faced with a harassment lawsuit. This has made us look more closely at our policies and procedures. Do you have any suggestions for us to make sure this doesn’t happen to us?

Fred M.

Dear Fred:
You have good reason to be concerned. Harassment and discrimination are hot on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) list with more than $100 million paid out just for harassment alone. The EEOC had almost 100,000 cases filed in 2011.

The best place to start to assess your situation is with your employee handbook, and your harassment and discrimination policy. Make sure your attorney reviews this and you understand the policy.

Communicate the policy to management, make sure all of the management team understand the importance of the policy and that the company has a no-tolerance attitude for those who disregard it. Management needs to understand that they can personally be held responsible for their actions and/or lack of actions.

Communicate the policy to the staff. This includes anti-harassment/anti-discrimination training for each and every employee. Make sure each employee has a copy of the policy and signed off on receiving your current handbook. Everyone should be instructed, per the handbook policy, to come forward without fear of retaliation. Let your Human Resource staff know of any incidences of harassment or discrimination. Communicate that any and all complaints will be investigated.

Review your pay policies and history, and make sure that you haven’t accidentally discriminated against any particular class of workers. If you have, create a plan to correct the error and consult with your attorney.

As a final note, if you are faced with harassment or discrimination charges, it will be important to show that the company has made a good faith effort to train and communicate all employees from the top down.

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